Sunday, March 16, 2014

Aspirational 70s New York: An Introduction

I am planning to devote a series of posts to what I call 'Aspirational 70s New York,' a consideration of how New York was portrayed in television and movies during this decade (spoiler alert: mostly in movies).  To me, there is something unique about the importance of upward mobility in these films, something that does not happen in contemporary films set in other locales, or even in New York films of the preceding and following decade.  Of course, New York is the city that never sleeps, where you can be king of the hill and/or top of the heap--but that song, too, dates from Scorcese's 1977 film New York, New York, so it proves my point.  Among the movies that I plan to discuss are Shaft (1971), The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall (1977) [possibly also the 1979 film Manhattan], and Saturday Night Fever (1977).  No, that last one was not a typo.  Counter-examples that I also plan to discuss include On the Town (1949), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Wall Street (1987), Moonstruck (1987), Do the Right Thing (1989) and Goodfellas (1990).  That's a lot of movies, but let's set some high aspirations.  Depending on how things go, I may also have something to say about films set in L.A. and/or Boston.

As a quick introduction though, allow me to present the opening credits of two shows from Norman Lear's arsenal of successful sitcoms that demonstrate the opposite ends of the aspirational New York spectrum.  One, starting in 1971, serves almost as a counter-example of what New York is supposed to be because its characters often seem out of their time and place.  You've probably already guessed it:

This is an interesting portrayal of New York.  There is a brief view of Manhattan, with its buildings, but we are quickly swept to the bland, generic housing of Queens, with identical house after house--an indication of a lower-class neighborhood in contrast to the glitz of midtown.  Of course, we also learn a great deal about our characters right away from the lyrics.  They reminisce for the 'good old days,' a time when life seemed simpler and more enjoyable.  But it's worth noting the irony of what they are discussing: the Great Depression, as indicated by the reference to Herbert Hoover.  Even the reference to the LaSalle is potentially tongue-in-cheek.  The LaSalle debuted in the 1920s to much fanfare as a slightly cheaper (but still classy) Cadillac, but because of the Great Depression, sales dropped significantly and the model was discontinued in 1941 (I will wholly admit to drawing on Wikipedia for this information).  Why is this a counter-example to aspirational goals?  Because if the 1930s were the times that Archie and Edith are remembering as best, then they are recalling a time when their class status would have more likely decreased exponentially, particularly since Archie is a blue-collar worker--I somehow doubt that their families owned a LaSalle, which was a signifier for car nostalgia in later years.  That they now feel as though they are suffering from some kind of identity crisis is particularly acute with the references to, 'And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men.'  What has happened now?  As the show amply demonstrates, Archie's understanding of his place and role in society is rapidly changing and being constantly challenged.  He is often shown to be an anachronism, much like his theme song indicates.

You have probably already guessed my next example from the Norman Lear sitcom canon that demonstrates the diametric opposite:

This is a great theme song, by the way.  Possibly one of the all-time best.

Anyway, let's contrast this one to All in the Family.  Take its portrayal of New York, for instance.  Instead of panning through and moving away from it, images of famous sites in Manhattan permeate this version, scattered throughout as the theme song is heard.  One of my favorite moments is around 0:13, where you see Louise wipe a tear away.  Why?  Because they have moved on up, to the East Side, of course--it's amazing how geographically specific this song is.  Also, the ability to move is extremely significant (and will come up in other discussions of aspirational New York).  In fact, one crucial recurring topic in representations of New York characters is precisely their mobility: some characters travel with ease through the city, which often demonstrates that they can 'move up' beyond their original class, whereas others are stuck in place, unable to escape the conflicts that hold their lives back.  Imagine, for a moment, if the Jets or Sharks could simply move to another neighborhood in West Side Story (more geographical specificity); then maybe there would be a 'place for us' instead of the tragic end.  Of course they can't, because then it wouldn't be called 'West Side Story,' but that can be a discussion for another day.*

The Jeffersons have moved on up in the sense of their economic class, which leads to a deluxe apartment not only in the sky, but across the bridge from Queens--indeed, during the credits, there is a moment shot from their point of view as they approach Manhattan (0:21), with its distinct skyline and landmarks--unlike AitF, which started in Manhattan, then quickly veered away.  The Jeffersons can even enjoy the nature and greenery of Central Park (0:33), in comparison to the Bunkers' neighborhood, which has few trees.  That this journey is exciting for the characters can be seen from George Jefferson, who is enthusiastically showing his wife the sites as they drive.  His swaggerwalk at the end is also probably one of the best in sitcom history.

There is also an inferred comparison here, since George and Archie were at one point neighbors--The Jeffersons was, of course, a spin-off from AitF.  George's move to Queens was already a 'move on up' from his origins in Harlem (and extending back, a significant move up from his parents, who were sharecroppers); the fact that the Jeffersons moved next door to the Bunkers was an important plot element in AitF since Archie and George frequently clashed while their wives commiserated about their hard-headed husbands.  However, this conflict was rooted in a greater one that affected Archie Bunker.  As the AitF episode 'The Insurance is Canceled' (season 2, episode 10) demonstrated, Archie's neighborhood was considered by insurers to be increasingly dangerous because of more crime due to 'shifting demographics'--code, in this case, for more black people moving in (Lear is, of course, criticizing this practice).  That the Jeffersons are able to get away from this 'bad' neighborhood is a testament to their aspirations, while Archie, stuck in the past, is left behind.

There can be no question of the 'blackness' represented in the music for The Jeffersons, particularly the repeated use of the flattened scale degrees, call and response between the singer and choir--creating a gospel effect--and the frequent syncopation, particularly in the bass part.  This song serves as a short-hand both for their upward mobility, but one that remains rooted in their race.  They have not achieved success in spite of their race, they are fiercely proud of it and remain so.  This pride in heritage is another crucial feature of 70s aspirational films: no apologies are made for belonging to a minority group, instead it is accepted and embraced, frequently serving as a source of strength.

*Fun fact: originally, it was supposed to be East Side Story and pit Catholics versus Jews during an Easter/Passover grudge match.  Part of me thinks this would have been a huge flop, but a larger part of me wants to see it anyway.

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