If You See Something Say Something: On Jason Giampietro
The Greenpoint-based filmmaker and photographer Jason Giampietro has kept a relatively low profile for the past decade and a half, though this may be by design. His work embodies a street-level humanism whose sheer immediacy wouldn’t be possible if not for his relative anonymity. The unbelievable images that appear on his cult-favorite Instagram account (@jaygiampietro, the Village Voice ’s “best local Instagram” in 2015) register as small miracles, incomparably bizarre moments starring strangers and stolen by an artist with a bicycle and an iPhone who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
There’s an art to knowing where to be when, when to be where, and at whom to look, and Giampietro’s photographs evidence his incomparable knack for locating comedy, pathos, and raw human interest across an ever-expanding cast of street people (several of whom reappear semi-frequently in his near-daily dispatches). Undoubtedly, Giampietro seems amused by the sight, for example, of a barefoot woman popping a squat between some parked cars in broad daylight or of a man smoking roughly a dozen cigarettes at once while wearing safety goggles, a face mask, and a Pope Francis graphic T-shirt. Yet what comes across in these pictures isn’t so much his sense of superiority to his subjects as a laying-bare of how we all—and that includes the East Village urchins, aging thong-clad Brighton Beach sunbathers, and men in Times Square hoisting signs that read “Misogynists Unite!” among us—are always performing, always preening for an invisible observer. And Giampietro’s art doesn’t merely reside in his ability to spotlight those who think the street is their stage and their lives the stuff of a Jack Smith film: it’s in his capacity to visualize an uncanny, garishly far-out world hidden within the all-too-familiar urban scenes we take for granted as we make our way from our apartments to our jobs and back again, rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.
The question of whether we’re essentially narcissists playing at being ourselves in accordance with our delusional handle on reality is the clearest connection between Giampietro’s rapidly expanding body of photographic work and his filmmaking. Performance, narcissism, and delusion are central to one of his earliest short films, Mr. Rose (2001), which inaugurated his ongoing collaboration with quasi-actor Fred Leeds, an eccentric music teacher from New Jersey whose onscreen presence is something like Steve Perry meets Tommy Wiseau. Leeds plays a version of himself, struggling to prevent his students from cracking wise and bribing them with chocolate donuts to join him in a Journey sing-a-long. Mr. Rose is a showcase for the almost Warholian Leeds, and Giampietro’s sophisticated portrait ensures that no laughter at Leeds’s expense can pass guilt-free. Giampietro’s shorts are laden with moments in which it’s easy to condescend to the weirdos onscreen, but we’re almost immediately forced to examine whether this uncompassionate reflex doesn’t have some rather dark political and moral implications.
Leeds is a key player in Giampietro’s repertory, appearing in seven of his films, but there are numerous others. Frequent collaborator Jason Grisell plays an artist trying to find a bicycle to gift to the apple of his eye in
Candy Rides (2012), a painter who buys a stolen laptop and makes an unlikely love connection in I Will Paint Your Spirit (2013), and an obnoxious third wheel who spoils a visit to the beach by parting lovers Tunde Adebimpe and Alejandra Deheza in The Sun Thief (2013). Non-actor Keith Nimetz is a slightly sketchy Craigslist bike-merchant in Candy Rides and a neurotic force of nature whose summer is ruined by the inconvenient presence of a bicycle chained up in his apartment building’s stairwell in Whiffed Out (2013), and Giampietro’s preoccupation with Nimetz is further born out by the blackly comic Hernia (2015),
in which the filmmaker/actor Stephen Gurewitz incarnates a role based on him, Rudy. Gurewitz’s Rudy is yet another ball of nerves, one who’s suffering big-time from what he believes to be the titular affliction, and is desperately seeking help from a network of friends and acquaintances who can no longer stand to be around him. At first glance, Gurewitz and Giampietro’s portrayal of Nimetz may seem merely unflattering and funny. But baked into this figure is a deceptively layered metaphor for Giampietro’s own artistic practice (and, by extension, his relationships with his muses): Rudy is an over-stimulated subject relying on the generosity, cruelty, and eccentricities of others to find his footing in a world tragically out of step with his deluded sense of it.
Giampietro’s latest two shorts, Educators and Unpresidented (both 2017), suggest an exciting shift toward more explicitly reckoning with his superstars’ status as political subjects. In Educators, teachers Leeds and Nimetz are dining together at the East Village’s Little Poland, comparing notes on times they’ve been abused by their students. They then seamlessly transition into a discussion of Trump’s ridiculing of journalist Serge Kovaleski’s physical disability at a South Carolina rally during the 2016 presidential campaign. Leeds opines that Trump is a complete asshole who’ll make a disastrous president, while Nimetz seemingly remains open to the idea that “The Donald” has a shot at not being the worst head of state in our nation’s history. The conversation rapidly devolves into a competition to see who can name more American presidents (neither of them do very well).
Unpresidented offers a more expansive and developed real-time engagement with the dawn of the Trump era: Jay (Keith Poulson) is out on the street taking photos when he runs into a friend, Keith (Mike Swift), who seems the personification of bad faith. Keith concernedly recounts how he made a bet with subway busker Robert (Leeds) that Trump would win the election—the very concept of which upsets two liberal friends, Fiona (Madeleine James) and Arya (Arya Ghavamian), the latter of whom is an Iranian expat despairing about the prospect of burgeoning authoritarianism in the Land of the Free. Robert goes missing before Keith can collect on the bet, and Giampietro elegantly dissolves the missing-person narrative into his own footage of the post-inauguration anti-Trump protests in Manhattan. Formally simple yet politically knotty, Unpresidented was the first film I saw in the wake of Trump’s election to grapple with it and its adjoining affects, anxieties, and hypocrisies so directly. Leave it to a consummate man on the street to boldly (and accurately) take stock of which way the wind’s blowing.