Place  /  Film Review

A Skyline Is Born

A history of filmmakers retelling the story of New York’s architecture.
Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress

The version of New York City used on-screen can be split into two major categories: the dark underbelly of the city found in noirs, gangster films, and TV procedurals, and the shiny optimism found in rom-coms and comedies. A tale of two cities, so to speak. Both have separate aesthetics that quickly signal to viewers what kind of film they’re watching. NYC noirs show a dark and lecherous montage of the city, portraying the city as unwelcome, such as the Law & Order opening. Montages in rom-coms show the city during the day: bright and sunny, bustling. If there is a night shot, it’s most likely of the sanitized version of twentieth-century Times Square. New York as a land of opportunity, whether it be for a career or a love interest, is the image projected.

A third category of film might be considered a mix: a successful businessperson is secretly involved in criminal activity. In these films, the shots of the city cycle between unruly and disheveled and bright and shiny. The former is typically shown at night, while the latter are daytime scenes, mirroring the dual nature of both the city and the main character. No film does this better than American Psycho (2000), directed by Mary Harron. The facades of the Manhattan skyscrapers reflect the sun during the day, when Patrick Bateman is a successful businessman. But at night, Bateman goes on his killing sprees.

These dichotomies can be directly traced to the anxieties or optimism of the year they were filmed. Neither films nor architecture can ever be completely divorced from the politics of their settings: buildings and narratives echo the political climate of the moment, such as the ping-pong between fear of crime and lust for wealth of the 1980s or the not-long-for-this-world economic sunniness of the 1990s. The semiotic potency of skyscrapers became clear when films shifted in reaction to 9/11. Prior to September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers were displayed prominently in films and television, the distinct matchstick buildings standing out above the skyline. After the attacks, the symbolism of the buildings shifted from “New York” and “success” to that of extreme tragedy and loss. Films that were slated for release in the months following the attack—Zoolander, Serendipity, Spider-Man—scrubbed the towers from their footage, circumventing any potential reminders of the tragedy that might counter the entertainment value of the films.

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