New Yorkers, especially the seasoned ones, will be in for a bittersweet taste of the city's old way of doing things when Richard Sandler's artful documentaries Brave New York (2004, 56 minutes) and Sway (2006, 33 minutes) screen at the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden on Friday, August 22nd, starting at 8:30 pm. Given Sandler's singular talent behind the camera, this is truly an event you won't wanna miss seeing projected big as life. (You can see some of Richard glowing black-and-white photography here.)
In Sandler's words, Brave New York "is a free-form documentary that loosely chronicles the last 12 years of intense change in the East Village. From the reopening of a newly curfewed Tompkins Square Park to the destruction of the cherished Loisaida Community Gardens, to the first yuppie invasions of the dot com years, to the present." Sway, meanwhile, similarly covers 14 years of camcorder-recorded subway rides.
For nearly ten years, I've been a fan of Richard's work, and I'm lucky enough to call him a friend as well, now that I've moved back to New York after a 15-year absence. I'm thankful for Brave New York because it tells me precisely what went on, at least in the East Village, during my absence. Like his amazing The Gods of Times Square (read my review here), the new video chronicles the effect Rudy Giuliani's policies had on the singular character of one legendary part of our city.
I have to very briefly address here my feelings on the subject of gentrification. They are, of course, mixed. On the one hand, I sort of am thankful for the Giuliani change. When I was living here in 1986, and again from 1989 to 1992, I found NYC to be a fascinating but often depressing place to live. One story I have to illustrate this will never leave me.
I was sitting in a moving subway train. Across from me was a thirtysomething blond-haired, suited-up guy, obviously some sort of professional. Back then, riding the subway would often be a long endurance test because you couldn't take any substantial ride without being set upon by some down-and-nearly-out homeless person with a sad story to tell for tears and profit. These stories were yelled out to a captive audience, and they would often make you wanna get a handgun and put a bullet through the back of your throat (especially if you were an empathetic, overworked person who still had no money to give, as I was).
Anyway, here we were, in this sparsely populated subway car. The door leading to the car next to us opened slowly and in rolls a guy with no legs, bedraggled, making his way through the world with one of those boxes on wheels, and with two handpieces designed to help him drag his body to and fro. The suit across from me impatiently rolled his eyes. The legless man started into his schpiel: "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't mean to bother you. As you can see, I have no legs..." and on it went. The suit started to get more agitated and, as the train came to a stop, he stood up violently, obviously at the end of his tether.
"Godammit, I can't stand anymore of this FREAK SHOW. Fuck, I can't BELIEVE this shit!" And with that top-of-the-lungs exclaimation, the suit rushed out of our lives. I felt bad for both men. And I'll never forget it.
Now that kind of public scene has largely gone by the wayside and I'm left wondering what's happened to all the homeless people and legless men. Of course, you see a few nowadays, but it ain't like 1989, lemme tell ya. Now, of course, since the city has become a safer place to live, we have yuppies and rich kids all over the godamn place. They are just as irritating to me, with their conspicuous consumption and smug smiles. But I have to admit, they are easier to block out of my mind. As for the disappearance of the amazing displays of public performance, artful graffiti, and local characters---this I truly do mourn. I want to again see unparalled sights like, as Sandler catches, the Ransom Corp (who invade a subway car and quite literally transform it into a party zone, to which one somewhat dazed rider says he is "indifferent"), or Gene Pool, the crushed-aluminum-can- covered unicyclist zooming serpentine through 2nd and 11th.Brave New York, in Sandler's unique, poetically quiet way, documents this not-so-old but seemingly ancient way of life through masterfully edited montages (by Sandler's main collaborator Daniel Brown). We get to see brilliant but unrecognized public speaking from the likes of Johnny Sloth, Karen Zusman, Pitts (a homeless man who delivers a fervent rant called "The Masquerade is Over"), and my favorite: Steve Ben Israel extolling the virtues of American Flag Condoms as if he were hawking them on a TV commercial! Exquisite.
And though much of the film is scored only with found sound, there are memorably spirited musical performances by the likes of the Hungry March Band, The Pink Pony Improv Orchestra, Jewish entertainer Seymour Rexite, and a climactic version of "Frightening, Love is the Hardest Thing" by a man named Sandy, whose truthful insights stunningly cap the film with hope. How Sandler gets these flashes of honesty on camera, I'll never know. He is indefatigable.Mark Twain, who visited an older New York often, said the key to happiness is to "dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, and love as if you've never been hurt." There's a lot of happiness--and misery--in Brave New York and, I'm sure, in Sway. There's nothing, I repeat, nothing like a Richard Sandler documentary; he is one of New York's most valuable filmmakers.