NYTV blues

Now that both Felicity and Jennifer Love Hewitt live here, the streets of New York are no longer safe for Scorsese fans.


Sarah Vowell
November 3, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Martin Scorsese has said that when he was a kid in New York, he watched a lot of westerns.
When I was a kid in the West, I saw every Scorsese picture I could. I have
no idea if seeing "Rio Bravo" made the young Scorsese want to call a travel
agent and book the next flight to Tucson. I do know that when I saw "Taxi
Driver" as a teenager (screened in the agriculture department at Montana
State in the same room where the range management lectures took place), it
made me want to stay the hell away from New York.

When Robert De Niro as Travis
Bickle said, "Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the
streets," he didn't sound like a crackpot en route to an assassination. He
sounded like he could have been any old reasonable American living
west of the Hudson. I remember stumbling out of the ag building when it was over, grateful to walk home in the pure driven snow.

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New York used to serve a purpose. It used to be the big, bad
metaphorical arena where evil duked it out with good. Especially in the
gangster movies, a genre as irresistible as the western to American eyes.
Even though I could have pointed to Manhattan's actual coordinates on a
map -- just as Scorsese must have known that the Monument Valley in all those
westerns is carved from real rocks by the real wind -- no one actually needed
to go there. (Unless of course the president is ejected via pod into
Manhattan during a terrorist attack on Air Force One, at which point it's
fine to send that dreary Kurt Russell in after him as long as he can be
injected with explosives that will blow him up if he can't get the prez out
alive.)

New York was just a backdrop, a gritty if photogenic symbol of
degeneration and anarchy that was both conveniently far away and as near as
the next matinee. Sure, in my nice little town we had no mission as
important as Travis Bickle's attempt to rescue a 12-year-old prostitute,
but that gave us more free time to sit on the porch and read our six-page
newspaper to keep up on the latest planning commission imbroglio. David
Letterman exploited this distance better than anybody; an Indiana native, he
must have known how comforting it would be, how thrilling, for viewers in the
rest of the country to fall asleep to New York garbage-on-the-street
wisecracks. It was exactly what we wanted to hear.

But something happened to cinematic New York that might have something to
do with what happened to the real New York. Why else would the new Scorsese
movie, "Bringing Out the Dead,"
the kind of bloody, violent urban thriller
that's been the director's bread and butter from the get-go, make such a point
at the beginning that it takes place "in the early '90s." Because apparently
in the early '90s you could still find some decent crack houses and street
O.D.'s to make a movie about. But now, in the (as long as you're white)
kinder, cleaner Giuliani years, the most terrifying Gotham morality tale is
Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail": Oooh,
they're building a chain bookstore! I'm so scared!

The current TV season, with the exception of the appreciated perennial
sad face "Law and Order" and its icky sex crimes spin-off,
"Special Victims
Unit,"
is one big I-heart-New-York. Ever since Sister Keri Russell as
Felicity Porter ditched Palo Alto last year to moon over boys and sell
muffins downtown on the WB, other Californians seem to be following suit.
Even "Melrose" maven Heather Locklear, who had to move to New York for her new
job on "Spin City," spends her TV promotional interviews talking in a puzzled
voice about what it's like to not even have a yard.

And of course the
biggest splash of all is sunny San Franciscan Sarah Merrin (Jennifer Love
Hewitt) ditching "Party of Five" to search for her birth father in New York
on Fox's new "Time of Your Life." She's so giddy in nice New York that when
someone asks her at one point if she's OK she moons, "Yes! I am so
wonderful!"

And this New York is wonderful. Because this New York is San Francisco.
And San Francisco is murder on entertainment. With the notable exceptions of "Vertigo,"
"The Maltese Falcon" and "Party of Five" (at least the parents
died horribly and people keep getting cancer and bad grades), film and TV shows set
there tend to fail. The rule is the more livable a city, the less watchable it becomes. My Montana
hometown is so very nice that it is the setting of the worst movie Gregory
Peck ever made -- "Amazing Grace and Chuck," in which a Little League
player quits baseball to protest nuclear proliferation.

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Sarah and Felicity are both Bay Area transplants, but they need not have left home.
They could have had the same well-scrubbed, well-spoken, beautiful friends.
Felicity could have worked at Peet's instead of Dean and Deluca, could have
gotten stuck on BART with her ex-best friend who just wrote a mean song
called "Felicity" instead of the subway on her way to the Museum of Modern
Art (San Francisco has one, too).

And Sarah could have moved to the Mission
in lieu of the East Village. Because what's the difference? In this new New
York, no one's going to be running into Andy Sipowicz. The only criminal
here is the beaming Jennifer Love Hewitt: She and her new soul mates get
arrested for jumping a subway turnstile.

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My female friends make fun of this
show, just like they made fun of "Felicity" before it. Sarah ends up on East
10th Street. I have a friend who lives on that street who after watching
"Time of Your Life" spewed, "Ugh, I wouldn't let her in the door." This is
the same person who shares my affinity for the "Godfather" movies.

And I
think if you compared both of our lives to "The Godfather" and "Felicity,"
we'd have oodles more in common with Felicity Porter than with Michael Corleone.
Which is probably good news for our respective siblings -- her brother and my sister need not fear any Fredo hit on the lake -- but not such good news for
entertainment seekers. Because who wants to see her own life on a screen?
Who wants to see a New York she can actually live in?

When Henry Hill in Scorsese's "GoodFellas" brags, "I always wanted to be a
gangster," an ordinary middle-class viewer can go somewhere she never thought
she wanted to go. It's only at the movie's rueful end that, foreshadowing the early-'90s time frame of
"Bringing Out the Dead," Henry complains, "Today,
everything is different. There's no action."

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But when Felicity agonizes over changing her major, and you're young enough to remember that dilemma but old enough to be living out its consequences, what's the fun in that? Last
season, when it came out that Felicity was having an illicit (if celibate)
affair with her dorm's resident advisor, her Goth roommate hissed, "Man, I
had you pegged as this uptight, no-fun, like, follow-the-rules kiss-ass
bore." To which Felicity replies, "Well, actually, that's much closer to my
personality."

I have no problem being an ordinary, urban, middle-class woman
in her (for a few more weeks anyway) 20s. But when I turn on the TV, I
want that box in the upper-left-hand corner to be crammed with sex and
violence warnings. Which is why the best network program remains ABC's "The
Practice," even though it's set in -- honestly -- Boston. Like who cares about
Boston? If buttoned-down Boston is the nation's new locale for sex and
death, the next thing you know, they'll start setting TV shows in Providence.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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