May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 16, 2009
New York, New York: background for a thousand movie sets, spawner of a million dreams, spinner of an infinite number of yarns. It’s been several years since my husband began working in locations on big studio films and television shows, and the stories he can tell are simply marvelous. His job, which involves handling contracts and sets and making sure everyone is happy, requires him to do crazy things like ring the doorbells of strangers and ask them if they would take their air conditioner out of their window for a night in the middle of July because the scene being shot outside their building takes place in the 1920’s. (Luckily, he can offer a little compensation.)
He once met a butcher named Moe on the Lower East Side who, as it turned out, knew Martin Scorcese’s parents when “Marty” was just a kid living in the Sicilian neighborhood down there. “His father would come in and complain: ‘All he wants me to buy him is film!'” Moe didn’t have business cards, but sent my husband home with a brown paper butcher’s tag with his number written on it and a smudge of grease in the corner.
He spent weeks at a location for a cop show – a tenement roof in Harlem, from which a stunt man would leap to the next building onto a fire escape and accidentally crash through a window. The woman who lived in the apartment was very old and had a marvelously thick Southern accent, even though she’d lived in Harlem a long time, and he’d have to enlist me to help him decipher her occasionally garbled voicemails. Her refrigerator was literally covered, on all sides, with large ceramic magnets (the kind you buy at a craft fair that are made of a kind of salt dough and lacquered within an inch of their life); one picture of her place from the scout that I spotted him editing mysteriously had a Viking hat sitting atop the fridge. But she was kind and he enjoyed his time commuting back and forth.
He spent several weeks on rooftops in Chinatown, helping supervise cleanup as a Very Big Movie’s second unit shot a scene with a Chinese New Year’s celebration, a dragon, and a lot of confetti. I went to visit him on set and found it amusing that the fish markets and fruit stands stayed in business; the production assistants had a heck of a time trying to clear pedestrians off the street for each shot (which is why I managed to wander in).
Once he called me from the set of a certain reality show involving celebrities and business challenges to just say how nice a business owner or even one of the “stars” had been. “You’d never know; he looks so gruff,” he’d say, “but he’s just the nicest guy and helped us smooth everything over.”
Cities tied up with legends are mostly difficult to characterize and stereotype: for every story of a nasty New York cab driver or brusque businessman, one can dig up an accompanying tale of a friendly stranger or a neighborhood banding together to solve a problem. New York is big, and hard to define.
That indefinability shows up in New York, I Love You (in limited release today – here’s my review), a spirited follow up to another film about a story-laden city: Paris, je t’aime. In this new version (which, in case you’re wondering, my husband did not work on – he was on a different project when they called), the formula is similar – a series of short films by different directors, starring different actors, written by a handful of talented writers who know their subject (including, incidentally, one of my graduate school professors) and love their town. Each story tells of a New Yorker finding or looking for love. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they’re surprised, and sometimes it’s been there all along.
Whereas Paris, je t’aime had a fairly formal structure – five minutes apiece, each in a different arondissement – this film is a lot more fluid. Character recur, and transitions between the scenes occasionally join the stories together. New York, I Love You is also a bit more snappy, sharp, and occasionally crude than Paris, which, I suppose, may be in keeping with its subject. But the stories are compelling and cover the gamut, from the struggling artist to the Upper East Side teenager to the Hassidic Jewish woman to the sexy stranger outside the restaurant to the old couple who’ve lived for decades in far-southern Brooklyn.
It’s not quite as compelling as Paris, but New York is still engrossing, and manages to eschew the stereotypes of New Yorkers for something the local will instantly recognize as more realistic, more truthful, and less idealistically Manhattan-centric. But even for the viewer who has not and never really intends to spend much time in the Big Apple, New York, I Love You, like Paris, je t’aime, captures the essential truths about the human search for love, in vignettes that range from fantastical to comical to touching to daring to downright heartbreaking.
I love it when my husband goes to a new location – today’s he’s at a big historical building on Staten Island – because I know he’ll come home with fresh stories about people from my town. New York, I Love You is a little bit of this feeling wrapped up into a neat package, and you don’t have to live in my apartment to enjoy these tales.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.