Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

Manhattan in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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How Woody Allen's Manhattan became Donald Trump's New York

Trump took everything that Allen hated about California - charity galas, golf, awards fever, architectural bad taste - and brought it to New York.

The transformation of faded, fire-ravaged, job-bleeding ‘third-world’ New York (signature headline: “President to City: Drop Dead”) into a safe, clean, smug, wealthy, first-world-problems kind of place (presiding logo: “I ❤ NY”) is popularly associated with the work of three men, Ed Koch, Donald Trump, and Woody Allen.

In their different ways, they embodied – when they didn’t help to engineer – all manner of civic, fiscal, economic, municipal, cultural, and spiritual change. 1978 was the turning-point. That year, Koch became mayor and went about healing the crises that had occurred under the previous incumbent, Abe Beame. Trump, exploiting the city’s new tax incentives, bought the decrepit old Commodore Hotel – later the Grand Hyatt – and began negotiating the sale of the Bonwit Teller flagship store, just south-east of Central Park, the future site of Trump Tower. In that same year, Allen – who was born in Brooklyn in 1935, the year that Trump’s developer father, Fred, began to concentrate his business in that borough – co-wrote, directed, and starred in Manhattan, which was released the following April.

The film, which has just been reissued in a 4K print, is an attempt to salvage New York from its scuzzy 1970s manifestation, and an exercise in what the cinematographer Gordon Willis called “romantic reality”. In glistening widescreen black-and-white, abetted by a Gershwin score, Manhattan presents the borough as an assemblage of highlights: Bloomingdale’s, John’s Pizzeria, the Dalton School, Hayden Planetarium (actually a set), 30 Rock, MOMA, the Guggenheim, Elaine’s, the Russian Tea Room, and so on. Sitting in the park at Sutton Place, in sight of the Queensboro Bridge, Allen's character Isaac Davis says, “This is really a great city. I don’t care what anybody says. Really a knockout.” (The moment required some airbrushing. The crew had to find a bench from somewhere and on the original poster the image was tinkered with, to reduce the size of the buildings in the background.)

The case-against had been made, or at least heard, two years earlier, in  Allen’s first proper New York film, Annie Hall. At one point, Alvy Singer (Allen) says that his friend Rob (Tony Roberts), who loves Los Angeles and thinks Alvy ought to move there, should be doing Shakespeare in the Park. “I did Shakespeare in the Park," he replies. "I got mugged.” In Manhattan going to Shakespeare in the Park is invoked as just another pleasant thing to do and the only threat to safety is the occasional rain storm. Nobody troubles to talk up LA. (The reasons that praise for that city falls on deaf ears in Allen’s work include its lack of seasons, its love of prizes, its congenital faddishness, and the necessity to drive.)

The film’s opening is a montage of over thirty images (pedestrian excitement, New Year’s fireworks, a pre-Trump skyline), garnished with Gershwin, and set to a voiceover of Isaac contemplating possible first paragraphs for a novel. It’s also the sound of Allen airing his conflicted feelings. The first begins, “He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion.” He proceed to dismiss draft versions as too corny, too angry, too preachy. He eventually settles on one that begins, “He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved” and ends “New York was his town and it always would be.” But in every version, there is some acknowledgement of Isaac's romanticism – the rosy tint of his perspective.

On Manhattan's release, the New Statesman film critic John Coleman, used it as an occasion to knock Annie Hall and Interiors (1978), in the process eliding some very large differences. He described the films' shared setting as “elitist, snob-cultural New York chic, full of encounters in OK restaurants between people with time on their hands and themselves on their minds”. Coleman was following a critical agenda set by Joan Didion in the New York Review of Books (“the sense of social reality in these pictures is dim in the extreme”). However, Didion was a self-confessed apostate from New York worship – leaving the city was the subject of her essay “Goodbye to All That” – so maybe she was just the person to miss the point entirely? James Wolcott, looking back in his memoir Lucking Out – in some ways a riposte to Didion's neuroses – calls the film's opening “a balm for every bruise that New York had taken in the seventies, a relieved sigh from the trenches signaling that perhaps the worst was over, somehow we had come through”.

Allen made no attempt to defend the city against a more general, less time-specific charge – what might be considered the "Manhattan libel".  As Alvy Singer puts it, “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist Jewish homosexual pornographers.” He speaks for his creator when he adds, “I think of us that way, and I live here.” In Allen’s view, New York was not just decaying but decadent, heaving with snobs as well as lowlifes, its integrity under threat from above and below. Sitting with Annie on a park bench, he pokes fun at the passersby, among them a cigar-chewing mafioso and “the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest” – in fact, Capote himself. The film stages encounters with both kinds of bad New Yorker, who are placed in implicit contrast with a pair of European film-makers who, to Allen, embodied the right balance of refinement and modishness, sophistication and popular appeal. Waiting outside a cinema to see Bergman’s Face to Face, Alvy, a stand-up comic, is accosted by a pair of Italian-Americans who vaguely recognise him from television. Queueing elsewhere for a documentary, he winces as a academic from Columbia complains about the new Fellini.

In Manhattan, the gangster types are gone, but the film reinforces the idea of New York as a phoney-magnet. After bumping into his married friend Yale (Michael Murphy) with his lover Mary (Diane Keaton), Isaac complains to his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a seventeen-year-old high-school student, that Yale has always been a sucker for the kind of women who involve him “in discussions of existential reality.” Though Isaac soon falls for Mary himself, a glimpse of their first date shows him throwing up his hands as they emerge from a screening of the silent Soviet film Earth, and we cut to them reentering her apartment as he says that as far as he’s concerned, a great movie is something with W.C. Fields. In the next scene, standing before a sculpture, he mockingly deploys Mary-ish terms like “negative capability”. She ends up back with Yale.

***

Allen managed to sustain his adoration of the city by associating its true nature exclusively with things and types he doesn’t loathe. It’s an incoherent vision – or at least fixed according to his unique set of peccadilloes, his narrow definition of what isn’t philistine and what isn’t pretentious, what occupies the space between the anti-rational and hyper-rational. Alvy Singer calls himself a “bigot but for the left,” but Allen's position is a little more paradoxical. He abhors mass-culture phenomena like pop music and television, but worships baseball and basketball and old movies (often watched on late-night cable). He looks with equal disdain on haute couture and academe, corruption and radicalism, accountancy and flower power. He loves museums and jazz and Chinese takeaways but is suspicious of conceptual art and rock and fast food. He likes pizza but not punk, smutty jokes but not foul language, gazing at bridges but not crossing them, psychoanalytic vocabulary but no other kind of jargon, Broadway but not modern theatre, cultural references but not high-culture seriousness (what Alvy calls “fake insights”), city parks and rivers but not the country, kooks and innocents but not hippies, the yuppie-crowded Upper East Side – “the zone” – but not Wall Street or, really, any of the downtown area. (Gershwin is a kind of ideal – a graduate of Tin Pan Alley, immersed in the French art song and Austrian modernism, who wrote jazz and "folk opera".)

At the end of Manhattan, Allen names eleven things that make life worth living – a hodgepodge that reflects his arbitrary high-low aesthetic. Seven of them are strongly associated with New York: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Brando, Sinatra, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, “Tracy’s face.” Even Cézanne’s "incredible" Still Life with Apples and Pears is housed at the Met.

The gentrifying processes that occurred during Ed Koch’s administration made Manhattan-worship a more obvious pastime – and an easier position to maintain. There were fewer problems of the crime-and-garbage variety, although it’s possible Allen over-stressed the revamp. Less overly romantic than ManhattanHannah and Her Sisters (1986), which concerns the extended circle of an Upper West Side family, prompted the charge of white-washing. Even Mia Farrow’s mother, Maureen Stapleton, who appears as the matriarch, said that the film was so beautiful “it almost makes you forget all the dog poop on the streets.”

Allen has said that his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors was intended as a retort to Hannah and Her Sisters, in which, he felt, he’d been too easy on the characters. (His original title was Brothers.) But there are also signs of Allen becoming tougher on his setting. Early on, Clifford Stern (Allen) and his niece emerge from a screening of Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith and confronts “awful”, rain-lashed Greenwich Village, the real city diverging from the sparkling pre-war paradise.

And if the city's economic revival had done something to bridge this chasm and return Manhattan to its pomp, it had its downside – no, not the escalating rents but the influx of vulgarians, responding to the re-found hipness. As Allen softened on artsy types, he redoubled his aversion to the airhead. In Hannah and Her Sisters, there's a young record company executive – Dusty – whose approach to art collection is entirely determined by size and colour scheme. And in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Clifford’s brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a television producer with a “closet full of Emmys”, a dyed-in-the-wool Los Angeleno, is considering a move to the city, a place he describes, in one of many pseudo-epigrams, as “thousands of straight lines looking for a punchline.” (Allen’s twin bugbears, philistinism and prentension, are perfectly combined in Lester’s reference to a university course on “existential motifs in my situation comedies”.) Husbands and Wives (1992) revealed more fears of a total Californification of the city's tastes and habits, the full list of pathogens that had blown eastwards including charity galas, long speeches, astrology, aerobics,  golf, health food, cocktail dresses, awards fever–and architectural bad taste.

The chief representative of these changes – the vulgarian-in-chief – was Donald Trump, another immigrant from the outer-boroughs (Queens, in this case) who as a boy had made saucer-eyed visits to Manhattan. To the adolescent Allen, New York was the place depicted by Hitchcock in Mr and Mrs Smith, the formula he lovingly re-created in the film within The Purple Rose of Cairo (1986): tuxedos, evening gowns, white telephones, theatre trips. For Trump, it was the Midtown bustle and neon that made New York feel like “the center of the world.” Allen, starting out, aspired to be like S.J. Perelman, or Groucho. Trump emulated his developer hero Bill Zeckendorf. Fred Trump did most of his work in the outer boroughs. (He even inspired a song by another Woody, Guthrie, who was appalled by the segregation policies in Trump senior's housing projects.) But in The Art of the Deal, Trump recalls that he had “loftier dreams and visions” and couldn’t shake his determination that Manhattan was where the action was – or would be. He claimed that though the city was at a low – “suffering from a crisis of confidence” – it didn’t keep him “up nights”.  Things “ultimately” had to turn around. In the meantime, “I saw the city’s trouble as a great opportunity for me.”

In 1971, the year he became head of his father’s company, Trump Management, Donald Trump moved into a run-down flat on the Upper East Side – with the coveted 10021 zip code – which he jokingly called his penthouse. Meanwhile, Allen was living barely three blocks away in a penthouse duplex that Dick Cavett likened to the hero’s home in the 1930s New York film The Man Who Played God. But Trump soon caught up in the grandeur stakes, nabbing the penthouse triplex atop the Trump Tower, and a Park view from 57th and Fifth rather than 74th and Fifth. Allen was chauffeured round the city in a cream Rolls-Royce, Trump in a silver Cadillac (with his initials on the number plate). With Ed Koch being perennially single, Trump and Ivana competed with Woody and Mia as the leading couple of 80s Manhattan – both relationships lasted the whole decade before hitting the buffers in similar tabloid style – but they represented altogether different versions of the new New York. 

There’s a brief, almost perfunctory moment in Manhattan where Isaac notes a group of construction works pulling down an old building. “Can’t they have those things declared landmarks?” Mary asks, and Isaac reflects that the city’s “really changing”. The next film Allen made in modern New York, Broadway Danny Rose (1984), was supposed to have a 1940s setting, but Allen said that he couldn’t find “a half block” of Times Square that hadn’t been “junked up”. In Hannah and Her Sisters, an architect whose own work strains to respect the atmosphere and proportions of the surroundings does a tour of local charms which ends with a concrete, hole-punched slab on the Beaux-Arts-heavy East 62nd Street, an edifice that the journalist Joe Klein described as resembling a cheese grater. “What’s permitted in this city is just terrible; it’s a crime,” Allen said, the year the film came out. (In Annie Hall, architectural inconsistency is strongly associated with Beverly Hills: “French next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese.”) By the time of Husbands and Wives, he had a character who worked for the Landmarks Trust. A magazine editor played by Liam Neeson tells her, “I don’t believe in capital punishment except for certain New York developers.” (Preparing the way for the Tower, Trump had refused to preserve – in fact, cosigned to the jackhammer – the bronze grillwork and a pair of art-deco fifteen-foot-high bas-relief of goddesses dancing over Fifth Avenue.)

Trump had received a name-check in Crimes and Misdemeanors when Lester says into his dictaphone: “Idea for series: a wealthy, high-profile builder who’s always trying to realise grandiose dreams à la Donald Trump, to be shot in New York.” Though the idea is supposed to reveal Lester’s frivolity and self-absorption – he's mid-conversation at the time – it’s telling that even he shows a hint of scepticism. 

Then came Celebrity (1998), the satire which to date remains Allen's final statement on modern New York. The film is a reply to Manhattan, its use of black and white and an opening onslaught of New York locales seeming darkly ironic – as if this hell-hole is worthy of monochrome and montage! Although the central character, the journalist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), seems to be writing the same book as Isaac in Manhattan, this time the city fails to come through. At one point, a mad young movie star (DiCaprio) takes Lee to the Trump Marina in Atlantic City for a boxing match and a foursome. Later, Lee’s ex-wife, a teacher-turned-TV host, wanders around a fashionable restaurant, Le Bijou, making small talk for the camera with an estate agent to the stars, a disgraced senator, a gossip columnist – and Trump himself. It was an inspired manipulation of available resources. Le Bijou was really Jean-Georges, which is based at the lobby level of the Trump International Hotel and Tower–an attack on New York in the 90s could hardly do without one of his branded buildings – and Trump often demanded an appearance in films that made use of his buildings. (Ed Koch’s cameo, in the short film Oedipus Wrecks, came at Allen’s request.) Here Trump reports plans – invented, but only just – to erect a "very, very tall and beautiful building" on the site of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The new fame-and-lifestyle obsession is aligned with the desire to dislodge a priceless monument in favour of a shear-wall phallus.

Manhattan could only have been made during a very short period.  It’s a snapshot of a city in transition, at just the point when the horrors of the 70s were beginning to fade and the horrors of the 80s – by Allen’s lights – had yet to declare themselves. For the next twenty years, even as he yearned to idealise New York, Allen couldn't ignore the new realities, and Celebrity marked the point at which the scales tipped. Since then he has sought alternative routes to a romanticism of place, setting his films against an unspecific, attractive New York movie-backdrop (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda), venturing to Europe (London, Barcelona, Paris, Rome), and travelling back in time. Starting with Zelig (1983), he has paid half-a-dozen visits to New York’s hallowed past. After all, the decades of greed, kitsch, and indifference to history furnish varied opportunities for nostalgia. His next film, Wonder Wheel, concerns a Coney Island amusement park, and takes place in the late 1950s – just moments before Fred Trump started work on Trump Village, the twenty-plus-storey apartment complex that overshadowed Steeplechase Park and dwarfed its prize ride, the Parachute Jump, the so-called Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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