Even a fictional film can be viewed in some ways as a documentary: Whether it’s action or comedy or science fiction, even the most fantastical movie captures a real place and a real time and real people—even when those people are actors, and that place is a set. For his masterpiece video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, director Thom Andersen edited together scenes from decades of films shot in L.A., assembling a history of both the City of Angels and the way it was imagined in the movies.
Now, Jonathan Hertzberg is working on a similar project showing the New York City subway of the ’70s and ’80s. Of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia for the seedy old New York of the pre-Giuliani era, and Hertzberg captures the usual subjects of such nostalgia here: the weirdos, the graffiti, the beardy, unkempt faces. And in the style of Bruce Conner or Christian Marclay, he has some fun with it, too. One moment intercuts the bloody, traumatized Elliott Gould of Little Murders with the heroes of Nighthawks (Sly Stallone and Billy Dee Williams), as if they’re coming to save him. Another intercuts Saturday Night Fever and The Warriors, as if John Travolta and the gang are sitting right across from each other having a conversation.
On the other hand, as Jody Rosen argued in a Brow Beat post a few years back, much of the grit of the era doesn’t deserve to be romanticized, and the video reminds us of that, too. One of the most persistent images is the criminal lurking just around the corner, or just at the other end of the subway car. Around 11 minutes in, there’s a long sequence of attacks on women, drawn from films like Dressed to Kill.*
The best document of the subways of the era remains Style Wars, a documentary about the fight over the subway’s graffiti, alongside Wild Style, a narrative film about the same subject. (The latter is included here.*) But much of the pleasure comes from the variety of films mined to put this together, from out-and-out classics like The French Connection, The Last Detail, and Serpico to cult classics like Bananas and Death Wish to nearly forgotten films like Night Shift and The Brother From Another Planet. And then there’s the inevitable: Hertzberg doesn’t forget The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He says he will “almost certainly be tweaking and adding more footage to this piece,” and I can’t wait to see it when he’s done.
*Correction, May 2, 2013: This post originally identified a chase scene starring Nancy Allen as coming from Blow Out. The scene is from Dressed to Kill. Also, while scenes from Wild Style are included, the film Style Wars is not.