"I never saw New York on foot before. Exciting."
You said it, buster. If there's one regular series here at MNPP that I really should've been better about keeping up with during these Quarantine Days it's my "City en Scène" series, which I just began at the start of 2020 in order to celebrate my 20th year living in New York. The thing is... well, every time I thought about doing it I got sad. I got real sad. Too sad.
Being cut off from everything save my own neighborhood -- for the record I live at the top of Washington Heights; basically the northern tip of the island of Manhattan -- for the past two months has only been hard when I have thought about it, and this series makes me think about it. That's its entire point! It's hard to distract yourself from what you're missing when you're writing about all you're now missing. I'd like to say I'm a big enough fella to set aside my own paltry feelings in order to celebrate something bigger than me -- this city I love, this city that's given me so much, this city that's going through a hardship of its own and could use the boost. But just holding it together right now has taken its own delicate balancing act, and every time I've thought about writing these posts I could feel everything wobble. So why am I here today?
Because of all things a movie I think was mostly shot on a sound stage. Dorothy Arzner's 1940 feminist dance classic Dance Girl Dance is being released by Criterion today and the film, which stars Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara as two dancers trying to make it in the big city, reminded me of everything I love about New York in the movies. A lot has been said about the film's rediscovery in the 1970s by second-wave feminists (there's a terrific extra on the Criterion disc where critic B. Ruby Rich talks about this) who rightfully latched onto its condemnation of the male gaze -- the film's emotional high point comes when O'Hara gives a lacerating speech to a theater full of lechers -- but it's also just a real good example of a New York Film, in spirit and tone.
They might not make it out of their dance studios very often, and when they do it's pretty clearly rear-screen projection or sound-stages, but Arzner still captures the essence of this place -- the reasons why people come here from all over the world with their dreams folded up in their pockets on little pieces of paper, and the ways the city nourishes us back even when it feels like a canyon of insurmountable brick walls. The walks down empty streets with a person you love, the midday glimmers of light on a tower sixteen stories up that suddenly fall across your face right when you need it. Months of hardscrabble hoofing and humiliations and you look up, up, up, and you just fall in love.