When I went to New York for the first time I used AirBNB to get an apartment overlooking the top end of Central Park. Each morning I’d be out the door just after the commuter rush, and I’d wander down through a bit of Central Park to get to whatever wonder was on the cards that day. New York is a very congenial city for a rambling tourist, although the subway system is a bit less user-friendly than the Metro in Paris or the Tube in London, it’s still pretty fast and navigable. If you get tired, you’re never too far from a nice bit of green park, and there are drinking fountains everywhere so you don’t need to carry a water bottle. Cheap street food is available on every corner, and if that’s not sufficiently gourmet (as it wasn’t for me), there are inexpensive little cafes and things scattered nicely everywhere. London, for all it’s glory and heritage, has always felt like a city you tourist in but with a few small exceptions, like Times Square, New York felt like a city you live in.
I’ve come to think that’s the central fantasy being offered in “New York Films”, and in a way, what films set there are really “about”. The surface text of When Harry Met Sally about whether a man and a woman can be friends, and that’s an interesting thesis to explore. But that concept is embedded into a lifestyle matrix that is quintessentially different from other cities’ lived experiences. The scenes where Harry discusses his love life amidst a ball game, or Sally commiserates with her friends after shopping, are scenes which could happen in any city, but always happen in New York. It’s not my insight, unfortunately – Ed Norton’s director’s commentary for Keeping the Faith discusses this aspect of New York pretty directly, and it’s one of the 5 things you have to do in order to be a New Yorker in How I Met Your Mother. The quintessential fantasy of New York is to really live your live interpenetrated with public spaces, and for public spaces to be completely comfortable for you. When Harry Met Sally couldn’t be set anywhere else, any more than Annie Hall or Mad About You.
Begin Again is this fantasy distilled down to an almost pure form. Gretta [Kiera Knightley] is the songwriting partner of up-and-coming folk-rock star Dave [Adam Levine, in a role quite close to home!]. She writes music for herself primarily, for the joy it gives her as an art object. Music is conceived as a very personal construction, rather than the commercial product it undoubtedly is in, say, Music and Lyrics. At a crucial moment in the relationship between Gretta and her producer, she demures over sharing her music collection, and being too personal. Not only is what she’s created personal, but her music tastes are a blueprint to her soul. When Dave strays, Gretta realises it because of lyrics in a song he writes while travelling and recording.The music reflects his emotional life and because Gretta is attuned to that expression she instantly recognises it. She goes to stay with her friend Steve [James Corden], who entices her to perform one of her songs onstage where its inherent beauty is recognised by troubled producer Dan [Mark Ruffalo]. He convinces her to record her music for the wider world, and because they have no money, they record au natural, in the streets if New York.
The fantasy that life is lived via an interpenetration of public and private spaces here is expanded to encompass who Gretta is as a person, via her music. By recording publicly, Gretta also inscribes the character of the city she’s in into the music which has been established as a transcription of her emotional self. It’s impossible to imagine this film set in London or Paris because they lack this cultural association of publicity. Just as it is not easy to imagine the kind of clandestine scenes from Private Clubs in London movies occurring in a New York movie – those meetings are always in public diners or restaurants. A public venue is not only a guarantor of safety, but in a strange way, the real guarantee of privacy. The interesting spin put on that by Begin Again is in the city tour undertaken by Gretta and Dan. They traverse spaces sharing a music port, so that they’re in public, but listening to private music. The apogee of their private music environment in a public space is when they go to a disco and dance to their own music rather than that provided. They have reserved a level of privacy amongst their public relationship. Begin Again completes its vision of the public life by having Gretta release the album on a buck-a-song online model, bedding in the democratising sentiment on which the public life is based.
The climax of the New York film is not always the public declaration of love and reciprocity, but Begin Again uses this familiar story beat while perfectly parsing it through the public/private structure the film has been developing and exploring. Dave performs Gretta’s music, intending to woo her by performing it her way instead of his own, but as the song progresses he relapses almost unconsciously into his own interpretation, offered to the mass audience for his own purposes. Gretta, ever sensitive to the real emotional meaning of music, recognises that this lapse is more than a communication, it’s a confirmation of fundamentally different ideas about the purpose of music, and hence the deeper emotional purpose of life or relationships. Dave, unable to understand Gretta’s music, is unable to understand her, and revealed by this to be an unsuitable partner.
Begin Again is deceptively deep and sophisticated in its storytelling. I think some reviewers saw the gentle non-conflict story mechanics and it’s generally optimistic tone, and wrote it off as a lightweight offering. It is anything but – gentle, yes, but complex and powerful. Most of the reviews I read sort of spotted that there was a sub-vocal communication going on, so Peter Howell wrote “[c]an a meaningful glance mean as much as a kiss? In this film, it can, and that’s enough.” But I haven’t seen anyone else recognise the mechanism by which this transformation of representational priorities is achieved. Most people have focused on the non-romance at the centre of it, talking about the chemistry of the leader, without understanding that the chemistry and the implied romance whose non-implementation gives this film its charm, is created through this concept of public lives and musical empathy. I think in an equivalently complex film based on murdering or extortion, critics would be doing a lot better in unpacking and explaining. For me, while Begin Again has respectable ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, it has been under-appreciated as an artistic work because we are still mired in conflict-based drama.