The James Clayton Column: New York City, horror hotspot

News James Clayton 9 Feb 2012 - 21:08

Oscar-nominated drama Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is the starting point for James’ column this week, as he delves into the movie history of New York…

Bad news, guys. In Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Tom Hanks meets his maker. Don't fret though - It's only a film, and the Hankster isn't really dead at the time of writing. He also doesn't have Forrest Gump's 'airbrush yourself into milestone moments of American history', skill, and so hasn't perished in a past disaster either.

However, none of this is of comfort to his screen son Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn) who is living in the movie and dealing with this massive loss. Over the course of two hours we'll share his - and New York City's - grief in the wake of a tremendous, tragic disaster.

How will this child cope now that his dad (Hanks) has departed and left him to be raised by Miss Congeniality? Without his father - who sounded reassuringly like Toy Story’s Woody - will this vulnerable youngster  be able to overcome his fear of the swingset, deal with his acute sensitivity to loud noises and grow to become a happy, stable young man in a shellshocked city?

Luckily enough, Hanks’ character Thomas Schell is acting from beyond the grave and spurring the kid on by engaging him in a scavenger hunt. Oskar has been left with a key and all keys must surely unlock something.

The child’s quest, then, is to cross New York City and search for the correct one of the Big Apple’s 162 million locks, meeting a whole array of people on the way (including Max von Sydow, John Goodman and the guy who invented the Source Code). Everyone will then come together and find a human connection amidst the ashes and aftermath of 9/11, undoubtedly creating an audience-pleasing tearjerker.

This is all very nice. Oskar needs companionship and a purpose to distract him from gloomy depression, and an incredibly challenging treasure hunt strikes me as a positive, practical response. On second thoughts, though, I begin to worry about the intrepid hero of Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. If he had the ever-dependable Tom Hanks at his side I wouldn’t be concerned, but the Hankster's gone and now the vulnerable youngster is exploring Earth’s biggest city on his own.

I’ve never been to New York City, but I know it well, because I’ve watched a lot of films about it. There’s danger in them there mean streets, and I fear that even if he’s got Max von Sydow (atrained exorcist) as a travel companion, Oskar’s exposing himself to great peril.

Nevertheless, “you can’t be afraid” as Oskar himself spits out in the trailer. (I think he’s trying to impersonate Dug the golden retriever from Up - “My name is Dug! I have just met you and I love you! Squirrel!”) I don’t want to dissuade him from this Big Apple odyssey and prevent him from undertaking the nigh-impossible search for the mystery lock.

What I will do, though, is briefly skim over Manhattan movie history and outline some of the dangers he should be wary of. It’s a big city full of bad things, kiddo. Keep a tight hold of that key, keep on banging your comfort tambourine to ease your anxious mind and avoid the following fixtures that make NYC a scene of dramatic jeopardy...

Crime

According to some movies, The Big Apple is rotten to the core, and riddled criminals and illegal affairs. Even if you aren’t brushing past the Five Families or major mobsters on the mean streets (see Once Upon A Time In America, American Gangster, Carlito’s Way, A Bronx Tale, etc) you’re liable to encounter small-time hoods and nefarious nasties with no concern for morals or the law.

Gangs are everywhere in the movies, and I worry that Oskar is going to get bopped by the Baseball Furies from The Warriors or cut up by both the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story. What’s more, he can’t rely on the police because - as proven by Serpico and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant - they’re just as corrupt as the crimelords. Drugs, prostitution, racketeering, extortion and ultraviolence - this place is America’s prime wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Monsters

The USA’s top tourist destination, New York also attracts an inordinate number of beastly creatures and consequently, exists on perpetual terror alert. Simply by being in the metropolis you are risking your safety and placing yourself in the path of the full force of a potential monster invasion, whether it be in the form of aliens (Cloverfield, Men In Black), gargantuan lovestruck gorillas (King Kong) or revived dino-sized prehistoric reptiles (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Hollywood’s Godzilla remake).

The Spider-Man flicks also illustrate the point that New Yorkers are liable to turn themselves into abominations when things get boring. I’d urge Oskar to hide underground in the subway system, except the giant cockroaches from Mimic would probably get him. Be cautious and careful when you go to Gotham, kids - it’s the go-to hotspot for all grotesque monstrosities with a taste for trashing landmarks.

Sex

New York’s a city of romance, you reckon? Put aside all those syrupy delusions that The City That Never Sleeps™ is all about innocent love. Really, it’s one of the most depraved places on Earth and its streets are soaked in vice and stalked by sexual predators. Even if Woody Allen (“behind his black-rimmed glasses was the sexual prowess of a jungle cat”) has abandoned his hometown, it’s still true that Manhattan is an enclave of erotic extremity.

It’s not an ideal environment for children and I'm concerned that kids may encounter characters like Travis Bickle (screwy psychopath and porno theatre patron) or Brandon from Shame (obsessed sex addict). Consider Tom Cruise's misadventure into the shadowy high society masque orgy cult of Eyes Wide Shut or the whole premise of Sex And The City and feel the revulsion as you remember that they're in the same city as Oskar's treasure trail.

If Oskar can circumvent these hazards, chances are he’ll emerge from his urban scavenger hunt adventure intact and succeed in eventually finding the holy grail of locks. We’ll therefore have a happy ending which is the kind of promise that cinematic New York City specialises in. (Unless the key turns out to be a red herring life metaphor that the kid can't grasp. Tom Hanks, can you help him out?)

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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