Architecture on Film: On The Town + NY, NY + Introduction by Peter Conrad

Two fantastical visions of 24 hours in mid-century New York City. Dancing images and dancing protagonists take to the screen in a double bill dedicated to the rhythms and imaginary of New York, New York.


06:30pm, Wednesday, 13 July 2016


08:30pm, Wednesday, 13 July 2016


Cinema 3
Barbican, Beech Street, London EC2Y 8AE



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£7.50 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


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This is a past event

With special thanks to The Library of Congress, for their assistance with NY, NY.

This screening will be introduced by academic, critic, writer and broadcaster Peter Conrad, author of more than twenty books including, The Art of the City: Views and Versions of New York (1984) and Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century (1999). Conrad’s latest book, Mythomania, based on a series of programmes made for Radio 4, will be published later this year.

NY, NY – A Day In New York

In NY, NY the city itself dances in abstract, syncopated images, scored by Gene Forrell to Thompson’s optical experiments. Director Thompson reportedly spent 20 years developing the unique lenses that he used to transform Manhattan into a surreal and fragmented collage for this experimental city symphony, inspiring Aldous Huxley to write on the film in his essay Heaven and Hell:

“And then there is what may be called the Distorted Documentary a new form of visionary art, admirably exemplified by Mr. Francis Thompson’s film, NY, NY. In this very strange and beautiful picture we see the city of New York as it appears when photographed through multiplying prisms, or reflected in the backs of spoons, polished hubcaps, spherical and parabolic mirrors…

Looking at NY, NY, I was amazed to see that virtually every pictorial device invented by the old masters of non-representational art and reproduced ad nauseam by the academicians and mannerists of the school, for the last forty years or more, makes its appearance, alive, glowing, intensely significant, in the sequences of Mr. Thompson’s film.”

We are delighted to be presenting this film in a brand new digital restoration from the Library of Congress, which will be screened here for the first time.

USA, 1957, Francis Thompson, 15 mins


On The Town

New York, New York, a wonderful town / The Bronx is up and The Battery’s down / The people drive in a hole in the ground / New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town!

In On The Town, the city provides the score for a different kind of rhythm, as sailors Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin spend their leave singing and dancing across the Big Apple, in search of the lovely Miss Turnstiles.

One of MGM and Hollywood’s finest musicals, the film also offers an important urban document, due to director Gene Kelly’s insistence that scenes be shot on location in the city’s streets and venues including the American Museum of Natural History, the Rockefeller Center and, in a landmark scene, the top of the Empire State Building.

The city becomes a stage set, for the dreams of the film’s protagonists and audience alike, as the sailors spend 24 hours, and the audience 98 minutes, visiting the Technicolor sites and mid-century imaginary of the world’s archetypal metropolis.

The film will be screened from a 35mm print.

USA, 1949, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 98 mins

Programme Notes by Peter Conrad

New York, New York: the repetition – first the city’s name, then the state’s – cannot help sounding exclamatory. The words demand to be belted out, as they are when Liza Minnelli sings Kander and Ebb‘s hymn to the ambition that sustains the place. New York is noisy but, with its keening sirens and its ground bass of traffic, it’s also musical; the skyscrapers scale the heights like the clarinet’s jazzy glissando at the start of Rhapsody in Blue. ‘Onwards! Upwards!’ shrills Vera Ellen in On the Town during her singing lesson at Carnegie Hall, as if high notes were the giddy equivalent of extra storeys.

On the Town celebrates New York as the world’s new capital, a global synonym for material glory and thrusting aspiration. When the musical opened on Broadway in late 1944, performances were preceded by the brassy national anthem. The war, not yet won, gave an extra urgency and poignancy to the day of shore leave the sailors enjoy: when their day at liberty is over, they will be shipped out to the Pacific - perhaps to be killed by the Japanese. In the melancholy concluding number, they vow to catch up with their overnight girlfriends ‘Some Other Time’, but that time - like the imaginary space of ‘Somewhere’, with which West Side Story ends - may never come to pass.

By 1949, when MGM released its cinematic adaptation of On the Town, America had imperially conquered the world, and the age of anxiety – which in the Broadway musical afflicts the heroine Claire with a debilitating crop of complexes - was over. Yet reminiscences of combat remain in the film, along with a premonition of conflicts to come. Betty Garrett’s sexually aggressive taxi driver is an anachronism: she got the job because all the able-bodied men were in uniform, and has somehow kept it after they were demobbed. An aircraft carrier can be seen in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and on a newsstand in Times Square there’s a glimpse of a headline about the atom bomb.

To suit the triumphal new era of American supremacy, MGM junked most of Leonard Bernstein’s alternately nervous and wistful score. A lament that referred to New York as a ‘Lonely Town’ was replaced by a number in which Gene Kelly sings the sleepy virtues of Meadowville, Indiana, where his character was born –  the kind of cosy village Norman Rockwell painted for Saturday Evening Post; existential troubles are suppressed by the warm glow of home, hearth and Main Street. New York, hardly bucolic, provides an excitable counterpoint; the film, a little alarmed by the city’s vitality, treats NYC as a jungle. Hence the addition of the Ann Miller character, lustily enthusiastic for the virility of ‘Prehistoric Man’. In a publicity still, the sailors use the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge as a climbing frame, like agile monkeys in a zoo enclosure. The skyscrapers grew tall for reasons of economic convenience: the Woolworth Tower, first on Frank Sinatra’s outdated list of monuments, was known as the cathedral of commerce. In the film, the Empire State Building has a different purpose. After dark, its phallic summit is the site for an erotic assignation, pointing the way to Coney Island and its burlesque show.

In 1955 MGM made It’s Always Fair Weather, a sequel to On the Town in which three infantrymen try to renew their friendship in New York a decade after VE Day. But the American pursuit of happiness, now crassly promoted by television and the advertising industry, had become mercenary and phony, so the reunion fizzles out in disillusionment. The sailors in On the Town caper delightedly across the Brooklyn Bridge; the soldiers in It’s Always Fair Weather can only cavort on a stained sidewalk, using the lids of garbage cans as cymbals. Manhattan’s uplifting skyline has become invisible, blocked by the sooty train tracks of the Third Avenue El.

In 1957, Francis Thompson’s NY NY added its own quirky but sombre coda. Could New York be another Babel, provoking retribution as it dangerously prods the sky? Here is a version of the city's daily life-cycle that is starker and grimmer than the unbridled hedonism of On the Town. A raucous hooting wake-up call and a jangling alarm clock replace the lazy, sensual song Bernstein wrote for the dockworker who is just out of bed. On the Town’s sailor-trio note with a shudder that New Yorkers ‘ride in a hole in the ground’ – perhaps recalling the use of London Underground stations as dormitories or catacombs during the Blitz; Thompson’s NY NY reduces subway trains to streaks of light like missiles, with the straps that hang from the ceiling of the carriages as nooses. More insistent than the headline behind Gene Kelly in Times Square, a tabloid announces DOOM! DOOM! to the harried commuters, anonymous toilers whose faces are never seen.

Thompson’s trick lenses and manipulated exposures make doomsday seem imminent. The old Pennsylvania Station, modelled on the Baths of Caracalla, is already a Piranesian ruin. Photographed from below, the Empire State Building wilts in the acid light that pours from an irradiated sky. Skyscrapers buckle and topple, just as the World Trade Center did; buses bifurcate like slithering worms; passers-by, deformed by funhouse mirrors, melt into blobs. When their mechanised labour has ended, Thompson’s New Yorkers go to the ballet to be entertained by white, wispy ghosts. At least sleazy Rajah Biminy’s Coney Island cooch dancers are alive in On the Town, unlike the sylphs in NY NY. The sight of the god Mercury outside Grand Central Station may be Thompson’s joke about his own mischievous, mercurial technique. Aldous Huxley, who watched NY NY while on a mescaline trip, thought its distortions psychedelic, but to me they look apocalyptic. Perhaps the Martians have invaded, as they were expected to do in the 1950s. Maybe cybernetics has dispensed with the human race: the decorative squiggles tapped out by typewriters could belong to some extraterrestrial language – or is this an early inkling of computer code?

In less than a decade, On the Town’s bright, jubilant daydream about New York has become a prophetic nightmare. The promise of new beginnings proves illusory, and history hurtles straight ahead into brutal mechanical modernity: such is the American way.