Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Filmmakers have been shooting on the streets of New York City since the days of Thomas Edison, but Manhattan changes as rapidly, almost, as film runs through a camera. A scene captured this year will be different next, and images of bricks and steel become a vision of somewhere else instead – a city that can no longer exist.

Austrian artist Maria Lassnig exposed this, in a trilogy of films she made on another filmmaker’s set. During the 1970s, Lassnig had a studio on Avenue B in Manhattan’s East Village, and for a few days in 1974, her neighbourhood was reborn as a nostalgic vision of 1920s Little Italy for the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. Lassnig stepped outside with her 8mm camera and filmed the shoot, which was thronged with crew wielding far more expensive equipment, extras wearing priests’ robes and black headscarves.

Lassnig photographed everything you never see on screen: Coppola and his director of photography Gordon Willis deep in conversation, passers-by gawping as actors run through a shootout, a kid begging an extra for prop fruit from his old-timey market stall. Then she worked her silent footage, taken across several days of the production, into three films, a trilogy of her own. In Lassnig’s The Godfather I, II and III, meandering 1970s New Yorkers, with afros, leather jackets and blue jeans, amble past meticulously styled representatives of an earlier era in the same city’s history. Edits and superimpositions lay a rough draft of contemporary urban life over a polished version of its past – a torn page in a history of New York.

Maria Lassnig in her film Kopf (1970)

You can watch this trilogy, as I did, on a DVD called Maria Lassnig: Film Works, published by the Austrian FilmMuseum with an accompanying book last year. Lassnig’s films seem to reveal the threadbare patches in Coppola’s historical reconstruction, the limits of his realism and perhaps make a gentle mockery of his vast budget. Yet her painterly imagination, her artful editing and in-camera multiple exposures, is as contrived as his deployment of immaculate costuming and set-dressing. It’s this friction between two ideas of realism – one crafted by a vast Hollywood crew but photographed obliquely; one by an artist-filmmaker shooting and cutting by hand – that makes the films so fascinating. In that book, Jocelyn Miller describes the film as “offering a female gaze onto one of Hollywood’s most iconic depictions of patriarchy”. For me, the trilogy served as perfect preparatory viewing for my screening of Jon M. Chu’s recent In the Heights, the big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash that I’d been waiting to see since long before the first lockdown.

The musical dramatises a crisis in Washington Heights, Manhattan, as the Latinx community is priced out. On that score, its realism has already been called out. Miranda has acknowledged and apologised for the absence of AfroLatinx representation in the lead roles: “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.” Beatrice Loayza argues that Chu’s film is “an act of gentrification itself, commodifying Latinx culture and condensing it into more universal, broadly appealing forms”, with characters who are merely “neat representations of ‘authenticity’ ”. So for me, watching In the Heights was a little bit like watching Lassnig’s Godfather films. Its “pleasantly recognisable” version of a working-class, ethnically specific inner-city community is punctured by another more immediate idea of realism, superimposed in my mind.

To give the film its due, authentic representation of inner-city life is not its only strategy. Stylistically this painted mosaic turns its back on realism from the outset: a giddily playful vision of an impossible city. A love song transforms a tenement wall into a gravity-defying dancefloor, oversized bolts of fabric tumble from roofs, a manhole cover revolves like a turntable, hair-salon mannequins spring to life, and in one of the film’s most poetic moments, a subway pole is replaced with a translucent beam of light. All this magic gives a welcome jolt to the often literal lyrics and the dollars-and-cents manoeuvring of the plot.

New York deserves to be this weird. Weird like a ‘city symphony’: the documentary style that was born in the borough and treats the cityscape like an alien planet. In 1921’s Manhatta tilted camera angles expose just how very much taller the brand-new skyscrapers are than the ant-people on the sidewalk. The structure and pace of In the Heights nods to this form, with a narrative that begins and ends in the early morning, days marked out by title cards and production numbers that show people moving en masse to work, to the swimming pool, to the club in time with the music.

In the Heights is a story about people who are stuck to those sidewalks, people coming home to, or staying put on, the block. Its bizarre visuals reveal the futility of their nostalgia for a moment that has just passed, homesickness for a place as it existed a generation, or two, ago. Perhaps that’s why people who know Washington Heights better find the film too bland, and put its authenticity in quotation marks.

But there’s joy as well as sorrow in nostalgia. The immigrant imagination that makes and remakes the city, in real life and on film: Coppola draped Avenue B in Italian flags, and Austrian Lassnig used her camera to pick holes in his nostalgic illusion, while In the Heights mutates a city block into a Caribbean island where “that hydrant is a beach/That siren is a breeze, that fire escape’s a leaf on a palm tree”. The characters dance back to the streets, as their minds drift to the islands.

The city is transformed by its new residents, as one of the world’s oldest film sets is continually rebuilt by its new directors.

More on New York movies