Living in New York City for the few months that I did, I often wondered when the mindset is reached of not caring about the way certain films and television programs portray the city. When is the thrill of the action movie that has your block exploding not as exhilarating anymore or realizing that the restaurant you hang out in will now be booked with sprawls of tourists after it was the backdrop in some romantic comedy. I am, of course, saying this from a perspective of a viewer and not somebody wanting to make a commodity out of the certain sights and locations shown on GIRLS or SEX & THE CITY. I also wonder about when the lack of realism in a city space hits the native New Yorker when seeing their city on film and television. What rings as untrue, as something that was clearly written by somebody with a certain mindset of New York but never stepped into the city besides the most commercial parts of Manhattan or, perish the thought, did not actually shoot in the city but in Canada or some other major city for tax breaks (from RENT to THE AVENGERS, it was pretty obvious that was not New York). This actually is not as hard as it sounds. It was pretty clear what shows and films are realistic or authentic and others are not once you spend a week or two here.
I write this because last year my hometown of Schenectady became the location and setting for a film called THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. It made a lot of hay when it was announced that Ryan Gosling was starring in the film and the creative team, director Derek Cianfrance and co-writter Ben Coccio, did the film BLUE VALENTINE (which I hate to say I have still not yet seen) with Gosling. People were lining up to be extras and interns, it was pretty remarkable to see unfold (thankfully most of the shooting in Schenectady was finished before Tropical Storm Irene did some real damage to local establishments around the city). Gradually it was becoming clear what this film was going to be about: A crime and police story of bank robberies and Schenectady’s name was going to be all over it rather than a fictionalized Anycity, USA. This did not stop the city from lending itself as a location, and in fact, director Derek Cianfrance has gone out of his way in interviews to thank the local police department for providing information to make the film’s key scenes to be authentic. But there was a sudden cynicism in making Schenectady a back-drop.
I am not expecting readers to have knowledge to drop about the Electric City but it is like a mini-Detroit or Cleveland in once being a thriving example of Fordism and industry only to still be in recovery in the age of neo-liberal outsourcing with the city’s major employer General Electric shipping jobs out (all while leaving an incalculable amount of chemicals in the Hudson River). You hope that these filmmakers, including co-writter Ben Coccio who graduated from nearby Niskayuna High School, are going to present Schenectady with authenticity, warts and all, but not make it a total abyss of post-Fordist shame (think of the opening scene to THEY LIVE or any Michael Moore documentary that shows Flint, Michigan). Is it too much to ask for something closer to THE WIRE or a John Sayles film?
Reading early reviews of the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is mixed to positive. Some reviews like in the AV Club, believe the film falls apart in its self-seriousness but praises the performances. Another noted critique is that Gosling’s character is a little too close to the strong, silent type in DRIVE. Some love the multiple, inter-twining narratives and others do not (though it is interesting that I ask for a David Simon approach on Schenectady and lo and behold it appears I got it in its storytelling technique). I am looking forward to seeing it but I definitely think I can separate being a Schenectady native and a movie reviewer. I cannot, however, deal with this review by Jeffrey Wells:
I also felt that Mendes and Byrne are too hot to live in Schenectady. Beauty almost always migrates to the big cities where the power and the security lie, and in my experience the women who reside in blue-collar hell holes like Schenectady are far less attractive as a rule. There’s a certain genetic look to the men and women of Upper New York State, and they aren’t the kind of people who pose for magazine covers or star in reality shows.
I did not even put that in bold. He did. I personally asked Mr. Wells on Twitter if he has ever been to Schenectady or Upstate New York (Nobody, not even people who recently moved into the city and never have been to any other part of New York state refers to it as ‘Upper State’. You must have us confused with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Mr. Wells). He has not yet responded, though he appears busy see movies at TIFF and provoking online arguments with other critics over what he has seen at TIFF. Lucky bastard.
Broad generalizations in the name of calling out a film’s authenticity (all while in a review complaining about the chain-smoking in film from the looks of it takes place in the past where smoking was an acceptable social more) can work as a critique. Take Ben Affleck’s THE TOWN. I am sure not everybody bought Blake Lively as the no-collar ingenue but that criticism had a lot to do with her unable to play down her GOSSIP GIRL pedigree (that many actors struggle with) or put on a passing Boston accent (which many actors struggle with). You can criticize that performance without saying ‘Oh, even with all that make-up work that really tried to ‘ugly’ her up, I still cannot buy that there is a girl in the Charlestown area of Boston who looks like Blake Lively.’, especially since I am not even certain the segment of Boston area critics even stepped into Charlestown, Massachusetts. Hell, I have criticized actors in not buying them in a socio-economic class or setting. I recently criticized Emile Hirsch in KILLER JOE for just that, but that had more to do with my general problems of the actor being unable to really disappear into any role. But doing a film review in this repugnant, John Simon kind of film reviewing is pretty disgusting. Actually, I take that back. At least when John Simon launched attacks about looks it was the major Hollywood actor and not the nameless extra in the background or comparing and contrasting his idea of the central-casting for a role versus the actor or actress in that role.
I have actually given this review too much credit. Wells never even brings up the performances of either Mendes (who I thought was believable as a drug-addled New Orleans hooker in Herzog’s BAD LIEUTENANT) or Byrne (an Aussie actress who has perfected an American accent so much in her time working in the States that it is more of shock to hear her actual accent), he just thinks there cannot possibly be women in a blue-collar, rust-belt America who looks like these actresses. There is a certain level of classism and sexism, note Gosling or Cooper are considered authentic enough supposedly in not being mentioned at all, in that statement.
A ‘certain genetic type’ is also a really eye-opening phrase to use, especially toward an urban, blue-collar setting that harkens back to Ed Koch’s statement about Upstate New York that torpedoed his run for Governor. It is also incredibly inaccurate portrait of a city where local streets got saved from being a ghost town by immigrants and young entrepreneurs. There cannot be a ‘certain genetic type’, not in 2012, for Schenectady to even be standing, even in tatters, at this point.
At this point, I learned to deal with it as a Schenectady native. And by it, I mean the class stereotypes that can also be about race, gender, and occupation. I stayed local with my college education at a Liberal Arts school and I have lost count at the number of times I rolled my eyes with the perceptions kids on my campus had about my hometown. These were self-described liberals and people who thought they were open-minded, but revealed an incredible amount of insularity, snobbery, and casual racism and classism. This moment came to a head when the phrase ‘Schenectadoid’ was used in my school newspaper, in an article that was actually trying to articulate the beautiful Stockade district as a revived area of the city. I still cannot believe that got published, I cannot believe editors who I was and still am friends with allowed that to be published, and I did not buy the apology article by the author of that article for a minute. At least Wells’ tone-deafness is still permeating in his non-apology.
I often wonder if the critical masses when they think of blue-collar families or blue-collar communities in mass media think more about the TLC reality exploitation of HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO rather than ROSEANNE, GRACE UNDER FIRE, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, or even the American version of SHAMELESS. Those shows did often get not as authentic over time, but never has it felt like exploitation in the vein of the problematic PRECIOUS. Their authenticity is important to show in showing people or people a viewer ‘could know’, in all shapes and sizes was groundbreaking. But saying any actor somehow cannot ‘play down’ their good looks to the image of that certain socio-economic class or there is no possible way a part in a certain socio-economic background or certain setting does not field any good-looking people seems to have transgressed the importance of those television programs and the history of realism in film into making ugliness and grit necessary for authenticity in a blue-collar setting. I thought the point of a Roberto Rossellini to a Charles Burnett in using realism was to find beauty in everything. But I guess what critics see is trash. Poor, unrelatable, untouchable trash. For blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants- they are called ‘urban’. For white people, it is just a general phrase of ‘white trash’.
John Waters never said he made a film about ‘white trash’, a phrase he refused to use or describe Divine, Mink Stole or Edith Massey (he called them ‘extreme white people’) because he found the phrase the last-standing politically incorrect term he found still hostile and offensive to him. For a director described as the ‘King of Trash’, Waters still has more cultural and class sensitivity than a truly insular, ignorant critic as Wells.
I hope that THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a good film just for the fact I will give my hard-earned money to see it. I am not going to fall in love with it for the simple fact it was shot in my hometown. I hate sounding defensive over this film or my hometown for that matter, I just want to see a movie that feels authentic, realistic, and good given the amount of talent involved. I do not need coastal, insular people telling me what beauty is or the state of my city from their broad generalizations that reveal such an obvious case of sexism and classism.