When I first moved to New York City in 1992, let me tell ya, it was a real party town: open beers in brown paper bags and dancing in the street were all okay. The entirety of the East and West Village became a giant tailgate; areas of Times Square were still… well, rough enough in spots to spook even the most hardened Chicago tourist. Oh, and there was indoor smoking.
So many memories, barely, but after two conservative anti-fun mayors, NYC has become the capital of PG-rated commercial tie-ins, with a cabaret law that would have seemed absurd even in 1983’s Footloose! Bloomberg’s now dictating where we can smoke outdoors and how much soda we can drink and fighting for the right to search people on the street just because they’re black. “a Policeman’s job is only easy in a police state!” – that’s from Touch of Evil and I think of it every time I see a Stop and Frisk item on NY1 as I dress for work. BANG BANG!
But now… Bill Di Blasio has been elected. His rivals used the idea of a BDB NYC as a cesspool of crime where black thugs ran amok without stop and frisk. In other words, the republicans promise democrat Di Blasio will bring us back to the wretched 70s. Heh heh. What a shame… that’s why I voted for him (or would have if I wasn’t too wasted). A Bloomberg political orchestrator, Deputy Mayor Harold Wolfson noted: “He has a very 1960s, 1970s vision for the city…. If you prefer the version of the city that existed then, he’s your guy,”
And as if you forgot about it, here’s the increasingly indispensable Drafthouse films rereleasing Abel Ferrara’s bold classic, Ms. 45. (above) get screening dates here. What’s interesting in Ferrara’s film is that it is the New York City of before even I got there, the horrific 70s horror, but it’s not Death Wish for Girls, it’s a very grimy subjective scene. Zoe Tamerlis Lund plays a mute garment worker, enduring all sorts of petty sexual harassment ‘cuz she’s hot and just wants to be left alone, and can’t yell for help, ‘cuz she’s mute. What a combo, but she’s raped on her way home, twice. Killing the last guy (Abel Ferrara himself, in a terrifying mask) she winds up in his possession of his firearm, and from there it’s a spiral into escalating madness that’s a million miles from the bizarre anachronistic mixed messaging of Jodi Foster in The Brave One. This is a film from the era of Bernhard Goetz, Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels, and of course, Charles Bronson Death Wish-ing muggers wherever he may go.
But more importantly the 70s NY is a city of the mind, of a narrowing subjective scope. Once Zoe starts killing people she comes into her own, dressing nicer, but the city around her gets slimier – every man she sees can’t possibly be a slavering rapist in real life, but she sees them all that way, and so they are –and then finally, as a holy nun, blessing her bullets and kissing them with much lipstick for a Halloween party, everyone but her is a debased animal, even her only friends or those nice to her (I think — it’s been awhile). There’s no catharsis in Ms. 45, beyond watching a good film go off the rails into madness and becoming great, it’s Repulsion on wheels, armed and psychotic, wherein wherever one is in the city becomes your own headspace, you draw from the constant throb and flow of people through the city a kind of tarot card future of exactly what you want, never what you need.
This collapsed space is a zone for horror in Ms. 45 but a zone for comedy via Hell itself in Little Nicky, which I recently saw for the first time on FX, and was too weak and tired to change the channel. Although it’s from the year 2000 and is full of crass moments, it’s also pretty funny and occasionally inspired in it’s use of the city as a dirty, grungy place wherein people you meet by chance wind up bringing you marijuana cakes and hailing you as their true dark lord and falling in love with you even though you’re clearly a creep. A chance meeting between two genial metalheads and Nicky, dressed in terrible powder blue puffy coat and red K-Mart slacks, snoring fire on a rock in Central Park results into repeat bumping into each other, in ways that would in actuality be impossible, and this I know from experience. If you chance an encounter with the love of your life and don’t get their phone number or address or arrange a future meeting, you will never see them again. And that’s not just Hell, it’s NYC.
But amazingly, and one of the reasons the film works, is that the New York envisioned for Little Nicky isn’t the NY of the Giuliani or Bloomberg administrations, with their buzzkill nanny state rulebooks, but the NYC of Dinkins and Koch, the Hellscape NY, with crime, neighborhood police groups in red berets, cocaine, discos, singles bars, Plato’s Retreat, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and a sense that people’s private lives and public are interchangeable, going to drop in on friends via fire escape windows is easy, and the fantasia that if you find a roommate on Craigslist they’re liable to be less crazy than you are. It’s less like New York City and more like Altman’s Nashville. The public space has collapsed into one dimension, so if you see someone you know on TV during a Harlem Globetrotters game at Madison Square Garden (itself a ridiculous idea) you can show up courtside in a matter of moments and take the free-throw and wind up in a brawl with Dana Carvey as an insidious referee. Y’all can then pull Tiny Lister out of your flask, cause a bystander’s ‘fro to grow, then just float off and freak out Quentin Tarantino as a flammable street preacher.
For all its crassness, Little Nicky is light-hearted (and thankfully edited for FX when I saw it) and studded with celebrities and SNL cast members. Even if the script is ultimately aimed at all ages, from 7-12… and all types… of grubby suburbanite dirt bag boys…. it’s packed with cameos: Reese Witherspoon (as an angel), Ozzy Osborne (a look-alike), the Harlem Globetrotters (as themselves), Harvey Keitel, great as an even-keeled devil, Patricia Arquette as an endearingly quirky art student, Rhys Ifans stealing whole reels as Nicky’s eloquent grandly evil brother/ aspirant to the throne. Most rewarding are scenes where he and other brother Tiny Lister occupying the bodies of a New York mayor and the St. Patrick’s cathedral cardinal announcing they’re giving up on God and embracing doing whatever the hell they want, including lowering the drinking age to ten, had me ready to go dance in the streets. What this film really dares imagine is what New York in about two years under Bill Di Blasio. So yeah, I’m rooting for the devil, because surface good can’t be trusted. With evil you know where you stand.
So sure, while I sneered at Nicky when it came out back in 2000, sight unseen, times have changed, and while segments are cringe-worthy, the whole messy camaraderie of it, the lack of private space, the idea that whomever you bump into on the throbbing street is either a friend or foe in disguise, all adds up to feel like the walls of your fortress of solitude apartment are suddenly missing and your smelly neighbors are breathing down your neck. Sure it’s unpleasant, but it’s also necessary, and hilarious. When all of us are an island, connected only by the most digital of threads, then the Other has won, the public space has collapsed, and all we have to unite us are Twitter and Facebook, too ls of the devil if ever there were some (I don’t recall a single computer present anywhere in Little Nicky).
The ultimate lesson for Nicky in the film is not that he’s meant to replace his father Satan on the throne, or ascend to heaven with his mom, but to balance good and evil there in the city. That’s the secret dread-hope combo for the Di Blasio future: evil and good in perfect grimy collapsed space harmony. It’s not what we want, but anything’s better than all this… safety.