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Big-screen blockbusters tell tale of three cities

If you want to know how the public feels about the cities of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, you don’t have to do extensive polling or launch in-depth surveys. Just look at how they are portrayed in hit movies, suggest new findings from a pair of UCLA social scientists.

“Hit movies tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of a cross section of the American public at the time they were made,” said David Halle, a UCLA sociologist and lead researcher for the study.  “So if patterns emerge in the ways a particular city is depicted in multiple hit movies, we believe that those patterns usually resonate with some sort of public perception of that city.”
"Rear Window," Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller, showed what apartment life in jam-packed New York was like.  
The results will be reported in “New York and Los Angeles: the Uncertain Future,” (Oxford University Press, 2013), a 590-page survey to be published next month on a range of issues, including demographic, political and cultural trends in the two cities. Halle co-edited the book with Andrew Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY.
In one chapter, Halle and UCLA historian Janice Reiff address how New York, L.A. and Chicago are portrayed in popular films. “Each of these three cities is associated — perhaps even stereotyped — with one or more specific images or perspectives,” said Reiff. Assisting in the study were former students Theodore Nitschke and Eric Vanstrom.
Halle and Reiff looked at American movies for every year, beginning with 1920. The team then identified the 10 most popular films for each year as measured by reel rental before 1992 and by box office receipts after that point. In the resulting 850 candidates, they looked for trends in movies with at least 15 minutes of footage showing a specific U.S. city. To be considered a trend, a theme had to appear in at least five hit movies in a given period.
Like many hit movies set in New York City, “Dog Day Afternoon,” a 1975 drama about a hostage situation, reflected the country’s view of urban life. At the time, a crime wave was moving through urban settings.
Of all U.S. cities, New York proved to be the most popular backdrop, with more hits (139) to its credit than Los Angeles (48) and Chicago (24) combined. New York consistently reflects “whatever appears to be the dominant images of city/urban life at the time the movie is made,” they found.
Examples of how visions of the Big Apple morphed over the years are exemplified by the 1954 thriller “Rear Window,”  (click to see video clip) which jams urbanites into apartment blocks, and the 1968 comedy “The Odd Couple,” which shows two divorced men adjusting to new urban living arrangements. In other hits, viewers saw violence hold a city captive in the 1975 drama “Dog Day Afternoon” and experienced the city as a playground for the rich and footloose  in the 2008 comedy “Sex and the City.”  
“In short, New York is a stand-in for the currently popular notion of big-city life,” said Halle, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Manhattan and served as the editor of the book’s 2003 predecessor.
As much as the public perception of New York shifts with popular notions of city life, one constant remains: Every few years, the researchers found, a hit movie portrays New York as a center for business, finance and the rich, often depicted as being greedy, duplicitous and ruthless.
Think, for instance, of the 1983 hit “Trading Places” and the final scene when two owners of a Wall Street firm engaged in insider trading discuss the need to “always go for the throat; that’s how we got rich.”
Given the extent to which such quintessentially New York directors as Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese celebrate its people and customs, you might expect the city to be portrayed on the big screen as a bastion of ethnic culture. Not so, the researchers were surprised to discover.  
The neon sign sits atop the family-owned restaurant where “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” protagonist Toula Portokalos works and is tortured by her family and their very Greek expectations for her. Set in Chicago, the 2002 romantic comedy reflects the city’s image as a haven for ethnic groups.  
Instead, Chicago proved to be the city most commonly associated with ethnic heritage.  Think of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the 2002 send-up of Greek-American culture.
Chicago was consistently associated with three other themes, the study found. The first is gangsters and political corruption, especially during the 1920s and ’30s. A classic example is the 1973 Academy Award-winning heist classic, "The Sting,” which is one of the 20 most popular U.S. movies of all time.
More recently, “The Untouchables,” a 1987 fictionalized account of how Chicago gangster Al Capone was brought to justice during Prohibition, epitomizes Hollywood’s fixation with the city’s corrupt past.
Chicago is also portrayed in blockbusters as a vibrant urban center with both jobs and a cutting-edge cultural life, and a city of boring suburbs. Look no further than “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), in which the protagonist plays hooky from his suburban school to explore Chicago’s cosmopolitan center.
“Chicago is popularly viewed as having certain core, basically unchanging characteristics,” said Reiff, an associate professor of history and statistics and an authority on Chicago. She served as a co-editor of the 2003 “Encyclopedia of Chicago” and editor of a forthcoming book, “Chicago Business and Industry: From Fur Trading to E-Commerce” (both University of Chicago Press).
If Chicago’s character has remained remarkably stable over the years, L.A.’s image proved much more flighty, evolving through three main themes across three periods. From 1920 to 1973, the majority of hit movies depicting Los Angeles deal with Hollywood and the movie industry, the researchers found. This was the case for 11 of the 15 Los Angeles blockbusters during this era.
“All the movies set in Hollywood depict it, in one way or another, as a false and corrupting place that tends to ruin personal relationships in the context of a potential star’s success and, far more likely, failure,” Halle said.
Think of the 1968 drama “Valley of the Dolls,” which follows the desolate lives of three wannabe actresses. Or the 1973 drama “The Way We Were,” a tear-jerker about a novelist who compromises his talents as a screenwriter.   
The 1978 romantic comedy "Grease" put the spotlight on L.A.'s car culture with high school students conducting drag races on the dry bed of the Los Angeles River. 
Beginning in the 1970s, blockbusters started to closely associate Los Angeles with the car culture, as in the 1978 romantic comedy “Grease,” which features teenagers drag-racing in the concrete-lined Los Angeles River. Or the 1967 classic “The Graduate,” in which the protagonist’s red Alpha Romeo Spider, the Los Angeles freeway system and California’s Pacific Coast Highway figure prominently.
By the 1980s, yet another L.A. stereotype becomes reflected in blockbusters: inept cops. The researchers found seven examples in a five-year period beginning with 1985. Among these “bad cop” movies were two “Beverly Hills Cops” (1984 and 1987), two “Die Hard” (1988 and 1990) and two “Lethal Weapon” movies (1987 and 1989).  
“This image of the inept LAPD corresponds to the actuality of L.A.’s two mega riots, Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King in 1992, in both of which the LAPD was widely perceived as having performed abysmally,” the researchers write.
Since the late 1990s, two even more disturbing images of Los Angeles have emerged, the researchers found. Los Angeles became the center of cataclysmic disasters in such hits as “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003). But other major cities, including New York, are also disaster-prone, it turns out.
The other theme associated with Los Angeles nowadays – global villains – is exemplified by such mega hits as “Iron Man” (2008), in which Malibu is the headquarters of a sinister global corporation.
So did blockbuster movies actually leave an indelible imprint, shaping the public’s image of these cities?

“Of course, the public’s views are going to be shaped somewhat by the media, but it’s at least a two-way street,” Halle said. “Movie-makers can’t produce a hit that reflects a city in just any old way.  A movie isn’t likely to be successful if it doesn’t resonate with and speak to the way in which people view a particular city in a particular period in time. So watching one of these hits is almost like looking into a mirror that reflects public opinion.”
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