Nov. 17, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 6

Prof. Richard Blake, SJ (Fine Arts)

Big City on a Silver Screen

BC film expert details New York's influence on four major directors

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Hollywood may be synonymous with the movie industry, but when it comes to films, says Prof. Richard Blake, SJ (Fine Arts), New York is the city in the spotlight.

From "King Kong" to "The King of Comedy," "Ghostbusters" to "Goodfellas," New York City has appeared in more movies than any actor or actress, says Fr. Blake - "even Michael Caine."

But the city has a problem similar to that of many an overexposed or typecast thespian, he adds. Audiences and critics tend to believe the images they see on the screen and overlook the real-life subtleties and nuances.

"You're most likely to see New York City depicted as skyscrapers and bright lights, as a big mass of humanity in rush hour traffic," explained Fr. Blake. "In reality, though, New York is a network of clearly defined villages, each with a unique personality that forges a strong connection with its residents and natives."

In his recent book, Street Smart: The New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese and Lee, Fr. Blake examines the work of four New York born-and-bred filmmakers who have stayed true to their roots. Rather than embrace, and prolong, the illusion of New York portrayed throughout much of cinema's history, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee - despite their differing styles, ethnic or racial heritage and temperaments - rely on the influences from their New York neighborhoods.

Fr. Blake says Street Smart is a companion of sorts to his 2000 book, AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination in the Works of Six American Film Makers, which explored the use of Catholic symbolism and imagery by Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock. He describes his approach to these books more as "social analysis and cultural anthropology" than straight film critique.

"In AfterImage, one major point I wanted to express was there are many ways of being Catholic, and this was evident in the works of these six filmmakers," he said. "With Street Smart, the central question is, 'Does it make a difference where you grow up?' Yes it does, of course.

"However, filmmakers are often notorious liars when it comes to talking about their work. So rather than get at the question by interviewing the filmmakers, it's more honest, perhaps, to let the films speak for themselves."

Sidney Lumet's films, for example, are redolent of the director's Lower East Side upbringing, "of New York television and theater, of Jewish identity and leftist politics," says Fr. Blake. In Lumet's adaptation of "The Pawnbroker," he says, Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman (the film's title character) is depicted as unmindful, perhaps even uncaring, of the social injustice around him in Spanish Harlem - and, by allowing his store to be used as a front for criminal activities, his complicity in the evil taking place.

"In Lumet's eyes the tragedy of Sol Nazerman is his rejection of the Jewish mission of furthering the interests of social justice in the New World," said Fr. Blake.

While sharing Lumet's Jewish heritage and political leanings, says Fr. Blake, Woody Allen is less inclined to deal with socioeconomic issues in his films, a reflection of Allen's upbringing in a self-contained, middle-class Flatbush neighborhood whose residents tended to eschew radical political activity.

A major theme in Allen's work, Fr. Blake says, is his veneration of Manhattan as a paradise with little or no crime, poverty, racism or other social problems. Here he can overcome the intellectual and personal limitations of his Brooklyn upbringing among the affluent, well-educated, successful, talented and attractive Manhattanites, as in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan."

"But for all his success in becoming a 'New Yorker,' Allen, as the kid from Brooklyn, feels he doesn't belong by birthright," said Fr. Blake. "That's why his central characters are strivers who continually worry that someone will identify them as imposters or pretenders."

Spike Lee's Brooklyn childhood left a different impression, says Fr. Blake. His family's move when he was 12 from the diverse, generally tolerant Cobble Hill section to the Fort Greene area - then in the process of a socioeconomic rejuvenation - became a defining experience in his life and work, explains Fr. Blake.

"Lee became immersed in a black community, yet his upbringing in Cobble Hill gave him the ability to view Fort Greene's attempts at self-renewal as both an observer looking in on a distinct culture and as an African American at home in his new surroundings. In Fort Greene, he saw a community fighting urban blight but with enormous cultural resources at its disposal."

"So to Lee Fort Greene became a metaphor of sorts for 'making it' - the question being whether you were willing or able to pay the cost of doing so, or give up your dignity and become the worst kind of stereotypes that burden hard-working, upwardly mobile families like his."

In that context, Fr. Blake says, Lee developed complex, controversial attitudes on racism and prejudice often reflected in his films, such as "She's Gotta Have It" and "Do the Right Thing." He depicts his black characters as having problems rooted in racist society, but he also stresses the virtues of self-reliance and community support.

Growing up in a Sicilian enclave of so-called "Little Italy," explains Fr. Blake, Martin Scorsese was exposed to a layered, ambivalent intermingling of various ethnic groups, with a constant focus on who were "insiders" and "outsiders." Scorsese's heroes, while trapped and self-destructive, retain a fidelity to their own personal integrity within their group and thus triumph over their environment.

That dynamic is evident in Scorsese's works even though the setting might be in Tibet ("Kundun") or in Biblical times ("The Last Temptation of Christ"), says Fr. Blake.

"It's the same thing for Lumet, Lee and Allen: Even if the story doesn't take place in New York, these four directors still make New York films. They continue to relate the themes and experiences of their New York upbringings."

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