Ask a director behind one of your favorite New York movies about what inspired their cinematic portrait of the city and they’ll inevitably talk about another New York movie. Adam McKay will go on about a Martin Scorsese film, Radha Blank will pay tribute to John Cassavetes, Mario Van Peebles will celebrate Spike Lee. Some directors really grew up alongside Manhattan maniacs, and others just grew up watching them on a screen; either way, they’re part of a tradition of movie-making that stretches back decades. Here are 11 directors paying tribute to the art of the NYC film.
Peter Ramsey (Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse) on The Sweet Smell of Success
The Sweet Smell of Success captures my fantasy of the classic New York more than anything else: the attitude, the edge, the darkness, the sharp attitude, the wit that I associate with New York. I first encountered it in the early nineties, when a friend quoted some lines from it. The instant I saw it, I was like, how did I get along without this movie in my life before? I think it was one of the few movies at the time that really went out on the streets of New York to shoot. And you can feel it. All the club interiors, the way the camera moves and just the rhythm of that film. It’s got a life that feels like it flows from inside to out on the streets, the same kind of a slightly restless energy. And the dialogue. You can quote that stuff until the end of the world. It’s so snappy and mean.
The Sweet Smell of Success is available to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu.
Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version) on Shadows
When I was making the movie, a lot of people initially discouraged me from shooting on 35-mm. film. But I was trying to make a film in the spirit of the filmmakers who inspired me: Sidney Lumet, Robert Townsend, Hal Ashby, Kathleen Collins, John Cassavetes. In Shadows, Cassavetes was shooting out on the street, in black-and-white, with a heavy camera. It’s so raw you can just taste the city. When I first saw it, I knew it was a narrative, but so much of it had the urgency of a documentary. That’s what I wanted the camera in The Forty-Year-Old Version to feel like: someone peering over his shoulder, eavesdropping on a conversation. So it isn’t so much about setting up this beautiful shot — it’s a lot of raw handheld-camera movement. Sometimes people are walking on one another’s lines, but that’s what happens in real life. Shadows is considered a little problematic because Cassavetes cast two people who were not Black as Black characters. But the fact that this was Cassavetes’s first work, and that he was able to capture what felt like authentic voices, I was so inspired by that. I saw myself in this film, but I also saw the journey of these three different New Yorkers within the same family, all trying to figure out who the hell they are. So there’s a crisis of identity that you don’t generally see — especially for the Black character, since we’re usually there to help solve other people’s problems.
Shadows is available to stream on HBO Max and to stream on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.
Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) on She’s Gotta Have It
With She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee hands you a bottle of wine that turns out to be a Molotov cocktail: It starts out as this yummy flavorful red and then it blows up. If you had paid attention to She’s Gotta Have It, you would not have been surprised by the ’92 uprisings, where people had just had enough. And in Do the Right Thing, you saw the steam coming out of the pot. You’d go, Okay, I understand what’s going on now: Some people are not getting the trickle-down of the trickle-down justice. Trickle-down economics is not working; Reaganomics is not working. And if you watch New Jack City, there’s a scene where Wesley says, “With this Reaganomics, people are miserable, and we’re going to make a profit out of them and sell them these drugs.”
She’s Gotta Have It is available to stream on Netflix.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Summer of Soul) on Mo’ Better Blues
The Roots got our thing together in 1991, when we started busking on street corners, playing for change. Club owners would say, “Come and play my nightclub,” so we would get home every night at one or two in the morning, and we’d watch the same movies every time: Cape Fear or Mo’ Better Blues. Back then, I was living my father’s dreams, and my father wanted me to be a serious jazz musician. I thought Mo’ Better Blues was going to be my life: I was going to dress in Italian suits, date artistic women, practice five to ten hours a day, compose at three o’clock in the morning at my piano. There’s a moment that happens at the end of the film in which he has to leave everything behind. And that just haunted me, because I thought: This is the path I’m going in life. But in the end, my Juilliard audition led right to the exact opposite of what my father wanted me to do.
Mo’ Better Blues is available to Tubi, Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Google Play.
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