Friday, July 29, 2016

Stronger Together

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

NYC on TV in the 2000s

This blog harps (perhaps too much) about the changing nature of NYC -- the gentrification and evolution of funky town into sterile city -- so I need not belabor that point ad infinitum. Yet as NYC has changed and evolved over the decades, popular TV shows have reflected this upheaval in numerous ways: think of the working class worlds of All in the Family and Night Court in the 1970s and 80s, to the more middle-class worlds of Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990s, to the luxe worlds of 30 Rock and Gossip Girl in the 2000s. Yes, TV has reflected the changing image of NYC back to ourselves for years and years, and we can't get enough of it.

And here is where I dare to be the contrarian to my usual feelings what's happening to NYC: TV shows about NYC have never been better. Certainly, they've never been this numerous (thanks generous tax credits!). Dare I sound a little too sanguine, just check out this list from Esquire magazine about the 20 best NYC shows from the aughts.

It's a pretty amazing bevy of quality (not that I've seen them all): think Mad Men, think Louie, think Girls, think the aforementioned 30 Rock, even think How I Met Your Mother (or, as New Yorkers might have said in the past, "Your Muddah'). Pretty great shows. And shows that bring to life the struggle and the promise of living and working in NYC, the glamour and the indignities, the valleys and the peaks. This list has some of my personal favorites, like Bored to Death and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They keep a little funk alive.

If you haven't caught up this any of these shows, and you love NYC, you must watch them. They prove that while NYC might not quite be the town it used to be, the creativity and vitality of NYC is still very much alive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Michael Cimino, RIP

When did you last get excited by a movie? When was the last time a movie came out that made you want to see it - again and again and again?

I remember in the 1990s when Pulp Fiction hit theaters - it was so exciting, such daring filmmaking, such thrilling storytelling, that I went to see it four times in the theaters. Back then, movies seem to matter to people, personally, and they seemed to be important cultural touchstones as well. Movies were, dare I say it, important. They mattered. They lived.

Today? Movies suck - or mostly suck. These days, TV shows have the cultural edge that movies once enjoyed. For the most part, movies now are either one of two things: huge, cynical, money-hungry enterprises (think of the proliferation of "franchises" and the unending number of sequels) or calculated "Oscar-bait", movies designed to win awards and make some money but are otherwise forgettable. Movies don't excite anymore. They don't live inside us or the culture. The artistry of film making isn't moving forward, taking strides. It's stuck. And that's sad.

So how did we get here? It took a long time. While movies were burning up the culture in the 1970s through the 1990s, the seeds of their downfall were being planting at the same time, namely the era of blockbusters and sequels, along with the upwards spiral of production costs. But most of all came the huge costs of failure. When movies fail, they not only lose money but can destroy careers.

In 1978, a director named Michael Cimino made a movie called The Deer Hunter, about working class men and women who's lives are shattered by the Vietnam war. The movie was a huge success - it made lots of money and won several Oscars, including Best Picture. Two years later, Cimino produced his follow-up, Heaven's Gate, about 19th century land wars in the American West. This movie failed catastrophically, so much so that the studio that financed it went under.

It was the first time that a movie's failure actually did something so devastating. Needless to say, the studios reacted accordingly. In the decades that followed, movies became increasingly "safer" so as not to offend audiences and critics. That's not to say, in the ensuing decades, that there still haven't been other huge failures as well as other exciting movies (like Pulp Fiction). But over time, safeness won over daring. The deary cinematic landscape we live in today is largely due to the failure of Heaven's Gate -- a movie that tried every bit to be as good as The Deer Hunter but wasn't.

Michael Cimino died last week, and his professional trajectory tells us a lot about the culture we live in today. After his once promising career was derailed, Cimino only directed a small number of movies, most of which critics and audiences ignored. This was, and is, a shame. A daring director was largely sidelined because of this (certainly huge) failure and the art of film, I think, suffered as a result.

Movies matter less now because directors are increasingly not the voices of their own films. When was the last time you saw a movie and really felt like you saw art being created? Yes, such film "auteurs" like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers are still making movies - but for how much longer? And when they're gone, who will replace them? I have no idea. There seem to be no young auteurs on the horizon.

When you watch both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, putting aside both movies' virtues and flaws, what strikes you about them is that these are stories being told by a great directorial voice; that you are watching someone's singular vision spring to life; that these are movies that do what only movies can do best: tell a story through moving images, the director as storyteller. Like a painter using paints and brushes, like a writer using words and a pen, like a sculptor using stones and chisel, this is a director using camera and film to tell a story and imprint an artistic style on your consciousness. Cimino didn't need special effects, he didn't need clever dialogue, he didn't need fancy editing, he didn't need any visual or storytelling tricks - he was amazingly confident in the way that he simply pointed and moved the camera, coreographing his scenes with such skill, that his vision came across so strongly that you were left with an impression that lasted long after these movies were over. 

Having seen both films, I remember them - the storytelling is unconventional, the performances are bold, the camera work is thrilling and confident, a master clearly at work. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw movie where you felt like this? Probably a long time.

And as good as television is these days, it will never have the cinematic visual power of the movies. Television is still mostly a writer's medium with the director serving as the writer's handmaiden. That's fine! But movies are first and last a director's medium, and they are at their most powerful when the director's voice rings loudly.

In many ways, Cimino both exemplified everything that used to be great about movie making and was also indirectly responsible for its decline. His ego, apparently, got in the way of his work. But now that he has passed on, it's important to remember that filmmakers like him used to reign supreme in our culture and that hopefully, one day, movies will live again.

PS. You must read Final Cut by Steven Bach, generally considered the best book ever written about the movie business, which chronicles the turbulent history of Heaven's Gate. It paints Cimino in a very unflattering light but, after reading it, you'll understand how movies are what they are today. You can find the documentary based on the book at

PPS. Cimino was a New Yorker, originally from Long Island, but he got his start working in advertising in NYC in the Mad Men era of the 1960s.