And not just that, but the essay itself is about a book and its movie adaptation, so it is quite fitting with the theme of my blog as well. The movie starred Michael J. Fox in the lead, with a young Kiefer Sutherland and Phoebe Cates. But don't let me summarise again, just read the essay :)
The city of New York has been represented in several ways in movies, but the two most prominent are: a dormant monster or the background. The former should be interpreted as something that comes alive at night. And once in the night, it becomes the playground for the antagonists and ultimately the main character’s worst nightmares (e.g. Cocktail, 1988; Fame, 1980; Three Men and a Little Baby, 1987; Saturday Night Fever, 1977; and New York, New York, 1977). The other aspect of the city is simply that of a light background. Although it is considered by many to be the city of dreams, in movies it usually only stands for a subtle sign of hope; it ultimately exists to showcase how wonderful life can be when one lives in the States (e.g. Coming to America, 1988; When Harry Met Sally, 1989; Curly Sue, 1991; Six Degrees of Separation, 1993; and as an honorable mention: Home Alone II: Lost In New York, 1992).
McInerney’s novel plays with this, as it will become obvious, he first transforms the dream of being big in New York into the nightmare of being alone while surrounded by people. And afterwards he gives back that spark of hopefulness that comes with waking up to a whole new day.
Our protagonist, previously an unnamed character in the book, is recognized as Jamie in the movie. He has somewhat given up on his life: He barely manages to get through the day without getting high on cocaine and during the night the series of parties give him a refuge from reality. Being from Kansas, having moved around all of his life, he finds his home in the Big Apple. But a series of unfortunate events pile one on top of the other and Jamie loses his way. He no longer likes the city he once thought of as home.
The book begins at a party, it is almost morning and our protagonist is lost between his thoughts. He is drinking, still high and he wonders how he got here. After leaving the club it doesn’t get any better. “It is worse even than you expected, stepping out into the morning. The glare is like a mother’s reproach. The sidewalk sparkles cruelly. Visibility unlimited. The downtown warehouses look serene and restful in this beveled light.” (8). The protagonist tries to get a cab, but running low on cash he starts to walk home. His only protection from reality lies in his sunglasses, which offer some of that sweet darkness. During his way he follows familiar streets and familiar scents. “You start north, holding a hand over your eyes. Trucks rumble up Hudson street, bearing provisions into the sleeping city. You turn east. (…) / On Bleecker Street you catch the scent of the Italian bakery. You stand at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia and gaze at the windows on the fourth floor of a tenement. Behind those windows is the apartment you shared with Amanda when you first came to New York.” (8)
It is compelling to see that the morning, which usually stands for new beginnings and the ultimate source of hope, here becomes a nuisance. In the movie Jamie wonders around in the city and continuous flashbacks, small instances of his past life shed light on his demons. Not to mention that in the movie, as he starts to walk home, a car delivering baked goods passes by him, referring to the bakery that served him as a guide.
Although the book takes its time in revealing who the above quoted Amanda really is, in the movie we immediately get a glance at who she was and the happy life he had. Amanda was his wife, the one who insisted they move to New York, and when she left him, she painted the whole city black for him. Now he can only see the city rot away before his eyes.
“Down on the West Side Highway, a lone hooker totters on heels and tugs at her skirt as if no one had told her that the commuters won’t be coming through the tunnels from Jersey today. Coming closer, you see that she is a man in drag. / You cross under the rusting stanchions of the old elevated highway and walk out to the pier. The easterly light skims across the broad expanse of the Hudson. You step carefully as you approach the end of the rotting pier. You are none too steady and there are holes through which you can see the black, fetid water underneath. / You sit down on a piling and look out over the river. (…) / You watch the solemn progress of a garbage barge, wreathed in a cloud of screaming gulls, heading out to sea. / Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go.” (9).
This very scene appears again at the end of the movie. The reason for it and how it changes from its first appearance to the last will be essential to understand the story. Jamie, whose life is all tainted by a brownish overtone, only sees colors at night. The Big Apple offers, however, a darkness that calms him. He finds a way to hide from his own thoughts at night. Admittedly everything he does, from the drinking to the drugs and the partying: it is a form of denial. Throughout the book we discover that Amanda was given a job as a model and one day she didn’t come back from Paris. Jamie, as last resource decided to look for her at parties. Unable to accept what happened to his life his turns to the only thing that is able to block out his thoughts and fears: drugs.
The one who introduced him to the night life, Tad Allagash, his only friend, asks him to hang out with his cousin for a night. Although at first Jamie interprets this as a responsibility, he is unwilling to help out. He then, however meets Vicky, the cousin, and the city transforms before his eyes. “The evening is cool. You find yourself walking the Village, pointing out landmarks and favorite town houses. Only yesterday you would have considered such a stroll too New Jersey for words, but tonight you remember how much you used to like this part of the city. The whole neighborhood smells of Italian food. The streets have friendly names and cut weird angles into the rectilinear mad of the city. The buildings are humble in scale and don’t try to intimidate you.” (89).
The writer purposefully connects the women in his life with the city. Having lost Amanda and having since then wondered through life aimlessly, Jamie now sees the beauty in the city: Vicky is not from around there. He has a chance to show her the good side of the streets, the ones that during the night are never engulfed by darkness.
Moreover, Jamie decides not to get high. He leaves to go to the bathroom and stares at the powder in disgust. He wants to stay sober, he wants to remember, he wants for this to have a meaning for him. He lacks actual substance from his life and for the first time the thought of clarity seems sweeter than that of a blur.
In the movie, we follow the couple from afar. They walk along the lonely street, talking, sharing stories. It is dark outside, and some of the street lamps don’t work either. Their calmness also calms the viewer. By leaving the shot at a wide angle, the surrounding gains importance, however, the two main characters never become part of the shadow that surrounds them. The blonde Vicky, in comparison to the black haired Amanda in the movie, represents again hope and light. Essentially the only thing that our protagonist really needs: clarity. For a long time he never thought he could ever get over his wife, yet here he meets someone who is different from everyone else in his life.
It is also important that although they meet at a night club, they don’t stay. The writer lures them into the open to see how the protagonist changes. From the streets to a sweet little restaurant and then back to the street. Not only does Vicky make him change his nightly rituals, but she does so without him noticing. He only becomes aware of the positive change once he realizes that he indeed loves walking around in this part of the city.
From darkness must come light. The last chapter begins at a party where Jamie sees Amanda again. He tortured himself with questions, wondering what it is that he did wrong for her to leave him. And for the first time he sees the party from the outside and for what it really is: Rotten. He no longer finds comfort in the jokes of Tad and finally realizes that perhaps Amanda leaving was the best thing for him. She was poison. She is like the drugs he wasn’t able to live without once he lost her. Having loved her for so long, he never thought he would be able to move on. But after this party he finally sees the warmth in the morning. “The first light of the morning outlines the towers of the World Trade Center at the tip of the island. You turn in the other direction and start uptown. There are cobbles on the street where the asphalt has worn through. You think of the wooden shoes of the first Dutch settlers on these same stones. (…) / You’re not sure exactly where you are going. You don’t feel the strength to walk home. You walk faster. If sunlight catches you on the streets, you will undergo some horrible chemical change. / By the time you reach Canal Street, you think that you will never make it home. (…) / As you turn, what is left of your olfactory equipment sends a message to your brain: fresh bread.” (172-173).
The book ends with him trading his sunglasses, the only protection from the harsh light for a roll of bread. The movie, however, took a bit different turn. He does trade his sunglasses, but afterwards he walks to the pier. From there he lays his eyes on the beautiful New York city skyline and the orange lights of dawn reflect serenity. The city becomes background again and the dormant monster is laid to rest. Reality is no longer a threat for Jamie, even if it wasn’t like this in the beginning. The protagonist, as we find out, has been running all of his life as that is the only thing he was good at. As a child his family moved around a lot and he never stayed in one place long enough to lay down some roots. When he moved to the city, he hoped he could do that with Amanda. Not only did she leave him, but in the meanwhile his mother passed away and he decided to run from his family as well. The parties, the people, the city all contribute to him giving up on his dreams as a writer and he even loses his job. It is at the last party that he reminds himself of how strong his mother made him and running away from problems won’t solve them. He calls Vicky, the beacon of light, and after talking to her he gains the strength to leave this wretched world behind: Amanda and Tad included. “You will have to learn everything all over again.” (174).
In conclusion, this movie might be one of the best adaptations released in the past 50 years. The writer made sure to convey the message in the title of the work. He changed the order of how the lights start to give the protagonist clarity, however the same effect was gained in the end. By leaving the protagonist nameless in the book, one could relate to him more, however being able to see him from the outside – as it is a different medium – we needed something more to connect to Jamie. The author had a clear message in mind and it is fantastic to see how that message was laid out for the viewer and reader through very different mediums and yet yield the same result.
- McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.
- Bright Lights, Big City. Dir. James Bridges. Perf. Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates and Dianne West. MetroGoldwynMayer, 1988. Film.
- Buckland, Warren. Teach yourself film studies. McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003.
- Alber, Jan. "Unnatural Narrative." (2009).
- Iuliano, Fiorenzo. "Falling from the Past. Geographies of exceptionalism in two novels by Jay McInerney." Altre Modernità (2011): 91-104.