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The gutting of Miramax, Pt. II: Is this the end of New York movie culture?

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new-york-city_lLast week, it was announced that Miramax Films would close its New York offices, and that its president, Daniel Battsek, was being asked to step down. If that sounds like an unhappy day for the world of independent film — well, it is. Yet as far as Miramax is concerned, it’s really just one more nail in a coffin that was already slamming shut. In case you missed the news, here’s the post I wrote back on Oct. 11 about the gutting of Miramax that took place last month, and what it could portend, in general, for studio specialty divisions.

There’s no question that the loss of an executive as diligent and tasteful as Daniel Battsek, who shepherded films like No Country for Old Men and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, will loom large for whatever’s left of this company. Yet what struck me most last week is the extraordinary symbolic resonance of Miramax leaving New York City. It marks the end of an era not just for the company, but for movies, period.

In the wide-avenued, semi-cobblestoned, shabby-chic Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, where it had been a major presence for two decades, Miramax was, of course, the house that Harvey and Bob Weinstein built, and the fact that they chose to build it in New York City had tremendous meaning. As the defining company of the independent-film era, Miramax, by maintaining its home offices in New York, was telling the world that there was a way to make films — a way to conceive them, finance them, produce them, and think about them — that stood apart from the way that they’re made in Los Angeles. I don’t mean to sound naïve about that. The film industry is rooted in fantasies of mega-success, and that’s true whatever coast the deals happen to be made on. Yet there’s a grit-vs.-gloss, indie-mean-streets-vs.-popcorn-mall mystique to the way that the New York and L.A. corridors of the industry think of themselves — and to how they are, in turn, perceived.

That dichotomy has been in place ever since the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s. Before then, the vast majority of movies were made in Los Angeles. But by the time of Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The French Connection (1971), the streets of New York, with their squalor and noise and glamour and romantically sleazy melting-pot energy, had begun to be used as a kind of a ready-made existential American movie set. And that set the stage for Martin Scorsese, who with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) lay claim to the title of being the ultimate and quintessential New York filmmaker. He put New York on the map as more than a place where movies would be shot; it was now a place where movies would be dreamed. (Woody Allen did that, too, by making over Manhattan into his own private island.)

Scorsese, the hurtling-camera, director-as-rock-star virtuoso, who hailed from Little Italy and never quite left it, became the high cinematic poet of the New York streets, and as time went on, the industry yin and yang of New York and Hollywood came to be embodied in the wary friendship and dueling flash-wizard styles of Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, genius that he was, made crowd-pleasers, but Scorsese made movies defined by their ferocity, heat, integrity, and obsession. He made movies — in every sense — in a New York state of mind.

On the ground floor of the building that, under Harvey, housed the Miramax offices, there’s a casually elegant restaurant, the Tribeca Grill, that is famously co-owned by Robert De Niro. I always took that building, that cozy little De Niro/Harvey nexus, as a reassuring symbol of the continuity between the Mean Streets ’70s and the Reservoir Dogs ’90s. Independent film, after all, was more or less invented in New York — by John Cassavetes, who took his camera out in the streets to make Shadows (1959), the mythical birth film of the movement. Scorsese first realized that he could be a director when he saw the films of Cassavetes, and Quentin Tarantino, though he’s a product of Los Angeles, was really, cinematically speaking, the Gen-X, video-addict offspring of Scorsese. What united all three is that they had the rhythms of New York — the violent jostle and flow, the talky independence — pulsing through their movie-mad veins.

Those New York streets, of course, are a lot more civilized today than they used to be. Yet one of the reasons that New York movie culture may now be fading is that it’s become a lot harder for filmmakers to live here. A prominent director who’s an acquaintance of mine loved living in New York but felt that he no longer could — that if he stayed on the East Coast, he’d be out of the loop of the business. So maybe Los Angeles has finally won the war. Or maybe, with the fading of Miramax, it’s time for another upstart to kick off a freshly independent New York revolution.

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