Hollywood — New York, hospitable to immigrants but famously inhospitable to its own residents and great lovesick apes, has drawn numerous film adjectives that tend to run along the lines of “Mean Streets,” “Dead End,” “Lost Weekend” and “Naked City.” Chicago has the big shoulders; New York has the hard heart. Its vanities rise in a bonfire swirl. Even its sweet smell of success has a whiff of rot.
One adjective we’ve never heard before comes from playwright-screenwriter Ann Nelson when her alter ego in “The Guys” reflects: “My beautiful, gleaming, wounded city.” “Wounded” is something the city has never copped to, even after war, blizzards, financial collapses and horrendous air crashes. Not until 9/11, anyway.
“The Guys” is one of three notable films by new filmmakers to come out of New York in the past year and the only one to deal directly with the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Director Jim Simpson was sitting around with some of his actors at the Flea Theater, located in what was quickly called “the frozen zone” not far from ground zero, wondering what to do next.
“One of my actors said, ‘We have to do something. Let’s get out and talk to some of the people in the neighborhood. Get their stories,'” says Simpson, artistic director of the theater. “I knew we needed a journalist to do that. I contacted Ann Nelson, who was teaching at Columbia. As it turns out, she’d been asked by a fire captain to write eulogies for eight of his men who’d been lost. She wanted to make a play about the experience, to put a human face on it.”
“The Guys” was first presented as a play with Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver (Simpson’s wife). In the film, Anthony LaPaglia plays the fire captain and Weaver reprises her role as Ann Nelson, a character who knows her verbal gifts are no match for New York’s monumental grief.
“The city is back to its dog-eat-dog daily life now,” Simpson says. “For a while people were making eye contact. They were angry. I saw strangers weep in an elevator. Everyone it seems had lost someone, or knew someone lost. The world has changed. We don’t know what it is. But when I watch my 12-year-old daughter walk to school, I know it’ll be different for her.”
But New York doesn’t need cataclysm for change. Peter Sollett is only 26, but when he wanted to make a short film about growing up Jewish in Bensonhurst among Irish and Italians, he went back to find the neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The actors he read “got their style from TV commercials — they were all over the top.”
His search moved him to the Lower East Side and its Hispanic population. The short “Five Feet High and Rising” became the feature-length “Raising Victor Vargas,” a family and teen love story — or prelove story. The pimp-roll walk of Victor Rasuk (Victor) and the impassivity of Judy Marte (Amanda) are part of the front they have to present to a sexually fraught, claustrophobic neighborhood, gripped in humid anxiety that makes people sweat even when they’re motionless.
“They were naturals,” Sollett says. “I didn’t set out to make a Latino film, but they found us. Their setting is highly specific, not just a street but one side of a street. But they’ll always be New Yorkers, where if you want to be heard you have to scream.”
Cast and crew watched from a rooftop as the Twin Towers collapsed. “You ask if what you’re doing is of value, is this movie a value in the world? Two weeks later, the majority of us decided it was,” says Sollett. “If it had been a movie about people offing each other, it would’ve been awfully hard to do.”
Writer-director Dylan Kidd’s first feature, “Roger Dodger,” was the buzz of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the feature narrative award. The story of an ad industry Casanova and his 16-year-old nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) visiting the Big Apple for a night on the town, “Roger” has a verbal sizzle that hasn’t been heard since Paddy Chayefsky (“Language as a weapon, or as a shield,” Kidd says).
Campbell Scott’s Roger recalls the sharp, jabbing, cynical intelligence of his father, George C. Scott, in “The Hustler.” Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley are smart, stylish New York beauties, and Isabella Rossellini’s sexual ruthlessness (she plays Roger’s boss) is as easy to her as a spray of Lancome.
Eighteen months earlier Kidd was just another film school grad hustling a script no one wanted, even after it was read at the prestigious Nuyorican Cafe.
“I literally carried the script around in a manila envelope, ready to shove it into the hands of anyone remotely interested,” says the 33-year-old Kidd. “I saw Campbell in a Village restaurant and screwed up my courage to talk to him. It all began with him. If we hadn’t met I’d probably be back clerking at a videostore.”
An inveterate Lothario, Roger cruises the high-rises and byways of Manhattan in search of his next conquest. Shot over 20 days in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 on a budget of “way less than $2 million,” “Roger Dodger” depicts a 24-hour metropolis teeming with endless romantic possibilities while also reflecting a palpable sense of isolation and loneliness, even for a player like Roger.
“I have to be really careful; it’s so easy to be sentimental,” explains Kidd. “But much of the making of the film was tied into the vibe of New York. People were connected, glad to be here together. New York is a city that forces you to get up. You have to deal.”
Indeed, there’s nothing sentimental about “Roger Dodger.” Without panoramic editorializing, through its eponymous character alone it shows a dark, edgy city, cruel, crowded and noisy, but not without tenderness and the capacity for renewal.