Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Seeing New York from the Outside: Woody Allen, THE GREAT GATSBY, and ON THE TOWN

I've had New York on my mind quite a bit lately. It started, I think, with a viewing of Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), a movie in which the protagonist is more in love with the city than he is with any of the women in his life. Shot in black-and-white, the picture idealizes New York scenery (set against the inevitable strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"), and it seems as though its characters could never exist any place else. Mariel Hemingway's Tracy might depart for London at the end, but she remains a very New York sort of young woman, a product of liberal city life and the privileged halls of the Dalton School. Allen's own character is his typical, quintessential New Yorker, dubious about cars, apartments, and life outside the confines of the city. As the title of the film implies, it's really only and all about Manhattan.

Then I picked up the book my reading group had chosen for this month: The Great Gatsby. That carried me back into the fabled metropolis, this time as imagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his narrator, Nick Carraway. Of course the reading selection segued into a trip to see Baz Luhrmann's splashy new film adaptation, with its own gin-soaked vision of the Jazz Age city. Speakeasies and house parties, pollution and corruption - decadence sparkles in her ill-gotten goods, and New York is the place where the rise and fall happens. Nick, too, falls under the spell of the city; he hopes to make his own fortune there, even as he becomes drawn into the complicated fever dreams of Jay Gatsby. Near the end, Nick wonders if he and his peers are deficient in some way because they are "Westerners," but by "East" he means only New York and its environs. They are not New Yorkers, Nick and Gatsby, Daisy and Tom, and no amount of being there can erase their origins, no matter how much Gatsby tries to reinvent himself.

I am not a New Yorker, either, and I have only lately begun to ponder what Nick Carraway imagines as the "deficiency" of being from someplace else. As a child of the deep South I never even thought about New York, except perhaps as a place where movie stories are set, like L.A., only with more weather and no palm trees. They were both wholly imaginary places as far as I was concerned. My grandmother had lived there during World War II, and she gave birth to my uncle there, but her stories about wartime New York were about lonely apartments, illness, and the sympathetic neighbor women who worked in the munitions factories. They were not about "the city." I have spent more time in Paris, London, and Montreal than in New York. To date, my experience with NYC amounts to a single day when I was in college, with a morning spent having bagels with Bella Abzug and an afternoon in SoHo with northeastern friends who only wanted to buy drinks in tony bars.

This last year we started getting the Sunday edition of The New York Times, and reading it each week inspired the first glimmer of Nick Carraway's question in my own mind. What is New York to a non-New Yorker? What is a non-New Yorker to New York? The places I know so intimately - rural Southern towns and small cities, and sprawling, reborn Atlanta - don't appear much in the Times, except occasionally as the backdrops of seedy good ol' boy politics, shocking crimes, and cultural backwardness. Once in a while there's a play or an indie film filled with overdone accents and "local color." New York itself, on the other hand, shines like a star in the pages of the newspaper. It is a wonderland of film screenings, art galleries, museums, high fashion, and people who know how to appreciate them. It is awash in the contradictions of urban life - going on about environmental footprints and the smug superiority of not owning a car while planning fabulous vacations to Fiji and Sweden and shopping for swanky apartments that cost millions of dollars and involve small armies of "staff" to run. Nannies are a popular topic, as are the fears of parents desperate to get their children into the all-important Ivy League schools.

Once again, the city seems imaginary to me, mired as I am in a small Southern city where nobody I know has ever had a nanny and even poor people who live in trailer parks own cars of some sort or other. I could walk through the neighborhood and past the cow pasture to Target, I guess, but people would give me funny looks for it, and it would pretty much kill the afternoon. I'll be happy if my kid manages to go farther than Auburn or Alabama, but Yale? You might as well tell me she could move to the moon.

All of this contemplation brings me back around to the movies and my earlier question. What is New York to a non-New Yorker? To me, it's the city of On the Town (1949). That's a tourist's vision of a shining metropolis, a place to spend "just one day," as I did some 20 years ago. Hit the highlights, see the sights, and have a memorable experience in a place where you could never imagine yourself living, any more than you might live at Disneyland. (I did see a Hare Krishna parade, complete with an enormous brahma bull, in Washington Square Park.) On the Town is a non-New Yorker's movie about New York, which is why I like it so much. It's a postcard to America of a city most Americans never actually see. The insider movies, the Woody Allen films and the gritty dramas, like Taxi Driver and Do the Right Thing, mean less to me and speak of characters and lives that are alien, unfamiliar, unknowable. Often I actively dislike them. My favorite Allen films are the movie-obsessed fantasies - The Purple Rose of Cairo and Play It Again, Sam - because those are stories I understand from the inside.


America is so often reduced in our cultural imagination to just two cities - New York and Los Angeles. Sometimes San Francisco gets a nod. Most of us look at them from the outside, even though literature and film seem obsessed with an inward gaze. No wonder Nick feels deficient for being from the Midwest. Read The New York Times long enough and you might start to agree with him. I might go back to New York one day. I might not. I wonder how many visits it would take for On the Town to lose its charm and for Manhattan to make more sense. For now, the city remains a faraway place, a Neverland that sends me a newspaper once a week. It is a place, as Nick Carraway says, where "Anything can happen... even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder." Somebody cue "Rhapsody in Blue."