New York, New York: Spike Lee’s quarantine city symphony

A few days ago, Spike Lee premiered his latest movie. Not Da Five Bloods, coming to Netflix next month, without stopping at Cannes, but a three-minute movie he unveiled on Instagram called New York, New York. Lee calls his film “a love letter to [the city’s] people. Plain and simple”. But it’s not as plain and simple as all that.

Although, the film is only three and a half minutes long, I’m calling it a city symphony, and here’s why. For one thing, the movie is cut to music, Frank Sinatra singing the familiar song ‘New York, New York’ – and Lee’s montage is always on point.

Second, in a city symphony there are always two narratives proceeding at the same time. The first narrative is a visual tour of the city and here Lee shows us a selection of scenes from the five boroughs of NYC, all edited to that famous tune, filmed on Super 8, by hand. There’s a graphic beauty to it, with slick match-cuts such as a revolve around a basketball hoop fading into the clock in the centre of Grand Central Station.

Often there’s a process of alienation going on with the visual tour, and that’s true here also. The film was all shot during lockdown, so Wall Street, Yankee Stadium and the subway are eerily quiet – does a city even look like itself without a crowd of people? Think about Manhatta (1921), with the stick figures on the sidewalk, or pushing off the ferry. Or the tourists in À Propos de Nice (1930), and the workers in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927).

The second narrative builds slowly. Spike Lee is doing more than showing us the city in quarantine. He’s telling a story about capital, and government, and how they both tie into the pandemic, and the city’s response. It’s also about resistance too, I think. It may be a love letter, but it’s also a very angry, and also mournful film. See for yourself.

 

  • Yes, I know. Like London buses round here.
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