There is an intriguing duality to how film shapes our sense of place even as a filmmaker’s own unique understanding of a place shapes the cinematic rendition of it. In Street Smart: The New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese, and Lee, film critic Richard Blake thoroughly explores this intersection as he examines how for many of us our impressions of America’s first city have been fashioned by thousands of celluloid dreams and visions – and how four distinct filmmakers have each reshaped cinematic perceptions because of their own sense of place within the teeming metropolis.
For Blake, these four directors – each in their own way representative of some of America’s finest filmmaking – are essentially incapable of escaping their own roots. He believes that the neighborhoods each man grew up in is far more important in understanding their films than the neighborhoods actually portrayed in their films. As he notes, “Growing up in a closed ethnic neighborhood gives one, often unconsciously, a stereotypical, often romantic view of one’s own group, and it can lead to some nasty stereotypes of others. Ethnic awareness is part of the fiber of New York neighborhoods. That’s where the realism comes in. Even when these four directors have no desire to make a sociological observation, their stories gain a depth of texture by showing the racial and ethnic complexities that their characters face as a realistic part of their lives.”
Instead of focusing upon the visual “style” of each director, Blake focuses on the context and content of the stories they present. The slice of perspective each offers often mirrors (even if unconsciously) the culture they were immersed in while growing up. For example, Blake notes that Woody Allen’s characters generally reflect family as a secondary concern (if not a primary irritant); there is a manifestation of individuality which he thinks springs not simply from the intellectual and artistic subjects of Allen’s films, but instead from the neighborhood of his youth.
In stark contrast, Martin Scorsese’s characters can seemingly never escape the bonds of family obligation. Lumet, “from his liberal Jewish perspective of the Lower East Side,” generally places his characters in conflict not with other individuals or even family members but rather against monolithic civic or governmental organizations (which are, not coincidentally, generally oppressive and unalterably corrupt). And this can be contrasted with Spike Lee, whose “middle-class African American upbringing” is arguably reflected in his films’ impatience with black characters who accept failure.
Blake wrote Street Smart as an “arbitrary but representative cross-section” of New York filmmakers. His idea was to examine how each filmmaker represented New York – and perhaps to identify the roots which led them to the cinematic expression in question. As he notes, in each director’s work there is a measure of romanticism and perhaps also a touch of uncertainty about “the city.” I enjoyed his exploration of each director’s films from a slightly different perspective – both in terms of what the films “say” about New York, but also what the films might say about the filmmakers’ own interaction with the broader “New York experience.”
New York is, as Blake writes, far more than Manhattan, even if Manhattan is, by and large, the general mental impression of New York City. By exploring the ways in which these directors reflect and reshape ethnic and cultural identity through their films, he has added another mechanism for understanding their meaning. Written in an easy, conversational style, Street Smart is a thoughtful, meaningful exercise in film criticism.