04 November 2012

Sandy

I've made several attempts to write about my experience of Hurricane Sandy. Each time, I lost interest, failing to see the point. Many New Yorkers suffered terribly - and continue to suffer - because of the storm. I was not one of them. I did nothing notable, and nothing notable happened to me. And yet I had the urge to write. I wanted to preserve, if only for myself, what the past week or so has felt like. Because eventually, competitive nostalgia will take over - Hey, you couldn't shower for a few days? Let me tell you about trying to take the bus! We'll remember the thrill and excitement, not the underlying fear.

That was how I felt on Sunday the 28th, the day before it hit. Running around to prepare, the sky already overcast, the wind picking up. The storm was still a ways off, but the weather cues set off instinctive alarms. "Hurry! Find shelter! Head for the hills!" They charged the unextraordinary. Meeting a friend for brunch felt mildly dangerous. "Are you crazy? You need to buy an armful of candles and put plywood over your windows!" A voice easy to ignore; without it, though, there wouldn't be that stupid excitement, that energy I didn't know what to do with.

I had everything at my apartment settled by 4:00 or so. Monday's work was cancelled, and I assumed Tuesday would follow suit. I wondered if the two rescue cats who live in the office had enough food and water. The subways shut down at 7:00, leaving me enough time to go from my apartment in Queens to the office in Manhattan. The subway car was mostly empty when I boarded, filling up along the way. Every person became fascinating just because of the time and place: Where are you going? Why are you here? Are you prepared? The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

At the office, I fed the cats, looked over paperwork, made sure there weren't any emergencies that couldn't wait. I got back on the subway. The car happened to have more trash than usual on the floor, including an open styrofoam container of chicken wing bones. "So this is what the last days of Rome were like, eh?" We spent five or ten minutes delayed beneath Queens, waiting in a tunnel for congestion to clear up. I thought back to the 1935 Key West Death Train and pictured us drowning amidst ugly 70s decor.

When the storm arrived on Monday, I spent the whole day inside, waiting for the power to go out. It never did, not for us. The lights flickered, the wind roared. I passed the time obsessively looking at Twitter, watching Netflix, drinking rum, and catching my roommate's cold. On my computer and cell phone, I read, watched, and saw outages, surges, flooding, cranes, and emergency services personnel protecting our asses. At one point I took a shower, wondering if I should be doing that. The water pressure was unusually strong.

The next day, I woke up and ventured outside. It was still overcast and drizzling. Leaves everywhere. Branches piled up on the sidewalks. A few young trees sheared off at the trunk and lying in the street. Most businesses were open. I got a flu shot and had a coffee. That night, I ate pizza.

Wednesday: Returning to work. I woke up earlier than usual because I had to take a bus and traffic would be bad. It was worse than I thought, of course. I caught a bus without much problem, except that walking proved faster. "It could take us thirty or forty minutes to get over the bridge," the guy next to me complained, optimistically. As we approached the Queensboro, most of the passengers got off and headed into Manhattan on foot. We were all comrades in this unusual endeavor, all out to help and support each other and FUCKING BICYCLISTS WHY DON'T YOU FUCKING SLOW DOWN? It was cold and windy and crowded. My shoe came untied. I sweated, shivered, took bad pictures. The Roosevelt Island Tram was operating. Traffic next to us stopped and started. A photographer climbed over the railing for a better shot at the jam. It seemed unsafe, but wasn't actually. When I reached Manhattan, I hopped a railing myself, took cover at a corner to call home and write a smart ass tweet, then headed for Fifth Avenue. Infuriatingly, there were still tourists everywhere, freed from their hotels to block sidewalks and stop suddenly for no damn reason.

Work was low key. We followed which subway lines would open the next day and figured out how to get home. I left with two co-workers who live in the same neighborhood. It took us at least twenty minutes to snag a cab, and when we finally did the driver explained several times that he would charge us the regular fare for the first drop-off, then $10 for each additional drop-off. Except he didn't explain it that clearly, and we were in no condition to listen, so we just said "Okay" and climbed in.

The cab drove along 34th Street, toward the East River. We could look south down the avenues and see block after block without light. It was surreal and apocalyptic. Part of me wanted to jump out and explore; the adult in me said to shut up and stay put. A few blocks were without power immediately to our right. They felt haunted, with the pedestrians passing by them in no mood to linger. There were still quite a few people out and about, and once in a while we'd see one in costume and it would remind us, "Oh yeah, it's Halloween." Then we turned north and traffic became hell. We watched the same terrible bits on the television over and over. We reached the Queensboro and the traffic cleared. As we drove over, Astoria and LIC were ahead of us, ablaze in light; lower Manhattan stretched along the river behind and to our right, dark and quiet, a mass of building silhouettes with the odd light on here and there. "I hope this never happens again." I didn't think that, but I should have.

My usual subway route was open and free of charge the next two days, with red plastic tape barring the turnstiles and holding open the emergency doors. The cold I caught turned bad. NyQuil zombified me. I went only to home and work. It wasn't until Saturday that I had the chance to explore lower Manhattan, after many of the lights had come back on, and the 4, 5, and 6 trains offered an easy way down. Like most times I go into town, I went shopping - the store had signs apologizing for the lack of Internet and the resulting delay in credit card transactions - and then to the movies. I saw one knocked over tree, on Houston and Wooster at the NYU dorms; the roots exposed, the branches blocking the sidewalk, police tape around it. The movie was at the IFC Center, newly reopened. My 5:25 screening of The Loneliest Planet had only a few scattered people, most of whom kept their coats on because the room was freezing.

I tried to grab a train at Union Square to take back uptown. Numerous vans and trucks from out-of-state power companies ringed the park. For some reason the station was closed again. I couldn't find an open entrance. My gratitude toward the MTA quickly turned into my usual grumbling. Normality was on its way back.

17 October 2012

DCP vs. Film

A couple of years ago, Film Forum played a digital restoration of The Bridge on the River Kwai, which I eagerly attended. Visually, it was a disappointment. The film didn't look terrible, mind you, but it definitely had that stretched-out-Blu-Ray quality. In my mind's eye, I recall seeing actual pixels on the screen. (These digital restorations are usually listed with the initials "DCP." Bridge was a "4K," though I'm not sure the difference between the two or how they're related, and I am too lazy at the moment to research it. I would like to think it doesn't matter to my overall point, but I am certainly wrong.)

After that, I resolved to avoid DCP/4K/digital restoration screenings. (Modern films I'm okay with. I think they're largely shot in digital and/or set up to not look like dreck when projected digitally. At least, I assume so.) It's been hard to do. Film Forum frequently touts a restored film, I begin to make plans to see it, and then my eye catches the letters "DCP," and I immediately change my mind. Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia are two of the most recent restorations I was extremely tempted by, DCP or no. "Surely seeing it on the big screen, even if the quality isn't equal to film, is still worth it?" I ask myself. Logically, that sounds right. Emotionally, it doesn't. Especially with New York City prices, the limited amount of time I have for film/television viewing in general, and the generous amount of pop culture that still awaits me.

As time went by, of course, I began to second guess myself. Film Forum is one of the top theaters in the city, and therefore the nation. They wouldn't project crap, would they? What about The Red Shoes? That looked gorgeous there, didn't it? It was probably a DCP/4K projection too, although I wasn't smart enough to check at the time. Soon enough, the Museum of the Moving Image, which is conveniently located in my own neighborhood, began screening DCPs as well. Their venue and methodology is the best of the best, and if they were throwing their bona fides behind the technology, well then, it must be on the up and up, mustn't it?

This was on my mind when I woke up Saturday morning and checked Twitter. (Yes, I'm that kind of person.) The Museum tweeted about a 2:00 pm DCP screening of Ashes and Diamonds, one of those classic, universally acclaimed films I've never seen. Better yet, film critic David Thomson would be there to talk about the film and his new book and whatever else he had to plug. Having nothing better to immediately do, I resolved to attend the show and settle my opinion once and for all about DCP.

And so I did. And you know what? I would still prefer to avoid it.

Admittedly, the DCP wasn't all terrible. For most of the running time, my technologically stupid eyes couldn't tell the difference between it and real film. And certain shots and images were clear and stunning, no doubt about it. DCP has a lot to recommend for it, and if the choice is between seeing a film on the big screen in DCP or seeing it on the small in Blu-Ray, I'd go for the former (if life were to ever provide such a clear cut decision).

But then there were the times when the projector had no idea what the hell it was trying to display. I first noticed it with the tank treads. Ashes and Diamonds takes place at the end of WWII, and many shots have Soviet tanks moving by in the background. The treads of these tanks were always an unnatural digital blur. "Well, okay, but that's a small thing," says my mind. "If that's the worst of it, then you've been overreacting." It wasn't. There is a scene in the film where two characters are talking in bed. It's shot largely in close-up, in low level lighting. For the entire scene, the actors' faces were a too-smooth digital haze, as if they were the victims of a poor PhotoShop job. It was appalling. Outside of that, I would notice a softness of the entire image every so often, as if parts of it were out of focus. It was subtle, though, and I couldn't be sure if it was an actual defect, or just me being overly paranoid.

After Ashes and Diamonds, the Museum screened Yotsuya Kaidan, directed by Kenji Misumi. This one was a 35mm print, so I stuck around to watch it (one of the great things about the Museum is that you only pay one ticket fee, so if you see the early show, you can watch the rest for no extra charge). The quality wasn't appreciably better than the best the DCP had to offer - not to my untrained eyes, at least - but there were also no obvious lapses into digital crap, either.

Still, the screening gave me a thrill, an excitement, that the DCP hadn't provided. That was because the 35mm print was old. There were scratches and flaws and the soundtrack frequently popped and crackled. Having grown up before the proliferation of digital technology, these were things I was familiar with, and should have also considered lapses. And yet it's so infrequent that I see a genuine film print, and an old one at that, that the defects here felt like a treat. They signified an authenticity, a gritty reality that DCP screenings lack. It felt, somehow, new and alive, rather than old and decaying. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but I realized then that I would gladly pay a surcharge to see a film shot on film projected on film, rather than a digitized version with the latest whistles and bells.

18 September 2012

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is cold and industrial. I like that. It's the Midwestern in me. Having been raised in Metro Detroit, having gone to college and grown up (kind of) in Lansing, I'm nostalgic and happy in wintry, brick neighborhoods with considerable pasts. It's why Long Island City is one of my favorite places in New York.

Pittsburgh feels ancient, like it existed as ruins for thousands of years before the settlers excavated it from the coal. Every building is stained by history, the smoke and sweat and toil embedded in the walls. Even the sewage system seems old; whenever I use a urinal, it's easy to picture a bootlegger using it decades before me, the surroundings unchanged except for maybe the graffiti on the walls.

In the summer and fall, the damp moss smell of abandoned factories hangs in the air. I've never been there in the winter, but I've sensed the season waiting nearby. I assume it's not just cold then, but agonizing, an arctic hell that sinks into the bones. The outside freezing, the wind blowing and the snow sharp, the inside an oven, the radiators blasting too much steam and the scalp incongruously sweating. The skin chaps, the beer freezes, the Steelers play.

The city is expansive and sprawling, dotted with dense neighborhoods that have their own communities, mood, and stories. They're separated by a network of bridges, a maze of roads laid out at random across rivers and hills. Nobody seems to know how to get anywhere, and the drivers brake suddenly when surprised by the tunnels they pass through every day. If I explored it over a lifetime, by foot, car, bus, and subway, I would still be as lost as I was on Day One.

One of the reasons I travel is to find inspiration. For me, Seattle was more inspiring than Miami, Berlin more than Munich, Japan more than anything else. I don't know why. I like large cities, built up areas that speak of their previous inhabitants. Places where every street and corner offers a different tone, a different feel, a different story, and where you can never experience it all, not if you lived ten thousand years. Pittsburgh is one, and I hope to return for a lengthier stay than usual.

Anyone want to make a movie there?

10 September 2012

Film Napping

I napped through a great film today.

It was the 1930 silent Earth, which screened at Lincoln Center as part of its Ukrainian Poetic Cinema series. A pianist was on hand to provide live music. I read about it on Twitter and thought it sounded like a fantastic opportunity. I ventured to the Walter Reade Theater, purchased my ticket, selected a prime seat, and awaited the magic.

I'm not sure how long I lasted before nodding off. Ten minutes? Twenty? From whichever point it was, the ensuing stretch of film was a series of brief images intertwined with split second dreams, all set to the piano score. I would close my eyes and be asleep, and whether that time was one second or five seconds or a full minute, my reaction upon waking would be the same: "Whuh? Movie? Yes! Come on! No more! Here we go! Watching movie! Zzzz." There were about fifteen minutes left when I woke up for good, trying to puzzle out what I had and hadn't missed.

It happens. I can't control it. I doubt anyone can. We can fight it and perhaps overcome it on occasion (I always wonder whether film critics have certain tricks up their sleeves), but it usually wins out in the end. The urge to nap. Perhaps my dreams just want to collaborate with the films to produce another kind of art, fragmentary and momentary and ethereal, for an audience of one; that's giving myself way too much credit, though.

I don't mind suffering this as much when I'm watching a movie at home. There I can pause, take a walk around the room, drink some coffee, sit in a different position, and - most importantly - rewind whatever it was I missed. In the theater I'm stuck, hoping no one catches me drifting off so they can (rightly) judge me, feeling like a fool who's just wasted his money, his time, and his mind.

What bothers me most is the uncertainty: I'm never sure which films will cause this reaction in me. There are those I have a strong suspicion about and, if I hope to see them, will usually wait for the DVD, so I can rewind at leisure. But then there are some that surprise me, both when it happens and when it doesn't. I didn't expect a struggle to stay awake during a screening of the visually spectacular Lola Mont├Ęs at the Museum of the Moving Image, yet there I was last December, biting my cheeks and berating myself. As for the opposite, I was nervous about drifting off during The Tree of Life, given my difficulty staying focused on Malick's other films (which I enjoy nonetheless). But it had me wide-eyed and mesmerized throughout the entire running time; hell, I would have loved for it to be an hour longer (especially if it was more Creation of the Universe).

I've had competing theories for years: I'm more geared toward narrative, I'm more geared toward character, I'm more geared toward emotion, I'm more geared toward thought, I'm not geared toward nature, I don't like repetition, there's a certain rhythm that lures me toward sleep, I clearly don't get enough sleep, etc. But for every argument there are examples of films I've loved and embraced and had no challenge staying focused on.

Have I seen Earth? Well, kinda. I think I saw enough to "get it." The Wikipedia summary of the plot suggests I saw almost all of it. But I haven't seen it, not really, and my nodding off wasn't respectful to the film, the artists who made it, the programmers who showed it, and myself. I have some ideas about what put to me sleep. The film doesn't provide much context regarding its plot and characters - I don't think they were the point, after all - but enough was introduced to confuse me, and when I couldn't pause and rewind to figure things out (or do some quick Internet research), my mind shut down. "Forget it, I'm outta here." The beginning also has a lot of repetitious shots of nature and people conversing with a dying man, taking his sweet time to leave this mortal coil. And the prick part of my mind said, "Oh, it's one of those films. I'll check ya later," leaving me defenseless.

Whenever this happens, I feel guilt, and the need to return and give the film another chance. I feel this way even if I fought enough, and stayed up enough, to have actually seen the film, from beginning to end. Because while my naps may have only lasted the blink of an eye, that was long enough to take me out of the viewing. So I have to watch it again - only I won't, because I only have so much time and money, and there are so many other films I have to watch for the first time, and others I have to give another chance to, and others I just want to see at a certain time for a certain reason, and and and.

25 March 2012

Carmel

Here's a brand new installment of our aggressively stupid Hard Hound series. This thirteen second epic, "Carmel," stars Mr. Nick Martorelli and myself. Enjoy!