Rob Edelman: New York City On Celluloid, Once Upon A Time

Jun 26, 2017

“New American Cinema” is a fitting title for one of my favorite film courses, one which I have long-taught. Its content is described in its course description, which begins: “During the late 1960s and early 1970s, great social changes were occurring in the United States. These changes were sparked by the emerging youth culture, the progression of the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the advent of the modern-era feminist movement. This course will explore the manner in which these changes impacted on the American cinema.” 

Programming “New American Cinema” always is challenging, because there are so many excellent, representative films from this era. Happily, quite a few will be screened at Film Forum in Manhattan in a 23-day, 44-film series starting July 5. It is titled “Ford to City: Drop Dead: New York in the 70s.” And for those who may not recall this, “Ford to City: Drop Dead” was the front page headline in the New York Daily News which ran on October 30, 1975: the day after President Gerald Ford announced that the then-financially insolvent city would not be receiving federal aid.

Not all the “New American Cinema” films are connected to New York, but quite a few are-- and a number of them will be screened at Film Forum. Actually, the festival opens with a film that was released at the tail-end of the 1960s. It is John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as two very unlikely onscreen heroes. Hoffman plays Ratzo Rizzo, a sickly, street smart conman, and Voight is naïve Joe Buck, who is new in town and is a wannabe male hustler.

The various characters in MIDNIGHT COWBOY were not the types who were spotlighted in Hollywood films released even five years earlier, let alone in previous decades. In this regard, MIDNIGHT COWBOY boldly explores the types of alternative realities that had been ignored in mainstream American cinema. This is a movie that in no way romanticizes its subjects. It is a portrait of America’s underbelly. It depicts New York as a drab and dangerous locale, one that is far-removed from a typical Woody Allen rom.com. MIDNIGHT COWBOY is a film about loneliness and impoverishment. It features characters who have no hope. That is their bottom line. And the fact that MIDNIGHT COWBOY deservedly walked off with the Best Picture Academy Award served as official notice that, as the 1960s segued into the 1970s, society was changing-- and Hollywood was reflecting that change.

One could spend hours citing other titles in the series. Such a list only begins with the fact-based SERPICO, directed by Sidney Lumet, which is one of Al Pacino’s GODFATHER follow-ups. Pacino plays a character who is the polar opposite of Michael Corleone: a scrupulously honest New York cop who is drowning in everyday police corruption. As a portrait of dishonesty in high places, SERPICO resonates to this day.

In Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, Robert De Niro gives one of his iconic early-career performances as Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychologically unhinged Vietnam veteran. TAXI DRIVER also reverberates today. For one thing, it touches on fame and the media, and the questions here are: What must one do in order to become famous? What is fame in our media-saturated culture? And also, whenever I hear news stories about high school students who attempt to shoot up their schools or disgruntled employees who show up at work and go on murderous rampages, I wonder: Why have these individuals been driven to such actions? How did they come to be so alienated that they feel compelled to go on killing sprees? These are simple questions with complex answers. But when I ask them, I also think of Travis Bickle, and TAXI DRIVER.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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