The question of how to make movies under quarantine is still very much an open one, but Spike Lee has come up with one answer, in the form of a three-minute film called New York New York. Posted to his Instagram last night, the short documentary, scored to Frank Sinatra’s anthem, takes a tour of the eerily silent city, from padlocked playgrounds to deserted subway stops. Shot on Super 8 film stock by Kerwin Devonish and edited by Adam Goode, it’s a melancholy but not pessimistic addition to Lee’s long tradition of capturing the five boroughs on film, and also an apparent homage to the late D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Daybreak Express.
In Lee’s 25th Hour, one of the first movies to capture the mood of New York after 9/11, Edward Norton spews a detailed string of invective into a bathroom mirror, cursing out the city’s various factions by name, but the images that underlie his rant are more affectionate than his words—friendly Korean grocers offering fruit to the camera, black men talking trash on outdoor basketball courts. The people in New York New York keep their distance from one another, but when they start showing up, standing in socially distanced lines outside drugstores or working the field hospital in Central Park, their mood isn’t of isolation or anxiety. It’s perseverance and collective pride, such that you hear the sound of the nightly cheer for health care workers in your head even though it’s not on the soundtrack. Lee shows you Times Square and Grand Central station nearly empty, but the spaces where New Yorkers actually live are just waiting to be filled again, and until it’s safe to travel, Spike Lee can show you the town.