Gotham “To me, it’s like a great woman”March 25, 2014
I was talking to someone the other day who really loved Mahmoud, the cab driver introduced in the later chapters of Inside an Enigma. He wanted to talk about Gotham in Cat-Tales, how the city rises to become a character in some stories and, in others, its ordinary citizens like Mahmoud or Clair Sabana in NMK Inc can upstage the established Rogues they interact with. As one who aspired to write Batman, he wanted some tips on crafting a Gotham that had those qualities, that was a character in itself and would generate those unique individuals an audience could connect with as something more than crime fodder.
In the course of the same visit, I was flicking the dials and came across Anthony Bourdain eating dim sum in Brooklyn. It was great: Brooklyn, not Chinatown, and as Bourdain was contrasting the well-behaved crowd with the atmosphere of a dim sum seating in Hong Kong, an older woman tired of waiting got up to take the prized dumplings she wanted off a cart. After that, Tony’s tour of the outer boroughs took him to an African restaurant in the Bronx and the proprietor talked about how difficult it was to bring over the people who knew how to do the kind of cooking he required and how expensive it was to get them the education they needed. By this point, my friend was leaning forward towards the TV, elbows on his knees, absorbing every word. And I thought “Okay, he can do this.” Because that’s the part of being a writer that comes before stringing words together. It’s being drawn to people and their stories.
Okay, so, my personal tips for writing Gotham and Gothamites:
* THE MOST IMPORTANT STARTING PLACE: Discard any idea from DC Comics that Gotham and New York are separate places or that Metropolis is an East Coast city that’s nearby. What makes New York the uber-city it is is that it is the center of the universe for so many different fields and that makes it a nexus of an incredible cross-section of humanity in all its diversity. There cannot be another Wall Street right across the river, another center of publishing, of advertising, of fashion, of theatre, of art, of news and broadcasting, another cluster of embassies around the U.N., etc etc. Try to make New York, Gotham and Metropolis sister cities and you diminish all three. Decide right now: Gotham is New York, Metropolis is a time zone away in what we call Chicago, and NEVER LOOK BACK.
* If you have no personal experience with New York, or perhaps a just few days as a tourist, do not despair. You can pick up a fair amount of texture from movies and television, but you have to be smart in what you choose to mine for details.
NO: Friends or Seinfeld. That is not New York. That is LA-New York, and it burns. Sitcoms in general: Mad About You, Will and Grace, How I Met Your Mother, should probably be viewed as an alternate universe. Things may have the same name and general shape, but before you approach the guy in the red cape, you should figure out if it’s Superman or Bizarro.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION: these works hit a single non-representative note. They can only be used in moderation with many other sources to round things out:
- Seven – This is pretty much Frank Miller’s New York and Hell would be an improvement. If this is your notion of NY, I know what your Batman story is going to be – “Gotham as Mordor” – and I’m not going near it. For balance and penance I recommend…
- Sex and the City – To call this a rarified view of the city is like calling a Christie’s auction of a Mickey Mantle rookie card a rarified view of baseball. Yes, there’s stuff like the Paris Theatre on 48th Street, but you can get that from Annie Hall. If you must mine this silly show, I recommend sticking with the first season or two before it became a vehicle for Sarah Jessica Parker’s ego, and fast forward anything referencing $400 shoes. Even so, Gossip Girl is probably a better choice. (And honestly, if you want an insight into new restaurants, shopping, clubs and events to dress up for, I’d forget fiction altogether and go with Zagat, Yelp and Gotham Magazine.)
- Cruel Intentions, Tootsie, When Harry Met Sally, Serendipity, Crocodile Dundee, Big, Ghost Busters, Fame, Kramer versus Kramer, The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street/Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, One Fine Day – all display a different New York, a movie New York that is a very small slice of the real thing. The more of those slices you consider, the more well-rounded your Gotham will be.
Everyone has their own cutoff for how old a movie can be to serve the purpose. I think we can all agree Breakfast at Tiffany doesn’t make the cut, but some people my age can stretch to Midnight Cowboy and Dog Day Afternoon. I’m not one of them.
- Real Housewives of New York City – there’s actually nothing to be gained here. I just put it on the list as additional punishment for the Miller crowd.
- For Reality TV options that do have something to offer (albeit in that one-note capacity that should be taken with many, many others) I would look to the specific episodes or specific segments of Travel Chanel’s programs that feature NY locations. From Rachel Ray’s $40-a-Day to the myriad of “Paradise” show that cover its pizza, steak houses and chips shops, these can be seriously out of date for real life vacation planning, but they’re handy for a writer wanting some local flavor.
- Woody Allen movies – the gold standard for New York movie making. Manhattan Murder Mystery might be a little dated, but it’s not like the 21 Club has changed much. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives and even the universally loathed Anything Else have something to offer for the New York watcher. (You watch enough Woody Allen movies, you start to notice weird things. For some reason, Central Park almost always means exposition.) New York Stories, though Woody only did one part of the trilogy, obviously tops the list.
- As Good As It Gets – If this flick had nothing to offer but the contrast between Melvin’s Manhattan and Carol’s Brooklyn, it would be on the list. It has much more.
- Castle Seasons 1 & 2 – Even though this series is filmed in LA like my first category of no-nos, the early seasons went out of their way to bring an authentic New York flavor. Unlike most shows set in the Big Apple, it touched a lot of different subcultures rather than just icons and geography. The later seasons are still very enjoyable, but as the show’s focus changed over time, it lost its edge making the most of the NYC setting, IMO.
- Law and Order, Law and Order Criminal Intent – Both series get around the city and get into its subcultures and niches. Because it’s actually filmed there, it also gets into its neighborhoods better than LA-based competitors like Castle. The main drawback is simply that it’s been around so long. On any given weekend, 3 channels have marathons running and no formula can stand up to such saturation. Remember why you’re watching.
- Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations – Tony keeps it real. Whether it’s the aforementioned Outer Boroughs episode, the segment on Street Food, secret chef enclaves, or the New York segment of a report on Mexican immigrants in the food service industry, I’ve rarely seen Bourdain touch on a New York story that he didn’t nail.
What are your favorite TV and movie New Yorks? Comment here or tweet me.