Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Christopher Moloney photographs screen-grabbed movie stills against the city landscape.
On his way to work on Manhattan's West Side, Christopher Moloney passes a location -- Broadway at Columbus Circle -- of moderate significance to some film geeks: it's the site of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's rampage at the climax of the movie Ghostbusters. One day, in an effort to demonstrate this serendipity to his friends, Maloney held a crinkled print-out of the movie still up to the streetscape and took a photo.
Little did he know what he had begun. Since June, Moloney, a writer for a television show, has staged and posted several hundred such photographs on his Tumblr, FILMography, drawing attention from blogs, magazines, and even -- in the case of Step Up 3D -- the director himself. Now, when Moloney holds up his black-and-white stills up to the Plaza Hotel or the New York Public Library, people recognize the concept -- though its author remains (the fingers of his left hand aside) largely anonymous.
Moloney's methods set his project apart from other composite photo projects, which are often highly technical. "I can hardly use Microsoft Word," he quips. Like a detective piecing together torn fragments of an image, he holds up his screen-grabbed stills against the landscape. The building don't always line up perfectly; the colors seldom match. But the dissonance gives the shots meaning. (If you wanted seamless, you should have rented the movie.)
Older films, says Moloney, sometimes produce the lowest level of contrast. In the days when on-location, exterior filming was still something of a novelty, directors wanted New York to look unmistakably like New York. The Empire State Building, the East River bridges, and Central Park have hardly changed since. More recent films that use restaurants and stores for setting, by comparison, end up representing a more ephemeral vision of the city.
"Whenever I see a movie and there's a bookstore scene, I get very sad, because that bookstore is probably gone," Moloney says. "I could never recreate that."
Meanwhile, Moloney has acquired a sense of the city as a setting. "It has taken over my movie-viewing these days," he tells me. Certain locations acquire meaning not just from particular movies but from repeated use. Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, one the more popular locations on Moloney's journeys, tends to be used in "lighter, happier scenes." Federal Hall, by contrast, appears in "grittier, darker scenes," like the one below.
"These films were made 50 years apart," Moloney says, "and they go back to the same locations."
At times, on-location filming in New York has even impacted public perception of place in real life, as happened with a series of violent flicks shot on the New York City subway during the 1970s -- Death Wish, The French Connection, The Warriors, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In 1994, the MTA sought to ban violent cinema set on the subway, feeling it was damaging the system's recovering reputation.
Across the decades of cinematic history, the films Moloney chooses may be a disparate bunch -- on a recent trip to Grand Central Terminal he set up shots from Step Up 3D (2010), Revolutionary Road (2008) and Midnight Run (1988) -- but the locations have a significance that transcends time and plot.
If you think you've seen it in a movie, it has probably been in several. "You might not notice until you see them all in one place," he says.
All images courtesy of Christopher Moloney. See more on FILMography.