The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Glamour of Movie Making

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The Hollywood Hustle on My Block

The movie people were here last week, and they were here a couple weeks before. I think it’s supposed to be a thrill to live somewhere they want to use as background.

In truth, they guys who were here are not really movie people but television people, although the production assistants with the walkie-talkies seem to groove on telling you that you have to walk on the other side of the street because they’re shooting a movie.

I realize it’s a personal thing that I’m one of those people who resent being pushed around by smug kids who look at me as if I’m not cool enough to be anywhere near their glamorous camera, that I’m too ordinary to even appear fleetingly in the background of an authentic New York City street scene. And it’s my problem that I don’t like the burning diesel oil from their fleet of trucks all day and late into the night. I don’t the like the occasional bouts of shouting of instructions, the grinding of the generators and the babbling of the vast crew standing around.

It certainly doesn’t help that this particular shoot is for White Collar, a cheesy television series that is filming it’s fifth season despite a steadily dwindling audience. Every year the first show of the season loses viewers from the year before. And during every season, the finale loses viewers that were there in the beginning of the season. Maybe that’s normal in television.

Not quite rolling

Not quite rolling

I saw a few minutes of an old White Collar episode in reruns on Channel 9, and it was nothing more than an ordinary a cops and robbers show, but an unwatchable one at that. Just poorly done, with stiff actors culled from the soaps and other TV shows.

It’s a knockoff of the movie and book called Catch Me If You Can, which tells the story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a forger, confidence man and impersonator whose life in crime was over before he was 30, after his time in prison. He went straight in a big way by working for the F.B.I. to catch other such schemers. The movie was OK, but spoiled by performance of the always smirking Leonardo DiCaprio.

But there’s a larger point here, beyond my personal likes and dislikes or my offhand critique.

I’ve talked to others who live here about the disruptiveness of film shoots, and whether the appearance of the city streets is good or bad for New York. Most people I know are somewhat annoyed, but whenever you turn a corner and bump into a movie set, there is clearly a small crowd of gawkers taking pictures, and if the stars are big enough, a couple of paparazzi. They think there’s something exciting going on.

And, for sure, the best argument in favor of these ubiquitous shoots would be that it’s good for New York, especially for the reputation of the city, and by extension the economy.

But think about it. All that this economic benefit adds up to is to make me an impostor in Manhattan myself. Maybe this is good for real estate hustlers, but there is no way that I could move to Manhattan today and afford to buy the home we occupy now and have owned for a quarter of a century. Maybe I could find a place at the end of some subway line in the boroughs, but not here.

New York has always had an aura of glamor, and it has always been fed by the movies and television, but that is compounded greatly by huge wealth churned up by Wall Street’s gambling (and guaranteed by the taxpayers).

The city has had glum years, when the streets were dirty, fearful, albeit exciting to tourists who seemed to be expecting a short stay in a war zone. Whole neighborhoods were off-limits to the comfortable middle class. But Manhattan is so rich now, that there isn’t a single square foot of the island where a rational person would feel afraid. Don’t pay any attention to the claims of various law enforcement experts. Their strategies didn’t do anything. Money did. A lot of money.

You can see the money all over my once-lower-middle-class neighborhood. We have luxury hotels within a few blocks of the cleaned-up Union Square where there are no more soapboxes and only a few methadone addicts chilling out after their clinic appointments. For sure, they can’t afford to live here. New buildings sell apartments that are half the size of an average suburban house for more than $1 million each, and on every block, there is the conversion of a brownstone that had held four to eight families into a lavish single-family residence for the latest Wall Street traders who have made a lucky guess while playing with our pension money.

I see the wealth oozing in the hands of the children of the wealthy crowding into small apartments to taste a few exciting years in the city, maybe at NYU or maybe in the remaining entry level jobs in the offices of the city. Some, still students, are starting are getting their first pieces of real estate by buying apartments with mortgages cosigned by mommy and daddy and meeting the payments by having a bunches of roommates.

But aren’t the jobs on film shoots good for the economy and employment? I look at the nearest movie set. Indeed, there are dozens of grips, electricians, P.A.s and other support troops of the movie business, standing around talking
on the phone, sleeping, gossiping, occasionally doing something. Yes, these are good jobs for the lucky few with the connections to get them, so high-paying that it doesn’t matter if they’re only intermittent.

Waiting around for the call

Waiting around for the call

These jobs are a sore point, not because I begrudge the people who have them their good fortune, but because they are used as cover for the Hollywood lobbyists, and their allies in the music and software businesses, who have cajoled and seduced Congress to make the copying of a song or a video a serious federal crime. I still get mad when I think of the reply I got from my Congresswoman (Carolyn Maloney) to a rare email I’ve ever sent to my representatives — this one about the attempt by the movie, and music, and software businesses to squelch the Internet to make it easier for them to pursue the pirates who after after their overpriced content. Ms. Maloney and so many others in Congress waved the crucial movie-music-etc. employment to excuse an outrageous and shortsighted piece of legislation, which was more or less halted in a standoff between the armies of opposing lobbyists of Hollywood on the one side, and those of Silicon Valley on the other.

At a glance, I can easily see from the filming, on location on our streets, why it costs so many millions to make a film.

I rather doubt that all this cash is necessary for art, or even to entertain the masses. I suspect that the cost of the spectacles serves as an excuse for huge executive salaries and expense accounts.

I don’t think the lobbying and the arguments to Congress dwell too much on the art aspect with good reason. Besides the superstars with surgically augmented faces and bodies, most artists, including actors, have day jobs.

The movie studios and the digital pirates deserve each other.


Written by theunbiasedeye

August 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm

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