Change as Real as New York Schist: “This Used to Be New York” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival
My father hailed from Staten Island and called himself a “True New Yorker.” The New York City of his time was everything to him. He even edited the volume Quotable New York, and used to say to me that the city is great as long as you can afford to get out of it. My career is also rooted in the complex lore of the city: I spent nearly five years producing a film about the trials and tribulations of the Giuliani era and was a founding contributing editor to this very publication, where I often wrote about the rapid changes underway in North Brooklyn. That New York City undergoes a consistent roiling pattern of change is a truism as solid as the New York schist that holds up its signature skyline. Talking about changes in the city is probably the equivalent of talking about weather in the midwest. So I was happy to see that the Tribeca Film Festival decided to include what I hope will become an enduring sidebar focused on the local: a selection of films about what New York City used to be. It is a subject as rich as it is potentially cliché, and for the section’s inaugural year the films covered classic graffiti, independent movie theaters, and esoteric music stores.
The Bronx-centric graffiti of late 1970s NYC festooned subway cars and walls throughout the boroughs and—along with hip hop and breakdancing—was the kernel of what has become a multibillion dollar worldwide cultural movement, so lionizing these artists is important to the posterity and accuracy of the city’s history. While Selina Miles’s documentary Martha: A Picture Story (2019) includes early artists like Dondi, Mare 139, Doze Green, and Disco92, the film primarily focuses on Martha Cooper, the photojournalist responsible for the profoundly influential 1984 book (made in collaboration with photographer Henry Chalfant) Subway Art. Charming as she is, at a certain point one does question if Cooper should be the center of a feature film. The beginning and end of the film portray the valiant septuagenarian tagging along on a nocturnal graffiti raid in German subway stations and train lots, yet one wishes this excursion had taken place in our own city. One of the original artists in the film says he is “satisfied that something ran its course” and that it is a scene that one should not try to recreate. In the “new” New York, though, one is still likely to come across this OG graffiti aesthetic, though now as camouflage for a Nike billboard advertisement.
NYC filmmaking legend Abel Ferrara’s latest documentary, The Projectionist (2019), profiles Nicolas “Nick” Nicolaou, a Cypriot who fell in love with movies, emigrated to NYC, roamed the long-gone halls of theaters like the Baronet and Coronet, and ended up general manager of a slew of half-arthouse, half-adult theaters with names like Eros, Venus, Cameo, and Adonis. The late 1970s and early ’80s were a time of sold-out shows of not only Pasolini films but of pornos. Nicolaou ended up buying and renovating some of these theaters, selling some of them at a great profit. In the last decades he has been a champion of indie cinemas like the Cinemart in Forest Hills, the Alpine in Brooklyn and the downtown indie jewel Cinema Village (located in a building where he claims he could make ten times as much money but would have to shutter the theater). Nicolaou is undoubtedly a champion of keeping indie theaters alive against the rising tide of multiplex chains and their collusion with Hollywood and the film does a good job of paying tribute to that. But The Projectionist suffers from the same problem that Martha: a Picture Story does: the subject as character fails to hold our attention. Myriad clips are thrown in—from Pasolini, Scorsese, and Bruce Lee to porno clips—some that support the narrative, others that seem to be non-sequitur. Still, the most powerful theme in The Projectionist harkens back to a pre-VCR/internet/streaming time when people had to wait in line and be together in a room in order to see a film, a phenomenon that definitely used to be New York.
It may be that the sweet spot of quality esoteric music really did go away in NYC with the East 4th Street store Other Music (1995-2016). Likewise, Rob Hatch-Miller and Puloma Basu’s Other Music (2019) represents the sweet spot of the program and does a solid job telling the story of this iconic one-stop shop for highly curated subgenre music. Started by former employees of Kim’s Video, it was a place of true community, blending dedicated musicians, fans, and hyper-knowledgeable staff—or, more often than not, all three types embodied in a single person. Other Music featured in-store shows that were at once an incubator for bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and an important coalescing force for a community of like-minded musical pioneers. To my surprise I saw a friend of mine in one of the clips and realized I was at one of the performances depicted—a long awaited comeback show by Gary Wilson, who appeared with a paper bag over his head and threw flour all over the place. Members of Depeche Mode and TV on the Radio and actors Benicio del Toro, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari, and many others are interviewed or show up in the store as one gets a broad understanding of the dedicated and eclectic community—one that has been replicated throughout the history of the city innumerable times. The end of the store was fated through a combination of the death of CDs, the advent of streaming music, and the rising rents all over the city.
An overriding theme in all three films is the corporatization of this great city—the endgame of utter domination and exploitation by real estate developers. While there have certainly been bouts of this in the past, the present state of our city feels like a one-way highway to cookie-cutter condos and mall-like structures with a patina of the Hip. But whatever New York winds up becoming next, there is more than enough of the city’s history to fuel many more versions of this sidebar.