By Francisco Algarín Navarro, Miguel Armas, Miguel García, Félix García de Villegas, Jorge D. González, Andrea Queralt and Arnau Vilaró i Moncasí
How did you begin making films? Which was your first contact with cinema?
I started shooting film in 1967, when I was 16. My father’s family had a 16mm Keystone camera that I got my hands on. I made a film at a train station in Connecticut where I grew up. I was attracted to urban landscapes even at that time. I was inspired by West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961), which I saw in a movie theater. The film I shot was inspired by the romantic idea of urban hoodlums.
Soon after, I made a couple of films with a friend. There was some kind of gathering of people showing films at the New York Hilton Hotel and we came down to New York on the train, but we lost our film in Grand Central Station. We were just young guys and we lost track of what we were doing. That was my first experience of trying to show a film.
Then, in my senior year of high school I had the opportunity to make another film. I had a very inspiring English teacher, John Clements, who was making 16mm films. He had gone to Bard College. It was a wonderful coincidence that I ran into him. I used the same 16mm wind up camera, the Keystone. In some ways it was my most elaborate film, in the sense that I made an optical soundtrack. I ended up in someone’s film studio cutting a soundtrack for the film, which I have never done since. I still like the film. I lost the original but I have one print, which I show from time to time. It has lots of cuts in it and I like the editing very much. It’s a psychodrama—if I have to put it into a category. I didn’t even know what a psychodrama was at the time, but when I look at it now, it is definitely one. It has to do with coming of age and sexuality.
It’s called The Mini-bike Ride. This girl that I was very attracted to was the star. My cousin had a mini- bike that he let me use. She rode it as I was filming her. I was inspired by Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966), a French film that I saw in a drive-in. I actually used music from that film as part of the soundtrack, and I used some Jimi Hendrix. I had made a sculpture; it was ugly, a monstrosity. In one section of the film, I had a guy destroy it with an axe. This was inter-cut with the girl being attacked by the same guy. It wasn’t like I planned it all out; it just all came together like this.
I don’t know how it affects other people, but my English teacher was blown away by it. He encouraged me to go Bard College. I thought, “That’s cool; I’ll do that.” And I got in. I didn’t think I was going to because my SATs were horrendous. My math was just slightly acceptable and my English was really terrible, so I was pretty depressed thinking I would never get into a decent school.
I was a sculpture major at Bard. Then John Rubin showed up. He was a very important person for me because he started a class on experimental film. He was some sort of adjunct . Ernie Gehr started teaching there a year later, and so he was my professor my senior year. He was a great teacher because he didn’t try to push me in any direction. He encouraged me to try to see what I was doing with these short little films I made. I think he sensed that I was being inventive, that I was connecting with myself somehow, doing something that was unique to me. He never told me I should do this or do that. I made three films my senior year that I liked, and I still like them.
I graduated and moved to New York in 1973 and have been here ever since. To me, it was the place to go. When I had lived up in Connecticut, on a very dark, moonless night, I would look out and see the glow of the city, sixty miles away. I was doing still photography then. I would come down into Grand Central Station with a buddy and we’d walk around and take photographs of New York. We’d go down to the Bowery, to the Village. I was always attracted to New York; I was always interested in this place. My grandfather was born and raised here; my mother was born here. I had relatives who were here, but their generation wanted to get out of New York, to go to Connecticut. But I came back.
When I came to New York, the film world was a tiny little world. Ernie Gehr was a teacher of mine so immediately I made contacts. Ken Jacobs was also a very, very important figure to me. He was never formally my teacher but he’s been an underpinning for me. It was a lot harder to come here as a painter at that time, or a photographer or a sculptor; you had that whole monumental system. But film was like a little beatnik group. It was very easy to get recognized in film because there wasn’t that much competition. I immediately started showing films at venues like the Collective for Living Cinema.
That was an era in which Jack Smith would hold happenings in cheap loft spaces. We would wait and wait for him to do his performance. Sometimes, he wouldn’t go on until two o’clock in the morning. Then he’d perform Ibsen’s Ghosts, acting out all the characters himself. It could be annoying and sometimes I’d leave. Young people could be hippies because rents were cheap. A while back, my company did plumbing work in a building where I used to live during the 70s for $100-a-month. The apartment we renovated in that same building now costs $30,000-a-month.
Do you consider you're part of an artistic generation or community? Do you have any kind of connection with American experimental filmmakers?
I love the experimental film community because there are a lot of eccentrics and misfits in it. I mean, no one goes into it for money. I do have another life, though, outside of it. My other work takes up a lot of my time. I own a plumbing company here in New York, so I have an office to run and employees and clients to take care of. The film community isn’t the only community I belong to. I’m also in the same community as the people on the street that I film.
I was blown away when I came to New York in the 70s because I had no idea about work. What jobs? My father asked, “Do you want to go to graduate school?” He would have sent me to graduate school, but I was fairly rebellious and I didn’t want to go. I was tired of school, and I didn’t understand the point. I didn’t go after professional growth. I started doing plumbing.
There were artists who were plumbers down in SoHo, in lower Manhattan, when they were doing all those illegal renovations. I was doing other jobs—I drove a cab, I worked in a nursery for plants and flowers, I worked at the Film-Makers’ Coop. Then this guy said, “Why don’t you try plumbing?” and I did and I was good at it. I’m dexterous and I’m good at figuring things out in three-dimensional space. I was making $20 an hour, which was like a fortune. I thought “Wow”. I got jobs and started to be able to pay rent and to survive. Then I realized if you’re really serious about it, you needed a license, so I pursued that and managed to pull that off. I don’t really do plumbing any more. Now, I’m running the office, but back then I was doing it, and I was good at it, very good at it.
Most people I work with don’t know I make films. The guys that work for me, they don’t know. To them, I’m just a plumber or their boss. Most of the customers I work for have no idea. Some do, because some of the people I work for, some of the contractors, are actually artists too. There is a lot of that going on in New York; artists who can’t make money with their art end up in construction.
One of the great things about my job is that I’m in constant contact with workers. It has been really fortunate for me. I find it very interesting watching how people survive, the humanity of it. Sometimes it’s as if I’m in a film noir or one of those gangster movies from the 30s or a Damon Runyan or Mickey Spillane novel.
Really, I know the City through my plumbing work. I’m constantly on the street. The job puts me on the street all the time. I ride the subway; I take seven, eight subway rides a day. Or I take a bus. I’ve started coming in early. I get here at 7:00 in the morning. It’s interesting that early. I take the subway at 6:30 am. I look at faces. The subways are fantastic; I can’t get bored by them. I love riding subways. I know the system very well, not all of it, but Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Sometimes my days are really easy. I take a ride up to the Upper East Side and get out there, and then I go to Brooklyn Heights and get out there. I’m just riding the subways and looking at jobs. I find areas to film from my subway rides and from going around for my job.
Obviously, some of my friends are fellow filmmakers and I try to go to places like Anthology Film Archives, but life is hectic, so I rarely get there. My guys have done plumbing at Anthology, though, and I just got a water fountain from another job to give to Anthology! The exciting world of experimental film in New York! It’s hard for experimental filmmakers to pay their rent here in New York City, so quite a few filmmakers have moved away, to teach in college film programs or whatever. I mostly see other filmmakers one-on-one, at my house or at a restaurant. I’m not affiliated with any university or foundation or anything like that, though.
We´ve read that you´ve been filming almost for forty years. Nevertheless, in Barcelona´s program and in others like Rotterdam, your films haven´t been programmed since '70s, until Close Quarters, in 2004. Where have your film been screened and where can they be watched? Your films are not in any Distribution coop. Why is that?
I show films all the time, in the NY Film Festival, San Francisco, Toronto, all over. I haven’t shown many films in Europe because I’m not asked to submit my films there very often. I don’t submit films to festivals unless someone asks me. I guess I’m shy about that. I have some old, old films at a co-op, but I’d rather keep them at home, where I can see what shape they’re in before they go out, if they’re scratched or dirty or whatever. You know, it’s not video.
Do you consider every film as an isolated project or as a part of a whole opus?
Both, I guess. Usually, I find an area of the City that interests me and decide to shoot there. The film I’m working on right now is definitely about a location in Queens called Jackson Heights. Silvercup  is another example of my going back to a location over and over and filming. If I’m inspired, then I focus on a place and I start filming. Certain areas of the city don’t interest me at all, some areas do. I’ve made films on Wall Street, in Chinatown, in the Garment District. There are certain areas that I’m attracted to, that inspire me. I don’t collect a lot of footage and put a film together from separate neighborhoods. For me, it’s more about a certain area, a certain place. Obviously, they’re also an opus because they were made by the same person and come from the same sensibility.
We´ve read that Fashion Avenue Avenue had been filmed in a period of one-two years. How much time do you take approximately in filming and editing yours films? Is Fashion Avenue a particular case? It seems like Fashion Avenue had been filmed all in a same day. Do you want to eliminate the sensation of the passing of time in the spectator?
Filming can take 2 weeks. Editing can take 6 months. I look at footage over and over and over….
I’m not consciously commenting on the passage of time (or anything else really). It’s more about composing images like music and expressing emotions, feelings, states of being. Fashion Avenue may seem to have been filmed in one day because that’s the magic of film. It’s not in real time necessarily.
You have filmed Fashion Avenue, Public Domain and Silk Ties from 2006 till 2008. Do you usually alternate the filming and editing of your films?
I film one work, edit it, film another, edit that. Usually, I only work on one film at a time.
Could you explain us why do you work with those times, rhythms and duration, as much of the takes or shots, the shot groups, as of the whole length of each film? What thing stimulates you to make the cuts? How's your editing process? do you think about it before, do you edit with the camera.? Do you have a previous suspicion and you put the camera in a particular place because you have observed previously a similar situation or you shoot for a long time and then use the edition to organize and structure the recorded material?
I don’t have these strategies in mind when I go out with a camera. It’s more about responding to what I’m seeing. Most of the stuff I do is accidental. I don’t know how I do it. I couldn’t make Silvercup now; I don’t know how I made it. It was an effortless film. I just shot it. The last shot is the last shot and the first shot is the first shot and it’s basically in the order it was shot. I just pulled stuff out, and maybe a lot of what I pulled out is really good, but there was no second-guessing. There was no struggle at all. I probably edited it in a day, two days. I hadn’t shot film in a long time and the way I shot it was liberating film for me. It was just looking, like it was at the very beginning.
My work is dependent on editing in the camera. I can’t possibly create the rhythm at the editing table. I have tried to, and it is much more cumbersome. It doesn’t have the clarity and the expressiveness of editing in the camera. The editing in the camera is what my work is really all about, because I’m playing the camera like an instrument, like a musical instrument. I’ve got a Beaulieu, which is a great camera. You don’t have to wind it; it doesn’t flash frame, so it’s great for editing in the camera. Editing on a table is very dreary, actually. You pull the strip, you pull the tab. It’s like factory work. It’s not a liberating experience.
A case in point would be Close Quarters , which was shot in an apartment in Queens right near Greenpoint. That was a great experience for me, as it was an effortless film. The beauty of that film is the editing in the camera. I also edited the film on the table, but it was really just extraction. Again, the first shot was the first shot, the last shot was the last shot, and you see it in the order it was shot except for what I extracted. I could go back and look at what I extracted and wonder, “Why did you take that out? That is a beautiful shot.” I tend to be overly critical. I tend to take out more, to take out nice shots. I would always rather have my films too short than too long. Sometimes I take out shots that are more beautiful than the shots I leave in because it’s not about beautiful shots. It’s about the film as a whole.
Now I’m in a much more difficult place, where editing is torture. The editing goes on forever in my more recent work. Maybe I’m getting older and I don’t have that same sense of freedom.
I’m making a film now in Queens, in a fabulous place with the elevated trains, all the commercial businesses underneath it, the bus route, all the traffic, tons of people. Probably fifty percent of the people are undocumented. It’s a fascinating place. I was taking the bus from La Guardia airport back home, and it dropped me off there to catch the subway. I got to looking around, and I thought, “I’ve got to film here.” I shot two or three rolls. I took the film back and it’s “Wow!” I’m blown away. So then I go out again and again and again and again. Now I’ve got probably fifteen rolls and I’m working on editing the film. It will probably be condensed to about three or four hundred feet.
I have a projector that only accepts four-hundred-foot reels, so I tend to make everything that length. It is a fabulous projector because it was made for football coaches—an analysis projector. It goes forward and reverse, and you can turn it way down slow. When I’m editing, I’m looking at the film constantly. I look at thirty seconds, go backwards and look at it again, backwards and look at it again. I start to get a feel for all the movements, both movements within the frame and movements of the camera. The analysis projector is very gentle on film so I can watch the footage several times without scratching it. I look at the film and there are certain things I like and certain things I don’t like—the way it feels, the way the movements react to each other. It’s like music. Sometimes it’s flowing in a way that is very sensual and enjoyable for me and other times it is awkward and disjointed. When I edit my films, I take out the awkward and disjointed material and I try to compose with the material that seems to have a magical kind of eloquence. It’s not the kind of thing I can anticipate or work out intellectually beforehand; it is accidental. All I do is pick a place that inspires me, and work in the kind of light I want to be working in. I shoot a couple of rolls and then I look at them, and then I just keep going back. It is an evolving process.
I don’t usually rearrange shots in my editing. I do have some places where I have done it, but not that many. I did it with Greenpoint —that was rearranged. Shots at the end were actually shot at the beginning. That was interesting for me, as I had rarely worked like that.
I keep the order of the rolls. What you see is the order it was shot, within the rolls and the rolls themselves. First roll, second roll. The film I’m shooting out in Queens—I actually may start rearranging some of the rolls. But for me, film is a process and the first day of filming is really the beginning of the experience. It’s like a journey that I go through. I keep going out to this same street and filming there. It’s like I’m searching for something or I’m following something.
Do you give importance to the cuts, the passages, or rather to what is between the passages, which in other films would be the remains? Do you consider these "passages" can be related to people's fleeting moments in the city? (Taking a train, waiting for somebody in a corner, etc.) Some of your images are recurrent transitions in everybody's life. Are transitions the main subject of your films? Why do you like these unproductive, calm moments in the middle of the city's bustle?
I don’t have any kind of ideology or point to make about art or philosophy or urban life or anything. If I do, it’s sub-conscious. I don’t make a film because I want to say anything specific.
In a lot of my work I frame and reframe, through windows, through mirrors, through spaces between buildings. I’m always composing. One of the first things Ernie Gehr did at Bard was he gave us a frame. It was just a piece of cardboard with a window cut out of it, cut to the dimensions of a 16mm frame. He wasn’t a technocrat. He didn’t talk about how a Beaulieu is better than a Bolex. He talked about framing. Our assignment was to just go around and frame things with our piece of cardboard. I thought this was brilliant. It wasn’t hardcore; it wasn’t about the machine. I was so fortunate to have him as a teacher.
Really, all I’m doing is framing. It’s what I’m doing all the time—framing this, framing that, framing. It’s what Ernie was teaching. It’s all about composition. This feels balanced. I like this composition; I don’t like that composition. Why? There’s no reason. It just feels good. In photography, which I do a lot of, you can have a nice composition, but in film, you can put compositions next to other compositions. It is a whole other art form. I’m also interested in what is being filmed, but composition is what’s most important to what I’m doing.
Why do you tend to film in a unique location, street or district? (Garment District, Greenpoint, Fashion Avenue) Are you interested in "documenting" a particular zone?
No “documenting” in any kind of historical sense. I’m just responding to what I see and the “feel” of a neighborhood, the conditions, that sort of thing.
I’ve read that Atget wasn’t trying to make art. I certainly am. I’ve read he was just trying to document the Paris of his youth as it was changing all around him and he never thought he was making art or saw himself as an artist. He was a guy with a new-fangled machine called a camera. I use old-fashioned equipment! I did start off doing still photography, and that taught me some important things about images in art. For me, photography and filmmaking aren’t about the subject; it doesn’t matter that I’m shooting a beautiful house or a pretty sky. It’s about the light and the shadow and the composition and all the parts interacting. Otherwise, I’d wind up with a boring photo of a pretty house. It would be the house that’s beautiful not the photograph or the film. That wouldn’t be art for me. It’d be a document of some kind, but not art.
Of course, like Atget’s work, something can be a document and be art too. As time has gone on, my films have taken on another dimension. When I make them, I’m viewing the contemporary landscape. Now as years lapse, the films have taken on a life of their own. I wasn’t aware of that when I was making them. I couldn’t have been.
Have you had any problems when trying to film in NY's streets? There are some filmmakers like Jem Cohen who tried to film in public spaces and whose films have been confiscated. How have you lived this kind of changes in your city?
When I was shooting Silk Ties  from a van, a woman saw me filming her and got my office phone number from the door of the van. When I got back to the office, my secretary told me that some woman had called and started screaming. The woman complained that I had filmed her and said she was going to get a lawyer. My secretary was new. She had just started working for me and didn’t know that I was a filmmaker, so she must have thought I was some kind of pervert filming women on the street. It was embarrassing, especially when I went out to film again in the same area and the woman called the office a second time. She told my secretary I was stalking her. I don’t even know which woman it was!
I’ve usually don’t carry around my camera around on a daily basis. I bring it out when I’m working on a particular project. My time is always being interrupted by work during the day so I go out on weekends to shoot film. For a while I was carrying a camera around with me daily, as long as it wasn’t too hot, but that was when I was driving a van about six, seven, eight years ago. In the winter I would leave a camera in the van. A van is a great way to shoot. I was driving while I was shooting. Very often the truck was parked and very often I was stuck in one these hideous traffic jams where you are hardly moving. It’s not like I was holding traffic up and it’s not like I was doing anything dangerous. My favorite shots are those slow dolly shots where I am in congested traffic.
I lived in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn for a while, and I now live close by. It is a Polish neighborhood. It has a very unique character. I set my mind to make a film there. I never really felt part of the neighborhood even though I lived there. I was an outsider looking in. I didn’t like that about the experience. I felt like I was intruding. It was a difficult film to make because unlike Silvercup, where it is a completely anonymous space in the sense that it is noisy from all the trains and no one seems to care that you’re there shooting film, Greenpoint, is a very intimate kind of space. I find it to be a very warm place. A lot of people are from Eastern Europe. The area has a very powerful effect on me. A lot of people were angry with me for filming them, but since I had set my mind to make the film, I just kept working at it. It was difficult; you can feel it in the film. I had to stop filming a lot and walk away and come back later.
The same thing was true when I made the film in Chinatown. That was another very difficult film to make. People just don’t like having cameras pointed at them. Whereas if you shoot on Seventh Avenue, like in my film, Fashion Avenue, it isn’t that much of a problem. It is such a congested, intense area that people don’t seem to mind being filmed. I became part of the whole circus.
I’d like to shoot film in Harlem. I was up there recently looking at a job. But it would be difficult to shoot there. It’s hard filming people. I understand that it is very obnoxious to be filming people without their permission. I wouldn’t like it either. It’s an invasion of their privacy. There’s something not very nice about it, but I do it. I find faces to be absolutely fascinating.
When I was filming Fashion Avenue, two cops approached me as I was filming a building. One of them barked, “That’s a load-bearing wall!” as if I were planning a terrorist attack. What terrorist would use a 16mm camera when he could use the one in his cell phone? They asked me for identification and the only ID I had on me was my Master Plumber’s license, which only made the situation more confusing for them. “Why is a plumber making an art film?” They ordered me to stop filming, so I walked one block over and filmed there instead. The glorious thing about New York is the density. Walking one block away put me into a whole different world and the two cops were gone.
In some films, it seems that you decide to film in color or black and white before you begin. What determines this decision in one case and in another?
Sometimes I want to film in color and other times I want to film in black-and-white. Close Quarters simply works in black-and-white, in my mind. If it had been shot in color, the film might have seemed cluttered with color.
Also, if you know you’re using black-and-white, you work a certain way; if you know you’re using color, you search for other things. With color film, contrast makes the colors pop, which is probably the effect you’re referring to in Made in Chinatown.
Now, it’s getting hard to find labs. Lately, I’ve been sending my films out and the lab has a tendency to “correct” the exposure, which means they lighten my work, so I have to go back and tell them I really want it that dark. It’s funny. They keep thinking I’ve made a mistake so I have to keep paying them to make more and more prints—until they stop “fixing” the film!
Another subject of your movies is how to animate the forms through the light (Close Quarters) or the shadows (Made in Chinatown), going from one world to another and from the figurative to the abstract (the color spots, the synthetic textures). Do you try to film the concrete from the abstract, or maybe is it the other way around?
My method is far less cerebral. I like moving with the camera to feel rhythms, which probably helps me edit in the camera. Also, you seem to be commenting on whether the camera was on a tripod or hand-held. Close Quarters was done on a tripod; Made in Chinatown and others in the program at Xcentric were hand-held. I like moving buildings with my camera, a feat I celebrated in a film called Megalopolis.
We wonder why your films are always silent. Maybe when you shoot, having to pay attention to the sound or to register it, could distract you from the image, or in the editing there would be the risk of deforming it. Do you think the silence forces the spectator to explore the image more closely? Sound or music could be for you a different pleasure from vision?
Well, except for my real first film, The Mini-Bike Ride and a film I made in memory of filmmaker Bob Fleishner (Bye Bye Bob), all of my films were silent until recently. In Rotterdam, a wonderful composer named Rutger Zuydervelt, played music to a show I did. He is very talented, very gifted. Oh, and once, a choreographer, Netta Yerushalmy, set a dance performance and music to Silvercup. That was at The Kitchen, a performance space here in New York. I just never think of sound. My mother was very musical (she studied Opera at Julliard and started a fundraising committee to save the Charles Ives homestead near where we lived in Connecticut) and my older brother is a musician, so I grew up in a music-loving household and I love good music very much. I just think of film as something separate. Maybe it’s because I started off in photography. I’m not sure, though.
When I made Silvercup, I would go after work to this vast intersection of train lines, elevated subways and roads and a bridge. I had gone there years before to shoot photographs of the same subject matter. It is a very noisy place. When Ernie Gehr saw the film, he made a beautiful comment. He mentioned that for the poor people who live near the trains, it is an awful place. The noise is just atrocious, but of course we are able to watch it silent. It’s a way of editing real life.
I work in a minimalist way, which is technically quite primitive, and working with sound requires a whole different skill set. When I see my films silent, they feel complete to me. I don’t feel anything is lacking. Besides that, no film is really silent. There’s always the hum of the projector or ambient sound.
The profusion of images without any sound could remind us Kandinsky's painting: we can hear the noise and the music of things, objects, people going by and city movement. only by watching them. Editing can give a sense of sound to the images. Do you agree with it? Do you think about the sound? Do you think the sound can get hold of the image?
Yes, yes, yes. That’s it! May I quote you?
There used to be a tiny theater in the East Village called the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema. It was about as small as a closet and the filmmaker Bradley Eros used to run it. He named it after a veteran of World War One who, according to legend, was deaf and mute from shell shock. In 1915, he was at a sanitarium where they showed the patients a film and he broke into laughter, having been cured of his affliction. If he saw it in 1915, it must have been a silent film! I like the idea that a silent film made him hear again.
It is said that your movies are like "an imaginary soundtrack of the big city". What do you think of accompanying screenings by live music? (like in Barcelona's Xcèntric)
I’m very honored you would ask me for my films and go to so much trouble. To be honest, it’s hard to say if I’ll like it because I haven’t heard it and seen it all put together. The idea of it seems interesting, though, because it’s someone else’s artistic response to my films. Everyone at Xcentric seems so knowledgeable and gracious. What a brainy (and thoughtful) group of people! Very impressive! I’m confident I would enjoy the experience and I’m sorry I can’t be there. I enjoyed what Rutger did in Rotterdam very much, and I’m grateful to Irwin Van ‘t Hart for setting that up.
We've noticed in your movies a strong influence of lines structuring a cinematic space where people and objects are in motion. Sometimes these lines come from architecture, other times they come from a directional movement of the camera. The edition links these lines and structures the film. Could you comment this idea and the relationship of the frame with the external buildings, settings and other elements that helps you to compose a New York picture (a picture of its streets, of its movement)?
I suppose this question goes back to what I mentioned about learning in Ernie Gehr’s class about framing and how essential that is, and also rhythm. Once the shots I don’t like have been weeded out, editing is mostly about rhythm, if you think about it. It’s silent in that it doesn’t make your eardrum vibrate, but it’s rhythm.
What can I say? They’re called “motion pictures” or “movies,” you know? They involve framing, light, rhythm and camera movement or movement created through editing.
The title of one of your films, Train of Thought, reminds us of your penchant for shooting from different means of transport: a bus (Wall Street), a train, a tram (Prague Winter), the metro (Public Domain), a car (Silk Ties). Could you explain that? Do you want thus to duplicate the energy of the city, the passages, the transitions? We like to talk about your films according to the category of "trains of thought". For us that is the pace of your films. But it also might be something like "thoughts in a train."
For practical reasons, a van is a great way to film people in New York because you are moving, but slowly, and there are generally lots of people around. You can get very close to them. Otherwise, I carry the camera in a bag and I pull it out. It’s always really stressful to pull the camera out and then start shooting. I was shooting around Jackson Heights, Queens. It’s very tough. People get angry with you. You get all sorts of reactions. You’ve got to deal with it. If you want to do it, you’ve got to do it. I carry the bag with the camera in the bag, then I take it out of the bag and then I put it back in the bag. The great thing about where I’m shooting in Jackson Heights is that the roar of the traffic and subways overhead covers the sound of the camera. People don’t hear the camera going so then I’m able to get close to people.
I’ve never shot on a subway; that would be too difficult. Actually I have shot on the subway, but not underground; I have on the elevated lines. It is very difficult to shoot in those close quarters. It makes people very self-conscious. I don’t enjoy doing that to people.
Public Domain was all shot while I was walking on the street. It is all handheld camera. Silk Ties was shot from a plumbing truck; Elements was also shot from a van.
Street life changed in the time I’ve been shooting New York but my approach to shooting it hasn’t changed as much as technology has changed. In a way, the pace of my films might be affected by the medium I work in: Films (rather than video). Because film costs something and requires a bit of effort, maybe it’s a more thoughtful or reflective medium than video. With video, you just shoot and shoot, and tape over what you don’t like. Film is precious, so it’s harder to be frivolous with it. You only press the button for what you really want so you usually don’t wind up with a lot of dead shots or go on and on with a single scene too long. Maybe the relative slowness of the process gives the images vitality. That would be ironic. It’s more labor-intensive and more costly, so you don’t linger on a lackluster image.
I’m very distressed about the fact that 16mm is being overshadowed by video. It’s no longer a money problem for me; I can make a film for four or five hundred dollars. Maybe a film costs more now, but I can afford to shoot film. I’ve set up my life so that I can do that because I have a job that pays enough so I can make films. It would never be for money reasons that I would switch to video. I don’t work with sound so my style of making a film is not very sophisticated and it is really cheap.
In Wall Street you invite us to see the shadow previous to the body, as if the former were independent to the later. We ask to ourselves: where is the camera? We think of a zenithal shot, but when we lean our head 90º, we see the bodies in vertical and the shadows in horizontal. How did you find this point of view in the bus? How did you realize that you had to tilt the camera to see the shadows more clearly and to place yourself "on its side"? Why did you always choose the same seat, and also pay to the people to leave the seat to you? Why was this seat so special?The film Wall Street was shot from a bus. I was working downtown and during lunch hour I would go over and catch the bus on Broadway and Houston. The light was perfect; I observed that the shadows were running straight up Broadway. I would catch a bus and ride down Broadway all the way to Wall Street. I would pay people to move out of the seat in the back, by the window. People were always very nice to me and let me have the seat. I would sit at the very back on the sidewalk side. I always chose the same seat because I could open the window and reach out with my camera and shoot down at the sidewalk. It was always the last seat and the last window on the left of the bus, close to the sidewalk. I think today the police would stop you if you did that, but this was back in 1980. I never had any problems. I forget how I would get back up to work, maybe on the subway. I did that for about two weeks and got all the material together. Unfortunately I lost the original and I have just one print. It is one of my favorite films.
Moreover, Wall Street talks about the daily hours and the incidence of the sunlight rays. Have you filmed every day at the same time, like Monet in Rouen?Wall Street makes us to think about a certain primitivism, close to Muybridge's Zoopraxiscope, and even similar to the Chinese's shadows, some Matisse's paintings or Modigliani's works.
Monet, Muybridge, Matisse and Modigliani are all great and I’m flattered that you are relating them to the film. My wife sees Franz Kline’s paintings in the film, which is theoretically possible because I’m close to Ken and Flo Jacobs and they were involved with Abstract Expressionism in the 50s. (They studied with Hans Hoffman.)
In certain ways, your movies reminds us of Joris Ivens´s Rain (that remind us of Prague Winter) or of the films of Peter Hutton. Have you seen these movies? Do you feel close to them? And also close to some directors of the silent cinema (Murnau, Epstein, Borzage, Lumière) or to the first San Francisco´s diaries (Autumn Fire, for example)? And to the photographers of the twenties and thirties?
Rain is a gorgeous film—but I didn’t see it until long after I filmed Prague Winter. Last year, my wife got a set of dvd’s of old avant garde films and it was in there. I would love to see it projected on the screen.
I’ve seen some of Peter Hutton’s work. (I don’t get out much!) I’ve liked the films of his I’ve seen, especially his early New York black-and-white films and the one of the chimney sweeps in Poland. (Krakow, I think.)
I enjoy early silent films very, very much, but I’m not an expert in them. (A while ago, my wife persuaded me to go to the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, but the area was so beautiful that we only went to one film. The rest of the time, we photographed!) I do admire Murnau’s Sunrise and things like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Man of Aran. I also love a semi- documentary called On the Bowery by Lionel Rogosin and films like Bronx Morning by Jay Leyda.
The photographers of the 20s and 30s are great. They’re the ones I enjoy seeing at the museums here in New York, artists such as Umbo. Carl Bolger, from the University of Wisconsin, gave me a book of Saul Leiter photographs, and I think they’re magnificent. I mean, I’d never seen Leiter’s work before but it was as if I already knew it.
E-mail from Jim Jennings, New York, on December 1, 2010.
His responses are drawn extensively from a transcript of an interview
between Jennings and Kathy Geritz, Film Curator, Pacific Film Archive,
conducted in June and September, 2010.
Acknowledgements: Gloria Vilches.