The New York Daily News marks the nadir of the city's financial fortunes. This can also be seen as the transitional moment in the city's economic history.
The restored Kaufman Astoria Studios show the rebirth of New York as a production center, an effect of and a cause for increased use as a location.
Bonnie and Clyde marked the arrival of the New Hollywood Era, ushering in a director-driven economic model.
The Bee Gees album “Staying Alive” anticipated Saturday Night Fever and was part of the trend towards cross-marketing in different media.
Irene Cara sang the hit theme song from Fame to the benefit of the film, while the film also benefitted from the popular music hit.
The Byrds album, The Ballad of Easy Rider, derived from and enhanced the success of the film.
Ralph Garcy shows the limits of stand-up comedy in Fame. We can see the limits of live performance in this film.
RCA introduces television at the 1939 NY World's Fair, signaling a new era in broadcasting and the role of New York City in that world.
The news becomes more and more outlandish in Network. Howard Beale hosts a reality show.
Howard Beale broadcasts to the masses, telling them the news and, later, his views on the news.
Tony Manero flaunts his dancing moves in Saturday Night Fever, revealing his local celebrity, but merely local.
Students in Fame show off their talents in the lunchroom.
Joe Gideon displays the ravages of success in All That Jazz, giving all he has for success in the theater and film.
In All that Jazz Joe edits his film (Lenny) even as he develops his Broadway show. Joe's larger success depends upon the completion of the film.
Network: The UBS network welcomes black radicals to its New York headquarters in hopes of developing a show based on their exploits.
The Gentrified South Street dock area shows the new New York City, a city where tourism is commerce.
This essay treats a group of films shot primarily in New York City from 1976 to 1980 that focus substantially on the entertainment industry. Since the 2011 publication of my book, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s, I have further considered the image and idea of New York in films of that era. [open endnotes in new window] In this essay I extend my discussion to consider these films’ historical salience as they articulate an emergent network of globalized commerce and communication. In historical retrospect, the films seem prescient in their definition of that city as a global center. They also anticipate its further depiction in film and television, whether in the Sex and the City franchise (television 1998-2004, films in 2008 and 2010), the very popular Mad Men (television 2007-), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), even Spike Lee’s under-rated Bamboozled (2000). All these media fictions point to the city becoming or just about to become a place that plays a certain kind of role in world system of entertainment commerce that is dependent on far flung networks of communication
The productions I consider include Network (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977), New York, New York (1977), All that Jazz (1979), and Fame (1980). I am particularly interested in their historically situated depiction of relative space. As any number of cultural geographers—from Henri Lefebvre to David Harvey to Neil Smith—have elaborated, space itself is an elastic concept; it is organized in relation to any number of historical factors. Indeed, Lefebvre insists that space itself cannot be conceived as other than a social category. Space is a vital representational category in all films but particularly enters the narrative of these since they are about the relation between relative proximity and relative effect. Indeed, the way these films articulate discrete and related spaces provides a conceptual map of connections between New York and a range of proximate and far-flung locales.
In considering such spatial relations, I am particularly interested in the way these films articulate a historically-situated depiction of relative space. While I am not proposing a naïvely realist reading strategy, I am making a case for the historicity of these visual texts. As Philip Rosen insightfully asserts in his Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), documentation always entails representation since we have no privileged access to the thing itself. However, relative degrees of mediation exist between represented objects and the thing itself. Towards clarifying distinctive strategies of documentation, Rosen contrasts “preservation” and “restoration,” and his distinction has relevance both for a critic discussing a text’s relation to the past and for a filmmaker plotting how to represent that relation. Film cannot restore the remnants of the past and make them a vital, if ersatz, testimony to the qualities of that object and era. It can, however, in a variety of ways—visual, aural, verbal—re-elaborate a memory of that materiality and embed it in a narrative that apparently evokes the fact of the past.
More salient is film’s ability to preserve, a quality consonant with the nature of film technology and visible at its inception in the late nineteenth century. Given the status of films as works that are explicitly of the period they depict, they tend to act to preserve their moment of conception and production, even as they appear, from the vantage point of the 2000s, to restore a moment now in the historical past. As a critic attempting to elaborate a historical moment and to articulate relations between these objects of mass culture and a network of other cultural and social factors, my concern focuses mostly on how they represent and seem to preserve a period of time in textual form.
Furthermore, since space can be understood as a plastic concept, its representation would of course be sensitive to historical currents. To take the time and locale I am considering here, New York City in the 1970s was very much a locale in flux as its relative connections to proximate and far-flung locales shifted. These films were shot in the years after 1975, which saw New York’s default on its bond payments, an event famously documented in a headline in the New York Daily News about the federal government’s unwillingness to assist:
The default marked the nadir of the city’s fortunes and its new recasting into a “world city” in the service of globalized trade and neoliberal governance. Through an analysis of these films, I will inquire both into the terms of that “rebirth” and the role of popular culture in its delineation, as well as provide a broader discussion of the ways these films map the relative spaces of the city and the relation of certain discrete spaces to a world beyond.
New York’s prominence in these films did not just come about because of a shift in world commerce. After 1966, and particularly after 1969, New York City served as a major site of film production. The reasons for this came about because of a way that film history intersected with urban history. New York City had declined as a manufacturing center in the 1950s and 1960s and also experienced a related flight of the middle class. As a consequence, the prospect of meeting the city’s considerable financial obligations appeared particularly daunting for successive New York City mayors. When the liberal John Lindsay was elected in 1966, then, one of his early acts was to create the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting.
Prior to Lindsay’s initiative, location shoots in New York City for major Hollywood productions were bureaucratically forbidding. Producers were run through a maze of offices in search of multiple permits, and then faced high policing costs, further expenditure in bribes, and various other types of corruption. James Sanders tells us that in 1965 only two features were shot in New York in their entirety. The new Mayor’s Office had an almost immediate impact. As Sanders writes:
This boom in production also resulted in the refurbishing of the old Astoria studio, which reopened in 1975. Film production provided a clean industry to a city that was in the process of losing all types of productive enterprise.
Beyond detailing actions that took place within the New York City bureaucracy, it is worth looking more deeply into an overlap between this intense and successful concentration of films set in New York City and the short-lived but highly distinctive “New Hollywood” period of film production. In terms of film narratives, the fact that New York-based scripts were so vital to the industry signaled the ultimate end of the first phase of the studio system and the rise of a generation of young directors influenced by the French New Wave and the related auteurist school of film criticism. In terms of cinematic predecessors in Hollywood, the relative economic success of some of early director-driven films—such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and the French Connection (1971)—enticed studios to fund other “personal” projects by younger directors, sometimes at their own financial peril.
Technological developments in the 1960s that made cameras and processing equipment lighter and more mobile also encouraged location shoots. Indeed, a more mobile visual style distinguished many of these films from those on-location productions that had preceded them. In the 1960s technological changes allowed for smaller tape recorders and cameras. In the early 1970s the introduction of the decidedly more mobile cameras marked a large leap forward. In the later 1970s, the Steadicam effectively could capture movement and express that movement in less scripted ways than had been possible just ten years before. This overall change in equipment encouraged location shoots, so that the city-as-film-set also became a cheaper alternative to shooting on Hollywood backlots while providing a look that fit with the reigning aesthetic. Rather than discrete parts of the city serving as a soundstage, now the city opened up as one large location.
These NY-based films express various contemporary historical dispositions, including Hollywood’s industrial history, New York’s particular urban history, and broader international economic history. Specifically, the film narratives focus on the entertainment industry and more broadly the domain of mass communications and New York City’s relative place in it. These films divide into those that make extensive use of location shoots—Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Fame (1980)—and those that are almost completely soundstage-bound—New York, New York and All that Jazz; though these two emphatically declare their New York reference. Network (1976) falls somewhere in the middle, with a number of studio shots complemented by a number of discernible New York City locations. And the two films that employ the fewest actual shots of the city are also the most personal projects of this list.
Beyond their obvious focus on the media/entertainment industry, all of the films rewrite conventional film narratives about show business by emphasizing a broader scale of success. Now success must extend beyond the immediate and local: to simply perform before live audiences is not sufficient. All the scripts project outward to a media market defined by reduced definitions of art and expanded visions of commerce. These are films of the moment. It was a time when New York’s place in a broad international system of trade was being enhanced as a result of its extensive and burgeoning means of communication. Those media and their infrastructure were central in transforming a moment of urban decline into a period of selective prosperity and status as a “global city.” The films also explore distinctions among the relative spaces of the metropolis, emphasizing the distance between the regions of the successful and the spaces of those that merely aspire to success. With this kind of narrative emphasis, we are allowed a glimpse of the gentrifying city, the city of world commerce in the process of being formed.
As the films assert a necessary increase in the scale of marketing and distribution of media products, such a view can be seen in terms of a longer historical perspective. Seeking to globally increase marketing and distribution had its basis in early twentieth century film distribution, but it was enhanced significantly by the United States’ central role in the post-World War II international economy. Indeed, the U.S. film industry reasonably represents the relative place of U.S. commerce in general during this period. As a means of creating markets for U.S.-made products, the U.S. entertainment industry extended its network of investments in international radio and television. Gerald Sussman gives statistics for the period:
Such penetration was also taking place in both Europe and Asia. By the 1980’s, Gary Edgerton tells us, that “between 30 and 55 per cent of Hollywood’s advertiser supported revenue came from outside of the U.S.,” showing the persistence of foreign investment. ”
This tendency towards an increasingly global vision of product distribution can also be seen in the shift of the U.S. film industry to the blockbuster approach that began to dominate the by the mid-1970s. By the time the films I am considering were released, Hollywood had largely recovered from the economic slump of the late 1960 and early the 1970s. Its economic recovery then allowed for the rise of the New Hollywood era of film production, in which independent producers and young directors had newly gained power to develop and shape their film projects. But by the mid-decade, the Hollywood paradigm shifted again. In the later decade, studios produced relatively fewer films but sought to maximize profit from each. David Cook indicates:
Key in this approach was Hollywood’s eye towards films that could be pre-sold to international markets. Such a strategy also involved the cross marketing of films and popular music, a phenomenon we can see at work in at least three of these films—Fame and New York, New York, and most successfully in Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gee’s were largely responsible for that score. The song used as the theme music, Stayin’ Alive, was released six weeks before the film, and, by the time of the movie’s premiere was already moving to the top of the Billboard charts. It is no accident that this film was perfect for the largest age segment of the film audience, 12 to 22. Saturday Night Fever was a major hit, while the other two were solid successes, with grosses around $20 million dollars. Fame also benefited from its soundtrack, with the title song receiving an academy award for Best Original Song, as it rose to number 4 on the Billboard charts. These music scores reveal an industry looking to expand its chances of success by creating conditions that allowed for cross-marketing, another lesson that was learned though Easy Rider’s successful use of popular music as a means of capturing a specific demographic.
These films tell of the necessity of one’s disembodied presence in the center of an international grid of communications. Following this logic, all of these films relatively denigrate live performance. For example, in New York, New York, as part of the commentary on the degree of success available to a talented and savvy performer, the director, Martin Scorsese morphs a stage production number into one on the screen, an intriguing meta-commentary on the contemporary terms of market visibility. In Fame, standup comedy is depicted as other than a career in itself; rather, it is valued for its possibility of leading to a television career. Since access to success relies on having one’s form projected through a limited number of networks of communication, the films dramatize the spatial divisions of class within New York and the degree to which those divisions are involved with access to larger markets. To remain on the periphery of the city and industry may consign a performer to relative poverty and obscurity. Such distinctions allow viewers to understand how divisions within a specific urban space have significant implications for an individual’s relative likelihood of transcending that space and becoming re-situated within a larger system of expression and exchange.
New York’s centrality in such a paradigm is enhanced. But this enhancement builds on New York City’s historical status as a center of entertainment, dating back to its nineteenth century emergence as a center of population and commerce. These nineteenth-century entertainments were defined by their immediacy. Plays, concerts, and lectures were performed by individuals in proximity to a crowd and then publicized both through word of mouth and the emerging popular press. Gradually these New York entertainments were marketed and transported to regions beyond, with the relative New York success of performers serving as an imprint of the show’s desirability. These elements were further enhanced by the emergence of a New York-centered advertising industry around the turn of the century, and an industry that burgeoned with the rise of radio after the 1920s. The first commercial radio station was AT & T’s WEAF, and the two major radio networks, NBC and CBS, developed in the twenties and early thirties. NBC preceded its rival; it was spawned by RCA as a means of creating a market for its invention. Television was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
New York also has a significant history as a center of the early film industry, which did not take up residence in California until after 1910. Even when Hollywood became synonymous with commercial film production and distribution after 1920, New York remained an important cog in the industry’s business structure throughout. After World War II, as television became a dominant form of entertainment, TV’s production and business functions were initially centered in New York. This was largely a matter of executives viewing this new mass medium as an heir to radio, so they often employed the same theaters that had been the points of origin for radio shows. Television was also a medium for live drama, as New York provided access to stage actors and its sound stages and theaters provided venues for performance. But as the network era developed in the mid 1950s and economies of scale became the industry standard, the model for production moved from live performance to film and videotape. As a result, television increasingly took advantage of the production facilities available in California. And though New York remained an important city in show business, by the 1970s that centrality was at least in doubt and perhaps in eclipse. Initially New York stood as a center of production and business organization, then was more involved in business than in production, and finally with the increasing internationalization of entertainment capital was involved primarily because of its role as a global trading center.
These films provide an encyclopedic view of the entertainment industry, as they reference any number of popular forms and suggest the further trajectory of each—in New York and in the world beyond. Network depicts the world of television news and entertainment, showing in its satirical form how news becomes entertainment and how freakish spectacle attracts audiences who have ceased to be curious about the world. The object of its satire is the decoupling of corporate responsibility from its news product, resulting in garish and bizarre versions of “the news.” Saturday Night Fever shows the venue of the New York dance club—of popular music and of the recording industry at both its point of production and reception. But there is great distance between Tony, that film’s protagonist, and the polished executives of the recording industry in Manhattan. Fame shows us the sub-culture of aspiring young performers in various popular forms—comedy, music, drama—who come of age in New York City. But the leap from aspiration to success is unseen in the course of the movie, raising questions about the links between talent, training, and contemporary success.
But all these films carve out a particular role for New York City, partially through their extensively indexing their West Coast “other”: Los Angeles or Hollywood. In the two films that are most about having succeeded, Network and All That Jazz, the presence of the west coast as a center of the show business industry is a recurring aspect of the narrative. In New York, New York and Fame the looming seduction of Hollywood influences all represented artistic endeavors. And while broader international success is certainly connected with Hollywood, both films emphasize the cost of such aspiration. This vision of New York as needing a West Coast complement is intriguing. This perception also asserts a New York that reserves its place in entertainment as an incubator for talent, a center for creativity, and a center for business. But these three functions do not typically overlap. As a result New York becomes a cog within a larger system, in effect, two distinct cities—that of performance and entertainment, and that of the entertainment business.
In the two films of mature careers and existing success—Network and All That Jazz—the business of entertainment occupies the narrative center. Success becomes its own arbiter and a means to wealth and centrality in a particular industry. Such emphases have the effect of rewriting the genre of the show business drama. In this way, putting on a show becomes not the province of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but of men in suits with significant investments in production. Such emphases recast the city at a moment when its population and contours are shifting. There are two markets and levels of commerce and entertainment, one that takes place on the periphery of the business world and is defined by the pleasure of performance and one that is located in mid-town Manhattan and which promises access to the world and its riches.
Such a bifurcation has the effect of shrinking the city-of-success and defining it as largely unavailable to those outside of its upper classes. In effect, we are provided a before and after vision of time—social mobility is a thing of the past and aspiration both perpetual and futile. New York in its central Manhattan contours is defined by its influence in distant space, which is a matter of its means of electronic dissemination and a function of its access to capital. But for those outside of this charmed circle, possibility is restricted to a far more modest set of circumstances. This recurring assertion accounts for a number of elements that are fairly constant in the five films, including the relative valorizing of electronically-disseminated performances. That New York is the site and topic of many films during the 1970s reveals the fact that the city remained a vital entity in both the global and national entertainment sector in the mid- and late-century. But despite that relative boom, these efforts in the realm of cinema were proportionately minuscule in comparison to those productions shot on the West Coast. Further, by the 1980s many location shoots, even of films ostensibly set in New York, had moved on to lower-priced non-union locations, such as Toronto, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and other locales. For example, the interior shots of the newsroom in the film Network were actually shot outside of Toronto.
The definition of the entertainment business we find in these films emphasizes New York’s role in a national and international grid of communications that enables a geometric increase in potential markets. Commensurate with this vision, the city’s more general turn-around largely stemmed from its relative advantage in telecommunications technology. Its extensive network capacity allowed for communication with financial centers all over the world.
Such capacity, along with the demise of the industrial sector, meant that New York’s economy had overwhelmingly become tied to information industries. And those industries, unlike the city’s pre-World War II manufacturing economy, provided relatively fewer overall jobs and relatively fewer opportunities for those without significant intellectual capital. While these films do not often tell us much of their characters’ social origins—except Saturday Night Fever and Fame—they do largely paint a picture of success tied to education and social polish. In keeping with the restructuring of New York, and to a degree the national employment market, the films largely articulate a bifurcated system. This depiction of the remoteness of success from failure, even as the two poles exist in relatively proximate physical space, results in a surprising emphasis on education as a means of mobility. Fame is explicitly about a secondary school for young performers, dwelling on the means by which they are disciplined both by their exacting teachers and by the strictures of peer culture. Similarly, Saturday Night Fever places post-secondary education as crucial in its broad depiction of the drama of class mobility, defining it as a key element of aspiration and hope. But the question of whether a formal credential can either enable success in the entertainment industry or provide a clear path to a viable alternative remains unanswered in these films.
We do see, however, that the educational system remains a powerful lure to those who seek to insulate themselves from the uncertainty of the Post-Fordist moment. Post-Fordism is an epoch that responds to the crisis of over-accumulation that marked the 1960s. Fordism refers to the centralized and regularized mode of factory production instituted by Henry Ford at his River Rouge facility in 1917. It was defined by the further rationalization of the assembly line, a process already well advanced by Frederick Taylor in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The 1970s and 1980s saw a restructuring of industrial modes of production, making them cheaper and more flexible, bringing to bear far-flung locations and workers of shifting affiliations. Josef Esser and Joachim Hirsch describe the transition in production that took place in the 1970s as emphasizing
Thus, industrial production could take place in any number of places and employ any number of organizational forms, from women sewing in small Indonesian factories and sending their product ultimately to be finished in China, to workers in a store front in Los Angeles making micro-processors for computers made in Taiwan. The ramifications of this shift in productive system had all types of effects, impacting class, perceptions of space at all scales, and relative economic mobility.
With the resulting decline of the need for productive enterprise in the outer boroughs, these Post-Fordist films not only define places like Brooklyn and the Bronx as peripheral, they also powerfully delineate sections of Manhattan as central and connoting an emerging way of life. In her study of changing conceptions and uses of space in New York City as it gentrified during the 1970s and 1980s, Sharon Zukin coins the very useful term: “Artistic Mode of Production/AMP.” With the specific example of post-industrial SoHo in mind, she writes,
She describes the restructuring of urban locales that were formerly the sites of productive industry into places of performance, rehearsal halls, and studio space. Subsequently, as a result of the after-glow of their involvement with the valorized world of art, and the sanitizing of these districts by both their artist residents and the city’s officials, many of these spaces soon served as expensive housing for those in the financial sector and those who provided skilled services to those in that sector. She goes on to note that the AMP also depresses the value of labor, as aspiring participants in this world agree to under-employment or unemployment as they try to penetrate this arena of cultural chic, and that under-employment becomes a broader low-wage model for other sectors of the economy.
Zukin explores the role of historic preservation in creating a kind of ambiance in the gentrifying city. This vision of preservation reminds us, as Philip Rosen notes, that such an activity has as its object a sense of the past that provides for apparent continuity. The emphasis on the architecture of the past, the aesthetization of structures dating from the Fordist era, allows for a theme park-like effect in certain areas. The forms of the past are reified into a nostalgic gloss with no regard for the problems created and expressed by the altered function of that built environment. For example, the redesigned South Street Seaport ceased to be a working port at all, but it now has become the site of restaurants, hotels, and stores where goods made elsewhere could be readily purchased. Similarly, the industrial areas east of SoHo, formerly the home of a vital garment industry, now provided the gloss of industry without the dirt and congestion of actual production. Writes Zukin,
Such a vision of land use and commerce necessarily glamorizes the deindustrialized urban landscape. The result is a city that derives some aspects of its cultural prestige from its exclusiveness and its ability to preserve its formerly useful structures as iconic. Thus, these films about entertainment powerfully participate in this emerging geographic and economic rearticulation of space, culture, and class.