Movies About When New York Was Seedy
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed takes viewers back — and forward
It’s a truism that we’re all time-travelers just by virtue of living through time, but few movies have shown so well how one person can have such richly different arcs in life as Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a nominee for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. The film moves backwards and forwards in time to tell the personal and political story of photographer and activist Nan Goldin, from her youth in New York City’s downtown underground to her recent campaign to get the art world to hold the Sackler family — major museum donors and also the makers of OxyContin — accountable. In so doing, the film tells the story of an evolving society and city.
There are places where time seems to stands still. New York City has never been one of them. My first memory of the city was arriving with my family in an aging station wagon after a two-week drive from Southern Mexico, at which point the car caught fire. It was the late 1970s, not long since the city’s bankruptcy. My parents settled us on the far west side of Manhattan, just across the elevated West Side Highway from the crumbing piers and polluted river.
Today that area of town is a gleaming wonderland, the Hudson River Park and Little Island having replaced the old trash transfer station and tug boat moorings. Absurdly expensive condos and townhouses and designer stores have long since replaced the smokestacks and factories and meatpacking plants.
But I can always revisit the less populous, pre-gentrification downtown New York of memory through film. That’s among the reasons I was so thrilled to watch All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which begins streaming on HBO Max on March 19, with its wealth of original footage of the old city.
During the pandemic, I had leaned into watching movies about New York’s 1970s and 1980s downtown scene — all of which were, by chance, also by female directors. Among them:
Chantal Ackerman’s News from Home
Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens
Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground
Bette Gordon’s Variety
But that’s not the complete list to watch if you’re up for a dive into some very specific New York City history. There’s also these (some of which I have not seen in years):
Celine Danhier’s Blank City
Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81
James Ivory’s adaptation of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York
Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky
Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning
And for even wider aperture on the era, see my 2013 primer on “Ed Koch’s New York In Film.”
Enjoy your time travel! And marvel about what it means to live in a place with the same name, decades later.