Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Coffee shop blogging, old style

Now this is the way to do café society when it's all summery like this: outdoors on a busy city street, letting life stream by and around. I'm down the street from the townhouse at Peaks, giving them yet another chance. The wi-fi seems strong today but my iced coffee is more tepid than cool, so it's still a mixed result at best.

My days of regularly photoblogging my coffee stops aren't so long ago, but a few times recently I have found myself slipping into reveries of times long past. The most acute was occasioned by my seeing a movie trailer for the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. This caused me to seek out the some clips from the original on YouTube, and that's what led me in search of lost time.

You see, the original book and movie of Pelham 123 came out at exactly the right period in my life to be deeply influential and important: that is, when I was sixteen or so, immersed in old-school pulp adventures, stumbling-to-maturity comic books, Humphrey Bogart movies, and Raymond Chandler novels. Crime as metaphor, heroes vs. villains, the antihero, battered morality, and flawed ethics were themes I and my like-minded pals grabbed, swallowed, inhaled, and sweat. It was a period of time when traditional narratives were becoming problematized for us, when it seemed the world, like television, was no longer merely black and white.

Compounding Pelham 123's appeal as an example of our chosen genre was its setting: New York City, in the subways. This was my world; my high school years saw me on the BMT and the IRT (transfer at 14th Street/Union Square) for over two hours each weekday, and as much or more on the weekends, looking for diversion. The City was in bad shape in the seventies, a mean drunk in the middle of bender, dirty, dangerous, and broke. Simultaneously thrilled and appalled by our home, we responded to stories that wallowed in its degeneracy. This story, and its contemporary, Report to the Commissioner, captured that fatalistic edge while still providing us with enough "good guy" energy to keep us from spinning off into nihilism.

All this was happening in during a time when I was discovering, sometimes in very indirect ways, who I was, and what I valued, and what was important. And once again encountering The Taking of Pelham 123, while it was only one small piece of that mosaic, puts me in mind of that whole growth experience.

Nostalgia has been commodified along with so much else in our culture; we package and sell the memories of our youth and even those bygone days that we never experienced. But it would do us well to remember that the word nostalgia contains the root form of "pain" as well as that of "home"; it is not an emotion to take lightly, and it brings with it much more than fondness and warmth. For as I remember the young man who was captivated by a certain crime drama, I realize that never again will I be as open to the world, as impressed with new-to-me ideas, and as constantly surprised every day to find out that the world might not be exactly as I thought it was the day before. With age comes a certain amount of weariness and dullness; I can cultivate my wonder and practice my curiosity, but the eyes of a sixteen-year-old have a special quality as magic as X-ray Specs, and as young-at-heart as I remain, I will never see the world through those eyes again.

I am now about the same age as Walter Matthau was when he made the movie.


RAB said...

I have to agree with your take on the cultural significance of Pelham 123 for New York when the film opened in 1974. For me, it was and remains the most perfect NYC film, precisely capturing the time and place it comes from. I can't agree so readily with the part about wallowing in degeneracy -- I think of the film as very upbeat, positive, and wryly affectionate. I adore it and cannot say enough good things about it.

I haven't seen the remake, but I've gotten the impression from everything I've seen and heard that it could not have been more perfectly calculated to vitiate everything good and true about the original. They shoulda just set it in Chicago or Toronto or someplace else and leave a masterpiece alone.

Walaka said...

Yes, "wallowing in its degeneracy" is probably too strong for TTOP123... how about "glorying in its faults" or "reveling in its flaws"?

I remember a telephone exchange I had with my sister's husband, a Brooklyn boy working for Con Ed, some time after I had moved to the Pacific Northwest. I asked him how things were in the City, and he replied with something like

Ah, the garbagemen are on strike and the streets are full of shit. Traffic's all screwed up and it gets worse every day. You can't even afford a cup of coffee anymore and the muggers are everywhere. The animals are takin' over, I tell ya.

I suggested that there were places - and ways - to live that were different, and that he should consider moving.

What? And leave New York? Why would I wanna do that?"

Go figure.

Now I just have to rent that original again.

RAB said...

See, to me that exchange makes perfect sense!

Also, it occurs to me belatedly that the year the film was made is the same year I moved to New York...which has to have a big effect on how I see it.