Friday, May 2, 2008

TriBeCa Diaries #3: Empire II

Dedicated not to Andy Warhol but to late film geniuses Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni, Amos Poe's new experimental documentary Empire II still owes a lot--including its title--to the white-haired pop artist. Warhol's 1964 film Empire was an 8-hour black-and-white shot of the top half of the Empire State Building. It was a quizzical experiment that I suppose had to be done, but of course is not for everyone to enjoy. When I saw it in 2003 at Atlanta's Emory University theater, my friends and I drifted in at about the two hour mark, and stayed to see the sun set on the NY landmark--ostensibly the film's most "exciting" part. We alternately sat in respectful silence and made giggly wry comments (a reaction with which I don't think Warhol would've been unhappy). I should say that the sample of the print you see below is actually better than the pristine one I saw, because the print is somewhat damaged. That underlines the plastic quality of film itself, which I think is something Warhol wanted to highlight. Check it out in its entirety, whether you're in the mood or not.

The Empire State Building is definitely the main character in Poe's new 3-hour film--we should remember that now the building is again New York's most memorable landmark now that the death of the World Trade Center is a reality. But this follow-up resembles Warhol's Empire mostly in that it serves as an endurance test to the impatient.

Me, I loved it. In many ways, it's like Geoffrey Reggio's Koyannisqatsi in its illustration of nature vs. civilization, specific here to New York City life. Shot largely in time-lapse photography, Poe shows us the dizzying activity of the streets as taxi cabs whiz by, headlights dancing and pedestrians dodging. Time bolts past us as a clock towering over Union Square kills an hour-and-a-half in a minute flat. The Empire State Building itself is beset by rushed days and nights, and by zooming clouds of creamy blues and solarized reds. Empire II approximates four seasons of movement, so we get the hordes on the street slopping through snowy weather, baked by the yellow heat of August, and dampened by October rain showers. The onscreen rush reaches its apex in two holiday scenes: the explosive Fourth of July fireworks (which look even more spectacular ratcheted up a few notches in speed) and the humorous climactic onslaught of the Village's idiosyncratic Halloween parade, where the playful play at an impossible rapidity.

The visuals are hypnotic and joyous, chaotic and meditative. However, it's the soundtrack that really sends the work into the ionosphere for me. While the incredible video footage surely cost Poe--most famous for the groundbreaking punk doc The Blank Generation--a tremendous effort to compose, shoot and edit, the aural aspect of Empire II feels even more labor-intensive. Poe approximates the sound landscaping of New York City perfectly. His music track--filled with the likes of
Patty Smith, Brian Eno, Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Jimmie James, Deborah Harry, the Hysterics and Pink Martini--flows in and out of the air like tunes blaring from cruising sedans. A song might get bitch-slapped by the sound of thunder and rainfall, then pick itself off the pavement moments later. Helicopter blades chop through the rumbling crowd noises, winds whip around sharp-cornered high-rises, clocks tick quickly like challenging metronomes, and ghostlike voices appear and disappear while reciting poetry by Edgar Allen Poe (any relation?) and Jim Carroll. The soundtrack--effects, ambiance, music and all--is a stunning feature, like nothing I've ever experienced.

Still, even with all the sturm und drang, with all of Poe's fascinating movement and noise, Empire II failed to keep many journalists in their seats when I saw it. I was the only one who stayed, mesmerized from beginning to end. I suppose, as I and many others did with Empire, then others simply said "I get the point" and walked out. I dunno--maybe I understand; or maybe it was the excitement of the festival that got to them. But if one doesn't see the whole thing, how can one have really gotten the point?

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