Nuh Yuck, Nuh Yuck

In 1976, Saul Steinberg drew a cover for The New Yorker called "View of the World from 9th Avenue"—it's routinely cited as one of the most famous magazine covers of all time. The drawing expresses the New York City world view as extending to the Hudson River with some detail, across which is a unarticulated strip called "Jersey." After that, the drawing portrays an empty space of bumps and rocks and a few small labels for Chicago, Nebraska, and Los Angeles, then a strip for the Pacific Ocean. Beyond that, tiny bumps representing Japan, China, and Russia.

Being a product of the American west, when I first saw that cover I was a little offended that "my" world was barely represented (and that some "out west" labels were deliberately incorrect.) But I also realized that my own view of the world was skewed in reverse: the U.S. west was the center of the universe, and things faded in importance as one considered points east, dissolving into a sickly smog of unimportant "easterliness" right around, oh, say the crest of the Rocky Mountains. At the far edge of the United States, there were perhaps a few darker smudges of smog representing places like Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, and (yep) New York City. For me, "back East" in general (and New York City in particular) is largely a fictional locale which plays host to one-hour police dramas, a handful of movies, and which occasionally emits self-possessed, rather rude people who are best left to their own devices.

I think my reaction to Steiberg's drawing is common—after all, most people live in universes centered on themselves, and most people don't live in New York City. But New York has a certain cultural mythology associated with it as being a sophisticated, ever-changing, never-sleeping hub of civilization. Perhaps because I've never set foot in New York City (and I have no plans to do so, either, thank you!) I've never been able to muster up the fawning fascination so many people express for the place. I just nod politely and feel vaguely insulted whenever New York's virtues—high-brow or otherwise—are extolled. Each time the city is held out as a mecca of refinement, enlightenment, and humanity, I'm left to feeling vaguely insulted that I had the naiveté to feel my life was reasonably complete without being a bona fide wannabe New Yorker. How provincial! New York City seems to say when it catches a glance of me through its proxies. If it weren't so ignorant, why, that lifestyle of yours could almost be quaint!

So: in an odd turn of events, I recently saw Annie Hall and The Devil Wears Prada nearly back to back. Watching those two films, something new clicked for me about why I am not—nor will I ever be—a New Yorker.

Some readers have just written me off as a cultural misanthrope for only having seen Annie Hall some thirty years after its release. I don't try to pass myself off as some erudite cinema connoisseur; although I've seen many "important" movies, there are many more I haven't seen and probably never will. So sure: Annie Hall might be a cultural milestone for New Yorkers and film buffs, but it doesn't cast a very long shadow for a kid to grew up in northern Nevada amid sagebrush, rock lizards, mountains, battered pickup trucks, empty highways, shotgun shells, discarded pulltabs, sad pawnshops, and the occasional garish string of casino lights.

Over the years, the one thing I always hear about Annie Hall has nothing to do with the acting, the script, or the direction of the film—the latter two of which, at least to my eyes, were innovative for their day, breaking lots of rules and cinematic conventions. For instance, I loved how one of the most important conversations in the film can barely be heard over badly-edited traffic noise in Los Angeles. And it offers a wonderful collection of one-liners, my favorite being using "My raccoon had hepatitis" as an excuse for not having attended a Bob Dylan concert.

No: instead, it's all about fashion. Apparently the "look" put together for Diane Keaton's character by costume designer Ruth Morley (in conjunction with Ralph Lauren) sparked an androgynous, mismatched trend which extended through women's fashion for over a decade. It might well be true: it's not the kind of thing I'd have noticed. Nonetheless, whenever someone mentions Annie Hall, inevitably, they bring up the clothes Diane Keaton wore in the film.

Which brings me to The Devil Wears Prada, a heavily fictionalized film about the upper echelon's of New York's fashion industry. The opening sequence flips back and forth between close shots of four or five young women getting ready for the day, selecting clothes, shoes, coats, etc., hailing a cab or setting off on foot, all in a fast-cut style intended to convey the rapid pace of life for, I guess, young professional women in New York City.

The conceit of the sequence is that the audience is supposed to notice three or four of the women are very "put together," with fashionable outfits, great haircuts, good makeup, and all that, while one—the film's central character, played by Anne Hathaway—is unfashionable, frumpy, wears bad shoes, and sports a startlingly bad head of hair.

I couldn't tell them apart.

Later in the film, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway's character) giggles at not seeing the significant difference between two similar turquoise leather belts being considered for an outfit. Fashion maven Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) turns and delivers Andrea a speech about how seemingly indistinguishable fashion choices impact Andrea's life:

I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.

As I hear this, I realize that I'd consider clothes I bought in 2002 to still be "brand new." Discounting things like t-shirts, socks, and a few pairs of jeans, the number of clothing items I've purchased since 2002 can safely be counted on the fingers of two hands.

Plainly, I would never make it in the big city.

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