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Star material

review

By James Sanders. Bloomsbury, 2002. 498pp. £30

No city has been as romanticised and mythologised in such a short span of time as New York. Its image as a mythical and magical place is almost entirely to do with the the success of film - the only truly popular artistic medium. James Sanders' book is an exploration of the city's role in the movies, sometimes as star, sometimes as bit-player, and it is compulsive.

Before plots were invented, cinema was based on short bursts of actuality. New York's bustle, the eruption of skyscrapers and the landmarks, which would become familiar around the world, proved the perfect subject - busy, constantly changing, and visually exciting. But, as plots and sets developed, the film industry migrated east to Los Angeles, where the sun always shone (early film lighting technology was poor), and huge lots could be purchased for peanuts.

When the talkies arrived, the studios found they had a problem. They now needed dialogue and, in the cultural desert that LA still was, there was no one to write it. So they advertised lucrative jobs back east. This led to a rush of bohemian intellectuals fleeing the depression, eager to make the three-day trip across the continent for wads of money, but devastated when they found themselves isolated in a landscape of palm trees and studio lots, with little sign of the clubs, publishing houses and cafes that were their second home in New York.

These writers developed a hazy nostalgia for the big city, their homesickness expressed in a hopelessly romantic vision of New York as the epitome of elegance, wit and nightlife.

This rose-tinted image has never really gone away and, furthermore, has equally affected those who never left - Woody Allen for one.

The focus moved back to New York at the end of the Second World War, partly because of the ennui caused seeing the same sets in every film, partly through improved technology, and partly as a reaction to the neo-realist cinema coming out of Italy.

On the Waterfront showed a very different New York to that of Astaire and Rogers, but this too was to disappear shortly as containerisation destroyed the docks. It was replaced by the dark, damaged city of Ta x i Driver, The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy, which itself gave way to the intense but humorous versions of Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Neil Simon, and Travolta's matchless Saturday strut.

Then there is the disaster movie. New York has the genre almost to itself: a city threatened twice by King Kong, by aliens in Independence Day, by all kinds of master criminals in Batman - even by apes. But the author missed the most extraordinary filmic and televisual event in the city's history. His book was completed just before 11 September (and deliberately left unchanged).

Sanders' account is extremely readable and generally fascinating. It only occasionally slows down in lengthy explanations of films you have not seen - but that, you feel, is your fault for not having seen them. There could be more about the independents - Jarmusch, Rockwell, Di Cillo, Wang and others who have used the streets virtually as characters in their own right. But the book is free of jargon and film-speak, accessible to architects, and to anyone who likes film.

Perhaps the monument to the Twin Towers should be the film of their destruction, not a bland memorial garden and a mall.

New York is, after all, a city which exists as much in film as in reality.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture correspondent for the Financial Times

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