I don’t think I’ve ever given Liza Minnelli enough credit.
Yes, maybe her money notes have an unmistakable edge to them, and yes, maybe she has grown up in the shadow of her mother’s talent and tragedy, but after watching Scorsese’s New York, New York at Anthology Film Archives for the first time last night, I really do appreciate Liza. (I’ve always been on a first-name basis with her, mostly due to my having picked up somewhere in my youthful musical theatre career an impression of her that consist of drawing out her first name in what I thought to be a decent version of her voice, a rather unfair and entirely ungrounded in actual knowledge of Liza Minnelli performances.)
Sometimes I doubt myself as a CAMS major, but watching this movie reminded me how I always remind myself why I love movies. You devote 155 minutes to Scorsese, and to Liza, and by the end you care so hard about Francine Evans that you are sitting in a dark, half-filled theatre with hipsters and academics and nostalgic aging New Yorkers and snappily-dressed queer dudes from the Village, and you are sobbing as you listen to that iconic number. The words mean things to you that they would never have meant a week ago, but now you have moved to New York, if only for the summer, and all the time you have spent thinking “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?” is made into a needle by those words, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” It pierces the left side of your chest and you feel yourself swelling and deflating at once, tears streaming down your face, and it feels SO GOOD. Films that make you realize how you know yourself remind you why you wanted to spend your life studying these strange little miracles called movies.
New York, New York is built on a love story, but it is at its heart, a love story about this city. Francine and Jimmy don’t last. But each of them finds success (sort of), which we see through Scorsese’s brilliant contrasting of their respective final renditions of the theme song. You end up alone, but you have this city, and your art, and your self — three things that speak, in concert, directly to my own fascination with psychogeographic practice. But most of all, the film, which is beautiful in spite of (because of?) the rampant drug use and sexual intrigue that went on behind the scenes in its production, spoke to the way that I am rapidly falling in love with this place — madly, head-over-heels in love. It inspires passion like no other location I have ever encounter; New Yorkers, a motley and lovely band among which I aspire to count myself, all seem to have incredibly strong feelings about the city. About the bagels, the pizza, the water that makes the bagels and the pizza the best in the world, and in particular about themselves. So many of the residents have pet theories about what makes New York ‘New York’ or what New Yorkers are or ought to be, and so many of them seem willing to discuss this with me, from the fervent recommendations from the lady ahead of me in line in the bagel shop a few mornings ago on Long Island, to the pleasant surprise of an animated conversation with a high school girl from Senegal on the 1 train heading to 86th Street.
Maybe this is all a sort of glorified narcissism, and this self-absorption is what underlies both the on- and 0ff-screen dynamics of New York, New York. But it is perhaps our selves that we know best, and in creating art and thinking critically about what we know, these lived experiences as New Yorkers and human beings, perhaps we can find by induction some small bit of truth or clarity that sheds light on the human condition. This, I think, is what Scorsese and Minnelli achieve in last night’s film, and what I ought to be trying to achieve in my time here. So forgive me for doubting you, Liza, and keep on singing your anthem to this eternal metropolis of misguided dreams and minor miracles.