“New York, New Orleans, and Netflix (Also Star Trek)”: Guest Essay by Bradley Warshauer
I’ve got this problem in which I, who have always liked to think of myself as both intellectually and artistically curious (with all the sardonic emphasis on the words the italicization indicates), freeze when confronted by too enormous a group of intellectually- and artistically-inviting options. It happened to me when, as a preteen, I’d enter the public library and stay for three hours and leave without a book, because, surrounded by towering shelves stacked with any book for which I might hunger, I suddenly craved none of them. It happened when, living in New York and doing that whole New York writing student thing, I’d walk into the monstrous Strand and immediately forget why I wanted any specific piece of literature, even if I’d brought a list with me to remind me that I, in fact, did want specific pieces of literature. And it happens almost every time I load the Netflix app on my PS3.
I don’t freeze because I can’t make decisions. I’m in fact perfectly adept at making decisions, even ones I don’t necessarily want to make and even if, at some point between the making of the decision and the execution of said, I pitch a fit and make myself miserable. (The major exception to this is choosing movie candy. I can’t do it. The Juicy Fruits or the Twizzlers or the Skittles? But what if someone else gets popcorn, necessitating the inclusion of a chocolate-based candy like Milk Duds to pair with it—or fuck it all, I’ll just have Sweet Tarts.) No: I freeze because, when confronted by the everything, the something begins to lose its appeal. As a result I tend to float in the direction of the familiar unless, trusting my aesthetic senses, I press on with the new, despite not really wanting to. My ability to do so on Netflix generally depends on the sensibility of a given nightly movie session.
I’m a Star Wars kid, by which I mean The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best movies ever and Star Wars, despite being more fantasy than sci-fi, is, and has been since 1977, better than Star Trek. Star Trek is, too me, one self-satirical 1960s TV series starring William Shatner, followed by a different but still self-satirical TV series starring Patrick Stewart (in the latter case, Stewart is awesome and lends his considerable gravitas to the ridiculous: but guys like Riker still give me the creeps). Neither the original series nor The Next Generation seems quite aware enough of the fact that it’s kind of silly, so it’s seemed to me that Star Trek’s always taken itself too seriously. To paraphrase a good friend of mine (who will, I’m sure, argue coherently and logically and also hilariously with me that I am quite off-base with everything I’m saying about Trek, and he will have a good point and will probably win the debate): “The Shatner knows what the Shatner is.” Problem is, the Shatner of the original series didn’t know what the Shatner was.
All of this is just in prelude to what may seem a contradictory statement: my standby movie, the one I go to when I can’t decide to watch something new and unfamiliar and risk having to hit the button on my PS3 remote that has a square on it, is J.J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek.
I like this movie. I don’t necessarily love it, but that’s probably the key: it’s safe and, for some reason, it’s infinitely rewatchable. It strikes every note it should strike, lingers on every beat just long enough for us to care about what’s on screen but never lingering so long that we become bored. It’s brilliant popcorn entertainment that deftly uses all the standard emotional cues in ways that are creative enough to entertain. Its episodic yet well-constructed story keeps us going from one adventure to the next with just enough time to breathe, but not enough to nap, and its fine cast makes even the occasional bit of space fantasy gibberish fun.
In fact, Star Trek is a Star Wars movie. It (like Whedon’s Serenity) is the kind of movie that the Star Wars prequels should’ve been, and that, more than anything else, explains why I can watch it again, and again, and again—why, in other words, it feels so damn safe. “What the Abrams Star Trek proves,” the aforementioned friend told me a few weeks ago, “is that in another part of the multiverse George Lucas hired Abrams to make the prequels, and God looked down and said, ‘It is good.’”
There’s another way to get beyond the freeze: choose a classic. One of the problems with being intellectually and artistically curious is that with such curiosity comes the depressing knowledge that no matter what you do you’ll never catch up with everything wonderful that has been created in the years before you hit sentience. There are some books and some films we’ve got to consume because not consuming them would be self-deprivation.
Raging Bull, for example. It’d been in my recommendation stream for weeks, De Niro’s bloodied face looking at me through my Vizio, before I finally decided I needed to work my way through the Scorsese back catalog. As is often the case I found quickly there’s a reason the classic is a classic, that Raging Bull is in the National Film Registry. The film is beautiful and riveting, and the performances are uniformly superb, as you’d expect from that era’s De Niro. Joe Pesci is powerfully adept at uniting his standard New York wiseguy persona with heart, and, compared with De Niro’s manic La Motta, a surprising level of control. They’re both hot-tempered Italians, but Pesci, in most of his films the craziest hot-tempered Italian, is here the sane one.
Even more striking than the quality of Raging Bull’s performances is Scorsese’s evocative use of place. The film is a New York story because its primary characters are New Yorkers, but also because in the narrative’s formative stages we meet them in their native Bronx habitat, establishing the city as a living thing. The gorgeous black and white cinematography and outstanding ambient sound combine to turn La Motta’s small Bronx tenement apartment into a story piece. You get the sense that the guy La Motta screams at early in the movie—this off-screen guy in another apartment trying to shout down an argument between La Motta and his first wife—is living a life no less vibrant than the ones you’re actually observing. New York City is an overwhelming presence in Raging Bull— really, even when La Motta relocates to Miami this remains a specifically New York story, turns into one in which New Yorkers pulled from New York go mad partly because they’ve landed in a foreign land.
This inherent New Yorkness is only intensified when, having crashed, burned out, grown fat and unhappy and ever angrier in Miami, La Motta returns to the city and supports himself delivering bad comedy. Randomly meeting the long-estranged Joey on a Manhattan street—that Manhattan is made up of living neighborhoods in which this meeting would be possible generally isn’t understood by Middle Americans, and this inability to understand a place at all by Americans who would dictate policy to it is another in a seemingly growing list of things NYC shares with NOLA—we realize that La Motta can’t ever even have his older, humbler life back. His family is gone for good, but now, at least, he’s back in his city, and this makes bittersweet an ending that could have been only bitter—the fat La Motta quoting Brando and shadowboxing at a mirror before going on stage in front of a packed house.
The Semi-Overlooked Fun One (or: The Woody Allen Movie Chronologically Stuck Between All His Good Ones and All His Crappy Ones, Except for Midnight in Paris and a couple others)
While living in New York I, inevitably, hit my Woody Allen phase. Previously my Allen experience had been limited to the one set in London—the solid, depressing, almost memorable Match Point—and the “These pretzels are making me thirsty!” bit from Seinfeld. But it was in New York that I dove in and, with Netflix handy, began to appreciate Manhattan and Annie Hall. It helps, of course, that I was experiencing that whole New York literary scene and so now understand pithy Norman Mailer references.
On Netflix you’ll find a Woody Allen movie called Manhattan Murder Mystery which is, as previously indicated, precariously located in his filmography at 1993, well after most of his accepted classics and with only a handful of solid films between it and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. This is another New York movie; it could only be set in New York City successfully. A Los Angeles Murder Mystery would be another thing entirely, involving more cocaine and probably Quentin Tarantino. This sense of place necessity, actually, is one of the things I love most about Allen’s films, just as I love it about Scorsese’s—it’s not that Manhattan Murder Mystery is about New York City, or even specifically what New Yorkers from Brooklyn or Queens call “the city,” but that it’s of New York.
The situation in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton find themselves—he delivering neurotically hilarious Woody Allen lines while she, seeking adventure in middle age, tries to pin on the guy next door the murder only she knows (or, at least, is pretty sure she knows) he committed—could be replicated anywhere there’s a big downtown apartment building for well-off white people. But the situation could not unfold as interestingly or as uniquely in any of those other big downtown apartment buildings. We need the lights of Manhattan, the Manhattan skyline, the heavily-trafficked streets and yellow cabs and middle-aged theatre-goers and Manhattan restaurants, and we absolutely need the snappy cultural references that only quite fit when they’re being made by a character who is part of the progressive Manhattan upper middle class. Again, Manhattan Murder Mystery isn’t about Manhattan, but it is absolutely of Manhattan.
This, by the way, is what holds back David Simon’s Treme—it’s wonderful to see on screen a beautiful and accurate representation of our culture and of our place, but Simon fails to make his show about more than place. Certainly Treme can be set nowhere else, but that’s only because it’s about New Orleans. What New Orleans needs from its artistic community now is not to be represented purely as a strange foreign locale in material that is meant to do so, but to be accurately and vibrantly portrayed like the Bronx of Raging Bull’s first act or like the Manhattan of Manhattan Murder Mystery. We’re not a museum piece or a thing to be analyzed through only our music and Mardi Gras, but a place where things happen. We need filmmakers and writers who can, like Allen or Scorsese with New York, create art that is of a living New Orleans even while being about something else.
As for Manhattan Murder Mystery—watch it for the subtle witticisms and clever one-liners. Watch it for the surprising Rear Window-like level of suspense it sustains during its third act. And watch it for the touching relationship between Allen and Keaton. It’s almost like their experience together in Annie Hall makes them a real middle-aged married couple so, when Allen tells Keaton that, rather than trying to solve a murder mystery “We should be asleep now, in one of our many cuddling positions,” we really believe they’ve got all those cuddling positions, and we’d kind of be okay if they just decided to try them out tonight rather than propel the plot to the next point, because by then we’re part of their lives—and part of their place, too.