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Last Wednesday afternoon, as my wife and I strolled through the majestic main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, I took her in my arms and we began to dance.

The mood strikes every time I pass through the damn place, which is why I try to not go there too often with my wife; even the security guards get embarrassed. It feels like an urge from the primal part of my brain, and it always takes me a half-second to remember its real source is actually modern: that ravishing dream sequence in The Fisher King, where a love-struck Parry (Robin Williams) envisions a thousand commuters breaking into a brief waltz.

It's impossible to spend much time in New York without thinking of its dizzying range of cinematic depictions, from the original 1933 King Kong (which spurred many out-of-towners to make pilgrimages to the Empire State Building) to Spike Lee's Inside Man, which captured the city's post-Sept. 11 lockdown mien. Even now, some corners of SoHo past midnight can seem After Hours eerie. Walk along a path in Central Park and you might get a flashback to Hair, or Six Degrees of Separation, or a mucky-armed Woody Allen rowing Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Ghosts of characters from familiar films impose themselves on the daily landscape like scars.

Which is one reason it's so bewitching to be in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central these days, where a temporary exhibition titled Celluloid Skyline is on display until Friday. Based on the elegant, illuminating 2001 illustrated book of the same name by the architect and writer James Sanders, the show aims to give viewers a back story for their New York dreams, showing step-by-step how the city and the movies helped create each other. Turner Classic Movies is in the midst of a month-long festival of New York films tied to the exhibition, of which it is a sponsor.

The show includes a quartet of scenic backdrops, including the lobby of the United Nations used for a shot in North by Northwest, and one of the grand hall at the old Pennsylvania Station (used in Vincente Minnelli's directorial debut The Clock). Hung at one end of Vanderbilt Hall for the exhibition, it allows perhaps the first opportunity ever for a side-by-side comparison of Penn Station (razed in 1966) and its architectural sibling, Grand Central.

Sanders begins the show, beguilingly, with some of the earliest motion pictures known to exist, so-called "actualities" that are simply scenes of street life captured by employees of the Thomas Edison Company and its competitors.

Some of them stretch back to 1896 (and can be accessed, in a nice bit of technological irony, via the exhibition website:

Hundreds of silent films were shot here, but when the talkies arrived and the city proved too noisy to shoot in, even indoors (there were no sound stages here then), everyone packed up and headed to Hollywood. There, they created fantasies of the beloved city they'd left behind, like the classic Fred-and-Ginger musical Swing Time, set in an impossibly dreamy world of penthouses and sky-high ballrooms.

So what if no such place as the Silver Sandal rooftop nightclub actually existed? It still captured something essential about New York. As Melville wrote in Moby Dick (quoted in the exhibition): "It is not on any map; true places never are." The writers knew they were creating fantasies, and they fell for them too. On a trip back to New York, Herman J. Mankiewicz, (Citizen Kane), quipped: "Oh, to be back in Hollywood, wishing I was back in New York."

Aided by new technology, the movies began trickling back to New York in the post-war period, with classics such as The Naked City and On the Waterfront filmed on location, enabling not just a grittier realism but also a profound adjustment of scale. When the films had been shot on Hollywood soundstages, the actors physically dominated the scenes; now, with directors able to shoot wide, out on the streets, the architecture of New York - the real, built New York - asserted itself over the mere mortals who used it.

The development was aided by the new mayor John Lindsay who, in 1966, created the world's first film commission to encourage local production. It didn't work out quite the way he planned. Rather than the shiny commercials for the city he'd hoped would flood movie theatres across the nation, he got dark films like Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Out-of-Towners, and Klute. "It probably didn't occur to (Lindsay) or his associates that they were ushering in the new movie age of nightmare realism," wrote Pauline Kael.

Still, hundreds of film commissions around the world were inspired by Lindsay's example, including Toronto, which for a time went a few steps better than New York with its tax credits and other incentives. (New York has made a big push to level the playing field in the last couple of years.)

But if the other cities were now making it to the screen, it was almost always as a stand-in. There's an odd thrill that comes from seeing your own city, your own neighbourhood, in a movie. Cities like Toronto, which are forever pretending to be some other place, may be attracting production dollars but they're letting down the citizenry by hiding themselves under bushels (or set dressing). It may be a little jarring if Sanders manages to bring the exhibition to Toronto, as he hopes to do, some September during the film fest.

Sanders is an architect, and the real goal of Celluloid Skyline is to inspire his colleagues: He wants people to be moved by the movies to create real places and spaces as captivating as those onscreen. The final section of the exhibition focuses on New York City residences: the grand house in Holiday!, that dream loft that Tom Hanks uses as a skateboard park in Big. So the final quote in the show belongs to Ray Bradbury. "[We]must remember that drama and theatre are not special and separate and private things in our lives. They are the true stuffs of living, the heart and soul of any true city. It follows that we must begin to provide architectural stages upon which our vast populations can act out their lives."

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