In this installment of the Mediapolis Q&A, Robert Joseph moderates a conversation with Cortland Rankin about his new book, Decline and Reimagination in Cinematic New York (Routledge, 2022).
Robert Joseph: I want to first say congratulations on a tremendous book. The unique perspective you take with the cinema of urban decline is something I would like to discuss in detail, but I want to start with a more general question.
For my own research projects that span multiple cinematic works, there is always a “eureka” moment – generally an observation I have either while watching the film or reflecting on it after – from which the project subsequently emerges. Did you have that moment before writing Decline and Reimagination, and if so, what sparked it?
Cortland Rankin: Thanks for the kind words, Bob – they mean a lot. Some of the films in this project have been with me for a long time, from New Hollywood classics like Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) to the poetic documentaries of Rudy Burckhardt, which I discovered as an undergrad. But it wasn’t until I moved to New York that this project really congealed. The city is literally the common ground that links the disparate films I cover in this book. New York is and always has been a polyglot metropolis with so many stories to tell (eight million of them according to The Naked City), but I felt that both popular and scholarly narratives of this particular era of New York cinema (that is, roughly 1965–85) had ossified around the ideas of urban crisis and decline, largely to the exclusion of all else. So I was set on taking a broader view and bringing in a wider variety of films and filmmakers to see what kind of portrait would emerge. I wanted the act of watching the films (I cover over one hundred in the book and watched many more) to be a process of discovery through which a multifaceted cinematic New York would emerge. So I don’t think my “eureka” moment came from watching any one film, but rather from looking at a spectrum of films from the same period in juxtaposition. Take 1980–81 as an example, which were a really fertile couple of years. On the one hand, you’ve got films like Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, The Bronx or John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (both 1981) that render the city as a ruined and totally lawless place. But you’ve also got Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980) and the Basquiat film Downtown 81 (Bertoglio, 1981/2000) that tap into the creative renaissance of the Downtown scene or Christy Rupp’s City Wildlife: Mice, Rats and Roaches (1980) that reframes our understanding of urban “pests.” What struck me was that so many filmmakers used the same basic tropes to craft very different renditions of New York City in transition (that’s where the emphasis on derelict space and nature came from). So this project really grew out of the experience of watching a lot of different New York films side by side, noticing the differences and continuities and trying as best I could not only to respect this complexity, but to represent it in a new light.
Joseph: I am both the best and worst person to review your work, Cortland, because (and this is a little embarrassing for a cinematic geography scholar to admit) I have actually never had the opportunity to visit New York City. This limits my perspective on the city, but it also means that my experience with New York is entirely mediated. As someone who has lived his entire life in the Midwest, I can say that the cinema of urban decline dominated my understanding of New York since I (obsessively) watched the first two live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies (1990/91) on VHS as a kid, which is why I was gratified to see those films mentioned in your epilogue. Part of my early development as a media scholar was my gradual understanding how this rhetorical construction of the city has a far more complicated relationship with the city’s history than a naïve first-time viewer of that first TMNT film might surmise; as you argue, that film’s fantastical image of crime is like radioactive waste (forgive the pun) leftover from the New York of New Hollywood.
How does your own autobiographical relationship with New York inform your scholarly project with the city? I know you went to NYU and taught in the city for some time; what was your relationship with the city (mediated or otherwise) before moving there, and how did that contrast with living and working in the city?
Rankin: My personal relationship with New York has everything to do with this project. I’ve always been interested in writing about the places I live, so if I hadn’t done my Ph.D. in New York, the book probably would’ve been about somewhere else. I was just lucky enough as a scholar of cinematic urbanism to have ended up in such a rich environment. I’d only visited New York twice before moving there and had very little preexisting connection to the city other than, like yourself, through media. One could spend a lifetime studying a city like New York and still only scratch the surface, but I think having lived there for a decade does impart a certain level of lived experience that hopefully comes across in my writing. I can’t imagine writing about New York without having lived there actually – I’d be called out immediately as an imposter! In addition to the wealth of research resources I had at my disposal, there was also the added benefit of being able to visit so many of the shooting locations I write about in the book. Many of these are more quotidian sites that it would be difficult to get a clear sense of without seeing them in person. I will say, however, that moving to small town Ohio helped put my personal experience of the city as well as this book project in perspective. I had trouble seeing the forest for the trees when I was still caught up in it.
Joseph: The element that I found most striking from your approach was your refusal to be dogmatic about the relationship between film form and representation. Like a lot of cinematic geographers, I generally ground my scholarship in how existing patterns of filmmaking and distribution (independent, exploitation, mainstream) inform how a cityscape is represented on-screen. You not only don’t do this, but actively reject this lens. Instead, you argue that the opening of the Best Picture-winning West Side Story (Robbins/Wise, 1961) is just as inventive and playful in its appropriation of derelict space as an experimental work like Joan Jonas’s Songdelay (1973). This is a really cool and refreshing approach! Could you talk a little about how you settled on this approach to studying representation, and the benefits and/or challenges that it brought?
Rankin: When I first embarked on the dissertation that was the basis for the book, my focus was exclusively on experimental postwar city films and their relationship to midcentury New York urbanism. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t continue down that path because Erica Stein’s book Seeing Symphonically covers that topic brilliantly. But early on I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I was arbitrarily restricting my focus. So I decided not only to expand the scope of the project, but to shift my periodization as well. I knew that was a risky move because New York cinema in the ’70s is well-trod territory. Stan Corkin and Lawrence Webb have both written excellent books dealing exclusively or in part with that era of the city’s cinema. What I felt I could contribute was a broader perspective on the city’s cinematic representation that drew together films and filmmakers from mainstream, independent, documentary, and experimental contexts that wouldn’t normally be considered together. But it was also important to do this in a coherent way, which is why I center recurring tropes like derelict space and urban nature that filmmakers working across industrial, generic, and modal distinctions kept returning to as a way of processing the experience of life in New York at the postindustrial turn. Casting a wider net allowed me to include the cinema of urban decline, which I felt needed to be there, but also allowed me to consider aesthetic, narrative, and ideological alternatives to it, which was a big part of my intervention. However, I was cautious about reducing this rich multiplicity of perspectives to a simplistic binary, which is why I use the intentionally broad “reimagination” as an umbrella term for the varied ways the discourse of urban decline was complicated and challenged. While an approach like this limits the attention I can give to issues like production context and reception, I ultimately felt that offering a more complete picture of the city’s representation was my primary goal.
Joseph: A benefit of such inclusivity is that you get to compare films as seemingly disparate as Godspell (Greene, 1973) and William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968). These are dissimilar works in nearly every respect but their Central Park setting, but they do share other key characteristics: both shoot in the park primarily during the day (compared to the dangerous park-at-night of revanchist cinema), and both emphasize themes of liberation (Godspell through its new-age retelling of the Gospel of Matthew, Greaves through his radical democratization of the film form). How do films like these cast an alternative perspective of Central Park, and why is this so important given the historical context of New York and the park during this era?
Rankin: Central Park is such an iconic part of New York’s identity and its one of the most common shooting locations featured in my book. But while it might look like this vast expanse of green amidst a sea of steel and concrete, there’s very little that’s natural about it. From its inception, every vista and meandering pathway was planned and in that sense it’s a quintessentially urban place. But for filmmakers of all stripes, it’s an irresistible location for imagining and reimagining the city as something other than itself. Of course, you’ve got many films, from comedies like The Out-of-Towners (Hiller, 1970) to crime thrillers like Cruising (Friedkin, 1980), that capitalize on the park’s reputation in the 1970s and ’80s as a no-go zone after dark. But the wilderness metaphor so often used to characterize the park in these films exists in tension with another nature-based metaphor with deep roots in American culture – the garden. While I touch on films like Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer (both 1979) that portray the park as a kind of pleasure garden for the city’s bourgeoisie, I was less interested in reinforcing a teleological narrative of the park (and the city as a whole for that matter) that started with a period of decline and ended in revival and gentrification. Rather, I was drawn to the filmmakers who saw in Central Park even or especially at its nadir a place that could nurture alternative social models and inspire artistic experimentation. That’s how you end up with films as seemingly far apart as Godspell or Hair (Forman, 1979) and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and Jonas Mekas’s Walden (1969) in the same book. While Central Park, which is confined to rectilinear form by Manhattan’s grid, may look fairly uniform from the air, it’s a very different place depending on where you enter and how far into it you go. So just as the park itself has so many varied terrains, I wanted to showcase the diversity of its cinematic representation as a corrective to its notoriety in popular culture.
Joseph: Your scholarship is especially interested in cinema that defies the cultural status quo on cinematic urbanisms by taking spaces coded during 1970s New York as negative (e.g., Central Park, an empty lot) and challenging social perceptions of them as dangerous or derelict. Sometimes writing about these iconoclastic perspectives is natural for the scholar; sometimes it pushes them to challenge their preconceived notions about space and the people who occupy it. Growing up in the ‘burbs in the Midwest, for most of my life I have associated graffiti with crime and urban decline. Therefore it was refreshing to read your section about Stations of the Elevated (Kirchheimer, 1981) and other films which frame graffiti as vibrant artistic expression, even neighborhood improvement. Were there any sections of this book where the process of researching and writing (or even living in New York) similarly reoriented your own perspective on urban spaces?
Rankin: Absolutely! In terms of reorienting my perspective on New York in particular, the project as a whole certainly broadened my geographical knowledge of the city because I visited so many of the shooting locations. Obviously, the New York of the 2010s when I was living and working there is a much different place than the city of the 1970s and ’80s and many of these locations have changed a lot, but the research process exposed me to sides of New York I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. The city has a plethora of diverse neighborhoods, but it can also be a very insular place where one’s experience of “New York” is largely confined to the neighborhoods where one lives and works. So I was grateful that this project helped get me outside my comfort zone.
My dual focus on derelict space and urban nature also provided new lenses through which I came to think about urbanism and urban space in my own life. Understanding how urban phenomena are filtered through cultural ideas of “nature” and appreciating the city’s relationship to and place in the non-human world certainly changed how I experienced New York; of course, this has become an increasingly popular line of thinking in an era of climate change. In terms of urban ruins and dereliction, I also happened to live directly across from an abandoned house in Brooklyn for five years and over time I came to see many sides of it. It was a place where men who would wait at a day laborer pickup spot around the corner would congregate and sleep overnight, which made it a public safety concern for many in the neighborhood. It was a place that inexplicably collected an inordinate amount of garbage of all sizes and kinds, which made it an eyesore. But its yard was completely overgrown with all varieties of plant life and women from the Chinese families on the block would come in the spring to collect nettle leaves for tea. And it was home to a rotating cast of stray cats that the elderly Italian American lady next door who’d lived her entire life in the neighborhood cared for religiously. So it was all these things at once, and I think looking at the cinematic New York of a previous era in all its complexity helped me appreciate those simultaneous and seemingly contradictory identities in my own time.
Joseph: Thanks for that observation, which is also a nice demonstration of the binary of representation (abandoned/used, ominous/vibrant) of the cinematic spaces you analyze. There is beauty and ugliness in that lot, and like cities themselves the two seem to exist simultaneously, like roommates who don’t get along but are stuck together because the rent is too high.
You don’t discuss climate change extensively in your book. Like Robert Moses, the infamous New York parks commissioner who contributed to much of the urban decline represented in the films you analyze, it is haunting the background, occasionally emerging in the actual text but always making its presence felt. You only bring up climate change at the end of your final chapter and in your epilogue, but rather than take the route of framing climate disaster as the linear “back to nature” end point, you instead frame your analysis within cycles of past, present, and future birth/rebirth. This strikes me as a much more optimistic final note for a book project like this. How did you settle on your book’s end point, and am I reading too much into your intent in that choice?
Rankin: The period I look at in the book is largely after Moses’s tenure, but of course his influence endures; it’s literally written in stone (or rather concrete) all over New York. But Robert Moses and his brand of urban renewal was already being reevaluated by the late ’60s and ’70s. Climate change is different. While the phenomena that have resulted in climate change were certainly present, climate change had yet to materialize as a popular discourse, so I was careful to avoid reading it into the films retroactively. There are harbingers though. The NYC film that best prefigures our contemporary fear of environmental collapse is probably Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), but I don’t cover that film in the book because it depicts a world essentially without nature, which is the opposite of the equation of urban decline with a reversion to a lawless state of nature that was far more common. While a film like Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982) carries echoes of Soylent Green’s concern about the role of urbanization in ecological catastrophe, the films that I discuss under the rubric of “reimagination” more often channel either Transcendentalist-inspired “back to nature” utopianism (most commonly found in parks) or the ecological rhetoric of the environmentalist movement of the 1960s and ’70s that repositions the city as part of a larger ecosystem, which can itself take apocalyptic overtones.
I’m not sure I’d characterize the ending of my book as optimistic simply because it doesn’t draw a straight line between the emerging ecological consciousness of the films of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s and today’s climate anxieties. In fact, I wanted to avoid any judgments like that. Ultimately my decision to end the book with an epilogue rather than a traditional conclusion stems from an acknowledgement that the representation and framing of periods of urban flux is cyclical and the tropes I cover are evergreen to a degree. I discuss some of the ways tropes relating to dereliction and urban nature have been extended and reinvented over the years to serve various ideological ends, but the epilogue is not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, it’s an invitation for future scholarship, whether about New York or other cities. Hopefully the groundwork I’ve laid out in this book provides a foundation that others can build on.
Joseph: I appreciate that perspective on your book’s place in the bigger scholarly picture. No matter how grand our scope or extensive our filmography is (and yours feels damn near comprehensive), we always have to leave a few pages blank at the end. COVID and the recent urban uprisings have already altered perceptions of cityscapes, but filmmakers reach into the past for the tools to process contemporary phenomena (like Soderbergh evoking the urban paranoia thriller of the 1970s in Kimi ). Perhaps the most enduring effect your book will have for me is that I will keep one eye on New York cinema to see if/when these cycles of renewal and decay are evoked. The cycle continues.
Robert Joseph is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Dayton. His teaching interests include introductory communication, film history, media effects, and media geography. His research interests include cinematic geography, New Orleans, and American film and TV as cultural artifacts. His work has been published in The Projector and The Smart Set.