Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Rivaled only by Los Angeles among cities celebrated in American cinema, New York deserves its own pointedly knowing and satisfyingly chunky essay on films set there. Now the city has one, in the form of Mark Asch’s New York Movies, the latest volume in Little White Lies Magazine’s Close-Ups series of compact movie “pocket guides” published by William Collins. As applied to Asch’s work in particular, the term “pocket guide” is perhaps faint praise. Far more than a mere ready-reference source, his narrative is a masterstroke of pith, nuance, and context, ranging across nearly 100 years of film history, as astute and penetrating in substance as it is breezy and conversational in tone. As if to burnish the point, the editors have included Laurène Boglio’s sardonically topical drawings (e.g., a sullen Donald Trump in a Santa hat accompanying text about his cameo at the Plaza in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) throughout the text and colored the jacket Day-Glo yellow. The result is a robust book in a small package, and a hipster gem in the best way.
Once film editor of Brooklyn Magazine and The L Magazine and now a frequent movie reviewer for Film Comment among other publications, Asch keys on fifty movies, linking most of them thematically as notional double- and occasionally triple-features. He arrays his assessments according to the neighborhoods in which the respective stories occur, save for bravura riffs on Walter Hill’s The Warriors and Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz – movies spanning several boroughs – that bracket the geographical chapters. Asch’s filter is finely calibrated. He mixes consensus choices (like Rear Window, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever, and Manhattan) with more idiosyncratic picks, from grindhouse to avant-garde, that are invariably insightful and provocative (say, Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, and the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time), weaving in references to still more New York-set movies and furnishing a list of suggestions for further viewing. Film buffs, of course, will find authorial decisions to dispute, most likely sins of omission – maybe that of The Apartment, GoodFellas, or An Unmarried Woman, to name a few candidates. But nourishing argument – a quintessential activity of New Yorkers and moviegoers – is a noble literary aim.
The author’s knowledge, sophistication, and articulateness are indisputable. So is his associative ability to search for and illuminate the telling circumstances and durable resonances of the films he selects. In the discussion of Rosemary’s Baby, he notes the irony that Roman Polanski in 1968 had Mia Farrow’s Rosemary drugged and raped (which he apparently did to an underage girl a few years later, similarly benefiting from society’s inclination to deny or excuse) as well as gaslit by Cassavetes’ character (as Woody Allen allegedly manipulated Farrow herself decades thereafter). Regarding Gen-Xers’ resentment of aggrandizing millennials in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, he sees an implicit Gotham dialectic: “Surely at least some of the trust-fund kids who started going to Bushwick’s artisanal pizza parlors during the Bloomberg years are now grumbling about sharing their tables with finance douchebags, and casting their eyes longingly towards that anarchist bookstore café a few more L stops into Ridgewood.” And the point of Spike Lee’s “joyously polyphonic” Do the Right Thing, says Asch, is not so much to heed the title’s imperative as it is to “value monologue over dialogue – to think about individuals, when the film is about a block.”
New York Movies brims with probing observations. Yet for all of Asch’s snark and wit, his deepest sentiments are affection and warmth, towards both movies and the city. Melding the idea and the reality of New York, he supplies an elegant coda: “There’s no place like New York, but of all the fantastical things the city can be, it’s also home.”