ON THE TOWN by Marshall Berman


One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square
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From cultural critic Berman (Adventures in Marxism, 1999, etc.), a windy critical essay on Times Square’s past and present, focusing primarily on the films and plays that were set there.

The Broadway musicals include On The Town and 42nd Street; Times Square–related movies range from The Jazz Singe to The Last Detail and Taxi Driver. But Berman also plows through detailed analyses of obscure films like Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance and the quickly forgotten Times Square with Trini Alvarado. We get digressions on Sister Carrie, Betty Boop and Sex and the City, plus a ten-page dissertation on a 1975 essay by cultural critic Laura Mulvey, but Berman never mentions Oscar-winner Midnight Cowboy. Nor does he write a word on Times Square staples like the Ed Sullivan Theater or New Year’s Eve. Instead, Berman seems strangely preoccupied with ascribing left-wing messages to the most seemingly apolitical work. He finds anti-McCarthyism in Guys and Dolls, a pro-Marxist message in Stage Door and discovers that Gypsy is a “declaration of human rights.” Even some of the author’s apolitical assertions give pause. To wit: “Early in the twentieth century, every city had its ‘Great White Way.’ Most of these went dark after World War II, when the Federal Highway System engineered the destruction of downtowns all over the country; New York alone survived to tell the tale.” (Folks in Chicago, Boston or San Francisco might be surprised to hear that.) This meandering tome might have been more digestible with a more focused approach and smoother narrative. But Berman’s prose is often awkward and obtuse, making his overreaching conclusions that much harder to swallow.

The author’s parents owned a business in Times Square in his youth, and he himself has taught at the nearby CUNY Graduate Center for 30 years, so it’s particularly disappointing that he delivers so little historical detail and so much pedantry.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-6331-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2005