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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

New York ain’t quite what it is on film

There’s a wonderful valentine to New York City in Sunday’s Irish Independent, in which writer Donal Lynch makes love to my town:

New York is the only place in the world that is exactly like it is in the movies. London, on the silver screen, is always too prissily posh and old-world English, Paris is dirtier and more crowded than we’re ever shown and when you actually get there it’s shocking to see that places like Miami and Sydney actually have mundane things such as supermarkets and dentists. Only manic, neon-lit New York lives up to and exceeds its celluloid reputation and walking through those vast canyons of glass and steel it’s impossible not to feel like you’re on a movie set. Even the rats are larger than life.

It’s a great piece, as an example of passionate personal writing, but it just so happens that I completely disagree with him. Lynch must only be watching Disney movies if he thinks London looks nothing but prissy onscreen, and, man, Paris was everything the movies had promised, and more… and also, New York is actually way more crowded than the movies make you think, too.
I was particularly struck by the article, though, because it came just two days after I saw Made of Honor, which opens on Friday and which is set, in part, in New York. And most of the New York scenes were actually shot here, and one howler right in the beginning gets the geography of New York so ridiculously wrong that it manages to miss the sense of being a New Yorker at the same time. (I’m not picking on Made on Honor in particular — very few movies get the geography right, or the sense of being a New Yorker — and this doesn’t have any bearing on the larger issue of whether the movie is worth seeing or not.)

See, what happens is that Patrick Dempsey’s Tom hops in his little convertible sportscar on a Sunday morning. (Which no sensible New Yorker would do — it’s crazy to drive within Manhattan. But he’s a rich guy with a cool sportscar, so we’ll spot him that.) It’s tough to tell which neighborhood he’s departing from — could be the Upper West Side, could be Soho — but it doesn’t matter. Because next he’s driving southbound through Times Square, and next he’s pulling into a parking spot on the street near the Stock Exchange.

Now, if he was leaving from the Upper West Side — roughly the west side of the island of Manhattan above, say 72nd Street — driving southbound through Times Square, which is in the 40s, then that would indeed put him on track for the Wall Street area (where the Stock Exchange is). But if he’s leaving from Soho, which is just south of where the numbered streets start, but still north of Wall Street, which is close to the southernmost tip of Manhattan, there’s no way in hell a car trip would take him through Times Square. It would be like driving from New York to Chicago via Florida.

So, okay: geographical idiocy. It gets worse. When Tom arrives at his destination near the Stock Exchange, he zips right into a parking spot on the street, directly in front of his destination. Which never, ever happens. If you’re lucky enough that your destination actually has legal on-street parking (and the curb isn’t given over to a bus stop or standing for trucks making deliveries or just forbidden to parked cars for some mysterious unexplained reason), then you’ll be driving around the block for an hour (no exaggeration) waiting for someone to leave. Because choice parking spots are so unusual that any genuine New Yorker arriving at his destination and finding an open parking spot directly in front of it would be immediately suspicious. Why isn’t someone parked there already? What’s wrong with the spot? Am I gonna get a ticket, or worse, a tow? At the very least, a narrowing of the eyes and a quick search for the posted signs delineating the parking rules for the street (assuming the sign hasn’t been knocked down or stolen or whatever) would precede zipping into the spot.

More than likely, though, is that Tom, being a rich guy, wouldn’t hesitate to pull into a parking lot three blocks from where he actually wants to be, and be happy for the privilege of paying 20 bucks (plus tip!) to leave his car there for half an hour.

But wait: It gets worse. This special place that Tom put himself to such hassle and drove possibly the length of Manhattan to get to?

A Starbucks.

Honestly, I laughed out loud when I saw that that’s where Tom was heading. Because there are Starbuckses on almost every street in Manhattan. They’re like cockroaches. In some places there’s a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks. Really. And they’ll both always have lines out the door. It’s what we New Yorkers do. We’re walking along the street minding our own business and then it’s like, Hey, I want an iced coffee. That little green sign is like Pavlov’s bell. What we don’t do is drive a good six or seven miles — which is far, like worlds away, in Manhattan — from the Upper West Side to Wall Street just to get a coffee. You can’t avoid Starbuckses if you want to — you certainly don’t need to make a special trip to find one. It would be absurd. It’s certainly not a New York thing to do.

Oh, and after Tom gets his coffee? He drives all the way the hell back uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to meet his friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan). The Met is at 81st Street and Fifth Avenue, which is practically where he started from, if he started on the Upper West Side (it’s just across Central Park). And then he and Hannah head down to Chinatown for dim sum. Chinatown is near Soho, and not all that far from where Tom went to get his superspecial Starbucks coffee. If he was a real New Yorker, he would have called Hannah and said, Look, I’m way the hell down here already and I got this awesome parking space — why don’t you just meet me at the restaurant? Which she would have agreed was the eminently sensible thing to do, and she would have hopped on the subway and been there in no time.

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  • PaulW

    The movies just don’t *do* subways, unless there’s an army of CHUDs chasing the cars. ;)

  • Jurgan

    “Which no sensible New Yorker would do — it’s crazy to drive within Manhattan.”

    See, I can’t figure this out. There’s an inherent contradiction in saying that no one can manage to drive within Manhattan. After all, what is it that makes it hard to drive? Traffic, right? Then, obviously, there are people who do drive. Are you saying that you’d only drive *through* Manhattan?

    Regardless, I wish we had a public transportation system half as good as NYC. I try to be an environmentalist, but when I have to be at work at 6:45 A.M., fifteen miles from my apartment in a tiny rural town, there’s no way the bus is gonna cut it.

  • StrangeAgent

    Paris: City of Light? More like City of Dog Poo.

  • ariadne

    MaryAnn: Your description of parking in NYC reminded me of Calvin Trillin’s “Tepper Isn’t Going Out.” I enjoyed it–have you read it?

    PaulW: Well, at least one movie did: Crocodile Dundee. But it’s a pity that more don’t. I can’t speak for NYC, but riding the Tube in London is a significant part of the whole city experience for me.

  • Deanne

    I agree with you, MaryAnn. I wonder which movies Lynch is watching. August Rush was probably one of the worst I’ve seen in terms of NYC geography. I enjoyed the movie, but I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from pointing out all of the geographical absurdities.

  • MaryAnn

    Are you saying that you’d only drive *through* Manhattan?

    No, that would be really asinine. I meant that it might make a sort of sense to drive into Manhattan from somewhere out in the outer boroughs or the suburbs, which can sometimes be faster than mass transit, although you still have to deal with the parking situation. If you really must be in a car in Manhattan, it makes more sense to take a cab, especially if you’re rich like Tom, because then you don’t have to worry about parking.

    The movies just don’t *do* subways

    Not big studio movies. The new indie *The Visitor* has some nice bits in the subway.

    Paris: City of Light? More like City of Dog Poo.

    No more so than New York. I wish more people cleaned up after their dogs here, too. Still, I’d rather meet lots of cool dogs on the street than not.

    August Rush was probably one of the worst I’ve seen in terms of NYC geography.

    I didn’t feel that way, maybe because the movie captured a sense of what it is to be in New York.

  • Well, there’s also the chance that some people are passing off a Canadian city as New York. How many times has Toronto become The Big Apple? Apparently both The Incredible Hulk and Max Payne will be using Yonge street as Times Square again. Heck, I remember my mother laughing about “The Worlds Biggest Bookstore” a Toronto landmark, as a gag in Short Circuit 2 (ostensibly set in New York)

    http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/418822

    Personally, My favorite was “Rumble in the Bronx”. Realizing the “Broadway” bus was the same one I take home from work. In Vancouver. Wrong coast, wrong country.

  • Jigsy Q.

    One of the things I love about the chase in the French Connection is that the continuity is totally correct. Every time they cut to an exterior shot the car is pretty much where it would be if it were really going down that street at that speed. There’s not a single “hey how did he end up there??” moment in the whole scene. Someone was paying attention.

  • hdj

    I wasnt crazy about this movie but I thought “Cloverfield” captured the city pretty good.
    They event explained how the path train works.
    And the truth is theres so much people and traffic theres no way you could make a driving escape.
    I find if you go in the city like a midweek day or a weekend when all the suited people are home its less busy. I think the summer is a good time too because most people venture more to the ocean rather then spend there summer in the city, which reminds me of Die Hard 3 with a vengeance. That captured the city pretty geography correct as well

  • MaryAnn

    *DIe Hard 3* was fantastic in its depiction of New York, particularly in how it managed to make the traffic feel claustrophobic. And Samuel Jackson’s line about the impossibility of driving “90 blocks in rush hour traffic in 20 minutes?” is classic.

    Well, there’s also the chance that some people are passing off a Canadian city as New York.

    Sure, that happens all the time. But I’m not talking about those movies. I’m talking about the ones actually shot in New York that get it all wrong. Like how *Home Alone 2* (I think it is) has the Plaza Hotel around the corner from Chinatown.

    *Cloverfield* was pretty good in its depiction of New York aboveground. But those subway tunnels were clearly not NYC subway tunnels, the station they hole up in is clearly not an NYC subway station (it’s way too small, for one), and I’m not sure you could walk from way downtown to 59th Street through the tunnels as quickly as they did.

    Ah, *Rumble in the Bronx.* I’m looking out my window right now, and I can’t see any snow-capped mountains.

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