Saturday, May 22, 2010

DVDebut--NEW YORK STREET GAMES: how kids had fun in dad's (and grand-dad's) day

As someone who did not grow up in New York City (even if he had, he probably would not have taken part in many of the games shown and recalled here), TrustMovies was nonetheless shocked at how interesting -- fascinating, really -- the new straight-to-DVD documentary NEW YORK STREET GAMES proves to be. Directed, co-written and co-produced by a fellow named Matthew Levy (shown below), the movie brings to grand life a dozen or more of these games, described and remembered, oh, so fondly by a bunch of guys (and a few women) including artists, actors, politicians, sportsmen and more: Ray Romano (shown second photo from bottom), Hector Elizondo, Keith David, Robert Costanzo, Regis Philbin, Curtis Sliwa, Whoopi Goldberg, David Proval, Robert Klein and even former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop (shown center, two photos below).

Nostalgia stands foremost here, followed by the joy of youth, sports, and simply being ultra-active with a bunch of like-minded and -bodied compatriots. The idea of kids playing in the streets might horrify most of today's parents, the filmmaker tells us, yet a couple of generations past, parents trusted their local community enough to leave their kids to their own devices. Back then the world was certainly different: a parent's whistle, one of the interviewees maintains, could locate a child playing several blocks away.

Levy gives us some centuries-old history, too -- showing us the famous painting Children's Games by Pieter Bruegel that, 450 years ago, offered some of the same games the movie covers.  Others, such as Stoopball, still reign supreme in places like Wisconsin, where the Stoopball League of America now thrives.  You'll discover the history of the Spalding ball (pronounced Spal-deen in NYC), the meaning of "seconds," and, of course, the games themselves.

Punchball and Slapball (joyous, simple and cheap: you just needed the ball - and the players); Kick the Can (and its various incarnations such as KTC Hide-and-Seek); Hit the Penny; Skully (also called Skelly, and the making of those bottle caps into functional works of miniature art); Ringo-Levio, with its hunters and hunted.  Then come the games at which your mother would tell you, "You'll hurt yourself!"  (And of course you did.)  Johnny-on-a-Pony (shown at bottom), War (shown above), Buck-Buck and more.  Double Dutch jump-rope made use of girls and wordplay, while Posse was just another name for Hopscotch.  And so far as Stickball is concerned, if you've ever wondered what a "three-sewer man" was, you'll find out here.

As you might imagine, the fellow and gals who do the remembering in New York Street Games are all great raconteurs (some of whom are shown above).  It's a pleasure to listen to them, as they bring back the 1930s, 40s, and some of the 50s -- until the lure of suburbia began to draw families out of the cities and their lively communities into a somewhat stultifying period of the private nuclear family.  The wonderful old photographs by Arthur Leipzig capture these games remarkably well, and Levy and his crew have done a bang-up job of finding, compiling and editing them, together with the remembrances, into an informative, entertaining whole.

The movie ends with a plea for greater and better physical activity for today's children  -- who have probably grown even more obese in the time it took you to read this review.  I wish Levy has not ended his film with quite such a heavy-handed plea, important as it may be.  His movie so good that the proselytizing only seems to reduce it somehow.

New York Street Games is available for sale via the film's official site or from Amazon.  I couldn't find it for rent on either Netflix or Blockbuster (a mistake, I think, if the filmmaker wants his film to be widely seen).   But perhaps a TV showing is in the offing; the documentary seems to me a perfect fit for public television. And with Father's Day coming up soon, the film should double as a great gift for a lot of dads/grand-dads out there.

The black-and-white photos above are copyright and courtesy 
of Arthur Leipzig and are to be used exclusively 
in association with New York Street Games.
The color photos are from the filmmaker's own blog.

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