|smurfs poster, east village|
|"tree of life" ripoff poster for "life in a day", Ave D|
A few days after I delivered the love packet, Annette asked me how I was able to draw her so well from memory. I shrugged. She seemed impressed, but I had no idea where to go from there. I couldn’t say in words, in person, what I so easily, crazily set down on paper. So nothing came of it.
Two years later, I was in film school when I got a phone call from Annette. I had left my family’s house number in the love letter, but this was the first time she ever used it. She said she’d seen me walking in Mt. Vernon as her bus passed on the street. I looked so different, she said. Bigger, tougher. I still hadn’t yet acquired any clue of how to respond to genuine female interest aside from shock and awe, so I am sure I sounded bored and distracted to her ears. And at one point I was distracted: “You got your TV on?” I asked her. Mine was on MUTE, but the picture showed an aerial shot of Los Angeles on fire and people fighting like mad dogs. The word LIVE in the corner of the screen. “Something’s going on in L.A.” I said. “Oh, yeah?” she said, in a tone that my self-flattering memory interprets as disappointment that I would take more interest in the TV than the girl I once offered my heart.
But she couldn't see there was a riot going on.
1990. I looked in the newspaper for something to watch. I had a little cash from my work-study gig to blow on a movie. I was 18 and positively addicted to flicks. Still, there was nothing too appealing in the paper.
Wait: Goodfellas, a Martin Scorsese Picture. It was playing at the Quad, a small theater in the Village. The tiny ad, featuring an inky image of Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, made it look like a a low-budget TV movie. Blech. But it was a Martin Scorsese Picture. Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, After Hours. Plus it had gangsters in it. How bad could it be? I hopped on the subway to Union Square and rushed over to the 9 o’ clock show. The theater was a little shoebox, with about ten other people in the audience. Travis Bickle watched Swedish porn in a more auspicious setting.
But when the movie came on, from the moment Pesci and DeNiro finished off the dying man in the trunk of the car and Liotta slammed the hood, I could not blink. Not until the very end, when Pesci shot me in the face. What a thing to see in your first semester of film school, at the start of a crazy decade.
And from that night on, going to the movies after a long day at School of Visual Arts film department became a habit. It didn’t matter that in school I often saw two or three films a day anyway. I often came out of there so thirsty for more stimulation, more inspiration. But whereas as most of my classmates went off in groups to hang out, I usually went solo, making up some excuse or other. Anything to disguise the fact that, having severe social anxiety disorder, I hated groups. Actually, the only groups I enjoyed were the ones gathered in the dark of a movie theater. It was as close as I came to having a church.
I had a few churches I could rely on back then. One was the Film Forum on Houston street, where classics were always running. That’s where, at the behest of Georgia Brown’s sweeping write-up in the Village Voice, I spent a life-changing day watching Val Lewton classics in dreamy, inky, silvery prints. The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead, Ghost Ship, Cat People. Such quiet, despairing, sepulchral films, the template for any filmmaker who wishes to create suspense and atmosphere with a human heart.
The Angelika Film Center, a venue that I didn’t particularly like because of its yuppie coffeehouse slickness and similarly upmarket selection of movies, surprised me in 1992 by offering both Bad Lieutenant and Reservoir Dogs. Those crime sagas were actually enhanced by the real-life subway noise that routinely interrupts screenings at Angelika.
But it was Cinema Village that had my heart. Not much bigger or any prettier than the Quad, it screened whatever foreign, classic and indie films it could get its grubby hands on. It often ran features that had already played at other venues, last stop on a Manhattan run. That’s where I saw both Visconti’s The Leopard and Caligula: The Director’s Cut. Cinema Village also hosted Kung Fu Christmas, which showed classic martial arts films. I’ll never forget the madness that ensued at screenings of Once Upon a Time in China, A Chinese Ghost Story, Fist of Legend and Iron Monkey.
I didn’t take nearly as much advantage of The Anthology Film Archives, the venerable institution at Second Avenue and Second Street, as I would have If I weren’t in film school. At SVA, I was already seeing so many of the “Essential Films” Anthology regularly screened. It made me ponder, somewhat bitterly, what if I’d just saved my tuition money and bought an Anthology membership…? Still, catching trippy screenings of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Tsui Hark’s Green Snake there were enough to make it worth keeping the Anthology calendar close by. The place was also good for palate-cleansing (or shattering) experimental films.
One couldn’t just stay in the Village to feed the habit, though. Sometimes I was tempted uptown by such offerings as a brand new print of Seven Samurai at Symphony Space (packed house, raucous applause when stoic swordsman Kyuzo came back from slaying the bandit scouts), or the African films at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. The “no” heard round the world at the end of the shattering anti-apartheid tragedy Mapantsula. MoMA offered rare treats on pay-what-you-wish Fridays, like Kon Ichikawa’s eye-popping cinemascope sex comedy Odd Obsession. (The colors and compositions in that film defy description.)
On an unassuming floor of the Adam Clayton Powell office building uptown, the annual Harlem Week Black Film Festival showcased edgy stuff you couldn’t find even at Anthology, such as the blistering NYPD expose, The Police Sell Drugs, Too! and the black revolution epic The Spook Who Sat by the Door.
Midtown was still the essence of New York City movie grunge back then. As late as 1995, Times Square still looked and felt like the classically dangerous, charismatic place enshrined in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. The hookers and drug dealers still milled about openly. The porno marquees kept equal claim on your field of vision as the legit theaters. After my brother dragged me to see Pulp Fiction at a multiplex in suburban Yonkers, I had a yen to re-watch it in the “proper” setting. Paying it forward, I dragged my girlfriend to a dingy old converted porn palace on Times Square, where Pulp played on a huge, slightly warped, filth-gray screen. We sat so close to the buckling screen that the image of John Travolta’s heroin needle and then of his woozy face top-lit in the darkness took on an ecstatic glow. The surf music strumming along. I wanted to cry: At 21, I didn’t want much more than this, to look over at my girl, who was grinning up at sublime movie images, joining me in movie heaven. It was one of many movie-going experiences we would share and reminisce about and quote, to the dismay of friends. Poor girl. I had turned her into a rabid geek in a matter of months.
The following year, as demolition on 42nd Street loomed, we grabbed a hot dog at what must have been the very last old school lunch counter in the area before crossing the street to another converted porn theater, where you got to see two movies for $4. First we watched Get Shorty in an auditorium no bigger than your living room, grimy print. Perfect. Then we went downstairs to watch Se7en in a room just as small as the first one. I didn’t realize it until years later, but the projectionist must have had the light bulb turned down low, because as dark as Se7en is, this presentation was dark. Since this was our first time seeing the film, we just took it as director David Fincher’s diabolical genius. No subsequent screening of that film has been as terrifying or mysterious. The reek of ammonia and bleach probably also helped.
We had a similar geekout in the last days of old Midtown, at what I still consider New York’s last great People’s Cinema, the Cineplex Odeon Worldwide at 50th Street near 8th Avenue. It was known as the $3 house. There we saw Boogie Nights in 1997, with an SRO crowd from all walks of life. Such was the genius of the Worldwide. The low ticket prices made people take all kinds of crazy chances on movies they would otherwise not give a second glance in the listings. In the case of Boogie Nights, it meant that an eccentric little Indiewood film about the porn industry got a shot at a mainstream audience, which went crazy for it. Watching gorgeous prints of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and David Lynch’s Lost Highway with similarly universal crowds at the Worldwide taught me that there is no such thing as an “indie” film. A great filmmaker can reach anybody with the sting and lilt of his images.
Down the street from the Worldwide was a little shop called The 43rd Chamber, where one could mainline pulp thrills via VHS bootlegs of Hong Kong laserdiscs. There I copped beautiful dubs of HK classics like Black Cat, The Blade, The Killer, Hard Boiled, City on Fire, Peking Opera Blues, Chungking Express, Comrades: Almost a Love Story and Drunken Master. The clerks boasted that Quentin Tarantino and Wesley Snipes were regulars there. Cool. It's long gone now, the space currently occupied by a $1 pizza joint.
BARROW NULL, a black man in his mid-fifties, sits on the edge of his bed, picking through a wallet.
The wallet is fat, the thickness of a King James Bible, overstuffed with receipts, business cards and plastic consumer cards, its fold maintained only by rubber bands that seem eager to snap. He peels off the rubber bands and unfolds the wallet to reveal one wrinkled dollar bill and some change inside.
He pours the change onto the bed.
After a moment of staring blankly at the money, he sorts it, counting to himself in a whisper.
When he finishes counting, he scoops up the money and shovels it into his pants pocket as he gets up, grabbing his coat from the back of a chair.
INT. BODEGA- DAY.
Barrow peruses the snack selection:
Various 50 cent snack cakes, chips and candies.
He zeroes in on a bunch of chewy granola bars marked 25 cents.
A pile of chocolate chip granola bars land on the countertop, followed, after a beat, by Barrow’s hand slapping that crinkly dollar down next to them. Then an avalanche of loose change.
That should be two dollars precisely.
The CASHIER just stares, heavy-lidded.
Barrow leaves the store, tearing a granola bar wrapper open with his teeth and digging in while stuffing the rest of them in his coat pocket.
A TEENAGER passes him, muttering:
Trees, trees, trees…
Thank you, no.
Barrow continues on his way…
A MIDDLE AGED MAN passes by, muttering:
MIDDLE AGED MAN
Loose, loose, loose…
Don’t smoke, thank you.
MIDDLE AGED MAN
Aw, nigga, ain’t it time you started? You ain’t
getting any younger.
You have a point.
He continues on his way.
A man wearing a sandwich board advertising a jeweler:
We buy gold,all kinds brother, caaaasssh
Never bought gold in my life.
(leans in, lowers voice)
They don’t got to know that. You go in there—
just going in—and my boss sees, good for me,
na mean? Go in there. They got lots of shit might
interest you. And you’d be helping a needy child.
Barrow looks inside the store:
It’s a typical jewelry/electronics/bootleg ripoff joint. A church lady and her grandson are haggling with the salesman behind the counter over a laptop.
Barrow pats the hawker on the shoulder.
I will help you, young man.
He heads into the store.
Barrow goes along the display counter, past the jewelry, past the bootleg CDs and DVDs, up to the case of cell phones beside the computer area where the GRANDMOTHER and GRANDSON bargain poorly with the SALESMAN.
He seems absorbed in perusing the cell phones while craning his head to listen to the transaction:
And you say for two hundred more we get what?
You get wireless internet. That means you get internet
right out the air, no cables or special equipment. This other
one is cheaper, yeah, but it doesn’t come with wireless.
And for school and whatnot, he’s gonna need
If he needs it, he needs it, I guess. (sighs) It’s just—
It’s just that it seems a bit steep, yeah?
They turn to Barrow, who is now wearing shades. He takes them off almost robotically and folds them.
(to the salesman)
What is the meaning of this?
What’s the meaning of what?
Barrow stuffs the shades into a jacket pocket and comes up with another granola bar. Peels the wrapper.
I haven’t time for this. You know precisely what I
The salesman just stares.
Or shall I bring in my interpreter? He can put it in
plainer terms for you. Would you prefer that?
Man, I don’t know what you’re—
What are you charging for this machine?
He points at the laptop with his granola bar.
The grandson speaks up ahead of the salesman:
Four hunned and seventy five, but
with the wireless—
Almost seven hundred. For this
three hundred dollar machine?
(smiling to the grandmother)
This your husband? Brother?
I don’t know this man.
Other salesmen approach from behind Barrow.
She doesn’t know me. But I know you. And I know what
you’re trying to do here, just so you can continue to live
beyond your means in Astoria or Bayside or wherever.
Man, they got a psych unit just down the street.
I think you
(to grandmother) I’m sorry, we get some—
This thing is really worth only three hundred?
Tops. And every laptop comes with wireless, standard,
That’s not what he said.
He’ll tell you anything to get your money.