The Maneros sit too closely at the table in Saturday Night Fever, impinged on by their small home and their small world.

Ralph Garcy gets into school in Fame, apparently positioning him for upward mobility.

In Saturday Night Fever Tony works in a paint store, suggesting the limits of opportunity for a young male without any higher education

The Brooklyn Bridge looms between Tony and Manhattan in Saturday Night Fever, signaling the distance between his world and that of cosmopolitan Manhattan.

Tony eats his pizza, showing his ordinariness in his Brooklyn environs.

Tony walks the streets of Brooklyn, restricted by his environment.

Tony is the king of the disco, its center of attention.

Tony and Stephanie rehearse, expressing their natural chemistry.

In New York, New York Liza Minelli and Robert DeNiro meet on VJ-Day, beginning their troubled romance in the center of the world.

The big band that ushers in V-J day also ushers in the end of an era in popular music

New York, New York: Jimmy auditions in Brooklyn, but is too hip for even that outer borough.

Jimmy and Francine discuss her impending departure as she gets ready to hit the road with a band.

Jimmy jams, playing the music he loves but failing to prosper by doing so.

New York, New York: Francine's career ascends as she enters the recording studio and the world of mass communications.

Fame: Coco and Bruno wisely discuss their futures while walking in Times Square, mapping out their recording careers.

Fame: Times Square serves as a dance stage for the students.

Fame: Leroy's English teacher confronts him, and we later find that Leroy is functionally illiterate.

Leroy shows the despair of his living conditions, indicating the enormous class differences among the students.

Fame: Bruno's taxi-driving father attempts to direct his son towards more commercially viable music.

Fame: Montgomery develops his acting abilities in hopes of a career after high school.

All That Jazz: Joe Gideon assesses his aspiring dancers, expressing his power and his astute judgment.

All That Jazz: Joe is abraded for his slowness in producing his large-budget film, a film akin to the Bob Fosse-directed Lenny.

Network: Howard Beale and Max Shumacher drink and discuss the glory days of network news. As we come to see, those days are long past.

Spaces of aspiration

As moments in films like Fame and Saturday Night Fever affirm upward mobility, crime and economic despair visibly occur in areas that are navigable from the center of Manhattan but which are distinctly different spaces. This vision well expresses the ways in which global cities are not only emblematic of uneven development on a global scale; they also reference such variations on a regional scale. In this geographical pattern, one may be physically near those who prosper, but still may not have access to the means by which prosperity occurs. These films emphasize that areas related to central Manhattan define the spaces of aspiration. But these areas are distinct. As Saskia Sassen tells us, gentrification from the mid-1970s onward occurred in distinct areas, leaving districts that were contiguous to these zones of wealth in what is, in effect, a different world.

“The expansion of the number of professionals, especially in the high-income segment working and living in Manhattan, has been a central fact in the gentrification of several parts of the city. It is evident in Manhattan and certain areas of Brooklyn where once poor and middle-income neighborhoods now contain highly priced commercial and residential buildings… There is a ring of poverty that runs through Northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, and much of Northern Brooklyn.”[26]
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In such a model, one that defines access and not proximity to certain areas as a key element of social mobility, to aspire without access is a strategy destined to result in failure. For the characters in these films who perform, lack of access to the electronic means of dissemination means to have a work-life that is severely constrained in terms of broad audience and remuneration.

In the films of this essay, to succeed is not necessarily a matter of talent but a matter of insinuating oneself into the spaces of success. But none of the films offers a well-articulated route, perhaps showing us the uncertainty of economic life where historical means of mobility are foreclosed. This view of New York has the effect of narrowing its corridors of power to some office buildings in central Manhattan. In this post 1975 world, where access to wealth is far from fluid, a family like the Maneros in Saturday Night Fever is largely boxed in by their home, neighborhood, and lack of access to places that might serve as a way out of those restrictions. Tony rarely goes to Manhattan, and apparently neither his friends nor his parents go there at all. This is a world where class is a binding economic and geographic state, where the trains lead into Brooklyn but do not seem to lead out. Tony’s father does not bother to exit his confining house because he knows there is little opportunity “out there.”

This vision relates well to the spatial reconfiguration of the city articulated in the late 1970s. As New York sought to recover from a long period of manufacturing decline, its growth came in a fairly restricted network of sectors and in the area of corporate services most dynamically. By 1989, those services provided twice the amount of employment they had in 1950. These included legal services, management consulting, accounting, and other means of serving those in financial services. And while that portion of the economy grew, it did not do so in a notable way. As a result of the increase in the corporate services sector’s relative wealth, a real estate boom occurred, both in office buildings and in residential property. These increases in property value took place largely within the core of Manhattan. Poorer residents found themselves squeezed between gentrification and a related phenomenon of building abandonment. For example, in Fame, the abject circumstances of two African American and Puerto Rican central characters (Leroy and Ralph, respectively) are affirmed by their living in the deserted streets of the Bronx. In the Bay Ridge of Saturday Night Fever, gentrification would make its mark over the next decade, and the question for downwardly mobile families like the Maneros would be whether or not they could stay in their homes. Both situations point to the fact that traditional union jobs that had provided a living wage for newcomers to New York and their children had dried up. Central Manhattan prospered and the outer boroughs and their inhabitants waited for the wealth to trickle down.[27]

Such circumstances redounded to the disadvantage of those who clung precariously to the outer edges of the middle class. Saturday Night Fever, the first of the chronology covered in this essay, begins with a view of Lower Manhattan shot across the Brooklyn Bridge. As the music increases in intensity, the shot fades to one of a more distant view. As that island retreats into the distance, our camera-eye view takes a right turn, further obscuring our vision of Manhattan. We then track along the Verrazano Bridge linking Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to Staten Island. The shot then zooms in on the modest scale of Bay Ridge before closely observing the side of a subway car moving along the elevated tracks with a flash of steel, a shriek of a whistle, and a screech of the brakes. As the opening shot suggests, Manhattan is far away and perhaps getting more distant every minute.

We then see a pair of shoes on the sidewalk and a pair in a shop window, as the music shifts into the Bee Gees “Staying Alive,” a song made famous by the film and which made the film more famous. The shoes become a kind of fetish object, representing a local vision of style—that of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—and yet another marker of class. Tony is charismatic but lacks any kind of polish or sophistication. We then see a close-up of Tony’s face as he struts and eats pizza, with some sauce finding its way to the corners of his mouth. The camera angles focus on the claustrophobic nature of both the neighborhood and its interior spaces, revealing the locale as a series of rectangles that are defined by their restricted borders. For example, the paint store where Tony works is initially shot in deep focus, making it long and thin, emphasizing how little room there is to move within it. The Maneros’ house is more box-like but no less confining.

This is a self-contained world, working class and destined to stay that way. Or in the case of Tony’s family, they are non-working, as his father is out of his construction job and his brother has stopped being a priest. Only Tony works, and in a job that suggests little mobility and that we know, when Home Depot or some other big-box store opens in near-by Staten Island, may well cease to exist. As we see the social focus of the local young people’s lives, the disco, we also see that they are the center of that world, as a camera focused on Tony films him mid-frame and almost full-bodied as he walks through an adoring crowd. This is his world of fame and fortune, but it is decidedly self-contained.

What is also notable about this film, a fact anticipated by its opening shots, is the way in which Manhattan looms unattainable in the distance. Stephanie, Tony’s dance partner, is employed by a record company in a clerical role and is sexually involved with her boss. She serves as a mediating presence between these two distinct worlds. She is of Bay Ridge but lives and works in Manhattan. When she and Tony dance, their connection is unmistakable. Yet, when they are not dancing, she holds herself remote. Tony is not part of her plan for social mobility.

It is not the club that defines the space of aspiration, however. Tony is already a God there. But to be a king in Bay Ridge is a very limited type of fame in the context of this film. The shots of the streets of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst accentuate the restrictions of the elevated subway lines and the elevated highways, both of which cast shadows on the streets. It is the dance studio that is his specific place of longing. In that mirror, Tony, with Stephanie as his object, can see himself as worthy of adulation. This scene in the mirror is implicitly opposed to the scene in which he frames himself in his bedroom mirror with a picture of Al Pacino juxtaposed against his own face. In this earlier scene, he pretends to be the actor, chanting “Attica,” as Pacino did in Dog Day Afternoon, as he struts in his black briefs. And while the scene at home defines his desire for a certain type of persona, it is in the realm of the purely imaginative. This is in opposition to the shots of the studio, which emphasize its spaciousness and utility, its distinctness as a place apart. In his practice with this particular partner, Stephanie, it is the dance itself that is qualitatively distinctive, and the studio is a bracketed space that enables this performance. Stephanie is both his very able partner and a symbol of a possible life distinct from the one he lives.

New York, New York offers a somewhat different view of mobility but a related view of the world. It is still focused on aspirations of success in the entertainment industry and that success is oriented around the centrality of New York. Since this is a film shot on soundstages, and in some interior spaces in Los Angeles, it immediately becomes a highly stylized meta-commentary about other films, asking questions about the representation of mobility that frequent film musicals.[28] Its New York employs a vision that eschews notions of the meaning of the built environment in order to comment on the relative plausibility of narratives of romance and success in the big city. Such a tale, then, projects its own vision of relational space onto the plotted emotional relationships. And in New York the disparities between our protagonists become the most visible, as their quests for show business success in New York confirms its nature and cost and therefore the terms of each character’s relative talents and aspirations.

The film begins on V-E Day at the end of World War II, presumably a moment which projects a future era of great possibility. We meet our main characters in the center of a massive celebration in the “center of the world”—Times Square. This film takes as its point of departure the postwar world and all the social and economic changes that would occur in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These include the rise of youth culture and the mass phenomenon of rock and roll. But it also includes the residual prominence of singers from the Big Band era who further homogenized their sound, such as Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. This cultural shift forms a backdrop for the film. As the film opens, we find a massive ballroom with hundreds of dancers while musicians who represent Tommy Dorsey and his band play. Both Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) and Francine (Liza Minnelli) are musicians, one a saxophone player and one a singer. As the movie develops, its love story becomes a tale about artistic standards and worldly success.

Their first gig is in a club in Flatbush, Brooklyn, but far from Tony’s Bay Ridge. The club, a stylized locale, is a low-ceilinged, red-walled, claustrophobic space. But even in this outlying district, Francine’s influence is necessary in order for Jimmy to be hired and for him to please a mainstream audience. When she leaves New York to tour with the Frankie Hart Big Band, we find Jimmy in the Brooklyn club, jamming with other musicians but with no one dancing or milling around. As we hear of Francine’s departure, Jimmy and her agent, played by Lionel Stander, walk out on to the patently “unreal” street. The scene ends with Jimmy playing the saxophone beneath a halo of light, with a lamppost centered in the high-angle shot.  This vision of Jimmy plaintively blowing his horn provides a wistful end to part one of the film, and one that shows Jimmy’s limited range of impact, as this halo suggests only relative star power—a spotlighted player who plays for himself and seeks no particular audience except that of the cognoscenti.

Like Tony in Saturday Night Fever, Jimmy is lost in Brooklyn. Unlike Tony, he endeavors to get out not because of ambition but for love. We next find him on a dirt road somewhere, two large suitcases in hand. He walks down the road, encumbered, lost, and with no particular destination but Francine. We are clearly supposed to see the band as in a kind of exile, more remote from centers of communication than Brooklyn, as Francine and Frankie pursue a type of commerce that touches upon art but is not art, which produces money but not so much of it.

When Francine becomes pregnant, she leaves the band. As we see Jimmy and the new singer failing on the road—the billboard informs us of their cancelled shows—we see Francine in a studio in New York recording in the styles of various better–known pop singers, as her manager and a recording executive plot her success. Jimmy returns home but does not enter the world where Francine is in the process of succeeding. When he returns to their apartment, the couple is generally shot in mid-range with the other person sitting across the room. Professionally, he almost immediately sits in with a group of African American musicians who play hard bop, a type of music in which there is no place for Francine, a music of men with a small and dedicated audience. Jimmy’s New York is a hipster’s place and not a place of commerce. That these two New York spaces—the place of jazz and the place of pop—can co-exist so close to one another shows us the various niches of the industry in which Jimmy and Francine work and in which they occupy radically different places. Thus, Jimmy’s Harlem leads nowhere in particular, while Francine’s midtown recording leads to Broadway and Hollywood. She insinuates herself into that space with alacrity. For her, to be in the center of New York is to succeed, and to succeed in this way leads to a wider scale of fame and adulation.

Fame operates with a related view of success, but with a more nuanced view of the value of the various spaces of New York. It is actually set in the relative center of Manhattan, in the dilapidated structure of the School for the Creative Performing Arts at 120 West 46th Street.[29] Times Square at this point is an unsavory district that clearly lacks the glamour it had in the past. But by 1980 it is in the process of being transformed. This transformation is material in the fact that when the film was shot, this high school was in the process of being moved uptown. In 1976, the year after default, the 42nd Street Redevelopment Association was formed, with the intention of redeveloping the western end of that street. And while this project never came to fruition, it did spark discussion of the contours of the new Times Square.

By 1981, a year after the release of this film, the redevelopment began to take shape. The ultimate result of this process was a redefinition of the region that all but eliminated the blight that had marked Times Square in the 1960s and 1970s.[30] But it also altered the character of the district and its status as a haven for liminal social actors. Gone were the idlers, the homeless, the sex-workers, and others seeking sexual partners. Scenes such as those that were so prominent in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver became less common in films and then vanished. Fame is part of that pre-1981 epoch, showing how in the old New York, the public marketplace allowed for all kinds of figures and how art need not be coupled with commerce in order to achieve relevance. While Times Square previously constituted the image of the city in decline, subsequently this sanitized district has been compared to the sterility of Disneyland and noted for the preemptive policing of its private force.[31]

In a key scene we see two of our featured students, Bruno and Coco, walking in Times Square at night to discuss their future project as principals in a popular rock band. We locate Times Square initially with the benign and visually compelling red of a huge neon Coca Cola sign. The music shifts to upbeat popular funk; the montage goes from close ups of hot dogs on the rotating grill at the Orange Julius restaurant to shots that capture the square from the south and show movie marquis’ that feature not porn titles, but those of first-run Hollywood films, including Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. As they walk and talk, and we watch from a slightly distanced and skewed frame, Coco tells of her aspirations: “I’m just killing time here waiting for my opportunity. It might be a movie or a Broadway musical. But it’s coming. I keep my eyes open.” This district is one that serves as part of the urban color that marks this distinctive school. This Times Square is far from sanitary or beautiful; but it is not menacing.

Fame chronicles a place predicated on the idea of education leading to social mobility and does so in a space that once symbolized New York. In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and in Midnight Cowboy, the place retroactively symbolized urban despair. But soon it will symbolize the status of New York as a post-modern global city, where the iconic status of Times Square will have little to do with its 1970s incarnation. Commercially it is a location marker emptied of its history. And in Fame, despite the crowded school and the relatively central location, this is very much a movie about art and isolation. The school stands as a mediating space between the various places these students come from and a projected place in the world where their talents will distinguish them.

One of the characters, named Leroy, is an African American dancer who has difficulty reading. He is the key figure of the underclass in this film, so he becomes the extreme case of whether this educational institution can produce success. A jump cut takes us from the school to Leroy’s neighborhood and presumably his home beneath the elevated train tracks, in the smoldering garbage. This is outside space defined by apparently homeless people and utter squalor, a New York vision of hell, but one that seems self-contained. This space is different from that of relative possibility. Here Leroy finds a discarded newspaper and haltingly attempts to read it.

Such an abrupt shift of tone and relative safety of place elevates the school as a zone of aspiration, but in doing so reminds us of the degree to which Leroy-like characters rely on it and are served by it in very limited ways. Again, we are provided a bifurcated class system, a system to which the student Bruno may define an exception, though the life of a New York City taxi driver seems barely middle-class and something of an index of downward mobility. In fact, as we see the demographic movements occurring within the city, it is likely that characters like Bruno will move farther and farther from Manhattan as the years pass. Perhaps this explains his father’s desire to move him from his interest in solo electronic music composition to playing in a pop band.

Despite the aspirations of its teen-aged stars, Fame also frames its vision of education, at least among those who are middle-class and above, in relation to a lingering and insistent fear of downward family mobility. Such a view of life’s prospects and vision of education captures the economic insecurity of the period. This is true in many cases, but particularly in what we see of the students Doris and Montgomery. Doris is from Brooklyn and the object of an overly-engaged mother’s concerns. Her mother attends the girl’s audition and is marked by both her investment and her anxiety. In their dark and claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment, when the school calls to inform Doris that she has been accepted, her mother, Naomi, exclaims, “We’re in.” But throughout the film, Doris is the recipient of her mother’s expressions of fears regarding her future.

Montgomery has a central address in Times Square, but it is difficult to see he lives more genteel life. He lives alone since his mother is a touring actress, and he has no furniture. While he has no parent to express anxiety over his future, he lives the prospect of downward mobility since his actress mother fails to provide him with anything but the bare essentials. As an adolescent on his own, Montgomery seems unlikely to achieve success outside of show business, and his prospects within that arena are extremely limited.

Similarly the wealthiest of the students, Lisa, becomes pregnant by Leroy and must face the implications of her possible motherhood. As she addresses the nurse at the abortion clinic, her entire monologue is devoted to the career she expects to have. Then only in her last sentence does she announce that a baby has no place in her plans. She is shot inside an upscale clinic that inhabits a former East Side mansion. The space looks much like that of her home. The camera begins with a wide shot but gradually zooms to a shot of her filling the frame, suggesting her extreme self-absorption. These various but related visions of the students’ homes define the environment of the high school as exceedingly competitive and fraught with the anxiety of making it since home life offers few alternatives.

The other two films, All that Jazz and Network, are far less interested in spaces of hope and aspiration. Though the other three films are almost solely photographed indoors—recognizing the use of indoor venues for the outdoor scenes in New York, New York—these productions reduce exterior shots even further. The interior space they emphasize is workspace. Thus, All That Jazz is similar to Saturday Night Fever in its dwelling on the workspace of the theater and dance studio, but most of the film is shot among those who have already been cast in a musical. Tony has not even attended an open audition, an occasion we see in the opening scene of the All That Jazz. The film opens with the song “On Broadway” accompanying a montage of a mass call for dancers for a Broadway show directed and choreographed by the Bob Fosse-character named Joe Gideon. Though it is reminiscent of a scene we might see in the Saturday Night Fever sequel, it is distinctive in that it is shot from the point of view of the talent appraiser rather than the appraised. As a result, the stage is expansive, the scenes are cut down to pieces of dance, and the individuals are virtually faceless. We see a succession of them but only the dancer with whom Joe will eventually have sex, with, Victoria, is given much distinct screen time.

In addition, a group that includes the show’s producer, Joe’s daughter, his ex-wife, and two other producers sit in the back of the auditorium commenting on the performances. All have some intimate relationship with Joe. He consults with them though ultimately chooses a cast based on his own disposition, a fact that confirms his power and confidence. This is a largely biographical tale, a biography in which all elements orient around work. Joe spent a boyhood in burlesque. A dancer in his mid-years, he is now casting a show. He is also editing a film he has directed, a parallel to the Fosse film Lenny, for which that director won an academy award. This whirl of activity as well as the apparently inevitable movement from stage to film and back again reveals a world in which virtually all space is that of entertainment work—a kind of hurry-up process in show business in which those that have stature occupy all positions possible, so that no aspirants can break through. The space of aspiration here is the theater stage of the audition, but unlike in Saturday Night Fever, there is no other space but workspace for those who seek success in entertainment. We see no local activities; we have no sense of lives outside of work. Joe’s drive is so great that it literally kills him.

Network paints a similar picture of worklife, but in this satire the film actually represents the driving force that manages the lives of all who aspire and all who succeed. This is a corporate drama about the decline of ethics and the increasing dominance of a business model that cares nothing for product, only profit. Howard Beale and Max Schumacher represent throwbacks to an earlier era of integrity. This film, like All That Jazz, has no spaces of aspiration. In a well-articulated hierarchy, the managers seemingly have local authority, but corporate power reigns. Thus, those who emerge from outside of the corporate hierarchy to succeed do so in limited ways and only for as long as their corporate bosses let them. We see few exterior spaces in a film largely set in mid-town Manhattan at the corporate headquarters of USB productions, an entity that controls who goes in and who goes out, both physically and electronically.

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