City By the Sea

  • Travis Bickle
  • Marge Gunderson
  • James Dean


Directed by Doc Hollywood

"Hey, you tell those bastards that DeNiro takes 15% of the gross or DeNiro doesn't Meet the Fockers!"

Infectious Truth?

When a man fashions a home underneath the gutter, he's officially hit rock bottom.  This is the fate of Joey Nova, whose Christian name is Joseph La Marca, son of a cop whose divorce wreaked havoc on his family, and thus, his son. Vincent La Marca's family failure has seemed to depress the entire city of Long Beach, New York—it seems the city by the sea has wept and mourned the last twenty years.  Vincent walks the rotting boardwalk, hotdog wrappers blustering about in front of rusty carousels. The paint has chipped from the ticket booths and hotdog stands, tattered banners can barely muster enough strength for the breeze; all that's left is a diner serving small portions of greasy relief for the junkies now haunting the place. Like Frank McCourt's Irish alleys, the City By the Sea is a graveyard of broken dreams, and like McCourt's Limerick, the dampness of the town is less a meteorological condition than a state of mind.

The film is bookended by gilded sunshine, but the rest is a chilly cesspool of the sort that breeds incurable disease. The disease afflicting Vincent La Marca was first caught by his father, executed for the murder of a child back in the 50's. Little Vincent was adopted by the cop who arrested his father, and spent his life, "Being so good nobody could say I wasn't." From what we know of his police work, this may be accurate, but things didn't turn out quite so well with his family. Vincent may have hit his wife, but in any case, he walked out on her and his son and burrowed into the trudgery of cop work in New York. One night, he's sent to investigate the murder of a dealer named, of all things, Picasso, and he's hot on the trail of the killer, who just happens to be Joey La Marca.

Uh oh, for both us and Vincent—this sounds like Arthur Miller's turf.  Usually, when post-Miller playwrights attempt the Miller-ish themes, they lose their discipline and end up with a hodgepodge of Oedipal psychobabble, but to Michael Caton-Jones and Ken Hixon's credit, City By the Sea eschews Freud and sticks with description. Nowadays in Hollywood, when psychology meets metaphor, filmmakers tend to overexplain it, but here, Long Beach smothers the movie like damp rag and the murk just soaks in. There's a dark puddle of seemingly years of accumulated drips in the loft of an abandoned warehouse so forsaken that even junkies go there to escape; this puddle represents the whole movie: the kind of stain that breeds guys with sub-human names like "Spider" and "Snake." 

As an artistic conception, the film is just fine, if not inspired in these respects, but it falters in the dialogue. DeNiro measures the quiet repression of Vincent just right—we can believe that Michelle (Francis McDormand) would find him charming, but we also believe his past indescretions. Too bad all of this calculation culminates in one of the most transparent climactic scenes in recent Hollywood. The climactic scene and the mysterious disappearance of Francis McDormand undermined the power of the whole picture, which leads me to a stiff question:  Why make a movie of this "true" story at all? To make money, of course, but so few movies make money anymore, so there must be another explanation. I'll offer you this: Journalism can only do so much to tell a story. The journalistic creed is to worship Objectivism, but haven't most of us concluded that objectivism is dead? I think back to Insomnia: Once Will Dormer plants that first bit of evidence, creates his own story based upon the events of what may actually have happened, what's the real difference between him and crime novelist Walter Finch? The only real difference between journalist and artist is in the medium: The goal, of course, is truth, the process of creation based on "real" events is merely the organization of a coherent narrative that, in the end analysis, feels like truth. Some might correctly argue that A Beautiful Mind manipulates the story of John Nash such to render it officially "incorrect." Those critics generally use the standard of Sylvia Nasar's biography, but doesn't Nasar's work also reveal a tendency to be more forgiving than perhaps it should?  I would agree that the book "feels" more right than the film, but that is not to say that its journalism is a gold standard of "reality" or "truth"—it's a work of art as well. So what does that mean for City By the Sea?  When an artist depicts actual people, he raises the gambit of verisimilitude—these are not his own creations he's messing with, and this requires the highest respect from directors and writers, who musn't reduce the living to the banality of ordinary Hollywood movies. When Robert DeNiro embarasses himself with your lines, you must do better. The feel of the final ten minutes of this movie is enough to extinguish my fire for the rest.

The Pitch:
1 Arthur Miller
copland.jpg (2314 bytes)  
1 Cop Land
2 City By the Sea
See It For:
DeNiro trying to correct crazed fans who think he was Scarface.