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Poetic License and Geography

New York at the Movies

New York is the setting for more movies than any other city. It also houses more than its fair share of geographreaks. This is a problem for geographically challenged directors. One professional New York geographreak offers cases in point—and a cautionary note to filmmakers.

Chuck Katz

Movie-goers are often asked to suspend disbelief, to take at face value something we know cannot possibly be true. And typically, we make such accommodation willingly, knowing that our full enjoyment of a movie depends upon our total acquiescence in the “lie.” Can a boy really make a wish and, overnight, turn into a man, as Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) did in 1988’s Big? I’m no physicist, but I’ve heard of no cases where it’s actually happened, so I would have to vote “no” on that one. Yet it happened in the movie. And not only did we accept it, we embraced it.

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in New York’s Grand Central Terminal during rush hour would question whether commuters would be likely to break into waltz, as they did in 1991’s The Fisher King, while trying to catch the 5:53 to Scarsdale, yet it was one of the most magical moments in a wonderfully touching film. And do the restless dead really ride the late-night subways with us, as they did in 1990’s Ghost? We may never know for sure, but I would venture a guess that most people didn’t let the issue cloud their enjoyment of the movie. For the sake of a pleasant movie-watching experience, we are willing to put our persnicketiness on hold.

But when filmmakers relax their geographical accuracy, it’s hard for movie-goers who know the city in which a film is located to hold their tongues. And in a city where more movies are filmed than any other, New York houses more than its fair share of such geographreaks, so filmmakers should be extra careful to get the geography right. But sometimes, they don’t. And as one of those geographreaks, I feel obliged to point out such discrepancies.

In 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, most New Yorkers could tell that the neighborhood Tom Cruise wandered through during his late-night adventure (jazz bar, costume rental shop, etc.) was not located in New York at all. Did that street sign that Tom Cruise walked beneath really say Hyde Street? A pair of good eyes and your dog-eared copy of Hagstrom’s will tell you that something is rotten in Denmark. Or Greenwich Village. Or actually, London.

And, as all Manhattanites can tell you, if a building on one side of a street is listed as number 34, the building next door may be 36, but it is not likely to be 35. Except where housing is on only one side of the street—think Riverside Drive, Central Park West, Fifth Avenue—New York keeps its odd and even addresses segregated, across the street or avenue from one another. Alas, in his final film, Mr. Kubrick must have forgotten this little fact.

In 1996’s One Fine Day, George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer dropped their respective children off at the Ninth Street Dropoff Center, which most of us, I imagine, presumed to be located on 9th Street. They left the center, turned the corner and, lo and behold, they were on Broadway and 74th Street. Did sixty-five Manhattan blocks miraculously disappear? No, but the filmmakers would have us believe they did. On such a busy day as the two stars were having on that “one fine day,” did they take the time to walk the more than three miles? Not likely, especially given the fact that they were walking south on Broadway (away from 74th Street) and in the direction of 9th Street, the street on which they had started out. To get from 9th Street to 74th, they should have been walking in the opposite direction.

In 1995’s Smoke, Harvey Keitel managed a smokeshop in Brooklyn and William Hurt was one of his regular customers. Near the end of the movie, the two decided to grab some lunch so that Harvey Keitel could tell William Hurt a nice Christmas story. Where did they go? Some eatery around the corner? Hardly. They ended up at Barney Greengrass, which is located in Manhattan, on Amsterdam Avenue between 86th and 87th Streets. The food at Barney Greengrass is good and it’s worth the trip, but it hardly seems likely, in the context of that movie, that the two men would have schlepped all the way to the Upper West Side for a quick bite.

In 1996’s Sleepers, four boys from Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” (approximate location: Eighth to Eleventh Avenues, 42nd to 57th Streets) spent their summer hanging out in the neighborhood, yet the movie’s pivotal scene, where the boys stole, dangled and lost control of a hotdog vendor’s cart down a subway entrance staircase, occurred in Astor Place, over by Fourth Avenue and 9th Street. Sure, the filmmakers may have wanted us to think the ornate staircase was located right in the boys’ neighborhood, but we persnickety New Yorkers knew better.

Similarly, in 1998’s Hi-Life, a film located in an actual Manhattan bar with that name, located on Amsterdam Avenue at 83rd Street, Ray (Campbell Scott) was a bartender who had lent money to some bartenders who worked other bars in the neighborhood. When his sister needed to borrow money from him, Ray decided to call in his loans from his colleagues and walked from one place to the next, doing so. Except that one of the places he stopped in was Two Boots Pizza, which is located on Avenue A between 2nd and 3rd Streets, almost as far from Amsterdam and 83rd as one can be and still be in Manhattan.

Even though the filmmakers wanted us to think the pizza place was located near Ray’s bar—when Ray got into a fist fight with a Santa Claus outside the pizza place (don’t ask), the police broke it up, reporting over the two-way radio that the fight had occurred on Amsterdam and 84th Street—we New Yorkers couldn’t be fooled. For the record, there is a pizza place on Amsterdam and 84th (Ceasar’s or Caesar’s, depending on whether you look at the window or the awning), but it was clearly not the one into which Ray had gone to retrieve his money.

It is not enough that the movie audience is asked to accept the fact that a bartender on the Upper West Side will leave his bar and walk all the way down to the East Village during his shift: we are also asked to disregard our own knowledge as to the logical route he would take to get there. Not living in Washington D.C., I don’t know the roads there all too well, but I have heard it said that Holly Hunter’s detailed instructions to various taxi drivers as to the best routes to take in 1987’s Broadcast News do not quite add up. But enough filmmakers have engaged in creative “routing” in New York movies to keep New Yorkers on their toes.

Near the end of One Fine Day, Clooney and Pfeiffer had to get their kids to Central Park for a soccer game. They left The 21 Club, which is located on 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and headed north on Sixth Avenue. But then Clooney’s daughter had to use the bathroom. Did they stop at the Hilton Hotel, which was just ahead on Sixth Avenue and on the way to Central Park? Hardly. They headed over to Seventh Avenue and used the facilities at Carnegie Deli (between 54th and 55th Streets). Great pastrami, but I don’t know that the place is known for its bathrooms and it was clearly out of the way. Given the fact that they were in such a rush—if they missed the game, the kids wouldn’t get their end-of-season trophies—the Hilton would have seemed the better choice. If it were me, that’s where I would have gone. Literally.

In 1997’s As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson played an obsessive-compulsive who followed the same habits every day. From his apartment, which was located on 12th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, he walked to his favorite restaurant (avoiding the cracks in the sidewalks), which was located on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. Logic would dictate that when he left his building, he would walk east on 12th Street to Fifth Avenue, turn right on Fifth and walk south the three blocks to 9th Street, wouldn’t it? So why did he pass by Balducci’s (now a Citarella’s), which is located on Sixth Avenue and 9th Street, on his way?

And such misdirection is not solely the affliction of obsessive-compulsives. In fact, it affected Sonny (Adam Sandler), who could be considered the polar opposite of an obsessive-compulsive, in 1999’s Big Daddy. Saddled with a cranky kid and not knowing how to pass the time, Sonny did what many real parents do: head for the nearest McDonald’s. Except Sonny and his young ward, Julian, had only twenty minutes to get from Sonny’s apartment in SoHo to the McDonald’s, before they stopped serving breakfast. But if Sonny really wanted to make it on time—that is, if time was really of the essence—then why didn’t he take the shortest route?

From the intersection of Grand Street and West Broadway (where Sonny noted on a nearby clock [more on that below] that they had only nine minutes in which to make the trip), he and Julian headed north on West Broadway. Such direction was correct, since the McDonald’s at which they ultimately ended up, I believe, was the one on West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue, in Greenwich Village. But they arrived too late for breakfast. Why? Because, after walking north on West Broadway, Sonny and Julian, in the next shot, are shown walking north on Water Street, in front of the funky wall clock across Water Street from the South Street Seaport, all the way downtown. The streets of SoHo and Greenwich Village tend to wind a bit, but seriously, that would have been the mother of all wrong turns.

As for the clock that Sonny consulted to see that it was nine minutes before eleven? It is located on Sixth Avenue, at Tenth Street. I checked it out myself, and there is no way that Sonny could have seen the clock, even high atop the tower on which it is perched, from his vantage point at Grand Street and West Broadway. And that doesn’t even raise the issue that Greenwich Village (and the clock) were both north of Sonny at that intersection, yet he was facing south when he looked up and supposedly saw the clock.

Mere mortals are not the only ones who are apt to lose their way. In 1978’s Superman, in the city of Metropolis, which bore a pretty big resemblance to Manhattan, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and spunky colleague Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) left work together. They exited the Daily Planet building (a.k.a. the Daily News building), located at Second Avenue and 42nd Street and, in the very next shot, were lured into an alley by a would-be mugger. The fact that Clark was able to thwart the mugging was not surprising. The location of the alley should have been, however. In two consecutive camera shots, Lois and Clark went from Second and 42nd to an alley off Pike Street, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, a good four miles or so from the Daily Planet building. Even Superman may have had difficulty flying between the two locations in such a short period of time.

The brazen disregard for New York geography continues. In the more recent Autumn in New York, Richard Gere plays a restaurateur who falls for a much younger woman (Winona Ryder). He does a bad thing and, as is so often the case in movies, he wanders the streets, doing some pretty heavy thinking. In one shot, Gere is shown walking on the overpass that crosses the FDR Drive (near 78th Street) on the Upper East Side and in the very next shot, he is shown walking into his building, which is located at 88 Greenwich Street (located west of the downtown Financial District, a few short blocks north of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel).

Now other people may have to consult a map to see the unlikelihood of such a leap, but not New Yorkers. New York may be a walking town and New Yorkers may be known for walking, but nobody is going from that point A to that point B, on foot, as Gere did in the film. And the filmmakers should have known it. New Yorkers did.

So, a note to filmmakers who choose to set their movies in the Big Apple: make a good movie and New Yorkers will come. We may even turn a blind eye when you tinker with the laws of physics, as with Big. But mess with the traffic laws or mix-and-match our wondrous and glorious streets or our equally grand neighborhoods, and you risk losing us forever. We can’t help it, but we don’t really care: we’re persnickety and we’re damn proud of it. After all, we’re New Yorkers.:::

Chuck Katz is author of Manhattan on Film: Walking Tours of Hollywood's Fabled Front Lot, now in its third revised edition.
posted by editor ::: August 01, 2003 ::: pheatures :::