As depicted in writer-director Adam Leon’s Italian Studies, a successful author’s (Vanessa Kirby) haphazard journey through Manhattan after she suddenly loses her memory has little of the urgency often seen in mysteries about recovering one’s identity. What Leon is presenting here is more of a free-associative, impressionistic portrait of a pre-pandemic city awash in noise, crowds, and serendipitous encounters. To the extent that this dreamy and at times tiresome film succeeds at all, it’s due to the crackling energy of the people who Kirby’s Alina Reynolds falls in with over the course of her wanderings…
At the risk of stoking the embers of East and West Coast rivalry, it seems self-evident that when it came to incubating subcultures in the late 20th century, New York has it over Los Angeles every single time. When artists wanted to chill out under the palm trees, maybe take a few meetings, they winged out to the Southland. But no matter how grungy Venice Beach might have been in the 1980s or spookily desolate LA’s downtown looked, the half-abandoned pre-war grid of downtown Manhattan was where culture was born…
Starting tomorrow and running for a week, this year’s all-virtual edition of the annual non-fiction film festival DOC NYC is showing over a hundred documentaries, including the ones very likely to be nominated for Oscars. There are movies about crooked cops, Timothy Leary (above), the FBI’s war on the civil rights movement, amoral but charismatic PR flacks, and the scariest movie of 1983. All in all, quite good stuff.
So, like most film festivals, DOC NYC 2020 is now all-virtual. (And, no, the virtual experience is not the same as being in a buzzing crowd waiting with bated breath to catch the next Frederick Wiseman, rather than just cueing it up on your laptop. Participating in this annual event person is the documentary equivalent of seeing a movie in Cinemascope rather than on VHS.)
Unlike some other fests, though, the DOC NYC bookers do not appear to have trimmed their sails. They are showing 107 feature documentaries, plus dozens of shorts and events, over eight jam-packed days. Since virtual delivery has made the idea of opening and closing night movies somewhat pointless, it’s now more of a buffet, with viewers free to decide what they think are the most noteworthy entries…
When you think of cities, there is no other place on Earth that better exemplifies what that word means than New York City. Incubator of pretty much every important cultural genre or trend, nerve center of world capitalism, melting pot of ethnicities and religions, New York City, as they say, has it all.
In my newest book, The Handy New York City Answer Book, on sale now from Visible Ink Press, you’ll get an all-in-one reference that covers everything from the city’s complicated and dramatic history to its geography, sports teams, many peculiarities and personalities, and just about all the trivia that could be packed into 464 pages.
Here’s a few of the things you’ll discover:
How did New York invent Christmas?
Where was baseball first played?
How come police officers tried to scare tourists away from the city in 1975?
In the 1950s, when bulldozing historic downtowns under the flag of “urban renewal” was all the rage, architecture journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the loudest and most eloquent voices of the resistance. A new documentary on her, Citizen Jane: Battle for New York, chronicles her fight against the city planners who dreamed of replacing organic urban chaos with high-rise and parking lot dead zones.
At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City divides the participants into two camps: the “top-down” city planners and the “bottom-up” activists. To illustrate that divide, Tyrnauer handily reaches back to the most famous urbanist debate of the 20th century: the fight between New York planning czar Robert Moses and journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs. The struggle wasn’t always easily understood, but the stakes were for the future of the city itself…
Instead of just announcing what the new all-city book club selection is going to be, New York took it to the people with OneBookNY. They chose five possible books and are asking people to vote on what they think everyone should read.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Couple interesting choices here. Coates’s book is nonfiction, departing from the usual novelistic mold, while Beatty’s (amazing) novel is set quite definitively in Los Angeles. Seems like either Diaz or Smith’s (also amazing) novels are the right choice here, but who’s to say?
For years, the last arcade in New York was a gritty little spot called the Chinatown Fair. There, night after night, gamers gathered to compete, play, gossip, and boast until the early hours. Then it closed.
The Lost Arcade has been playing the festival circuit. It opens at the Metrograph in New York this week. My review is at Film Journal International:
Everything about the videogame palaces in The Lost Arcade makes them look like oases. Shot mostly at night, because that’s when the gamers come out, the arcades blaze into the darkness with their teenage-Vegas cacophony of strobing lights, electronic bleeps, and the hoots and hollers of victors and vanquished. Clearly, these are not just places to drop some quarters and kill a half-hour on the latest Street Fighter; they are clubhouses, homes away from home…
Not long after the Revolutionary War, New York was still just a few hundred buildings clustered at the lower end of Manhattan. But the city’s leaders knew that eventually they’d be spreading north and needed to figure out how that would look. So they put together something called the Commissioners’ Plan. It showed an imaginary city spreading north in evenly measured blocks that acted almost as a rebuke to downtown’s (still existing today) hodge-podge of randomly angled thoroughfares and alleys. The grid seemed like a good idea, but had its problems. Among them, almost no green space (Central Park would have to be carved out decades later) and the fact that it stopped at 155th Street (the belief was that it would take “centuries” for people to start building that far north).
Gerard Koeppel’s fascinating urban history City on a Grid is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:
Order has never been something that most people associate with New York. Among the estranged and jealous family of American cities, the old Dutch trading post that redefined the very idea of what a metropolis could be has always suffered from a reputation for chaos. And not the fun, Lord of Misrule brand of chaos witnessed in places like New Orleans, but a genuine lack of order. There is no other American city so associated with breakdowns in the body politic or general operating principles as New York…
There’s a great, extensive online exhibition about the grid from the Museum of the City of New York here.
Even though The Whites was technically published under Richard Price’s genre pen name Harry Brandt, the publisher didn’t even bother leaving his real name off the thing. It might be a crime novel instead of straight realist fiction and a couple hundred pages shorter than his usual. But the style is unmistakably that of the writer who brought such lived-in detail to novels like The Wanderers and Lush Life and his scripts for The Wire. This time, it’s just a little tighter, more razored. So in short: great stuff.
Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side…
In the new documentary Ballet 422, one of New York City Ballet’s dancers is given the opportunity to choreograph the company’s 422nd original ballet. Only he also has to dance a different program the night that his ballet premieres, and he’s got just two months to pull it all together.
Ballet 422 is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:
There is no such thing as a permanent piece of art. Paper yellows, paint cracks, celluloid burns, memories fade. But compared to those ephemeral forms, dance is even more transitory. The choreography can be recorded, but not the swing of limb and flair of line that exists for a moment on stage and then only for those who happen to witness it. Jody Lee Lipes’ sinuous documentary about a dancer at the New York City Ballet who’s given two months to choreograph an original ballet would seem to be an attempt to capture that fleeting sensation on film. But instead, it highlights the vast gulf between the great expanses of time given to creating an artwork and the finger-snap speed with which it can be delivered, and possibly forgotten …
Sneaking into theaters after the great Christmas rush is J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. A low-key drama about warring heating-oil firms set in 1981 New York, when murders and violent crime had the city on the verge of collapse, the film and its characters are as controlled and tightly-wound as its setting is chaotic.
A Most Violent Year is playing now in limited release, with some hopes for Oscar nominations to give it more play around the country. My review is at PopMatters:
J.C. Chandor’s return to land-based storytelling shares some of the predilections of last year’s Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost. Both that film and A Most Violent Year are deliberately paced, refusing to rush their stories for the purposes of juicing the drama. This is not a bad tendency. It shows Chandor to be an unusually disciplined filmmaker in a landscape increasingly populated by the work of the eager-to-please. But not all subject matter supports the slow-and-steady approach, and that’s the case with A Most Violent Year…
When you think “New York” and “library” there’s really only one that comes to mind: the grand main branch on Fifth Avenue facing Bryant Park. It’s gorgeous, it’s iconic, they have just about every book you can imagine (even if they’ve started trying to move a bunch of titles off-site); in other words perfect. The main Brooklyn branch on Grand Army Plaza is no slouch, either, either in architectural grandness or selection.
But there’s another library worth mentioning, and that’s the one underneath the Surrogate’s Court building in downtown Manhattan that nobody knows about: the City Hall Library. From last Tuesday’s New York Times:
Below the library are the cavernous storerooms and vaults that contain some of the maps, books, photographs and other items that are part of the Municipal Archives. They document the city’s government and leadership dating back to the unification of the boroughs into New York City in 1898, and back to the first mayor of the city, Thomas Willett, in 1665.
The history of the city is celebrated in old sepia photographs, wall-size topographical maps and reproduction manuscripts on display within the library and in a visitor center next to the library.
Yet there is not a hint of any of this on the granite exterior of the imposing Beaux-Arts building at 31 Chambers Street, behind City Hall….The librarians say the courthouse’s status as a designated landmark means that they are not allowed to hang a sign on the building’s exterior.
If you can’t get there, though, no worry: Much of the Municipal Archives’ photographic holdings were digitized and put online last year—the interest was so immediate that it crashed the server. It’s an astonishing collection of historical imagery, which you can see here. Many of the old glass-plate negatives that the NYPD shot of crime scenes back in the early 20th century were used by Luc Sante in his ghostly book, Evidence.
One of the most impressive directorial debuts in too long is now inching its way into smaller theaters around the country. Gimme the Loot (presented by Jonathan Demme) is a fresh, honest, and heartbreaking comic drama that follows a pair of Bronx teen graffiti artists—who might or might not be in love—around the city over a revelatory couple of sweltering summer days.
My full review is at PopMatters; here’s part of it:
For all its guerrilla graffiti backdrop, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot is really a classic Nothing Was Ever The Same After That Summer story. His characters face tests on the limits of their goodness and their inabilities to demarcate the borders of friendship and love. After two sweltering summer days during the lives of a couple of Bronx teenagers, their lives will be changed, only not for the reasons they imagine…
With much less fanfare than greeted her HBO show Girls, Lena Dunham worked on Nobody Walks, a kind of lo-fi hipster / L.A. trash bed-hopping melodrama that gets creepier the closer you look at it. My full review is at PopMatters:
At the start of Nobody Walks, 20something New York artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) gets off a plane in Los Angeles and promptly gets into a heavy make-out session with the handsome man putting her bags in his car. Right there in the parking garage, he begins unbuckling his belt and she puts her hand on his chest and tells him that it was really great talking to him on the plane, but…. He cocks a “can’t blame a guy for trying” look at her, and then gives her a lift. It’s an innocuous and seemingly funny scene, the kind of fumbling comedy you would expect from cowriter Lena Dunham…
Nobody Walks is already playing in limited release.