In this 17-minute video essay from Jonathan Hertzberg, he compiles scenes of the New York City subway in movies mostly from the 1970s and the 1980s. Though this is an account of the subterranean railway's presence in mainly fiction films, it shows a glimpse of a grimy and violent past. As the subway trundles through these two pre-Giuliani decades, it hosts a variety of gangs, purse-snatchers, tough cops, harassers, jaunty graffiti, drug-pushers, and zombie-eyed post partiers. Hertzberg has simply titled his short film Dirty Old New York Subway.

The space of the subway in movies is useful both as a metaphor and a plot device. It forces confrontation. In the subway, a group of people are stuck in this small space for brief periods of time, in which they expressly want to be somewhere else.

Dirty Old New York Subway shows, by contrast, that the way we use subways in fiction has changed (and reflects how the subways themselves have changed). Though this is a roundup of mostly fictional movies, the subway shown in this era was way more threatening and seedy. Now, filmmakers seem to use the subway as location for serendipitous meetings or diverting conversation with friends. It's the site of whimsical flirting or bittersweet missed connections. It's a location where a filmmaker can quickly capture a bunch of quirky characters bein' quirky.


It might be a less exhilarating 17 minutes, but I hope Hertzberg continues this project into the 90s and through the aughts. If only for breakdance scenes and mid-90s garb. But he might have to go with a milder title: Slightly Uncomfortable, Mostly Tolerable, Sometimes Almost Alright New York Subway.

[Jonathan Hertzberg]