Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Manhattan Sinking Like a Rock

Surrounded by real-life gang violence during its original release, the 1979 Walter Hill film, THE WARRIORS is probably not the NYC film classic that will be shown anytime soon at the Bryant Park Outdoor Summerfest, and maybe that's why the film is still so vital and relevant, more so--now, at least-- even than the city that spawned it. 

What? How dare I, you ask? Consider that the title above is a line from Lou Reed's last great album, New York, which examined the garbage dump that was New York City at the dawn of the 1990s. For me, graduating school in 1989, moving to Seattle before finally landing on Manhattan's East Side, it was a talisman. An album of anthems about drugs and bitterness and hopelessly high rents, it made NYC cool even if "They wrote a book about / said it was like ancient Rome."

But in Rome they had a coliseum, right? Gladiators, lions, Christians, all that shit to the death, gluttony and orgies. But what kind of movies are shown at the current New York Bryant Park Summerfest? You know, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. Nothing to rile up the kids with.

Let me hip you to how it was in those days when outdoor summer fests in Bryant Park would have been a nightmare of crime, drugs, and rioting, since this week begins in full the dawn of the mayor's campaign to not even let us smoke cigarettes outside.

Back in 1991-1993 or so, you could still drink on the street with impunity, so long as it was in a paper bag. You could smoke pot all over the street and the street cops wouldn't bat an eye. You could blast music from your trunk and drink beers in class, and 'bridge and tunnel' didn't mean kids coming in to hang out around the multiplex on Union Square and check in with each other via constant texting, it meant coming in to get hammered. Everything below 14th Street became a block party, everything up to 49th Street, a yuppie drunk-a-thon. The Times Square area was still awash in 70s sleaze. If I walked to 1st Avenue down 50th Street to rent (non-X) videos I'd be--depending on if I was wearing jean shorts or not--solicited by various well-dressed dudes in the bushes. And of course, everyone smoked cigarettes ($2 a pack) everywhere (no age limit to smoke - cigarette machines), and danced without cabaret licenses... life was a ball. tears... washed in rain.

Recently I moved out of my old 12th St. walk-up and into Brooklyn and I miss Manhattan, but even Manhattan's not Manhattan anymore. You can't do any of the stuff I just mentioned and Times Square.... it's a nightmare of WB flagships. 'Children come first' so all traces of vice must be swept away. In the 1970s when I used to drive in with my parents and grandmother to see plays on Broadway, if I'd have imagined that one day all the filth would be cleaned up so as not to traumatize my little head, I'd have--even then--been pissed off, and maybe even pissed in the street to protest. Well, maybe I would have been glad to see it go. I can't remember. But it made life dangerous and interesting. Why go to the city at all if not to see something you can't see in your own home town? Let it scare you into appreciating the simple safety of the small town!

Times Square was a real life horror movie, and we loved horror. Times Square on New Years a magnificent party.

Times Square on New Years is now a family-friendly, drug and alcohol-free zone of 'fun' and standing in the cold for upwards of six hours at a crack, for no discernible reason except to be 'part' of it, to say you were 'there.'

The origin of the ball drop celebration stems from the days when everyone drank, danced, and smoked on the street so it made a lot more sense to be outside in the cold. Imagine Dodge City, a dangerous lawless zone of sin, word gets out how authentic and cool it is, so families start coming to visit, so the new laws forbid guns, drinking, gambling, smoking, prostitution, and anything else that might alarm the provincial visitors and their kids, who bring money galore. Naturally the cowboys leave, so Dodge becomes an empty tourist trap where families can come and pay $10 to look at the chair Wyatt Earp once sat in, while paying $8 for a warm mug of warm sarsaparilla. Then of course they hire actors to play cowboys, shooting cap guns at each other in the street. Even the horses snort at it all. That's New York City under our loathsome twins of anti-evil, Giuliani and Bloomberg.

I remember when THE WARRIORS (1979) was released and the newspaper ran big scary ads with the poster at left, and gang violence was rumored to erupting at screenings. The suburbs were scared!

Here's a description of the violence from People magazine in 1979:

Critical response to The Warriors, a new $4 million movie about New York City street gangs, has ranged from mild disdain to modest praise. Audience reaction, on the other hand, has been far less restrained: Within a week of its release, three youngsters were dead and numerous incidents of violence had apparently been triggered by the film.
"If someone comes to a movie with a gun, who's at fault?" asks Warriors' film editor David Holden. Someone did just that at a drive-in showing on the night of February 12 in Palm Springs, Calif. and killed a teenager. Some 165 miles away, on the same night, an 18-year-old bled to death in a darkened theater in Oxnard, Calif. after being knifed by an unruly gang. And three nights later a Boston high school student was murdered outside a subway station, allegedly by two young men who had just come from the film.

Paramount Pictures, the movie's distributor, has scrapped its lurid advertising campaign (above) and offered to pay for extra security at any of the 670 theaters where The Warriors opened four weeks ago. Yet a mere handful of moviehouses have accepted Paramount's offer, and only about a dozen (including the two in California where the killings took place) have canceled the film. The reason is obvious: The Warriors grossed more than $10 million in its first two weeks.... People connected with The Warriors professed surprise. Co-screenwriter David Shaber says it is "like Sesame Street compared to a film by Sam Peckinpah." Paramount VP Gordon Weaver observes that the violence is "the sort of thing that happens at rock concerts, high school basketball games and any place where diverse groups meet. It could have happened anywhere."

Here is a report on three places where it did:

Admission was only $1 at the Esplanade triplex in Oxnard, Calif. the night Tim Gitchel, his brother and two friends drove 10 miles from Ventura to catch the 10:10 showing. Just as The Warriors came on, the four youths suddenly found themselves battling at least 15 blacks who were suspected of drinking and smoking grass during the previous show. The fracas spilled into a walkway while Ed Treiberg, a patron who has worked with juveniles, looked on in horror. "They were caught up in a battle fever," says Treiberg of the assailants. "They just had the look of crazy in their eyes." Two of young Gitchel's companions were stabbed and Tim died from a knife wound to the heart. An 18-year-old construction worker, he was ambitious and hard-working and planned to attend college to study law. "Tim didn't hate anybody," recalls his mother. "He loved life." His family plans to file a civil suit against Paramount and the theater complex.

Four hours before Gitchel died, Marvin Kenneth Eller and several friends drove into the Palm Springs Drive-In to see The Warriors. At the movie, 19-year-old Kenny argued with a youth who blocked the way to the bathroom. Garbage cans flew; several shots were fired from a small-caliber handgun. A bullet went through Eller's skull, and after four days on the critical list he died. The unmarried father of a one-year-old son, Kenny worked for his father as a roofer.

Martin Yakubowicz, 16, a high school sophomore, left his $2.90-an-hour job in Back Bay Boston—putting bindings on skis—half an hour early that Thursday so he could be home in Dorchester in time to bring his mother a surprise gift. He boarded the subway near Symphony Hall and changed trains at a transfer point, where he encountered six youths—two of whom were friends—who had just seen The Warriors. They left the subway together, and, as Marty headed for a bus, a fight broke out and he was fatally stabbed.

The Warriors is still going strong at Boston's Saxon Theatre, which, says the assistant manager, "hasn't done such good business since My Fair Lady."(3/12/79)

In 1981, John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was released and though the film hods up extremely well today, it paled at the time in comparison to THE WARRIORS, which has defied all odds to become one of the best action films of the 1970s.

My mom rented both films for us one Halloween in 1981 when I was around 12 or so and living in Central NJ suburbs. It's hard to believe now, but my friends and I were scared to watch them! Can you dig? Being 15 and scared to watch films like THE WARRIORS and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK? But that's what life pre-cable did to you. It was hard to see stuff with gore and nudity so you grew up kind of intimidated by it.

We saw THE WARRIORS again and again after that, but if you told me I'd ever move to NYC or Brooklyn I would have laughed in disbelief while quietly pissing my pants. This was the place that SNL was introducing as "the murder capital of the world." This was where Sliwa's Guardian Angels protected innocent locals from murderous psychos and muggers; where garbage strikes and unregulated health codes led to a stench unimaginable; drugs, prostitutes, X-rated book stores, drunken drag queens and raincoat-wearing perverts the norm; cinemas were crumbling edifices with grisly triple bills of films often shot in the same neighborhood, carrying their violence outside into cartoonish arias of serial murder, brutal rape and cathartic, insane revenge. It was a place where humanity's basest instincts dissolved into oily messes of profit and pain, and the films from there carried a queasy cachet.

Who would ever want to move there? One went by train for a Saturday afternoon, to drink underage, score some oregano, see a rock show at the Ritz, go into grindhouses on a dare, well-armed with a buzz and friends, and then when the novelty and drinks wore off one got back on the train,  fast. That was New York in the 70s-early 80s, its sleazy magnetism well-captured in dozens of films from TAXI DRIVER to EYES OF LAURA MARS, but none of them quite appealed to us younger teens, not like THE WARRIORS.

We tried to love ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as much but there's something about it never quite clicks. All the ingredients are there, it trades on New York City's mystique at the time of being a dangerous place overrun by crime and strutting gang youths, like a grim sequel, imagining Cyrus didn't die and gangs took over. Like THE WARRIORS its grim facade portends much traumatic violence and grit, makes it seem like you would be taking your life in your hands even to dare to go see it, then says ah I was only kidding, grab a brew. I revere Carpenter's films for that brew, but ESCAPE never quite takes off.  It gets hung up on details, locations, the technicalities of landing a glider on top of the World Trade Center. It loses the NYC dread factor.

 It does however only get better with repeat viewings. It's the perfect post-WARRIORS film, when the expectations are down and the buzz is coming on fast. They're the ideal double feature to take a break from all the bare life nanny state supervision this fun summer, and to remember a time when Manhattan was so grungy it was almost condemned and turned into a maximum security prison run by Lee Van Cleef. As Snake Plissken put it to Harry Dean Stanton, "Keys! Map of the bridge! Hey! Hey! Hey!"


And remember, when you're at that outdoor screening of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S this summer, you may be having fun and earning points with your rom-com other but you're a disgrace to your uniform; warum schl√§fst du? Put down that book and start a gang. Spike that Snapple with a slug of bourbon! Smoke cigars and blow the smoke in the face of a child in a stroller! All tends towards chaos and this little sneeze of righteous nanny-state micromanaging we're mired in too shall pass... just as the ex-meek have inherited the earth, so too will the noveu-meek re-inherit, and the summer will be electric... and the city shall be sleazy.... and crime-ridden once more. Til then, boppers, I guess all we can do is play you a song.

(PS - I put that Joe Walsh song ending to the film on here - but youtube took it down - frickin' Bloomberg, man)


  1. ...into the filthy Hudson / What a shock / They wrote a book about it / They said it was like ancient Rome..."

    Copming to your page is always dangerous, because I end with a bunch more movies to watch. But there are some - like this one - that's just a joy to read...

  2. always dangerous, that's the best compliment I ever got! Thanks Katy! Lesbians in my soup's not exactly safe either. Let's keep 'em unnerved.


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