Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Escape to New York

“How many times have you heard someone say,
If I had his money, I could do things my way?
But little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

Once I was winning in fortune and fame,
Everything that I dreamed for to get a start in life's game,
Then suddenly it happened, I lost every dime,
But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind.”
-Johnny Cash

I spent this past weekend in New York City, visiting my old college friend Greg. It was the first real vacation I'd given myself in quite a while, and I needed it.

I've had a love/hate relationship with New York City since my NYU days, but I think the balance has finally toppled into the “love” category. I love Rochester too, but life in a smaller city does sometimes have its limits. You can reach a point where it feels like you've done it all; you're always doing the same things and seeing the same people. (As the “You know you're from Rochester” Internet meme list put it, “You can go to any mall on Saturday and see at least 5 people you either work with, went to school with or dated.”) Whereas New York City is bottomless. There's always someplace you haven't gone and something you haven't done. Your horizons are constantly expanding.

I enjoyed NYC as a student for that same reason, but I also instinctively hated its snobbery, hostility and aloofness. But either those aspects of NYC have faded over the years, or I'm secure enough as an adult not to be so sensitive to it, or both.

Greg and I assisted with the shooting of a documentary that a mutual college friend was directing. We also went to a Rooftop Films screening. I'd submitted Saberfrog to Rooftop Films and was rejected, but anyone who submitted got to attend a Rooftop screening event for free, and Saturday was the closing show of their summer series so the timing was right. The show was a collection of short films, introduced by live music. The films they showed were a little on the heavy side, and I would have preferred to see more films of shorter length (they showed just six films, two of which were about 25 minutes), especially since the show ran late and we chose to leave before the end (we're gettin' old, Jake). But it was still an enjoyable experience, and I particularly liked It's Me, Helmut, a 12-minute dark comedy from Germany that consisted of a single elaborately choreographed shot.

Sunday morning we had brunch with another friend, an RIT student who had directed me in one of her student films and was currently home in Brooklyn for the summer. After that we hung around Greenwich Village, reminiscing about our college days and revisiting old haunts. I was pleased to discover that Kim's Video was still around; I'd heard they were going out of business, but in fact they had merely consolidated and moved to a smaller location on 1st Avenue.

Walking past Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place brought back memories of the days when it showed cheap double features of classic films, before it reverted to a local stage venue following the death of its owner. It was at Theatre 80 that I first saw Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Walkabout, and Monty Python's Life of Brian, among others.

I mention these particular films because it was at Theatre 80 that I discovered the golden age of 1970s cinema, an era that NYU film classes strangely avoided while I was there. The professors seemed to have a strong bias towards foreign-language and experimental work from the 1960s or earlier, and to even be shown a film made in color was extremely rare.

There were other aspects of NYU film school that frustrated me at the time. I was a sci-fi freak who wanted to make adventure stories and comedies, whereas NYU was more of the “Lucas and Spielberg ruined movies” school of thought, and seemed to prefer films that were long on realism but short on storytelling.

But like most college kids, I was a work in progress and had a lot to learn about the world, and I think both NYU and NYC provided an experience that benefited me in the long run. I wish I'd been more mature at the time, and able to take better advantage of the rich environment around me. But I guess that's how you learn and grow – by having experiences you weren't quite ready for.

Actually, now that geek culture has become so dominant and omnipresent, I find myself yearning more for indie films and dramas, and for art that is about something more than just pop culture references.

We also passed the legendary Strand Book Store that Sunday, and whatever other plans we had for that day quickly went out the window. I felt like a college kid again, roaming the endless aisles of books for something that would further expand my horizons. Among the books I picked up was Steven Soderbergh: Interviews. I'm not actually that familiar with with this filmmaker's work (I've only seen Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy, two of his least-known films) but I'd enjoyed other books in the same series devoted to other directors, so I grabbed it.

Which brings me to one of the most satisfying aspects of the trip. In addition to all the other fun we had that weekend, I somehow managed (thanks to all that time spent on trains and subways) to read three entire books. All three were related to filmmaking, and all three replenished me in different ways.

The first was DSLR Cinema by Kurt Lancaster, which described techniques for getting a cinematic look from modern digital cameras. Cinematography used to be my weakest area as a filmmaker, but I've made strides on more recent projects, and now feel prepared to do even better work in the future.

The second was Think Outside the Box Office, a book about indie distribution (and self-distribution) by Jon Reiss, whose seminar of the same title I once attended. As an indie filmmaker, I know there's not much point in making more films if I can't figure out what to do with the films I've already made, so this book also filled a gap in my knowledge.

The third was the aforementioned Steven Soderbergh: Interviews. This book of published magazine interviews, spanning 1989 to 2000, almost reads as an avant-garde novel with Soderbergh as its self-loathing protagonist. Perhaps because of my limited knowledge of the films themselves, the book really seems to be about Soderbergh as a person, struggling to avoid the one-hit-wonder trap of his successful first film (which, like Saberfrog, was a product of the writer-director's own personal problems); stumbling into that trap anyway because of the perverse career choices he made over his next few films; and finally achieving a well-earned winning streak of mainstream successes while making peace with himself at the same time. It seemed like the perfect note to end the weekend on.

After this trip, I feel like I've regained the enthusiasm and optimism that inspired me to become a filmmaker in the first place. I'm no longer mourning bygone eras and missed opportunities. I feel like I've finally shed the burden of the past. I feel rejuvenated, and ready to move forward with future projects.