(This post previously appeared in a recent issue of British Cinematographer)
I grew up in New York City – in one of the outer boroughs, to be exact – and believe me, I was Brooklyn when Brooklyn wasn’t cool. The Borough of Churches was the fourth largest city in the U.S. for most of my life there and though it provided the greatest of memories and character building experiences, I consider myself lucky for making it out of the place unscathed. This’s not to disparage my lovely parents and extended family, my great friends, good schools or my pleasant, middle class neighborhood. What it does take down is the physical condition and inept governance of the broader city during the tumultuous period of 1968-1975.
People forget how vast swaths of New York were filthy, falling apart, riddled with crime and chaotically unforgiving. But what’s interesting now is how certain movies of that era captured exactly what the atmosphere was like as I moved from fifth grade through high school graduation.
I’ve made Los Angeles my home since 1991. Though I like it very much, whenever I need a taste of the old country I seek out one or another of the following films. There’re many more that could make the list, but these harsh, realistic dramas are the most affecting. As someone who lived it, I assure you that their visuals capture the violent-paranoid-off balance zeitgeist of early ’70’s New York better than any other medium. You might find them depressing. I see them as a reflection of the way it was.
Midnight Cowboy (1969), photographed by Adam Holender, ASC
Shaft (1971), photographed by Urs Furrer
The Panic In Needle Park (1971), photographed by Adam Holender, ASC
The French Connection (1971), photographed by Owen Roizman, ASC
Across 110th Street (1972), photographed by Jack Priestly, ASC
Mean Streets (1973), photographed by Kent Wakeford
The Seven Ups (1973), photographed by Urs Furrer
Death Wish (1974), photographed by Arthur Ornitz, ASC
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974), photographed by Owen Roizman, ASC
Taxi Driver (1975) photographed by Michael Chapman, ASC
Their brutalist photographic style is wholly appropriate to the place and time. Grainy, contrasty and generally cool-toned, they deliver a bracing slap in the face when compared to the softer West Coast treatment that came to represent so much of the same period. Of course, the deteriorating urban landscape had a great deal to do with that, but the light in New York is peculiar to itself. The sun – when it’s out – doesn’t really shine as much as it barges through gaps in the skyline, kicking off the granite, steel and glass before settling in jagged panels on the gray streets below. It changes constantly; each shift brings a new mood. Even in movies that remake the city as a romantic wonderland, you can’t help but feel an unease that anything could happen, even in the daytime. At night, every shadow conceals a threat. Maybe this’s a byproduct of New York’s frantic energy, but the cinematographers of these films exceeded themselves in making those sensations real.
Another contributing factor to their rough-hewn imagery was the less than perfect equipment they were often forced to work with. By the 1970’s New York marked a long tradition of filmmaking, but it still trailed Hollywood in ways related to technology and hardware. If a camera car broke down in Los Angeles, a replacement would be on hand in half an hour. On the East Coast, it would suddenly mean shooting from the back of a pick-up truck. Seat-of-the-pants solutions were a frequent part of the job; to their credit the cinematographers worked it to their advantage. Improvisation also extended to how things were shot on the streets, a necessity enforced by locations that were crowded, difficult to control and running at full speed, around the clock. The resulting tension that comes across in such scenes could not be reproduced anywhere else in the country.
They also tended to employ a minimalist approach that surrendered camera-consciousness to story. This led directors to embrace longer takes in which composition and staging established a slower editorial pace. The effect is mostly subliminal but allows for a freer exploration of the run-down environments in which so many of these films were set.
Finally, the tough challenges of just being present in New York City bred a different way of seeing. Every decade across the history of motion pictures has generated a texture that we associate as the signature look of that era. Much of this is due to the emulsions, lenses, lab practices and so on in use at the time. But what applies here exceeds the characteristics of a smooth contrast curve (made all the more appealing in comparison to many of today’s hyper-sharp digital presentations). In the interest of getting the job done, the generation of cinematographers who shot the New York-based films of the 1970’s pushed, pulled, stretched and repurposed every tool in their kit. They rewrote the rules of what was possible and paved the way for a great deal of what we acknowledge as convention today.
In this time of lockdowns and self-isolation it’s easy to see the past as something enviable, idyllic. While it certainly had its bright moments, these films remind us it was neither. With NYC once again sliding into a disgraceful disarray, I wonder if the young people of today will eventually refer to what we’re shooting now with the same curiosity.
If they do, I hope that only the most pleasing images will have endured – and the most disturbing ones remain where they belong – onscreen.