Christian Blauvelt grew up in St. Petersburg and still visits often. But these days, the managing editor of the entertainment and news website IndieWire lives in New York City. His love for that city and his passionate knowledge of movies come together in his latest book, New York: The Big Apple on the Big Screen.
Tell us about your appearance at 8 p.m. Thursday on Turner Classic Movies. How is it related to the book?
I’ll be introducing four films: On the Town, Sleepless in Seattle, Radio Days and North by Northwest. This book was developed in partnership with Turner Classic Movies, which I think is one of the single greatest resources for classic film preservation and awareness in these United States. Peruse any of their monthly lineups and you will find gold — somewhere. There’s no other channel where you can watch a Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff chiller, The Black Cat from 1934, and then one of the best films made this century to date, Jia Zhangke’s The World from 2004 — a movie available absolutely nowhere on streaming. Those are just two of the films I’ve watched on TCM this past week.
I had the honor of appearing on TCM for the first time back in 2017, to introduce a night of films based on a list I had developed by polling 250-plus critics around the world to determine the 100 greatest comedies of all time. I put that together for the site I worked for for five years, BBC Culture, before becoming the managing editor of IndieWire. With their host Ben Mankiewicz, I talked about Some Like It Hot, A Night at the Opera, This Is Spinal Tap and Modern Times. A dream come true — but also a very natural fit. I watch TCM so much, it’s practically wallpaper to me. Even though I do a ton of TV in New York City, particularly for our local CBS affiliate, being on TCM is something particularly special.
New York: The Big Apple on the Big Screen is structured as a kind of travel guide, using movies to help people explore the city. How did you research and coordinate all that material?
The Big Apple on the Big Screen in so many ways simply drew upon my life living in and around Manhattan for the past 11 years. And then the fact that I’m a movie obsessive whose brain is always making connections between my lived experience and the movies I’ve seen. Long before this book came into existence, I would notice locations in New York City that appeared in, or were even just mentioned in, movies. Once I was walking on University Place in the Village and I passed an apartment building with a commemorative plaque in the wall that caught my eye — it said that that building had once been the Hotel Albert. And I remembered suddenly, “That’s mentioned in Rear Window!” Jimmy Stewart tells Raymond Burr’s villain on the phone that he wants to meet him at the bar at “the Albert Hotel,” where ostensibly he’ll blackmail him — he has no intention of going, he just wants to get Burr out of his apartment so Grace Kelly can snoop around. But when I saw that plaque it made the movie even a little bit more real to me. And I love that Hitchcock and his screenwriter John Michael Hayes were so committed to accuracy that, even though the movie re-created a Greenwich Village courtyard entirely on a soundstage in L.A. (the biggest set ever built to that point), they included a throwaway detail in there like the Hotel Albert, which really was a Village institution.
What movie set in New York made the biggest impression on you before you lived there? Did it prove to be an accurate picture of the place?
Definitely Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, easily my favorite Allen film, and it has been since I was barely a teenager. How much do I love this movie? Well, when I attended the Poynter Institute’s High School Journalism Program in 2003, former Times film critic Steve Persall led a class in which we all had to write a film review. Most of the kids chose new releases to review — I chose Manhattan Murder Mystery, even though I had already seen it many times, and it had come out exactly 10 years earlier. I wanted to try to put into words exactly what it was about that movie I loved so much. I think my feeling about it then was pretty much what I feel about it now: that it’s the best kind of Woody Allen take on New York City — it has a tossed-off feel, giving you an effortless impression of what it’s like not to visit there, but to live there. Manhattan Murder Mystery gives you a local’s view of New York City, not a touristic fantasy. It’s deeply immersed in the city to the point it focuses on lesser-known places that won’t show up on any tours — it takes us to a flea market off Houston Street, the National Arts Club, the Café des Artistes, the Bryant Park Fountain and the now defunct Elaine’s. The first two movies I’ll be introducing on TCM Nov. 7, On the Town and Sleepless in Seattle, are very much touristic fantasies (despite the late, great Nora Ephron, who directed Sleepless, being one of the finest New Yorkers who’s ever lived). But Woody Allen at his best gives you a sense of what it’s really like to live there — he clearly loves the city, but, also, he’s cool about it. And in watching it I wanted it to feel as natural and familiar to me to live in New York as it is for the characters played by Allen, Diane Keaton, Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda.
What movie set in the city would you recommend to someone about to visit New York for the first time?
Woody Allen is a problematic filmmaker for multiple reasons, and I certainly understand the impulse not to want to watch any of his movies. I’ve staked out a middle ground when it comes to him: I don’t think, knowing what we know now, he should still be making movies and profiting from them — that said, however much I may dislike him as a person, you can’t deny the greatness of his back catalog. And I certainly can’t deny the impact they had on me personally. So if you accept that rationale, I would recommend Annie Hall and then, yes, Manhattan Murder Mystery, which is almost a kind of sequel to his 1977 Best Picture winner, and was actually developed into its own film based on a cut subplot from Annie Hall. Radio Days, which I’ll be talking about on TCM, and Hannah and Her Sisters are also great. Then I’d have to say the fourth movie I’ll be talking about on TCM, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which may be the definitive film showcase for the Plaza hotel (though there are many contenders for that title), as well as Grand Central Station.
Among more recent films, I’d also recommend Inside Llewyn Davis, set in 1961 but which plays like an antiperiod piece — so many scenes feel like my lived experience of New York today. And also, I’d recommend Good Time, or really any of the outstanding films by its directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, whose grungy, grimy view of New York City is very, very real. As Disneyfied as New York City has become, there’s still a lot of glorious sleaze here, that exists in a very judgment-free way — Alec Baldwin was just recently scammed by a con artist posing as a Statue of Liberty tour operator! — and the Safdies know how to put that craziness on screen. That craziness appeals to me, much like the craziness of my beloved Florida. Maybe I can become the Craig Pittman of New York City.
Cinematic Cities New York: The Big Apple on the Big Screen
By Christian Blauvelt
Running Press, 167 pages, $20
Times Festival of Reading
Christian Blauvelt will speak at 2:15 p.m. Saturday in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, 140 Seventh Ave. S. Free. festivalofreading.com.