Monthly Archives: April 2008

Tales from the Manhattan housing market

On Saturday the New York Times published an article entitled “Finding Your First Apartment in New York City”, about two weeks too late for me to actually make use of it. However, the advice in the article can mostly be found easily online, so I didn’t feel like I missed out. They emphasize not going into the search with unrealistic expectations—I actually had the opposite experience, where after years of hearing horror stories about Manhattan housing, I didn’t expect to be able to rent anything larger than a closet and was pleasantly surprised at what was actually available in my price range.
Anyway, the Manhattan rental market is quite different from most in a few ways. Obviously a lot of it’s driven by the fact that a Manhattan address is highly sought-after, leading to a very low vacancy rate (sometimes quoted as 0.5%, although I think it’s higher at the moment) and vastly higher rents than in other U.S. cities. I’d heard from several sources that competition for any given apartment can be fierce, and it’s best to apply for a unit on the spot if it looks good, since it may not be available later. However, right now (maybe due to the recession) this didn’t seem to be the case. There were a surprising number of vacancies, a number of landlords were offering “specials” with a discount of several hundred dollars per month, and I felt comfortable taking a couple days to consider my options without the units I liked being snapped up.
Another unusual feature of the New York market is that many apartments are only available through a broker. The typical New York apartment search involves hiring a broker to spend a day or two showing available units; when the lease is signed the broker collects a substantial fee from the renter, typically 15% of the annual rent.
The broker is definitely the easiest way to go if you’re on a tight schedule, but my take is that if you’ve got time to do the research, there’s no need to go through a broker: there are a number of landlords who will rent apartments directly. The trick is finding them, but luckily we have the internet. Craigslist has a separate listing for no-fee apartments, and one can find recommendations of no-fee management companies around the web (here for example). There’s also a book that I found extremely useful called The Nouveau Native’s No Fee New York: it has not only general advice for apartment hunting in New York, but also a very comprehensive list of landlords offering no-fee rentals. Many of these landlords list availabilities on their websites, which made it very easy to put together a shortlist before I even got to New York.
From that point it was just like searching for an apartment anywhere else, only with much, much higher rents. Landlords in New York tend to require a lot of documentation to prove that you’ll be able to pay: at least a letter of employment and usually also bank statements and pay stubs, and sometimes tax returns and W-2s. If you’re coming from out of town, it’s a good idea to take this stuff with you so you can apply on the spot.
I ended up renting from a management company called Archstone, and it was such a good experience that I want to mention them here. I was able to walk into two of their buildings without an appointment and get full tours from very helpful leasing agents; on top of that the website has a lot of information, and even lets you apply online. They have properties all over the country so it’s worth checking out if you’re in the market somewhere other than Manhattan.
Anyway, the housing search turned out to be surprisingly easy given all the tales of woe I’d heard about the Manhattan rental market. Now I’m working on the next challenge: getting all my stuff across the country and into the new apartment.

The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

(This post is spoiler-free.)
I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it’s a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won’t be disappointed.
However, it’s actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn’t (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I’m sure there’s a strong constituency for the “going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li” story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano’s character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there’s plenty of good fighting so it’s not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can’t really complain.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I’m concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:

  • It’s lazy writing. This plot is a way to avoid a couple of the challenges of writing in a heroic fantasy setting: the need to explain the special rules of the fantasy world to the audience, and the lack of a character the audience can relate to in a cast populated by legendary heroes. Dragging in a character from the real world is an easy solution to these problems that saves the writer from having to do anything sophisticated (such as a show-don’t-tell approach to presenting the setting, or writing complex heroic characters with realistic flaws and motivations).

  • It insults the audience. Because it’s really not that hard to stick a relatable character in a heroic setting—even young children recognize that the farmboy or the hobbit is supposed to be the audience stand-in. The “ordinary teenager from our world” is the most literal interpretation of the relatable character (short of a Choose Your Own Adventure story told in the second person) and suggests that the writers didn’t think the audience could handle anything more subtle.
  • It strains suspension of disbelief. A self-contained fantasy world is easier to accept than one in which people from the modern world are randomly popping in and out. Furthermore, it wrecks the sense of otherworldliness to have someone walking around wearing jeans and spouting American slang. There’s less immersion with a constant reminder of the real world in the center of the frame; a good fantasy should make the audience temporarily forget where they are.
  • It contains disturbing racial overtones. This plot device would have been bad enough if the teenager had been from Shanghai. But the use of the Boston setting and Michael Angarano suggests that the filmmakers decided that, in a film set in Fantasy China, a Chinese lead wouldn’t have been white enough or American enough for American audiences. Now, it may be true that the film will make more money with an American lead (although it’s interesting that he doesn’t appear on the posters). Nevertheless, such shameless pandering is ugly. And equally disturbing is the imperialist notion that powerful warriors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t save China until the American (with no special skills or talents) showed up.

Now, I don’t want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.
More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.
Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I’ve just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn’t be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I’d like to introduce a new metric for rating movies in which a comedy film is evaluated based on the number of Belle & Sebastian songs on the soundtrack. As applied to movies I’ve seen recently:

  • Juno: 2 stars

  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall: 1 star
  • Be Kind, Rewind: 0 stars

This metric gets the correct ordering for this selection, but quickly breaks down when one realizes that Storytelling should then be the best film of all time.
Anyway, I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall today, and found that it exceeded expectations in several categories, not just Belle & Sebastian songs but also general hilarity, Jason Bateman cameos, and (regrettably) full frontal male nudity. If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy before you know the entire plot, but this isn’t what drives the humor so much as the interplay between the four principal characters. I place this one in the second tier of Judd Apatow productions: on par with Superbad, not quite as good as 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up.
Reading the Wikipedia entry for Marshall writer and star Jason Segel, I see that he will be writing and directing the next Muppets movie. I’m looking forward to this as long as it doesn’t involve him appearing naked again.

New York photos

While waiting for approval of my apartment application on Thursday, I took a walk around Manhattan (mostly downtown) and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. I’ve posted a few photos on Flickr, in my New York City photoset (which also has some recently-uploaded pictures from a trip I took in August 2006).
My route included the length of Wall Street; as the famous line says, it runs from a graveyard to a river:

wall street and broadway east river

I’m considering starting another photography project after I move, similar to Project 365 but with a lighter update schedule (probably one per week) and with New York City as the subject; that way I can document my exploration of the city. (It also gives me a replacement for the out-of-date Project 365 sidebar section; actually the whole sidebar of this page needs some work.)

New York City in fiction

federal hall
I’m off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I’d like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that’s a bonus. In any case the city shouldn’t just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

  • Film: King Kong, Escape from New York, Cloverfield

  • Television: Seinfeld, Sex and the City
  • Literature: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Video games: Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven’t seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.