2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Performing the new economy:
New York, neoliberalism, and
mass communication in late 1970s cinema
by Stanley Corkin
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:“[President Gerald] Ford to City: Drop Dead.” 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:
“In the eight years of the Lindsay administration 366 films were made; by the second year of the Beame administration, forty-six features were being made in the city.”
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:
“In the early post-war period the Third World, especially Latin America, was seen by U.S. state and corporate planners as increasingly important consumer markets for the absorption of a revitalized U.S. export economy. By the 1960s, ABC-International was part owner of 54 Latin American and other Third World television stations in 24 countries” (37).
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:
“By 1977 the top six of the 199 major films released accounted for one-third of the year’s income, and the top thirteen for half.”
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.
“In 1981, New York accounted for almost one-fourth of the nation’s overseas business calls and 15 percent of the residential calls, twice as many units as originated in Los Angeles, the second leading origin.”
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
“post-Taylorist forms or organization and production of labor, on the basis of new information and communications technologies. This does not in any way lead to the end of ‘mass production’ but to a new technological constitution of it.”
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,
“Far from being a response to aesthetic problems, the AMP really represents an attempt by large-scale investors in the built environment to ride out and control a particular investment climate.”
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,
“When the lofts that were used for light manufacturing are reduced to being considered as a cultural artifact…the urban industrial infrastructure submits to the rules of the ‘picturesque’”
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Performing the post-industrial city
All these five films overwhelmingly dwell on interior space, a focus that defines their strategy as centripetal. While to some degree their various narratives set the action in interior space, their visual emphasis in this regard connotes a larger story about work and the city. The films stay indoors even when their narratives seem to push them out. And in all cases, interior space is the realm of the private, the bureaucratic, and the corporate. Since performance space in media and the arts is subjugated to marketplace demands, the larger the potential profit of a given “presentation,” the more constrained the access to the profit-making presentational space. In such a model, we see the realms of “art” and “integrity,” terms fetishized and suffused with nostalgia in these films, subsumed by a business model that leaves little room for any equation but that which ends in a dollar amount. Within the films, explicitly qualitative judgments of talent, vision, and creativity are minimized; even the plots are involved in a hierarchical system that exercises authority based on perspectives that reduce all performance to product. Arguably, those characters with talent are subordinated to those with administrative power gained from their narrow means/ends worldview. Thus, the films valorize fame, bureaucracy, and institutional notions of education.
This question of who defines success and the definition’s connection to a business model of performance gives an insight into these cinematic representations of a world of circumscribed space. Such spaces show us a city of restricted dimensions replete with an enforced hierarchy. For example, in Network corporate flunky Frank Hackett, played by Robert Duvall, commands Schumacher: “You’re fired. I want you out of your office before noon or I’ll have you thrown out.” The visual depiction of Hackett’s office shows him as central, a man in authority who remains centered in that space, commands the tightest close up, and has the use of the phone, the instrument for calling security. Urban space in these films has become not the agora but rather corporate controlled interiors. The dynamism of the street has been replaced with the fluctuations of a relatively circumscribed marketplace, a place that grants access according to one’s ability to access its electronic nodes of entry. Thus while the networks of communication gesture out to the world, the specific space where these networks produce their products is shown as privatized and constrained, marking a new vision of the centripetal as space constrained by the forces of private enterprise. Saskia Sassen describes precisely this phenomenon as characterizing global cities’ role in a world system:
“Massive trends towards the spatial dispersal of economic activities at the metropolitan, national and global level are indeed all taking place, but they represent only half of what is happening. Alongside the well-documented spatial dispersal of economic activities, new forms of territorial centralization of top-level management and control operations have appeared. National and global markets as well as globally integrated operations require central places where the work of globalization gets done. Further, information industries require a vast physical infrastructure containing strategic nodes with hyperconcentrations of facilities.”
Such recurring representations of the entertainment industry are also indicative of the New Hollywood era in film production, as well as its analogues in the music and television industries. Further, they help connect both the content of these films and their mode of production to the emergent Post-Fordist moment of economic history. In the U.S. film industry, this is a period of both innovation and ultimately consolidation. The mid 1970s stand as the cusp of the adventurous late 1960s and early 1970s, and the blockbuster era of the mid 1970s. The films implicitly seem to recognize the transition taking place, as they dwell in recurring definitions of interior corporate space. And they typically place that kind of space within a hierarchy defined by a vision of a far-flung audience/market that can be accessed only through limited points of entry. The power of bureaucrats is to restrict this access. This vision of bureaucracy speaks to the structure of the Post-Fordist workplace. As organizations increase in complexity and authority increasingly migrates away from those involved in materially productive enterprises, tiers of upper management assume increasing importance.
In Network the act of removing Howard or Schumacher, those more directly concerned with the presentation of the news, from the building is an assertion of naked power. Similarly, in Saturday Night Fever, Stephanie never allows Tony into her workplace in the record industry though he clearly aspires to a life outside of Bay Ridge. She also limits his access to her apartment in Manhattan, which was formerly the place of her employer and lover. These constraints show us that even her very limited relation to the devices of the entertainment industry allow her to exercise relative power over the provincial Tony.
The relations articulated between the value of a particular space and its role in a electronic means of dissemination place these businesses in their Post-Fordist era, and thus provide the films with a kind of cultural resonance that connects them to other forms of industrial production. This shift refers both to the transitions that were occurring in U.S. productive industries at large and to Hollywood, where the former industrial model of the studio system was now defunct. Film companies sold their backlots and became components of larger multi-national corporations. The prevalence of independent producers that drove the New Hollywood era in the early 1970s may be seen as part of the industry’s move into the Post-Fordist moment. More broadly, this era was ushered in by an increasing ease in the movement of capital and goods, enabled by enhanced means of communications between financial centers and far-flung locales of decentralized production. And while all of these films represent and valorize electronic networks of dissemination, it is Network that does so most emphatically.
Network is replete with references to and representations of this new system. As the film begins, we see the newscaster Howard Beale as one of four faces in a framing of four monitors showing the network newscasters of the mid 1970s: Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Howard K. Smith. The voice over by Max Schumacher (played by William Holden), the head of the UBS network’s news division, tells us that Howard had been a legend and now is suffering from low ratings and personal problems. Max and Howard go out for drinks after the broadcast, so that Max can give his friend the news that he is fired. They wax nostalgically about “the good old days” of network news and end at a bar, with Max cynically spinning programming ideas that will play to the lowest common denominator as Howard lies on the bar drunk. But with the rise of cable television, the authority of these talking heads was about to erode, and the Howard Beales of the world could indeed be more valuable as mad prophets of doom than as the authoritative voice of truth.
The credits roll and we are shown in succession, the corporate headquarters of the big four networks. These buildings are shot from close range and low angles, emphasizing the size and gravity of their imposing skyscrapers. They seem like medieval castles, cities unto themselves. As we go inside the UBS building, we find much the same, a world that creates the world, an entity that is self-constrained and that functions unto its own logic. As Howard announces that he will be leaving the nightly newscast in two weeks, he adds that he will also be killing himself on the air. We witness this performance from the control room, as Howard is shown on many monitors but we “sit” behind the production board, watching the technicians, who are involved in their own bored banter and who are not watching Howard. It is only through the intervention of a woman transcribing the newscast that his words get noticed.
That “news” has clearly become a commodity and like any commodity answerable only to the desires of the marketplace redounds throughout the early part of this film. But news’ status as an electronic commodity with its origins and means of dissemination in a relatively restricted district of central Manhattan is also an important visual element of these early scenes. After Howard’s assertion, the network goes into damage-control mode, a situation that makes its condition even more insular. We hear of hordes of reporters in the lobby though we do not see them. What we do see is Howard’s newscast becoming news in itself, apparently supporting his on-air assertion that his suicide will garner a huge audience.
Network offers a prescient vision of the new era of communication and network spatial organization that was just becoming visible in the mid 1970s. This era is defined by networks of electronic communication that connect certain sectors of specific urban locales to corresponding sectors of other urban spaces, regardless of the actual distance configured. It is the means of communication that developed in the mid 1970s and resulted in a New York that was more focally connected to London than it was to Bridgeport, Connecticut. This reconfiguration of urban space and its role in a shifting world order, what Manuel Castells defined as the “space of flows,” “the informational city,” a conception of certain urban spaces transcending the materiality of physical place as they are more precisely defined by their situation in electronic systems of communication. Network tells of a New York that has become the sum of its particular means of electronic communication.
And following this logic as it occurs in Saturday Night Fever, New York, New York, All that Jazz, and Fame, access to the means of dissemination defines material success. Thus, we can see how art for the marketplace serves as both a symptom and a symbol of the Post-Fordist moment. This product like all others can be produced by a vast flexible and largely captive work force engaged for a particular task and then let go. As in textiles, there is a local boss, but command functions may be ensconced in far away locales, enabled by the technology of modern communication. Art becomes, like news, a commodity and its aura, much like the aura of a certain branded garment, becomes a means of positioning it in the global marketplace. Art as a thing has the power to participate in the utter transformation of both the physical urban landscape and its social character, since the city as a cultural center may organize its central spaces to enable performance and to attract both performers and denizens of the various media displayed.
A film like New York, New York, for example, despite its obvious and intentional artifice, offers a vision of New York that, while set in the 1950s and clearly nostalgic, locates its residual status as a locale where the avant-garde could exist alongside the commercial, however marginal the role of the avant-garde becomes. Indeed, such a vision is part of the aura of the contemporary city as a center of culture. And in this film, more than the others, as art morphs into artifice, the stylized soundstages that form this vision of the city are picturesque in a manner that both accentuates Zukin’s vision of the aestheticized city, as well as draws attention to the inherent partiality and constructed-ness of such visions. In its positioning the arts as central to the city’s economic life, the film enhances New York’s post-industrial image and speaks to its shifting demographic.
Jimmy’s devotion to his music, choosing it over love and money, naturalizes those on the margins of the entertainment industry and provides an antithesis by which we can further valorize market-based success. And indeed, Jimmy’s devotion to art over commerce leaves him on the outside of both his marriage and the success that could be his. He is consigned to the fringes of the city, partially because there is no marketplace where his music might be heard and judged without bias. It is intriguing that two major transitional scenes find him alone under spotlight formed by street lamps. These street scenes lack the dynamism of the city streets and suggest there is no outside to the inside defined as the privately controlled space of commerce.
But what is the broader social effect of cities that include any number of citizens who are perpetually in a state of economic insecurity? When Howard exhorts his viewers to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the screamers are thrown into a world that has all but ceased to exist—that outside of their windows. Yet, the electronic prompt and the lack of interaction among the screamers suggest that this is a late twentieth century version of a polity. That is, the viewers engage in no discussion or debate, nor do those in a given political movement engage one another. All cues are from a remote location and all feeling is visceral. Howard is nearby, but we find that he has a similar impact hundreds and thousands of miles away. This vision of mass communication well anticipates Castells’ vision. But such a vision ignores that is always a there. The building exists; the studio exists; and the means of communication, the electronic devices that allow dissemination, all have a specific materiality and location that can only be ignored if we mistake the immateriality of the image for the materiality of its means of production and dissemination. Though the images pervade the air, they are enabled by the UBS corporation and designed to increase the wealth of that business and its corporate owners. As Sassen reminds us,
“The vast new economic topography that is being implemented through electronic space is one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster economic chain that is in good part embedded in non-electronic spaces. There is no fully dematerialized firm or industry. Even the most advanced information industries, such as finance, are installed only partly in electronic space.”
The image of Howard, enabled by Max and then by the other corporate chiefs of the UBS network, is a projection allowed by access and with a specific valence in the commercial world. This is not a placeless world but a world where specific spaces are far more significant than others. And while this has been true to some degree for most of the twentieth century, the relative significance of those spaces has increased geometrically in importance. Indeed, Howard’s sin does not come from his incompetence. His sin comes from his waning appeal, and when he finds a means to attract an audience, the absurdity of his means has no bearing.
Ultimately, Howard’s madness makes him uncontrollable. It is a world in which business is everything and in which, as the corporate head Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty, tells Howard there is only one law, the law of business. Thus, the profits of the show are meager compared to the larger profits of the international sale of commodities: Howard must go. Arthur Jensen says, with a god-like forbidding:
“You have disrupted the forces of nature. There are no nations, only IBM, ITT, only dollars.”
And though this is indeed part of the film’s over-the-top satire, such a vision of corporate dominance powered by a vision of cost effectiveness would become even more pressing in the succeeding decades. The centrality and hegemony of corporate space establish the means by which all other expressions of power may become irrelevant.
Embedded within these films that dwell in the world of art, entertainment and, more broadly, mass communications is a historical commentary that shows us that the over-supply of labor and the brutal process of selection that prevails in the mass entertainment industry is applicable to the broader structures of the Post-Fordist labor market. These films dwell in the city of performance and romanticize that space, but their narratives narrow the areas from which that performance can be disseminated; there are various registers of effectiveness for a given performance. As we project the futures of our characters, it is far more likely that they will be, like the once-promising Michael in Fame, waiting on tables and providing a labor market with an over-supply of desperate workers than it is that they will be on television and movie screens around the world. In such a world, then, all who strive and barely progress may indeed stick their heads out the window and impotently shriek, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But to what political effect?
1. See Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). [return to text]
2. See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. David Nicholson-Smith. New York and London: Blackwell, 1991; Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); and David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989) for elucidating discussion regarding space as a relative conceptual marker, contingent on history and culture.
3. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 41-42.
4. See Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 49-58.
5. This headline appeared in the New York Daily News October 30, 1975.
6. See the website of the Mayor’s Office for Film, Theater and Broadcasting for a full history: http://www.nyc.gov/html/film/html/office/history_moftb.shtml.
See also Vincent J. Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 561-562.
7. James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 342-4.
8. The figure who argued most persistently and influentially for auteurist approaches to film was Andrew Sarris in his The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968) and his later Politics and Cinema (Columbia University Press, 1978).
9. Coppola’s difficulties with his producers, including Robert Evans have taken on the stuff of legend. See, for example, Michael Sragow, “Godfatherhood,” in Francis Ford Coppola Interviews, eds. Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi), 167-183.
10. While it is true that films like The Lost Weekend (1945) The Naked City (1948), On the Waterfront (1954), and West Side Story (1961), among others, had employed the streets and buildings of New York City and its environs, they had done so in ways that were quite different from these later films. These earlier New York films offer fairly limited perspectives on the city, due to the difficulty and expense of moving cumbersome equipment from set up to set up.
11. See David Cook,Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 355-380; and James Sanders, 341-42.
12. For related discussion that further illuminates my point see Vanessa Schwartz, It’s So French: Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 2008) particularly chapters 1 and 4.
15. Clyde Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press,2007), 372.
16. David Cook, 25.
17. My figures come from the IMDB listing of financial data: Network: 23,689,877 (USA); All That Jazz: 20,030,000 (USA); Saturday Night Fever: 74,100,000 (USA); Fame: 21,202,829 (USA) ( 1980): New York, New York: $13,800,000 (USA)
18. The album soundtrack of Easy Rider eventually hit number 6, and some of its titles had a second life on the top 40.
19. Cook 25-65; Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” eds. Jim Collins, Ava Collins, and Hillary Radner. Film Theory Goes to the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1993), 184-206.
20. See Edgerton, 85-110 and Michael Haupert, The Entertainment Industry (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006).
21. Of course, this to some degree explains the propensity of interior shots in films such as Network. However, in other films ostensibly set in New York, the fact that the streets were not of that city, such as Moonstruck, seemed to serve as little impediment to outdoor scenes.
22. John H. Mollenkopf,A Phoenix in the Ashes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 52.
23. Esser, Josef and Joachim Hirsch. “The Crisis of Fordism and the Dimensions of a 'Post-Fordist' Regional and Urban Structure,” ed. Ash Amin. Post-Fordism: A Reader, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), 77.
24. Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 176.
25. Zukin, 180.
26. Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd Edition ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 266-7.
27. Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate (New York: New Press, 2008), 24-61; Mollenkopf, 50-68. See also a contemporary account of this process, Samuel G. Freedman, “Signs of Transformation in Neighborly Greenpoint,” New York Times, October 15, 1986.
28. This film was originally conceived as a location shoot and only morphed in to its ultimate form after many drafts of its screenplay. Scorsese Papers, AFI.
29. The school was subsequently moved up town to Lincoln Center and the structure in this film burned down in 1988. On the site is now the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of International Careers.
30. Traub, The Devil’s Playground (New York: Random House, 2004) 131-150.
31. See Traub, 160-174. 229-30.
32. Sassen, “Whose City is it?” Globalization and the Formation of New Claims.” Lecture at Columbia University, July, 1997.
http://www.uni-stuttgart.de/soz/avps/lopofo/ak-publikationen.sassen.pdf , 2.
33. Tino Balio, “A Major Presence in All the World’s Important Markets,” ed. Graeme Turner. The Film Cultures Reader. New York: Routledge, 2001), 206-217.
34. Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” in The Film Cultures Reader, 189-190, 184-205.
35. Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Societies (New York: Blackwell, 2000), 424-448.
36. Qtd. In Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World (London: Sage, 1999), 59.
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