Andrew Feffer: Review of Stanley Corkin, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Andrew Feffer teaches American cultural and intellectual history at Union College in Schenectady, New York where he co-chairs the Film Studies program. He presently is writing a history of anti-communism and liberal political culture in New York City at the end of the Great Depression

One afternoon in the late seventies I stumbled on a film crew shooting on location in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan.  Extras had been set up doing the sorts of things someone imagined went on in the park on a daily basis – juggling, playing music, pushing infants in strollers.  I thought nothing of it until a year later when the very same scene appeared before me on a silver screen -- a sanitized New York that offered the two main characters entertainment and diversion as they strolled about the park instead of the drug dealers and panhandlers that had been harassing me there since I was a teenager.   The scenarist for that film, An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978), permitted none of the hazards or traumas of urban life in the 1970s to sully the idealization of New York as a place where romance was possible.

Such sterilized scenes, according to Stanley Corkin, typified a certain genre of Hollywood film set in New York during the 1970s, films that reflected and reflected upon that city’s economic, demographic and cultural transformation from a declining industrial metropolis to what Saskia Sassen and others have called a “global city.”  Corkin’s ambitious study uses the vast literature of recent urban sociology and geography (by Sassen, David Harvey, Neil Smith and others) to interpret nearly two dozen films produced between 1969 and 1981 by a new generation of Hollywood film makers, who broke free of the restrictive studio-based production system to begin a renaissance in independent American film. 

According to Corkin, on-location shooting by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen and Mazursky followed a chronology parallel to the fate of the city itself, pivoting on two key events in the worlds of high finance and economic policy-making:   The first was the nation’s abandonment of the gold standard in 1972 and the floating of the dollar, enabling more fluid investment abroad that favored foreign over domestic manufacturing, thereby accelerating the decline of industrial urban centers.  American cities reached the bottom of that decline around 1975 when Wall Street financiers, in the second pivotal event of Corkin’s chronology, forced the over-indebted City of New York into receivership under direct control of the banks.  Thereafter, as it increasingly became the domain of an ever-more-powerful Wall Street, the city gentrified with the influx of a new urban upper class employed in the “post-industrial” and “globalized” information and financial sectors.

On these two events turns a story of urban decline, restructuring and revitalization told in film.  Cinematic New York, according to Corkin, started at the bottom of this narrative trajectory with depictions of “rampant” non-normative sexuality in films such asMidnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) and Klute (Alan Pakula, 1971).  It moved through the broken and unmanageable outer borough landscapes of drug dealing and larceny in The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975), passing on to vigilante responses to the breakdown of law and order in Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976).  And it ended with conventional middle-class romance, like the one I witnessed being staged in Washington Park, in the gentrified, post-modern Manhattan of Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Manhattan (Allen, 1979), Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) and An Unmarried Woman.

There are two reasons to commend this sort of grand synthesis about the seventies, the city and film.  First, it underscores the importance of a decade that is relatively ignored by historians, who tend to treat it as the aftermath of the sixties or a prelude to ReaganismCorkin is right, at least about cities.  Much happened between the 1967 Detroit riot and the triumph of the New Right thirteen years later, not the least of which was a dramatic and unprecedented acceleration of urban decline.  Second, Corkin’s attention to political and sociological context leads him to provocative readings of key films.  It is not especially controversial to interpret Charles Bronson’s vigilantism in Death Wish as an expression of neo-conservative backlash against urban crime (the sort of reaction that celebrated a few years later the handiwork of Bernhard Goetz, the “subway vigilante”).  But extend that critical reading to Marathon Man and Taxi Driver, neither of which is usually considered a “neo-conservative” film.  Corkin’s interpretation of Coppola’s Godfather films (1972, 1974) and Mean Streets (Scorcese, 1973) as nostalgic attempts to visually recapture the “urban village” of the industrial city is compelling, as are his critical evaluations of Annie Hall, Manhattan, An Unmarried Woman and Kramer vs. Kramer as celebrations of the gentrified city. 

As long as it sticks to formal and narrative interpretation of films this book works.  And one wishes it did more of that.  Problems arise, however, when Corkin tries to align groups of films too closely with a murky and imprecisely reconstructed history of urban economies in general and New York’s in particular.  The book’s main historical shortcoming is its radical compression into the 1970s of a chronology of urban decline and renewal that had little to do with abandonment of the gold standard and actually spread over half a century, beginning in the 1920s when northeastern garment and textile manufacturers began to move south and abroad.  This was about the time that sound films, many of them set in New York, began to appear in American theaters.  Those earlier films showed a very different New York, and Corkin could have profitably compared their evolving picture of the city to his collection of 1970s productions. If he had done that, he might have gotten a richer and more nuanced historical analysis of how New York was rendered on the silver screen. 

It also would have also been more useful if this book combined such a broader comparison film-wise with a narrower or more carefully organized framework of sociological terms.  At the center of Corkin’s argument about the relationship between film and the city is a transition from “Fordism” to post-Fordism that is imprecise and incautiously applied.  Corkin defines that transition not only as the abandonment of mid-twentieth-century industrial production methods and labor relations, but also as the broad transition from an industrial to a “post-industrial” or “informational” society, the even broader cultural shift from the modern to the post-modern, as well as New York’s emergence as a global city, the gentrification of Manhattan neighborhoods and the rising culture of narcissism.  Such alignments are controversial enough when argued on their own (financially speaking, for instance, New York has been a global center since at least the end of World War II).  To apply them to the history of film would require a much more extensive study of Hollywood production over a longer period in the history of cities.  Perhaps this volume is merely Corkin’s starting point.  I hope so, as such a study needs to be done.

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