New York as Nightmare
In which hapless city newcomers don't know the rules of engagement.
No city in the world captivates onscreen like New York. But if you’re a devout movie buff (or longtime New Yorker), you've probably noticed the portrayal of the City over the decades has changed. The past twenty years have shown us a Big Apple that is, well, different from the gritty concrete jungle that exploded onscreen in films like Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver, to name a few.
The “new” New York is significantly cleaned up and manicured. Not too many people would watch Midnight Cowboy and think, “Now’s that a place I’d like to visit!” but whenever NYC is shown in movies nowadays, the general mise-en-scene often looks downright friendly. TV shows and movies like Girls and How to Be Single portray Manhattan newcomers who find the City to be an exciting wonderland made just for them to explore. Rare now is the New York film about actual native New Yorkers. Too many privileged twenty-somethings with trust funds are taking over a city that was once the inclusive melting pot for the whole world. At this rate, the beloved New York accent could be completely wiped out in a few decades.
One thing is for sure: The place is harsh on newcomers. In my video essay, a subgenre of film known as the “nightmare comedy” is explored. The structure of these films mirrors the experience many out-of-towners have when they go to an unfamiliar place such as Manhattan. The main characters are not familiar with the local rules of engagement, and they suffer as outsiders. This subgenre has roots in the “urban nightmare,” but it presents a darkly comedic spin on the trope. Other New York movies, like Ghostbusters (1984), are more enamored of the City. The 2016 version of the film crassly attempts to capitalize on the nostalgia of its predecessor, but displays a much more bland portrait of New York.
But is that just the way New York City is now? I argue that authenticity is in danger in the Big Apple. Ugliness can be beautiful and beauty can be ugly. A Manhattan that is too beholden to major corporations and not the rough-hewn charm and character of its citizens is not the kind of city I want to watch onscreen. That New York is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to film there. New York City had soul, and it’s in danger of being vanquished like a full torso apparition in a public library.