Volume 19 | Issue 25 | November 3 - 9, 2006

Reel New York
The Mayor's film office celebrates 40 years of NYC films

By Nicole Davis

The name Sam Shaw may not ring a bell, but the late, great celebrity photographer seared two images onto the collective consciousness of the 20th century. The Lower East Side native's first famous picture was of Marlon Brando in a ripped T-shirt, which became synonymous with Elia Kazan's 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The following year, on the set of Brando's “Viva Zapata!,” Shaw befriended his next celebrity subject, Marilyn Monroe, a bit player then who was hired to drive Shaw to film locations. By 1954, after “How to Marry a Millionaire” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” christened Marilyn a megastar, Shaw met her on a different set, during a photo shoot at the corner of 52nd and Lex for the movie poster of “The Seven-Year Itch.”

Even if you've never seen the film, you've seen the picture of Marilyn on the subway grate, laughing as she pushes down her billowing white dress. It's one of the most iconic images in American film - and specifically, films shot in New York - which is why a ten-foot-tall reproduction of Marilyn's sexiest moment on a sidewalk towers over visitors at the Tribeca Cinemas Gallery this month.

The scene is one of the highlights of New York's history in film, which the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting is celebrating through a retrospective of location filming in New York during the past 40 years, titled “Scenes from the City.”

Formed in 1966 under Mayor John Lindsay, the Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting is the go-to place for film permits, insurance, and police assistance for production companies. Under Bloomberg, the office has made filming in New York as easy and cost-effective as movie meccas like Hollywood and Toronto, and it shows. The city is currently hosting one of its largest on-location shoots ever for the Will Smith sci-fi flick “I am Legend.” Crews have so far taken over Soho streets, five-block squares of Midtown, and all of Washington Square Park for the citywide shoot, which is scheduled to continue through February.

All those street closings do add up for the city, though. As the introduction to the exhibit makes clear, the city's movie industry creates 100,000 jobs for New Yorkers, and brings in roughly $5 billion in revenue each year. And yet, for a metropolis as photogenic and frequently filmed as New York, one would expect a photographic exhibit of the last 40 years of movie-making here to be as dense as a Ken Burns' documentary. Instead, the retrospective at the Tribeca Cinemas Gallery seems as brief as a student short.

To be fair, the Mayor's film office has planned a series of corollary events to celebrate its anniversary. Last month, MoMA screened dozens of New York films like “Dog Day Afternoon”; the New School hosted filmmakers like Sydney Pollack; and a book by James Sanders, co-writer of the PBS series, “New York: A Documentary Film” was released this month to coincide with the retrospective.

Images from his book, titled “Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York 1966-2006,” were reproduced by Duggal Digital Solutions for the gallery, where they're mounted on the wall beside informational placards. Sometimes, the trivia is illuminating. For “The Interpreter,” Sidney Pollack secured permission to shoot inside the U.N. from Kofi Anan, a privilege not granted to any filmmaker since “A Glass Wall” was shot there in 1953. (Even Hitchcock had to recreate the interior on a soundstage for “North by Northwest.”) And for the 1977 version of King Kong, the producers shot Kong's final scene in the World Trade Center plaza in the hopes of attracting some 5,000 onlookers who would double as extras. Only a fraction showed, and someone in the crowd apparently knocked out one of Kong's eyeballs, which the art director quickly had to replace with the globe of a 5,000-watt lamp.

Often, however, the exhibit offers no salacious, cinematic tidbits, just the same information anyone can find on the Internet Movie Database. (In fact, a quick fact-check of the King Kong trivia on reveals that 30,000 people did show for the King Kong shoot-.) And while there are plenty of representative scenes from New York films and shows on view, from “Breakfast at Tiffany's” to “Sex and the City,” there are glaring omissions like Woody Allen's “Manhattan,” which devotes nine full minutes to a montage of New York landmarks, and “Law and Order,” which is probably responsible for employing half of the city's actors.

Fortunately, this rather thin retrospective is buffeted by ancillary events this month, like the screenings of immigrant experience films at the Queens Museum of Art; Scorcese's and Spike Lee's student films at NYU's Cantor Film Center; and “Made in New York” movies like Milos Forman's “Hair” at Tribeca Cinemas this Friday night.

“Scenes from the City” is open through November 27, Tuesday-Saturday, from 12:00 PM to 7:00 PM at the Tribeca Cinemas Gallery, 13-17A Laight Street (between Varick and Avenue of the Americas). More details about the film office's anniversary events are available at

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