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Celluloid Skyline

By James Sanders

Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, 498 pages, with 328 illustrations, 2001, $45


Still from "Portrait of Jennie"

The illustration of the book's cover is perhaps the best photograph ever taken of the city's skyline. It is an establishing shot from the 1948 movie "Portrait of Jennie" and it is an aerial shot that shows Lower Manhattan with Governors Island, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty beneath a cloudy sky through which strong beams of sunlight radiate from the center top of the picture.

By Carter B. Horsley

This extremely well-written book captures the magnificent romance of New York City's skyline, the world's greatest.

Profusely illustrated, it depicts the city cinematically and is a must addition to any New Yorker's library.

The author, James Sanders, an architect who was co-writer with Ric Burns of the seven-part PBS series "New York: A Documentary Film," correctly maintains that "the movie city, the mythic city, is ultimately far more than a mirror." "It is a place unto itself, an extraordinary cultural construct spanning hundreds of individual films. Perhaps it is precisely because real New York possesses this `other' city as some kind of adjunct or underside or dream version of itself, that it holds a true claim to urban greatness, one shared by only a few places in history: London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Troy, Babylon, Ur. Once they were called the `storied' or `fabled' cities. Today we tell our fables with celluloid."

The book was written before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but in an author's note at the beginning of the book Mr. Sanders remakes that those events "irrevocably altered the skyline of Lower Manhattan." "In the harsh and hunting light of those terrible events, its words and images may in places take on a new and entirely unintended significance. After due consideration, the author and publisher have chosen to proceed with publication on schedule, in the hope that the book may in some way help to further an understanding of why the New York skyline in both image and reality has had such profound and personal meaning for people all around the world, and why more now, perhaps, than ever before it has been cherished so deeply, by so many."

Indeed, given the controversies over the design of a redevelopment of the World Trade Center site (see
The City Review article), this book should be required reading for all New Yorkers for its fabulous illustrations and insightful text that not only is rich in the city's physical and cinematic culture, but also keenly sensitive to urban planning and architectural visions.

"A mythic city," Mr. Sanders writes, "embodies the idea of a city, a powerful thing indeed. An idea can travel, after all, as a city cannot radiating across land and sea into the minds of millions around the world. Those who have never seen or visited the real place can nonetheless imagine it intensely, can picture it. And beyond that, it calls to them, it beckons. They can dream of it."

"Movie-makers, looking at the real city, so often see more than is there," Mr. Sanders observed. "To the surprise and delight of audiences, Terry Gilliam saw in the heart of Grand Central Terminal not only a great passenger concourse but the world's largest ballroom {in "The Fisher King"], while in the soaring shaft of the Empire State Building Merian C. Cooper saw not simply a commercial office tower but a prehistoric peak, ready to be surmounted by some timeless figure [in "King Kong"]. In the "Wizard of Oz", Manhattan's cluster of towers was transmuted more hauntingly than any literal rendition into a gleaming apparition, capturing its emotional power as the destination of millions who had come a vast distance to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Especially in those films driven by a sense of the fantastic, from "Ghostbusters" to "Godzilla" [see
The City Review article], the city is often reshaped bodily to provide a plausible context for the most fanciful scenarios or characters. From such provocative transformations, we gain insight into the city we know. But lessons no less significant also emerge from movies rooted in the ordinary sphere of the city, in the everyday places of life, work and play.this imperative to connect space, story, and character makes the movie city an incomparable resource to explore the complex web of linkages physical, emotional, imaginative between urban environments and those who inhabit them."

Still from "On The Town"

Jules Munshin, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly on a cable of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1949 movie "On The Town."

"New York and the movies," Mr. Sanders reasoned, " seem made for each other. New York is dynamic, restless - ideal for the constantly moving images that make up a film. It is a city of action, a place where things happen: perfect for a medium that deals so much better with what is seen than what is thought or imagined. It is a city of powerful imagery, of sharp verticals and rushing horizontals, of bright walls and dark shadows and subtle tonalities in between; in the most elemental sense, it makes a good picture. It is a city of fast-paced living, well suited to the brevity of feature films."

Set from "Just Imagine"

In "Just Imagine", a 1930 film, a vision of New York as it might appear in 1980 was created in a miniature set designed by Fox art director Stephen Goosson and miniature supervisor Ralph Hammeras. The 250-by-90-foot set was the most costly special effect ever at the time it was built and included 200-story skyscrapers.

On April 23, 1896, the first movies were shown in America at Koster and Bial's Music Hall on the present-day site of Macy's, Mr. Sanders wrote, adding that over the next decade "most film production in America would concentrate in the heart of Manhattan, within a few blocks of Union and Madison Squares." Many of the first films were known as "actualities" with no plots and no characters. "It is difficult to overstate the impact of these primitive films. They haunt us with the knowledge that what they show is not a stage but an actual place; that the people in them are not actors, but real New Yorkers, that they offer no invented storyline, but ordinary, everyday life. They are, in the end, not about the city: they are the city."

"Coney Island at Night"

"Coney Island at Night," still from 1905 film by Edwin S. Porter

In a 1905 Edison film by Edwin S. Porter entitled "Coney Island at Night," improved film stock enabled the cinematographer to capture the dazzling night display that Mr. Sanders notes had given the resort its reputation as the "Electric Eden." Porter created, Mr. Sanders continued, "something unlike any New York actuality ever made. The magical intent of Coney Island is here perfectly fulfilled: to create an immanent, ethereal world of light and sensation, precursor to Times Square's giant displays. But more so than at Times Square, Coney Island's nighttime landscape complements the plaster architecture of day: not rectangular signboards propped above modest, boxy, commercial buildings, but a delicate tracery of bulbs, draped like glittering necklaces over the romantic structures of a shimmering fairyland. Through the same bluntg, unmediated technique that had recorded the ordinary life of the city, Porter had created a dreamy urban vision in which matter had been utterly dissolved into energy and movement. He had pushed filmic New York toward a sense of magical possibility, as different as imaginable from the mundane, grounded-in-reality approach with which the actualities began. In the near term, ironically, his vision led nowhere."

Still from "What Happened on Twenty-Third Street"

"What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City," 1901 with Florence Georgie

Filmmakers took the streets early. The 1901 film "What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City" showed a couple walking down the street and when the woman stands atop a sidwalk vent her skirts are blown upward and passersby are caught staring at the event, a harbinger of Marilyn Monroe's famous pose decades later.

Art directors at work on set of "Metropolis" Still from "Metropolis"

Art directors Erich Kettelhut, Otto Huente and Karl Vollbrecht working on the miniature set of "Metropolis," left, the 1925 film, in which cars, trains, airplanes and elevators moved in stop-motion animation through a 20-foot long set, part of which is shown in still from movie, right

As films grew in length, filmmakers needed bigger studios and many moved out of Manhattan.

Mr. Sanders provides the following commentary:

"Vitagraph opened its studio on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue in 1905; Edison moved a year later to the Bronx and was joined there by a new Biograph plant a year after that. Many soon moved just across the Hudson, making the sleepy town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, into a major production center from about 1910 to 1919. In the years before America's entry into World War I, vast changes to the industry were under way. Led by Edison, the older film companies banded together to form a restrictive trust, based on their technology patents, that was intent on squeezing out smaller, unaffiliated companies. But the younger independents, it turned out, could not be chased out of the business only out of New York. With names like Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Carl Laemmle, and Louis B. Mayer, this new breed were different from Edison and Porter's generation: mostly Jewish instead of Gentile, mostly showmen and theater owners rather than gadget-oriented inventors. Many had come to moving pictures form New York's garment and fur industries, where predicting next year's trends and being willing to gamble a big investment to be ready when they arrived was an essential skill. Tired of the legal and sometimes physical harassment of Edison's `patent trust,' they boarded trains and headed west. The West Coast's film industry grew explosively in the space of a single decade; no more than a tiny rival to New York in 1911, it accounted for four-fifths of all American production by 1920. New York's own film industry enjoyed a wave of growth in the early 1920s. William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios on East 127th Street and two new Fox studios on Tenth Avenue in the West Fifties brought major production facilities back to Manhattan; even these, though, were dwarfed by the studio that Famous Players-Lasky, later called Paramount, was erecting in Astoria, Queens: a massive facility known as `The Big House.' For a few years, the New York industry seemed poised for a comeback: the arrival of electric-arc lamp shooting suddenly made California's glass-roofed stages obsolete, and enclosed stages like those of New York's `sunless temples' were clearly the wave of the future. But lower land and labor costs and the simplicity of set construction and maintenance afforded under California's benigh climate continued to confer a decided advantage.The ability to take advantage of spectacular locations remained an important reason why New York's film industry continued to flourish through the 1920s, though on a smaller scale than Hollywood's. Location shooting itself had grown far easier. Movie cameras had achieved a mature level of reliability with the rugged, lightweight, hand-cranked Bell & Howell models that were now the industry standard. Film stock had improved to the point where only a few reflectors were needed to ensure a clear and consistent outdoor exposure."

"Sound changed everything," Mr. Sanders observed:

"First, it brought on the sudden demise of New York.When the rumble from nearby elevated trains seeped through the studio's thin walls, production shifted across the river to the massive Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street. Then blasting started at an adjacent construction sight.the arrival of talking pictures after the tumultuous reception of Warner's third sound film, The Jazz Singer, in late 1927 entrenched production in Los Angeles more firmly than ever.Without modern stages, New York's feature film industry soon dwindled. An evocative phrase, `mike stew,' described the problems of the earliest microphones, which seemed to pick up everything but the actors' voices. If the cameras could no longer go to New York, the answer was clear: bring New York to the cameras.an artificial New York would arise. Unable to shoot in the real city, the studios would simply build a city of their own.The rise of a genuine, mythical New York on film was the unexpected consequence of a second revolution brought on by sound. They talked. Talk meant dialogue.someone had to write all that dialogue.It was thus in a state of near-desperation that `an SOS was beamed to the East,' as the writer Budd Schulberg later recalled, to find novelists, journalists, playwrights anyone who might be able to write movies. Perhaps the director Josef von Sternberg summed up the predicament most succinctly, noting that the studio bosses `knew what they wanted, but didn't know how to spell it.'"

New York City in the 1920's was emerging as the center of culture and sophistication, but the Great Crash of 1929 would cast a pall. Half of the city's Broadway theaters were dark in 1932 and the lure of lucrative offers from Hollywood began to sway much of the literary crowd. Mr. Sanders quotes Harry Warner as describing authors as "schmucks with Underwoods" and writer Herman Mankiewicz as describing Hollywood as "goddamn lotus land." "For high-minded critics like Edmund Wilson and George Jean Nathan," Mr. Sanders continued, "it was an outrage: an entire American literature going unwritten while some of the country's best authors cavorted amidst the swimming pools and starlets, churning out routine scenarios. For the film critic, Pauline Kael, on the other hand, it was a boon, responsible for the special genius of 1930s Hollywood comedies and, indeed, for infusing all of that decade's films with a certain sophistication and spirit. But it is possible to suggest another effect of this disapora: feeding the imaginative wellspring for a mythic, bigger-than-life movie New York. The city's sense of infinite possibility made it an ideal platform from which to generate new and ever more extraordinary stories, people and situations. There was perhaps another motivation. Spending time in an imaginary New York, a place that was everything the real city had been and more, could constitute a kind of secret revenge on their current circumstance. The writerscould turn around their disdain for their plush prison, Los Angeles, by making every one of its perceived limitations the impetus for an enhanced New York. Los Angeles's horizontal endlessness, for instance, would be avenged by movie New York's overwhelming verticality. Los Angeles's sleepy boulevardswould be retaliated against with an imaginary New York street life that surpassed almost anything the real city could offer. The quiet landscape of Los Angeles's bungalows or the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley would be shattered by the backlot cries of the Italian hurdy-gurdy man, the Irish cop, the Jewish pushcart vendor, as if packing, by scripted instruction, all of New York's human diversity onto a single block.The dream city would burn most brightly after dark, would indeed seem to live by night, as if to exorcise Los Angeles's dreary early-to-bed Puritanism.

Still from "The Fifth Element"

In the 1997 film, "The Fifth Element" (see The City Review article), Kevin Mack and Wayne Hang created a digital matte painting based on production art by Jean-Claude Mézières of the harbor of New York City in 2259 when sea levels had dropped and made the city virtually landlocked. The film also was noted for its taxis that cruised the skies between skyscrapers used a computer technique known as "motion control" created by Digital Domain, a visual effects group supervised by Mark Stetson.

"For the art directors, the city's possibilities outshone remembrance. Whatever their memories of the real place, it was the new city, still growing in spectacular ways, that ignited their imaginations," Mr. Sanders wrote. "Many prominent Hollywood art directors were themselves former New Yorkers, notably Cedric Gibbons and Van Nest Polglase, respective heads of MGM's and RKO's art departments," he added. The climatic scene of Cecil B. DeMille's 1930 film, Madam Satan, was a masquerade ball held in a dirigible crusing over New York and it showed guests boarding the dirigible from some high skyscraper mooring mast, obviously inspired by the recent proposal for such a mast atop the Empire State Building then under construction.

Publicity still from "Rear Window"

In this publicity still for "Rear Window," the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film (see The City Review article), the director poses with James Stewart and Grace Kelly overlooking the movie's famous courtyard set of a rear yard in Greenwich Village.

In his chapter entitled "On the Town," Mr. Sanders addresses the importance of the "establishing" skyline shot of New York:

"the skyline prepares us emotionally, viscerally for the place we are about to enter. It is a cinematic passport, a rite of passage that may last only a few moments but sets us up for the civic hyperreality that lies in store. Forget what you know of real life, it tells an audience, or even the real city you call New York. Grand and strange as that city might be, it still operates by worldly rules. This city is a different king of place altogether. Is the real New York wild? In Broadway (1929) we are introduced to movie New York by a giant Bacchus striding among the towers of Times Square, who then breaks open a jeroboam of champagne and douses the entire district with it, laughing madly. In Crime Without Passion (1934), the opening sequence designed by Slavko Vorkapich shows the downtown skyline animated by the Three Furies complete with flowing gowns, beautiful bodies, and ghastly faces who fly among its towers, smash its windows, and screech hideously as various inhabitants succumb to acts of passion and murder. Or recall the delicious anticipation of the establishing shot of New York that appears midway through `Crocodile' Dundee (1986). The first half of the film has presented Dundee's mastery of the Australian outback, full of terrors at every turn. Yet on seeing the Manhattan skyline, accompanied by distant sirens, we can only smile with delight: now this, we say to ourselves, is a jungle."

Still from "Beneath The Planet of Apes"

In the 1970 movie, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," the ruins of the New York Stock Exchange are underground. Another movie in the "Planet of the Apes" series was memorable for a scene showing the Statue of Liberty's torch protruding from a beach.

In a discussion of the Emerald City of "The Wizard of Oz," Mr. Sanders analyses the magical fascination with skyscrapers and argues that we "know the skyscrapers to possess an astonishing emotional resonance, a capacity to mesmerize us that plainly transcends their commercial and technological origins":

Still from "Independence Day"

The Statue of Liberty also was used to startling effect in the 1996 movie, "Independence Day." A five-foot-high foam replica of the statue was laid on its side and shot against a miniature set of the Lower Manhattan skyline and about 30 other layers of film including fire and smoke elements and alien spacecraft

"In the end, the Manhattan skyline forms one of the most expressive urban groupings ever created. For decades, it has engendered astonishingly personal responses from millions of individuals, who have somehow seen in its towers the embodiment of a remarkable range of human feelings and impulses: of aspiration and struggle, of foreboding and transcendence, of an eerie sense of the future and a haunting sense of the past. If this emotional impact has been relatively underexplored, it is perhaps because it has less to do with the shape of buildings themselves than the imaginative interplay between buildings and people which is the very stuff of the movie city, of course, even those buildings and people are sometime to be found only a place `over the rainbow.' In fact, the very unearthliness of the Emerald City prompts the notion that the best place to start might be in the most fantastic zones of the filmic city, those places where the skyscraper's worldly origins have been most completely stripped away, where the skyline itself has been transformed most elastically. It may be in just these most unreal and fabular New Yorks cities of bizarre creatures and superhumans, of projected futures and invented histories that , ironically, we come closet to the very human impulses to which the skyline gives such striking form. Perhaps no moment in the filmic city and certainly no shot of the actual skyline so effectively reenacts that surge of emotion as this first sight of the Emerald City. In that gleaming skyline, they see the fulfillment of their dreams.These towers will somehow change their lives. Magical events call for magical settings. Through a kind of urban grace, the skyline of New York in one sense simply the overscaled product of technology and real estate became the locus of one of the most potent collective emotional experiences in the life of America. Into Manhattan's towers were focused the hopes and dreams of millions, until the very girders and facades were permeated and charged with a sense of human possibility, as the skyline's own skyward aspirations became fused with the personal yearnings of millions. The dream citylets us share that transactive spark. Of course, much of the scene's seductive power lay in seeing the skyline as a distant prospect. From afar, the composition could be taken in as a whole, its shape seeming clear and purposeful. The broad view offered the skyline without any exposure to its interior reality."

Still from "Midnight Cowboy"

In the 1969 movie, "Midnight Cowboy," Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, and Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, try to cross West 58th Street and Ratso yells at a cab "Hey, we're walking here" in a classic jaywalking sequence

"One of the most powerful visions of the movie city ever created," Mr. Sanders wrote, "King Kong grew largely from the mind of one man: Merian C. Cooper, aviator, adventurer, and filmmaker, best known for his celebrated wildlife movies and large and dangerous animals, shot on location in distant parts of the world. Back in New York in the late 1920s, Cooper wandered the streets, hatching a new idea: a film about a giant gorilla, three or four times the size of any real one, discovered on a remote Pacific island. But he could not imagine a suitably spectacular climax what he liked to call, in reference to the 1925 epic Ben-Hur, a `chariot race.' Late one afternoon in February 1930, as he stepped out of his midtown office, Cooper heard the sound of an aircraft engine, and glanced up just as the setting sun glistened off the wings of a plane playing near the New York Life Insurance Building." Mr. Sanders quotes Mr. Cooper as stating that he saw in his mind his gorilla perched atop the building and thought that "if I can get the gorilla logically on top of the mightiest building in the world then have him shot down by the most modern of weapons, the airplane, then no matter how great he was in size, that gorilla was doomed by civilization. And I remember saying aloud to myself,' `Well, if that isn't a chariot race, I don't know what is.'"

Still from "The Naked City"

In Jules Dassin's 1948 movie, "The Naked City," a murder suspect played by Ted de Corsia races up the very long walkway of the Williamsburgh Bridge in a climatic chase that took three weeks to film.

"As Cooper's fantastic concept moved toward production, the site of the climatic ascent kept changing keeping pace with the city's dizzying upward growthNew York's skyscrapers seemed designed not for human beings the relatively minuscule creatures who filled the buildings' interiors and required mechanical devices to reach their upper floors but for some sort of new race who might activate the towers' overscaled form in a way that ordinary humans could not. Such was the perfect rightness of Kong. He was the first of a series of fantastic characters, found only in the dream city and possessed of powers beyond those of ordinary men, who could release the latent possibilities of these structures in a way unavailable to the city's everyday inhabitants. In his climb from the dense streets below to the airy sky above, Kong brought to life the aspiration of the building itself."

Mr. Sanders observes that "Kong's rampage through Manhattan was accomplished with a combination of miniatures and stop-action cinematography, under the direction of Willis `Obie' O'Brien," adding that "Kong's height of eighteen feet, impressive enough in the film's Skull Island sequences, suddenly seemed insufficient when he reached Manhattan.For the city shots, Kong was quietly scaled up to twenty-four feet, with the hope that no one would notice the change halfway through the film. The scene of Kong destroying the Sixth Avenue Elhad its origins in Cooper's memories of the Third Avenue El, which used to keep his sister awake at nights. `I used to think I'd love to rip the damn thing down,' Cooper later recalled, `so when I decided I needed another sequence of Kong in Manhattan, I thought wouldn't that be a helluva scene to tear up one of those things.'"

Production still from "The Fountainhead"

Background mural being put in place behind Raymond Massey who played the imperious architectural patron, Mr. Wynand in the 1949 film "The Fountainhead"

Mr. Sanders writes incisively about the city and the movies. Among the many films he analyzes are "Rear Window," "The Fountainhead," "Midnight Cowboy," "The Naked City," "Broadway Melody," "42nd Street," "All About Eve," "On the Waterfront," "The Best of Everything," "The Apartment," "Prisoner of Second Avenue," "The Out-of-Towners," "Rosemary's Baby," and "West Side Story."


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