Avant-Garde Visions of New York

Shirley Clarke’s Skyscraper (1959)

None of the many series of New York movies playing in the city over the past few years are quite like the one running from Friday through Tuesday at Film at Lincoln Center. Curated by Tom Day, executive director of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative/New American Cinema Group, and FLC programmer Dan Sullivan, Seeing the City: Avant-Garde Visions of New York draws on the Cooperative’s vast collection (and a bit from elsewhere as well) to present more than forty films—most of them short and many projected from 16 mm prints—in ten themed programs.

It may seem odd to open this series with a film by Stan Brakhage, but for a few years in the mid-1950s, he was a New Yorker, hanging with Maya Deren and her crowd and working with Joseph Cornell and John Cage. It was Cornell who asked Brakhage to capture images of the Third Avenue El before it was torn down, and The Wonder Ring (1955) is the first film in the first program, Moving Through the Metropolis: Transit Images. “Seen through Brakhage's eyes,” wrote Ed Howard in 2011, “the girders of the train platforms become stained glass windows with bright light streaming through the geometric spaces between the steel beams. A simple train journey through the city becomes a ghostly ride through an amorphous realm where people and places seem to be perpetually in the process of fading away.”

New York Times film critic Howard Thompson once called Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round (1958) “a film that captures the bizarre magic of man-made spans with the movement of a lightning clap and with the same terrible beauty.” David Devensky said that he “tried to capture the grotesque and the beautiful” in Crowds (1967), and Program 1 also features work from Robert Crawford, Bill Creston, Catalina Santamaria, and Gregg Biermann.

The film in the two-part program The Postwar City Symphony that has probably been the most widely seen is also the shortest, D. A. Pennebaker’s five-minute Daybreak Express (1953). It takes us back to the Third Avenue El, only this time accompanied by the 1933 Duke Ellington recording that gives the film its title. Daybreak Express “turns New York into a kinetic, alien landscape, a jazz symphony of color, broken light, and gravity-defying angles,” wrote Michael Chaiken when Pennebaker passed away in 2019.

Revisiting Marie Menken’s Go Go Go (1964) in 2012, the New Inquiry noted that while “the tropes of the city presented here are thoroughly Fordist, with the sense that bustling work and construction are centered on building and producing, not consuming and circulating, the visual and conceptual speed is pure Adderall.” Erica Stein, the author of Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York, will introduce the first part of the program on Friday and the second on Saturday.

Three films directed by women make up the Architecture and Gendered Space program. Shirley Clarke once described her Oscar-nominated short, Skyscraper (1959), codirected with Willard Van Dyke and Irving Jacoby, as a “musical comedy.” Jaunty tunes accompany sequences capturing the construction of 666 Fifth Avenue “from the perspective of the construction workers, with the men narrating in sometimes expository, sometimes wisecracking fashion,” wrote Aaron Cutler for Cineaste in 2017. “Their theater is their surrounding world.”

Holly Fisher shot From the Ladies (1978) in the women’s room of a Holiday Inn—mirrored quarters clearly designed by men. “Looking at From the Ladies is an orchestration of tensions from this play between myself as filmmaker subject, object, and woman,” writes Fisher. “Filmmaker at play with the gaze, so to speak.” In Greed: Pay to Play (1987), three women have an odd encounter in the women’s room of a far more luxurious hotel. “The bathroom attendant is sure she’ll win the lottery until the rich bitch destroys her ticket and the call girl deals with the consequences,” writes director Bette Gordon (Variety), adding that her film is “about greed, avarice, and its victimization of women in a consumerist society.”

Gentrification and Urban Renewal is another two-part program. John Peer Nugent and Gordon Hyatt’s What Is the City but the People? (1969), essentially an ad promoting the plan put forward to stem white flight drawn up by the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay, is set next to Break and Enter (1971), a documentary by the collective Newsreel on the several hundred Puerto Rican and Dominican families who, during the same period, were reclaiming housing left vacant by the city. The program’s second part features another title from Newsreel, Garbage (1968), and an early work by Jack Smith, Scotch Tape, which LUX describes as “an apparently edited-in-camera 100-foot roll of Kodachrome II shot in 1959, using Ken Jacob’s 16 mm Bell & Howell at one of Jacob’s Star Spangled to Death locations—the rubble-strewn site of the future Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s west side.”

On the Loisaida and the Streets of the South Bronx is a four-film program that opens with Jaime Barrios’s Film Club (1968), a lively report on a 16 mm production workshop where young students made films that their Moviebus would then distribute throughout the five boroughs. The other three films are Beni Matías and Marci Reaven’s The Heart of Loisaida (1979), Matías and William Sarokin’s Housing Court (1985), and Sarokin’s Simpson Street (1979). “A strong throughline that unites the films are issues of housing and displacement,” note the Seeing the City programmers, “especially the will of grassroots activism and sweat equity to remake and repopulate parts of the city that have been deemed unusable and uninhabitable by city authorities.”

Off to the Beach: Coney Island is a program capturing life in “America’s Playground” from the 1920s to the present. Curated by Philomena Mattes, the selection was presented last summer at the Film-Makers’ Coop Screening Room as Dreamland: The Coney Island of the Mind and the notes came with a quote from poet Richard Le Gallienne: “Every nation needs orgiastic escape from respectability . . . Perhaps Coney Island is the most human thing that God ever made or permitted the devil to make.”

In 1962, Leo Hurwitz (Strange Victory) collaborated with photographer Charles Pratt on Here at the Water’s Edge, a meditative exploration of the shoreline that opens the program Nature and Nonhuman Animals. The hour-long film screens with two shorts, Marie Menken’s five-minute boat trip Excursion (1968) and Christy Rupp’s City Wildlife: Mice, Rats, Roaches (1980). Rupp’s work is “both earnest and ironic,” wrote Lucy Lippard in 1992. “Unlike most of today’s ‘ecological artists,’ Rupp’s work is not primarily concerned with the maintenance of recreational and wilderness areas, with rainforests and global warming, or spiritual communion with nature. Not that she doesn’t care, but her turf is the urban landscape conservative ecologists already seem to have given up on.”

The tenth program, Downtown Counternarratives, samples the art scene in the 1960s, beginning with Claes Oldenburg’s Happenings as documented in Stan VanDerBeek’s Snapshots of the City (1960) and Raymond Saroff’s Store Days I and II (1961). Edward English’s Fugs: Sights and Sounds of the Lower East Side Rain Forest (1966) is a portrait of the band that the FBI considered to be “the filthiest and most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.” Wrapping the program is Places (1969), which director Marjorie Heins describes as “a call to overthrow the existing social structure in the form of a montage of New York’s Lower East Side, subways, bridges, and Fifth Avenue ruling-class glitter.”

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