Jerk Offs, Rent Raisers and the Open Buffet: New York in 21st Century Film

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10/06/2008 3:00 PM |

Last week, the L’s Henry Stewart reviewed two films about young people in New York City during the Bloomberg years: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and The Pleasure of Being Robbed. Some additional thoughts on the films, and what they reveal about our fair city (emphasis on “our”) follow.

Reflecting the state of the city, the iconic New York City movies from the latter half of the 20th century showcased street-level blight and decay. In the 70s and 80s, directors like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, movies like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Warriors, portrayed a city ridden with crime and corruption, graffiti and gangs, and the individuals struggling to navigate through the urban mayhem.

But then things began to change, for the city and for its movies. Starting with Mayor Dinkins’ police force bolstering, and continuing through Clinton boom times and the Giuliani mayoralty, New York underwent a revamping from dump to Disneyland, evinced most conspicuously in the transformation of Times Square from porn-palace Mecca to TRL headquarters. In 2007, the city’s murder rate was the lowest it has been in the 44 years that reliable records have been kept; new census data reveals that decades of "white flight" trends have begun to reverse.

For better or worse, The City is a radically different place than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. And now it’s beginning to show in the filmmaking. Two films, both released on October 3rd, offer portraits of Bloomberg’s overhauled New York. One is blithely celebratory, the other quietly critical.

In these (web)pages, I wrote that Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist "gives the L-Train Era the John Hughes treatment: New York is a colored-lights fantasyland of non-stop parties and small town spirit, meant to be soaked up by ready-for-love high schoolers without parental constraint. It’s Camp Rock: Take it to the Streets." Teens wander the grid without ever fearing for their own safety; save for a brief run-in with a few sexually threatening derelicts, the city has been baby-proofed.

In one scene, a drunken underage girl stumbles alone through The Port Authority in the middle of the night, talking to strangers, without the slightest suggestion from the filmmakers that such a thing might be dangerous. The times have surely changed; the pimps of Taxi Driver have all gone straight…or straight to jail. The only thing that differentiates Nick and Norah’s New York from the suburbs is the volume of people and the number of bars per square block; devoid of crime, the city becomes the perfect playing field for self-consciously hip kids, largely out-of-towners, to play out their love, shrugs and rock n’ roll delights.

The film suggests that when NY freed itself from muggers and murderers, it left itself vulnerable to a wave of privileged children who treat the city like they do their parents — something from which to take but not give back. While Nick and Norah offers a safe fantasy in which teens and young adults can indulge their own sense of good-times partying, The Pleasure of Being Robbed takes the effects of a bankrolled-mini-yuppie influx to absurdity.

About a young white girl who steals handbags and other things to satisfy her curiosity about strangers, The Pleasure of Being Robbed shows the city as still rife with street crime; but, among other things, the thieving serves as an allegory for the "crime" of gentrification.

The film, by Josh Safdie, is no screed, but an elliptical and bemused observation. Crime, in a moral rather than legal sense, is still rampant, but it’s largely invisible. As I wrote, the film suggests "New York is still full of thieves, as it was before Mr. 9/11, but the city now maintains a satisfying illusion of safety." There’s no scapegoatable boogeyman, no imposing stranger to fear meeting in a dark alley, no racial prejudice to exploit. Star Eléonore Hendricks shows no regard for OPP, but always affable, smiling and kind to animals, she is difficult to perceive as a threat. She even adopts a litter of kittens and their mother. But she is a greater threat than the urchins of the 70s — she doesn’t want our money, but she does want our things, our books, photographs and possessions: the things by which we often define ourselves. Our culture.

The new wave of New Yorkers in these films, Caucasoid youths freed by a drop in crime to return to the city their parents once fled, use the city as an open buffet, taking unawares in the fantasy of Nick and Norah and literally in the otherwise symbolic Pleasure of Being Robbed. They feed off the "New York" brand. But what do they do to sustain it? The titular Nick has a band but it doesn’t even have a drummer; they’re a joke and, appropriately, they’re called "The Jerk Offs". But a city populated only by rent-raisers and by jerk-offs will cease to be the city they invaded. If the current economic crisis doesn’t bring down rents and scare off some of the transplants, will New York become just another Los Angeles?

One Comment

  • Great piece, Henry. I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the idea of youth in general — in our post-K Records era it’s considered natural for grown-ups to wear cute tiny t-shirts and to be generally quirky, and to semironically play, nowhere more so than NYC. (Slip-n-Slides at concerts; Connect Four in bars.)

    Nick and Norah, a movie that romanticizes youth (and fetishizes youthful flesh to a troubling degree) is the natural conclusion of all this, a movie claiming New York as a safe place for kids. (In this, it finally fulfills the pre-Giuliani promise of Home Alone 2.) While Pleasure of Being Robbed, it sounds like, takes a more ambivalent view of The Games Alleged Adults Play.