18 September 2012


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.