Made in NY: Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75

07/31/2013 4:00 AM |

Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75

A young man explores 42nd Street at night, eyes and smile widening at the sights of porn theaters and dirty bookstores. “I don’t think that was ever in a movie before,” says film critic and programmer J. Hoberman of the early sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 comedy You’re a Big Boy Now, the opening entry in the Museum of the Moving Image’s 19-film series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75. Coppola’s film was the first approved by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, which Mayor John V. Lindsay (who called New York a “fun and exciting city even when it’s a struck city”) founded to facilitate location-based fiction filmmaking. (Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, a 1970 chronicle of the writer’s carnivalesque mayoral campaign, is the Moving Image series’ lone non-fiction film.) At the same time, says Hoberman, “they were documentaries of that period,” using actors and scripted narratives as a way to draw audiences into the city’s distinct, often skin-color-coded neighborhoods.

Several films provided viewers with vicarious journeys from innocence to experience, whether a Texas gigolo seeking his destiny amid a crowd of strangers in Midnight Cowboy (1969), an Arizona cop’s gruff impatience with hippie life as conveyed by Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968), or genial group movement across a sunny, bustling street in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), soon afterward interrupted by gunshots. Such bursts of violence were often beats away in Fun City films, reflecting a crime-ridden time whose end lay nowhere in sight. Despair surrounded trapped-in-motion, haunted main characters, whether cops (The French Connection [1971], Across 110th Street [1972]), crime bosses-by-necessity (Superfly [1972]), or lowly junkies (The Panic in Needle Park [1971], Born to Win [1971]).

Fun City’s troubles were reflected through comic parable in addition to social realism. “While the everyday inconveniences of New York life were a badge of honor, they were also a source of gallows humor,” Hoberman says. A well-meaning WASP made life worse for his black tenants in The Landlord (1970), the same year that an elderly Jewish tailor struggled to believe in the dead black title character of The Angel Levine (1970). Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dwelled on the horror of urban solitude, which Little Murders (1971) showed could get you killed unless you were ready to kill first. Little Murders starred the Jewish Elliott Gould, part of a new wave of ethnic, urban Hollywood stars that Fun City helped create. Another was the Bronx-raised Italian Al Pacino, who teamed with New York filmmaker Sidney Lumet for Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Fun City’s first period piece. Dog Day recreated a real-life bank robbery and hostage crisis led by a Vietnam-trained, bisexual motormouth. As he struts and swaggers for the media’s attention, Pacino’s character draws passerby played by local extras. “It was like a show that the city put on for itself,” Hoberman says. 

August 10-September 1, Museum of the Moving Image