New York’s Photo League had its roots in Depression-era leftist populism, and counted among its members many of the era’s most influential art photographers. In 1948, the Photo League’s Helen Levitt, noted for her street photography, made In the Street, a slice-of-life short that she filmed in Spanish Harlem with Janice Loeb and the critic James Agee. Shot with hidden cameras, In the Street is initially a plangent, well-composed social-realist portrait—kids playing in an open fire hydrant, neighbors chatting, dogs sniffing—but it changes strikingly in the final minutes, when a group of children discover the cameras and begin pulling faces and posing. The film remains emblematic for its combination of vérité texture—in the service of both reportorial conscience and historical curiosity—black-and-white photo chops, and reflexivity.
The opening title of In the Street reads: “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer; and in his innocent artistry he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image.” Its “poetry of the masses” tone aside, this accurately conveys both the eye-level truthfulness, and self-conscious performance, that would prove to be constants for subsequent generations of films using New York City—its characters and locations—as their raw materials.
The films discussed below, all fiction features with a close relationship to sociological observation and evolving styles of documentary photography, treat New York City as their proscenium, making them perfect time capsules for a city always consigning parts of itself to a nostalgically recalled past.
1. Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, 1953)
The first film by Engel and his wife and fellow Photo League member Orkin is an obvious influence on The 400 Blows for its plein air staging of searching delinquency. It’s primarily shot on location at America’s Playground, Coney Island, with the press of the flesh of thousands of bodies used for set decoration. Young Joey (Richie Andrusco) and his twelve-year-old brother Lennie are latchkey kids at play in Brooklyn’s vacant lots and side streets. (The filmmakers climb onto fire escapes to shoot their stickball games.) Tricked by the older boys he tags along with into believing that he has “moidered” his “brudda,” Joey flees on the elevated out to Coney Island and is overwhelmed by pleasures—wooden Skee-ball lanes, bumper boats, sodapop from Nathan’s, the Wonder Wheel lighting up at night—distracting him from his guilt (mostly). The observational montages suggest a link between photographed impressions and unreliable memory from deep childhood; they also echo the “city symphony” documentaries of an earlier era, particularly Joris Ivens’s Rain during rainstorm that sends the beachgoers running for cover. (For a more wry, color view, see the famous crime photographer Weegee’s Coney Island film from the following year.)
The youth of the protagonist gives an unpredictable texture to scenes, with stumbles in Andrusco’s walk and stammers in his line readings going against the grain of the minimal but symmetrical plot. Even so, compositions, like the lines of light and shadow alternating under the boardwalk, anticipate the immaculate serendipity of Robert Frank’s The Americans five years later. Genre is also a key element: the film opens on a sidewalk chalk drawing of a horse, Joey is drawn repeatedly to the carousel and then the pony ride attraction, and “Home on the Range” plays on the soundtrack—Western fantasies, as refracted through comic books and cowboy shows, are integrated into the fabric of verisimilitude.
2. David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)
David Holzman’s Diary begins with a young man holding his camera and trying to figure out how to begin. The protagonist (played by actor-screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson), just reclassified as 1A, attempts with his film diary to make sense of his life, but over the course of a week and a half of to-camera confessionals, he’s at least as likely to riff about masturbation as to articulate his intentions with any clarity. (“I thought this would be a film… I thought this would be a film about things… the mystery of things,” he finally confesses.) He quotes Godard and Truffaut, and can’t figure out why his own personal passion project isn’t as revelatory. The camera is frequently pointed into a mirror.
But McBride understands cinematic truth better than his protagonist: it has to do with letting time perform its alchemy on the photographed image. The film takes place over a week and a half in July of 1967, during which David does sometimes get out of his apartment and take “my friend, my camera,” out for a stroll: filming the Upper West Side from a moving car—tilting up to take in the Dakota and Ansonia—or sizing up the old ladies on in their fur hats and pearls on pocket-park benches near Lincoln Center. With the ambient hum of news broadcasts reporting on the Newark riots, it’s almost a newsreel.
David is, he freely admits, a “voyeur.” He stages an artful following shot of an attractive woman disembarking from the subway (aboveground, she first speeds up her walk, then turns to the camera and exclaims “Beat it!”); films the girl across the street through her open window; and is dumped by his girlfriend Penny after he films her sleeping in the nude. “I don’t quite get her sense of privacy,” he says in voiceover.
There’s a line from Masculin Féminin that David doesn’t quote, but could: “It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make… and secretly wanted to live.” This gets at the notion of a film as a kind of idealized, elevated presentation of the truth of life, and also gets at the effect such a notion can have on a person. The only thing is, Masculin Féminin isn’t a comedy.
3. Blank Generation (Ulli Lommel, 1980)
The second of two films to take its title from Richard Hell’s song, following Amos Poe’s 1976 black-and-white home-movie and performance film—a suggestive contrast to the polished color cinematography here, which beautifully captures New York City winter daylight, on the Bowery and through barroom windows.
Like Wild Style, Blank Generation features NYC underground icons playing themselves in the lightly fictionalized story of a subculture about to break. Richard Hell plays “Billy,” a punk bandleader in talks with a major label. His self-doubt manifests in his walking off the stage mid-song at CBGB’s (perhaps a quarter of the movie, which features several of his songs on the soundtrack, is shot in and around the venue).
The other narrative thread, concerning Billy’s tumultuous relationship with the significantly monikered Nada (Carole Bouquet), a filmmaker from French TV, is also self-conscious: Billy and Nada communicate with each other through videotapes, and turn the camera on one another as a turn-on. Where David Holzman’s Diary is preoccupied with the artifice of the medium, Blank Generation is preoccupied with the artifice of the self. Andy Warhol shows up for a heavily built-up TV interview late in the film, a godhead in a fur coat, and delivers an exquisitely mundane reflection on a Godard quote. He’s the perfect presiding spirit, given the film’s existentialist posing and preoccupation with fame. Punk and No Wave culture’s fascination with celebrity led to much ironic (and not quite ironic) playing at iconography (see Blank City, Celine Danhier’s doc on the era, for many emblematic clips). One way Blank Generation is typical of its era is in the way the narrative accumulates weirdoes as it goes, from the avant-garde violinist who crashes a TV set, to the bearded sage who informs Nada that “film steals images from living beings.”
4. What About Me (Rachel Amodeo, 1993)
Richard Hell appears again (you can also see him in Susan Seidelman’s debut Smithereens), in this little-seen debut feature from East Village resident Amodeo, a drummer in local cult bands throughout the eighties. Other notable musicians involved include an emaciated Johnny Thunders—the soundtrack also features several of his compositions, including “So Alone” and “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”—and Jerry Nolan, in a cameo as a murder victim. Both died before the film was completed.
Shot between 1988 and 1992, mostly in winter, against the backdrop of the Tompkins Square Park riots and homeless-encampment clearances, the death-haunted What About Me refers back to a romanticized, culturally productive period of urban decay (the “blank city” of the seventies and eighties) and shows its attrition through middle age, crack and booze, and poverty. It’s still personality-driven cinema, but the memorable New York characters, played by real-life memorable New York characters, are more likely to be street people: witness the exquisite digressive drunken etiquette of Dee Dee Ramone, in his scene as a ’Nam vet.
Amodeo herself stars as Lisa, a lost little girl on the way down into cart-pushing, coat-clutching, doorway-sleeping homelessness. The film is in part a ballad of sexual dependency: Lisa is shacked up primarily with bum raconteur Richard Edson, with his slurred, nasally, overelaborated speech patterns; as well as with Hell’s hopeless romantic and downtown filmmaker Nick Zedd. The amateurish acting styles convey the rambling, distracted, addled vibe of Alphabet City’s bad old days, as surely as do the storefront glimpses of palm-reader parlors and the Pyramid Club.
5. Yeast (Mary Bronstein, 2008)
Another multihyphenate female auteur, Bronstein stars here as Rachel, in a standard-setting performance of unlikeability. Rachel is transparent in her need to control situations, mostly through status-establishing insults and emotional scab-picking. Her aggressiveness brings out the almost equally unflattering passivity of her friends, pothead Gen (Greta Gerwig), who hides behind dopey airquote humor, and sloppy-sullen roommate Alice (Amy Judd).
The mode of performance in Yeast is palpably actorly, with scene partners each pursuing masked but evident objectives; though scenes are raw and seemingly only semi-scripted, the characterizations seem stylized. This is perhaps the Cassavetes influence on the group of films called, for lack of a better term, ‘mumblecore,’ a trend that’s less specifically localized than previous generations of filmmaking movements. Still, the tension is fueled by the too-close-for-comfort dimensions of an NYC apartment, and keyed to episodes of roommate drama. There’s almost a college dorm vibe to Rachel and Alice’s apartment, with Polaroids and posters on the walls, suggestive of a long-standing friendship. (It makes it almost sad, then, to see how little they like each other; and it explains why it really would be worse for them to admit that they hate each other.)
The digital videography, by Sean Price Williams, is present-tense shaky, and intrusive, picking up the summer shine on the actresses’ faces. It’s emblematic of an epoch in which the boundaries of privacy violated by David Holzman, and flaunted by Billy and Nada, seem to have evaporated completely. The story, too, is especially of its time, a very twentysomething account of shedding the skin of old friendships and identities. The venues are apartments more than streets, and the truths feel more private than public. The new realism, in NYC and elsewhere, continues its spiritual alignment with the contemporaneous mode of photography—which is, of course, self-portraiture.