Potemkin East

New York, NY, USA -- 30 October 2005 | Permalink
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For reasons that I don't entirely pretend to understand, my neighborhood sees a fairly constant stream of filmmakers and it's a rare week when one or other street isn't choked up with huge white trailers and nerdy-looking go-fers with walkie-talkies saying “Could you please just wait there a moment, we're filming now, thank you so much.” A few months back I took a sharp left turn coming out of my building and found myself squarely in shot behind a tattooed white boy rapping his way up the street while the camera crew retreated in front of him. I think they may have had to reshoot that verse.

The rap videographers like the Lower East Side because someone apparently told them it was 'gritty'. No one has yet had the heart to break it to them that the neighborhood is 50% Hispanic and 50% hipster, and the urban blight is fast giving way to wine bars and little art galleries. But at least they want to film what's actually there: the ones that have us all shaking our heads are the feature film directors who seem to want to turn it into Greenwich Village.

My first brush with this was when I came home one day and discovered that the vacant lot on the corner of Clinton and Stanton had suddenly filled up with racks of second-hand clothes and a sign declaring it to be the ‘Clinton St flea market’. I wasn't yet familiar with Hollywood's taste for lightning Potemkin-style urban redevelopment, so I didn't know what to make of it until the next day when the street was full of reflectors and diffusers and people with posterior cleavage hauling cables around.

A flea market on Clinton St may be fictional, but it isn't totally improbable, so the makers of A Lot Like Love were still probably staying within the white lines that separate flights of fancy from total dementia. The latest lot, on the other hand, appear to have given free reign to their imaginations and it's a little unsettling.

The first warning we had was when Cibao, where I go for my rice and beans, was suddenly covered with orange and red polka dots. On the other side of Rivington, the facade of Alias acquired two large sinuous Chinese dragons (rather nicely done, I have to admit). Streits matzoh factory a little further up the street has been labelled an art gallery, and the modest deli on the corner has been rebaptised the ‘Psychedelicatessen’, complete with a giant peace symbol/mushroom and the injunction to ‘Feed your head’. I am unable to walk down to Delancey without spontaneously starting to hum “White Rabbit” to myself.

“When did Clinton St become 1960's Berkeley?” M. asked, puzzled. I called her attention to the offices of the Black Panther Party two doors up on Rivington. “Make that Oakland.” she said. At least the assault on the senses is only visual so far. We still live in fear that they're secretly harboring plans to soak the neighborhood in patchouli oil to heighten the ‘realism’.

The mystery deepened further when M. finally discovered what they're supposed to be filming. Seemingly it's a period musical, called Across the Universe and all the psychedelia (and the Black Panthers) is somehow supposed to evoke Greenwich Village in the hippie era. The long-suffering Lower East Side is used to being described by over-enthusiastic realtors as being part of the East Village, but that it should now be expected to become the West as well is really too much. Reportedly it wasn't possible to film in the real West Village because it would cause too much congestion, a consideration that will doubtless be appreciated by all the drivers who are used to making the first right off the Williamsburg Bridge and now find their route down Clinton St blocked by the lurid excesses of an implausible Love Generation. Not that I have much sympathy for anyone who drives into Manhattan, but the whole thing does make me wonder quite how far the makers took their quest for authenticity, and whether the music was the only thing from the period that they sampled before they drew up the plans for principal photography.

Late on Friday night, we were treated to a brief but thunderous blast of music followed a few minutes later by a tremendous explosion. A few minutes after that, the windows shook to the roaring of motorcycle engines. Not content with transplanting the Summer of Love (and those loveable moptops from Liverpool) to the L.E.S., they appear to have thrown in the Hell's Angels, Kent State and possibly the Tet Offensive as well. ‘Spectacular’ is only one of the words I can think of to describe the impending pastiche.

I'm not sure what exactly it was that M. muttered as she rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, but it sounded a bit like “Go back to Toronto, dammit”.