Thrilling Movies Are Killing the Cities

March 21, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

NEW YORK — New York. -- For decades, the New York subway's 236-mile universe of dark tunnels, rumbling transit cars and underground stations has been grist for filmmakers bent on creating horrifying and violent scenes.

''The Young Savages'' (1961) featured a gang beating a man on the subway. In ''The French Connection'' (1975), a crazed killer stalked and shot innocent passengers. ''The Warriors'' (1979) featured gang warfare on trains between the Bronx and Coney Island.

Would-be rapists chased a targeted victim through the subway in ''Dressed to Kill'' (1980). ''Blue Steel'' (1990) featured a shootout on a station platform.

Those are just the more notorious depictions the subway authority is now desperate to bring to a screeching halt.

''We've worked very hard to clean up the subway,'' says New York Transit Authority chief Alan Kiepper.

''Our crime is down 37 percent over four years. Graffiti are off our cars -- if not brand new, every subway car in our system's been rehabilitated in the last eight years. Now we're working on customer amenities -- rehabilitating stations, putting in a magnetic fare-card collection system. Our ridership is up 3.5 percent in the last year.''

New York taxpayers, says Mr. Kiepper, have spent $15 billion on subway improvement in the past 13 years. ''So there's an enormous investment -- not only of capital dollars but in time and commitment of our people to make the subway a more pleasurable and safe experience.''

Why should private filmmakers be tolerated using the subway to create films depicting flying bullets and blood-soaked bodies, when the violent imagery could well serve to frighten riders away and imperil the public investment in a system that carries 1.6 million people a day?

The answer is that the subways are public property, and that the public authority that runs them can only go so far in restraining filmmakers.

What's more, films are big business -- worth billions of dollars a year to New York. The governor's agency formed to push the lucrative film business has told Mr. Kiepper that if violent scenes can't be done locally, producers will simply take their films elsewhere and make other locations look as if they were in New York.

In practical terms all the transit-authority chief can do is set reasonable safety rules. He frowned, for example, on a filmmaker's proposal to show a horse galloping across the Manhattan Bridge with the rider attempting to leap onto a train.

After all, Mr. Kiepper notes, there's a 650-volt third rail right beside the train.

And as often as filmmakers ask to paint graffiti on one of the cars of the painstakingly cleaned-up, scrubbed fleet, Kiepper & Co. bristle and just say no.

However limited, the New York Transit Authority's stand may mark a watershed. It's the first time a government body has had the guts to even hint at limits on how the entertainment industry uses public space -- whether streets or subways.

The predominant imagery of films in cities -- from the San Francisco of ''Dirty Harry'' to the Miami of ''Scarface'' to the hell of a ''Blade Runner'' Los Angeles -- is violent and fearful.

Cities are victimized by an industry that boasts of its creativity but depicts urban life in such negative, sometimes terrifying ways, that how millions of Americans view cities is twisted in the process.

The violent depiction of cities is serious, as polls show public perception of crime -- in popular image associated with cities -- rising far more rapidly than the facts bear out. Justice Department statistics do show a moderate overall increase in violent crime since 1981 -- but with murder and robbery rates actually falling while levels of forcible rape and aggravated assault have risen.

Yet fear of crime has been whipped up to such a stage that Congress and many state legislatures are now looking at vengeful, tough incarceration bills for which we'd pay -- in cash and bitterly alienated cons and ex-cons -- for a generation or more.

Sensationalized media crime coverage has fed the crime frenzy. But movies and television films, with their constant diet of violent scenes, overwhelmingly set in urban places, can't be exonerated.

City officials could do themselves a favor by taking a leaf from New York's book and passing the word to the filmmakers -- ''We like your coming, we like your business, but please tame the violence.''

The more the entertainment industry hears that message, the more likely it will start taming its gun-and-terror diets.

Alan Kiepper, in the meantime, notes that thousands of New Yorkers met their future mates, or courted, or both, on the New York subways. He'd love a pleasant and easy love story filmed on the subway. Of course, he despairs of the film industry ever doing it.

''Maybe I'll have to write and produce 'Love on the A-Line' myself,'' he says.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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