Whenever I speak to foreign friends, acquaintances and even strangers near Christmastime, they often openly fantasise about spending the holiday in New York City. They also tend to cite the film Home Alone 2 as the source of this fantasy.
Films have that effect: they alter our perceptions of a time and place into impossible standards by which we judge our real lives. I won’t pretend I didn’t develop my own fantasy of spending Christmas in London when I first saw Love Actually.
Everyone wants to fall in love, actually, and wants it to happen in certain places: on the Pont Alexandre III bridge in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower rising in the background, just as Jack Nicholson did in one of the 57 movies he made with Diane Keaton (or was it Helen Hunt?) – or, if Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron have any say in it, in Yuletide Manhattan.
Yes, it’s December, which means that Meg Ryan, the patron saint of romantic comedies, will be on our screens till the New Year, deploying her odd blend of cute smarts and self-righteous snark at either Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal. Really, all these films blend together to me like a melted sundae.
There are Christmas scenes in When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, but the details don’t matter; people watch these movies to capture a certain feeling.
There’s a timelessness to New York that makes it perfect for Christmas and Christmas films. It’s like a cultural matte painting: it changes, but never enough to be unrecognisable. A Miracle on 34th Street may have come out just two years after the Second World War ended, but any New Yorker in 2015 will instantly feel a kinship with the film’s backdrop.
Christmas is the only time of year we stop fiddling with computers so we can look at a tree. And New York at Christmas is the purest magic. It’s one of the few times in life when you might think you really are in a movie: the night-time lights; the contrast between the cold, dark streets and the warm confines of a coffee shop baked in yellow light; the cheery department stores strung with garlands; the sense of being in the middle of a grand tradition.
There’s something about Christmas that makes us crave an older, simpler time. I think that’s one reason younger people cite Home Alone 2, a fun but pedestrian children’s comedy, as their Christmas inspiration. As many films of the pre-internet era do, it reminds us what life (and especially childhood) was like before our eyes were fixed, Clockwork Orange-style, to the screens of mobile electronic devices.
If you think about it, Home Alone and its sequel in the Big Apple couldn’t even be made nowadays. Kevin wouldn’t really be “lost in New York”, as the film’s subtitle promises. He’d have an iPhone with GPS and Google Maps, and the moment he and his parents found they had been separated, a few simple text messages would have resolved most of the movie’s conflict. Then with a few flicks of a thumb on a travel app, Kevin would have a ticket back to his family before Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern even showed up.
What about New Yorkers themselves? Are they any nicer because of the Christmas holiday? In Scrooged, a brilliant 1988 comedy version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Bill Murray plays a ruthless Manhattan television executive reformed by three ghosts.
It’s the perfect vehicle for reinforcing the stereotype of a callous city. But that stereotype is overblown. New Yorkers are pretty friendly. They do walk fast – and speak fast. Perhaps out-of-towners mistake this as impatient rudeness.
Then again, how can you not walk fast when you live in one of the biggest, most important cities in the world? Out of the 8.5 million people in the five boroughs of New York City, there are 1.6 million on Manhattan island alone. This means that one section of one American city has more people than the entire nation of Estonia, and nearly three times that of Luxembourg.
That said, notice how in New York romantic comedies, the leads never have trouble getting the best table in the coziest place. That’s an almost impossible feat in real life. It’s almost as hilarious as the shots of the main character parking his car directly in front of his destination on, say, Fifth Avenue. Even getting near the tree in the Rockefeller Centre requires standing behind a mass of people and shuffling slowly forward.
There’s a reason this city never sleeps, and it isn’t just because they’re up watching Meg Ryan all night.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent
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