FILM 2021

Whatever Happened to the New York Auteur?

New York City’s grand glitter and grime used to come alive on the big screen. What happened?

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It’s that scene in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the one in which Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci) and Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) meet with mob boss Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto) in the Debonair Social Club to patch things up after Joey had kicked the shit out of Salvy in the previous scene. The fight had to do with Vikki (Cathy Moriarty), Joey’s sister-in-law, stepping out while her husband, boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), was away. Look again: the Neapolitan flip pot on the stove, the tarnished tin tiles on the wall, the fat old man in suspenders playing cards at the other table with Scorsese’s dad, Charlie—not someone from central casting. Look at and listen to Como: wearing tinted glasses inside, a lifetime of bad eating and smoking, a quiet avuncularity thinly masking a commitment to menacing corruption. You know without being told that Scorsese had actually been to this place, places just like it, and felt the remembered particulars in his bones. He grew up here, in the boroughs, and knew these people. The city was his first subject.

Scorsese is what has been called a New York auteur; wherever else his moviemaking jones has taken him, he always returns to the city. He has been, in fact, part of a lineage of New York filmmakers—voices that have found their quintessence on the street corners and rooftops, in the long bars and half-finished lofts and too-small apartments and late-night diners and subway cars. Ever since the postwar era found its footing culturally, the New York auteur has been a vital megafauna in American film, the calloused, smart-mouthed countercharge to the homogenized, corporatized Hollywood model of film artist. But look around, in 2021: Where are they? It seems as though they’re slowly vanishing without anyone noticing, like a species of freshwater mussel. At age 79, Scorsese is the grand poobah of a seminal generation of regional auteurs, alongside Woody Allen (who is 86) and the late Sidney Lumet. Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch are reigning figures in the boomer league that followed, all in their 60s or 70s now, including a slew of directors whose early guerrilla-style splashes in the downtown-punk 1970s and ’80s dwindled in later years to TV piecework and scantly released features: Susan Seidelman, Sara Driver, Tom DiCillo, Lizzie Borden, Amos Poe, Bette Gordon.

Other, more extremely punkish members of the No Wave “movement”—Nick Zedd, Eric Mitchell, Vivienne Dick, Richard Kern, Cassandra Stark—began as and remained never-say-die DIY provocateurs, occupying a tiny underground niche. This sector—perhaps represented most notoriously by Dick’s She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978), Zedd’s They Eat Scum (1979), and Kern’s Manhattan Love Suicides (1985)—was 110 percent New York but, unlike Jarmusch, had little aesthetic mission. The rancid economic depression the city endured in the ’70s, with entire neighborhoods forsaken and crumbling, precipitated the teeming class of undisciplined freak artists who would produce aggressively crude and confrontational art in any medium that crossed their path, and do it spending no money and expecting to earn even less. Suddenly, Jack Smith, whose circle of contemporaries and cohorts was preciously small in 1963 when his stylish and provocative-for-its-time celebration of naked flesh, Flaming Creatures, was first shown, found himself surrounded by hundreds of marginalized culture-makers, all roaming free in the decrepit part of the city to which no one paid attention, and all busy making handheld films and sub-garage rock bands when they weren’t shooting up or sleeping off binges or trading sex partners. Unlike in other indie-wave sagas, there are no masterpieces or lessons learned; the punk principle of the moment forbade it. Today, the No Wave figures and films are objects of nostalgia for an invigorating filthier time in the city, and little more.

And what of the true, earlier avant-garde? In their 1960s to ’70s heyday, the seminal generation of underground filmmakers in New York—Smith, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Mike, and George Kuchar—certainly limned a portrait of the city that verges on the anthropological. Smith and the Kuchars in particular became local legends for their arte povera strategies, mustering recycled pop-art mythologies out of an almost complete vacuum of resources, and treating the city as a vast abandoned playground that remained theirs to use as they wished. But it was a rarefied, hermetic ghetto of film culture, as delightful to initiates as it was mystifyingly gestural, and largely unseeable, to the world at large. You could make the case that, taken together, Smith’s Flaming Creatures, the Kuchars’ I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960), Jacobs’s Blonde Cobra (1963), Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), and Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) comprise an X-ray of the city’s secret alt-life in the day, but if this is where your NYC cosmology lingers, you know you’re part of a small and self-selecting tribe. That was, in any case, back then. There’s hardly any such thing today as “underground”—whether non-narrative or experimental, anything you may produce on your rooftop with friends is just something to get lost in the ocean of YouTube.

So, where are we? How might you define a “New York auteur” today? Does Abel Ferrara count? He could make the roster simply for 1992’s Mets-soundtracked Passion of St. Harvey, Bad Lieutenant, but he’s 70, and has favored Italy in the past few decades. The ’90s saw the emergence of Michael Almereyda, Whit Stillman, Hal Hartley, and Mary Harron, who have all wandered freely, and in any case, are now in their 60s. No Wave vet Beth B, also in her 60s, is still working hard. In the Bush I years of the second Sundance indie wave, Nancy Savoca and Nick Gomez made all-too-brief comet streaks. In the new century, who would qualify? Do we heart Noah Baumbach that much? Does the post-mumble, heart-attack law firm of Safdie, Safdie & Bronstein count? (Their Uncut Gems, with its aggressive gotta-get-it tension and jittery camerawork, seems an ostentatious bid for old-school NY auteurship.) Eliza Hittman, with three small, sharp films, strikes a hopeful note if she sticks to her auteurist guns.

Clearly, it’s not just how many films an artist has made here, but to what degree their vision and thematic lust have been bewitched by the city. Recent films that feel chest-deep in the city’s ambience are few and far between; it does seem that the native Gotham cineaste, wherever they originally hail from, is aging out as a concept, fading into history. Why? What’s changed, besides everything? Or, perhaps, what’s changed more, American film culture, or the city itself?

We shouldn’t be surprised if the particular upheavals and morphings of our sociopolitical condition impact how and why certain kinds of films get made, because that’s how the New York auteur was born. There was really no such significant thing until the ’50s when the smaller, cheaper cameras built for WWII allowed for an independent filmmaking boom that eventually came home to Brooklyn and Manhattan in the form of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953) and John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959). For the first time for a lot of viewers, here were movies that hung out with their characters, doing things outside of the plot. For Engel, it was little Richie Andrusco, running away to Coney Island, doing the things that kids do when nobody in particular is watching, along with the soaked vacationers waiting under the pavilions for a rainstorm to pass and the gear-heavy surf casters heading toward the sea at dusk as the beachgoers head home, all of it apprehended, documentary-style, from real life.

Cassavetes’s film does it too, what might be called the New York Meantime; Shadows dawdles, slouches, wanders, vogues, and goes on drunken jags, just like its maker, who marries his own sense of what life and acting should be with the form of the film itself. (Visually, it’s so economical and cramped that off-screen space becomes a bottomless resource, and characters rarely occupy the frame alone.) The film seems to have discovered New York, or at least discovered how people live in it, dashing from street corners to coffee shops in the rain, loitering in public spaces, draping over furniture in tiny apartments. While other movies told stories in 1959, this one said, Here was what life was like right here.

These were not movies like audiences were used to—the usual simulacra of regional life and soundstage-bound scripted dramatics, always run through a Hollywood washing machine. No, these were New York movies, made without backing, by people who lived there, who just had to make a movie any which way they could, and who thought New York itself was an endlessly interesting empire of human tumult.

The postwar culture almost demanded it. During the war, Americans had become acquainted with and curious about the other parts of the country, and also the sense of authenticity coming their way from both European films made in the war’s rubble and the unarguably “real” news footage on their new TV sets. Rock ’n’ roll, Beat literature, abstract expressionism, even the televised chaos of Ernie Kovacs—the Zeitgeist screamed unorthodoxy and experimentation, liberation and risk. New York, with its unrivaled resources in theater, publishing, and media photography, was a natural ecosystem for filmmakers who wanted to forge a new cinema their way. For both Engel and Cassavetes, the mandate wasn’t polish and maximum audience share, but capturing the city as it really was, even if that meant being, essentially, inexperienced amateurs winging it without rules.

Once you graduate to the American New Wave ’60s and ’70s, when Scorsese, Allen, and Lumet became serious about Gotham as the richest color on their palette, the New York movie became an iconic factor in American life. Many filmmakers who excelled at these, however—William Friedkin, Alan J. Pakula, John Schlesinger—can’t really qualify as regional obsessives, because their time in New York was brief, and they quickly went elsewhere. Still, the New York movie, like Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Pakula’s Klute (1971), and Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), made busy revealing the city’s previously unfilmed and unseen spaces and textures, in a way that surprised the world. Infamously, there’s something quintessentially New York about the French Connection car chase through a very crowded Bensonhurst, shot as it was without permits and with genuine potential danger for pedestrians, and real damage for at least one unsuspecting Ford-driving local.

 These films represented an integral wedge of the era’s New Wave mojo, and New York–ness was suddenly a valuable and fascinating cinematic flavor. But it was the locals that made careers out of it, and whichever “New York” you’re in—whether you’re with Scorsese on Mulberry Street, Allen on East 66th, or Lumet on Prospect Park West—you felt the city as a decisive character in the mix, a kicking-and-screaming place you knew even if, like millions of moviegoers worldwide, you didn’t live there.

 So, the question nags: Why has the New York auteur become an endangered species, when regional filmmaking in general hardly seems to be waning? (With today’s shooting technology and streaming options, there’s virtually no barrier to entry for anyone, regardless of where they live, and 32 states offer production incentives of one kind or another.) Movies are still often shot in New York, but very few are about New York. Could it be that, having the 20th-century vogue of the New York movie come and go, we’re simply not as fascinated by the city anymore? Or, perhaps, has the city itself become less volatile, less unpredictable, less movie-ish? Has the Internet’s familiarity homogenized us, making New York–ness a less distinctive and fiery brand of human fare?

 American film culture has evolved and mutated in scores of ways, but it’s hard not to argue that, taken in toto, the scene is far less interested in urban particularities or ethnic enclaves (if not ethnicity in general), or exhibits in the human zoo we may not already be familiar with. “Identification” is the watchword nowadays—the idea that we’re all the same under the skin, wherever we live, and works in any medium should help us identify with, and feel compatriot to, everyone else. Most contemporary movies set in New York could be set in almost any city, and their characters could live anywhere.

 It’s a dreary state of affairs that could, we hope, be a default launching pad for some irascible young New York filmhead, with a movie that returns to the sidewalks and to the slices of the city that haven’t been gentrified into American uniformity. We know that that New York is still there—go find it, and show us something new.   ❖

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