History

City as Dream and Nightmare: The Video Series ‘Fun City’ Is a Riveting Trip to the Bad Old Days

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“I still think it’s a fun city,” declared New York City mayor John Lindsay at the start of his term in 1966, as a transit strike forced him to walk the distance between City Hall and his Upper East Side home. The New York Herald Tribune picked up on the quote, and a sarcastic nickname began its own decades-long term, as the city muddled through crime and a failing economy. Once the crippling worse-than-doldrums began to abate, aggressive mayoral machinations definitively scrubbed the seedy, threatening face of the city. Graffiti and sleaze live on in cinematic depictions, but as the novelist Christopher Sorrentino has argued, the very idea of an “authentic” film representation of New York is tricky. “The city in film is always a dream,” he writes and “the film that always fails is the one that denies the dream, that struggles to impose the very logic and order of the street grid on its portrayal.”

One of the most intriguing things about Fun City (also known, in its first installment at least, as Dirty Old New York), a five-part series on Vimeo conceived and edited by Jonathan Hertzberg, is how it unites dream and past reality. Part of the dream aspect of the resultant videos is in its free-associating connectivities, whether “location, film, character, actor, signage, repeating object, or recurring motif.” Drawn not just from Hollywood visitations but also from the less reputable work of low budget genre auteurs, it’s an impressionistic, rather than chronological, history of a metropolis.

Hertzberg works in movie marketing by day; by night he lives and edits in my own Brooklyn neighborhood. We met for a conversation at our neighborhood’s Dunkin’ Donuts, a suitably non-upscale locale for a Fun City discussion.

For the rest of the series, click here.

Unlike myself, you clearly aren’t old enough to have experienced the “Fun City” your videos chronicle.

I’m 36, though my memories from childhood, coming into the city, are still pretty strong. And from pretty early on I was fascinated [by] where films took place, and when I recognized real landmarks in New York in movies, I became fascinated by the idea of going to, and being in, a spot where a film I’d seen was shot.

How did the series originate?

I used to program films. And I had wanted to do some kind of film series where I’d show films shot in New York during the “Fun City” years. I pitched it around, but there was always something already happening that was kind of close to the idea, or extremely close to the idea. So I couldn’t get it going.

It was frustrating, because I’d been cataloging a lot of the stuff in my mind. But around that time I had been learning some rudimentary video editing techniques. And I’d been looking at a Facebook page called “Dirty Old New York” that was putting up a lot of evocative views of the city from this time. And I wanted to find a way to put this all together and maybe create the equivalent of a mix tape. Showing, among other things, places that we see all the time but not in the same way anymore.

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Was it keeping stuff all in your head, or did you keep notebooks? The juxtapositions between certain films, particularly between Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Bloodbrothers (1978), would seem to have required some very specific notetaking.

At first, when I was assembling footage from my physical media, I was just looking to compile shots that were identifiably New York. Exterior shots. I just started capturing the footage and making categorical notes. Exterior, day or night, whether a shot captured part of the skyline, and so on. After a little while I’d notice that certain oddball locations would keep cropping up. The Brooklyn side of the former Fulton Ferry landing where the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory [is] – they do a lot of wedding photography there now – in the ‘70s and ‘80s it turned up a lot, but as a seedy crime scene location. It’s in the likes of Gordon Parks’s The Super Cops, and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. This suggested one idea, the most obvious one, to link the clips together by location.

In one section you go outside the strictly geographical to illustrate the thematic connections between 1977’s Saturday Night Fever and the less known, Richard Gere-starring Bloodbrothers, made just a year later: two New York coming of age stories in quintessential working class milieus.

I had seen both, but it wasn’t until I re-watched Bloodbrothers for this project that I saw the same tropes, the links between the characters and their situations. And that became fruitful for me to explore.

Another weird thing that kept coming up: scenes of random white guys being mugged, and stripped naked in the process. Usually by black guys. It struck me as weird that this would happen in three different movies.

Even as bad as crime got in New York, the stripping naked was likely not common in real life. These settings, for Hollywood guys particularly, seem to be where they project paranoia or make a useful exaggeration.

I always liked New York movies that play on the stereotypes, which try to convey the awfulness of how New York was, Death Wish being of course a prime example. And it’s interesting that these movies were being made simultaneous to what some call “hicksploitation” movies, showing the perils of trespassing in rural areas. Killer rednecks. Nowhere is safe.

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The punk versus disco montage, with Richard Hell in Blank Generation going up against John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and The Warriors and more, is very exciting.

That was the thing I knew I was going to do right off the bat. It was the portion I was most looking forward to putting together. I think, having not lived through it personally, this was my way to imaginatively chronicle it, or idealize it. One of the first things I edited together — this was actually first done in a shorter video I did before I started the series proper — was a match cut between The Warriors and Saturday Night Fever. I remember reading Pauline Kael’s review where she drew a parallel between the movies. But she talked about the scene where the prom kids made eye contact with the Warriors and said it was the most inauthentic scene in the movie. When I was assembling the clips, the theme of that observation made me go straight to that clip. And it turned out it could cut with the shot of Travolta, on the subway to Manhattan in the morning after both his greatest victory and biggest defeat, beautifully.

Richard Hell really hates Blank Generation.

I know! I read that in his memoir, he really goes off on [director] Ulli Lommel.

In the context of what you do with it, it looks like a pretty good movie. But there are a lot of bad, or ostensibly bad, movies that are mother lodes for this kind of footage. Exploitation stuff.

Yeah, well that’s a part of the concept as a whole. You’ll notice there’s not a whole lot of iconic stuff in the installments, nothing from Woody Allen’s films, for instance, and he’s considered one of the great New York filmmakers. I was more interested in the sleazy stuff. Also, because comparatively few people have seen Fulci’s New York Ripper, it’s almost like an alternate history of New York on film. You’ve seen the Woody Allen stuff a million times, same too with Scorsese, although obviously something like Taxi Driver is set in the world that a lot of these montages are very much steeped in.

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With Woody Allen’s ’70s stuff, too, it’s mostly that his characters are at Lincoln Center, or Elaine’s. The edgiest thing about the New York location footage in Manhattan is that everybody’s smoking indoors. But you’re not limited to disreputable work. You find gems in the most unexpected places. Hume Cronyn in a penthouse with a great view of Manhattan in Pakula’s Rollover, for instance…

Not many people get that one. Did you identify all the movies?

Most of them. There was one clip with Robert De Niro not knowing what a subway token was and it took me a minute to remember it was The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, the 1971 movie in which he plays an Italian bicyclist visiting NYC for the first time. And I had just seen that movie, for research on a book I was doing on De Niro! It’s funny: even though you’re going for films that are more obscure, and city views that are less iconic, you’ve got to have both De Niro and Pacino in this series. Which they are abundantly, Pacino in particular.

There’s a part of me that wants to get people to check out the more unknown movies that these iconic guys are in. Serpico is not as well known in certain circles as it ought to be.

Then there are distinctive-looking character actors like Joe Spinell, the star of Maniac. (He also plays the guy who gives Travis Bickle his cabbie job in Taxi Driver.)

He’s a real presence.

The director of Maniac, William Lustig, is as much of a New York filmmaker as anyone you could name. I put stuff from his Vigilante. In my research, I approached Randy Jurgensen. He was a former detective — one of the cases he worked on inspired William Friedkin’s Cruising. After he retired, he acted a bit, became a location consultant, and then he became a producer. He worked with Lustig and Abel Ferrara. He talks about Lustig as being a kind of guerilla filmmaker. Because Randy was a cop, or an ex-cop, when they were making Vigilante, which Randy produced, they could shoot anywhere if he or his friends were around.

With the Google Maps street view you can really get in there. And with Blu-ray, the resolution is such you can read street signs, store signs, see addresses. And if you look into it, and find out in a lot of cases the building, sometimes the whole block, is just leveled. It’s not there anymore. Recently I was looking at this 1973 Burt Reynolds movie, Shamus, which was actually shot a few blocks from where we are sitting, in Gowanus. I thought I’d go check out exactly where it was, because you can see the Kentile sign in the background and everything. I shot some pretty poor footage of what was there now…which is the Whole Foods on Third and Third. In the movie it’s the site of a warehouse. And a block away from there is the site of a key scene from Badge 373 another 1973 movie where Robert Duvall plays a fictionalized real-life cop. A lot of French Connection impersonators came in its wake, and they all shot in Manhattan and the outer borough.

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What was the movie that most surprised you in terms of yielding materials?

After a while I wanted to find movies that had these remarkable evocative locations but didn’t fit the genres I was turning up. Maniac was a touchstone movie for obvious reasons, but I didn’t want just that sort of thing. So one movie that I came to late was Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, which is all about the Village and SoHo before it got so developed. When NYU was just that assembly of corners around Washington Square rather than all over downtown. And that movie became a favorite, for that and a lot of other reasons. Of all the New York auteurs, Mazursky has been unfairly overshadowed. I think. 

Since the city’s gotten cleaned up, New York location shooting has gotten kind of generic.  You see a lot of Kate Hudson in Bryant Park on a sun-drenched day.

Also people living way above their means. People with minor media jobs living off Central Park.

New York was not a place of wish fulfillment in the 1970s. I would say part of what appeals to me about the New York films from that era is an added permissiveness in the industry meeting up with a genuine availability to filmmakers. It was easy and cheap to shoot in New York because of its less desirable qualities. And that gave the treatment of the place a more potent potential for variation. There’s an ‘anything goes’ quality. Whether you feel an affinity with any particular political bone Death Wish has to pick, there’s a sense of place to it. And it’s interesting with a movie that has a more humanist approach, like Ivan Passer’s Law and Disorder, from 1974. That is actually one of the movies where a white crime victim is stripped naked; there’s a definite depiction of a city that’s gone to shit — but the movie doesn’t condemn the place. It doesn’t send out the message that you’d have to be a crazy masochist to live there.

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