Friday, November 11, 2016

TRUE NEW YORK: a short-film anthology about the Big Apple by Jeremy Workman and others


The forever step-child of the movie world, the "short film," is so generally neglected (and, yes, he admits it, by TrustMovies, too) that the collection of shorts that makes its home video debut this coming week is at least some cause for celebration. Titled TRUE NEW YORK and featuring five documentary tales of people and life in the Big Apple, the total movie is definitely worth a watch -- if a bit uneven in terms of interest and success. The five shorts have all won awards at various fests, however, so chances are you'll find something worthwhile.

One of the five directors, Jeremy Workman (shown at right), also produced this anthology. Back in 2014, Mr. Workman made the year's best documentary, so far as I am concerned: a little amazement called Magical Universe. (The doc is now available to stream on Netflix, so if you have not seen it, consider it a "must.") Workman's contribution to this anthology -- One Track Mind, the third film of the five -- has, at its center another obsessive character similar to the one found in Magical Universe: a fellow named Philip Ashforth Coppola (below) who has dedicated most of his life to his self-financed study of the New York Subway system, with special attention to much of the architecture, art and history found in every single one of the system's many stations.

How he has managed this and what has resulted takes up the 22 minutes of the film -- the shortest but also the best of the group. Coppola is a man who clearly loves the subway, but he also possesses a nice ironic sense of humor, even about himself and his work (watch him pretend to fall asleep, as he views himself being interviewed on TV!).

Workman is, as you'll be, too, charmed by, interested in, and impressed by the man and his task. And the filmmaker brings it all to fine life with the help of his camera, Coppola, and a few talking head interviews that bolster the case.

C-ROCK, the short that opens this film, takes us to a certain spot in the Bronx (the title rock) overlooking the Harlem River, off of which (anywhere from 30 to 110 feet up) jump boys and young men as a kind of rite-of-passage. This has been going on for generations (we meet at least three of these in the film), as the youngster tell us, between their many jumps, what it all means to them, while the oldsters relive their youth.

At 29 minutes, the film seems over-extended (all that jumping proves finally a bit tiresome), but I must admit that the place is impressive, and the idea of jumping -- while maybe a tad dangerous (the movie's end credits go out of their way to mention that no encouragement was provided the jumpers by the filmmaker, Jordan Roth) -- certainly makes a spectacular visual.

The second film of the five -- Taxi Garage (originally titled Drivers Wanted) by Joshua Z. Weinstein -- is the kind of movie that might give Donald Trump heart failure (gosh, could someone show it to him soon, please?), it's such a paean to what so many of us love about the wonderful diversity of New York City and its boroughs. From the humorous old Jewish guy -- kindly but street-smart to the max -- who runs the place to his hugely diverse cab drivers (mostly recent immigrants), everyone we meet here seems like the salt-of-the-earth and then some.

In heat and snowstorm we watch them at work and learn a little of their lives and their desires. Made four years ago, before the onset and co-opting of Uber, the movie will make you wonder if the NYC Taxi company remains in business. (I just now tried the phone number we so often see throughout this little movie -- 718-786-5811 -- and sure enough, the company seems to be up and running.

New York's Muslim community is given a look in the fourth short doc, A Son's Sacrifice by Yoni Brook, that details how and why a young man named Imran (above) decides to take over his aging father's halal slaughterhouse in Queens. We meet that father, and get a short glimpse of the mother, but mostly concentrate on the son.

The movie allows us to see some interesting prejudice from Muslims themselves (when they suspect someone is not a Muslim) and also view various slaughterhouse practices. By the time we finally arrive at exactly what the sacrifice in question will be, we've learned enough about these people and their work that we can better understand and appreciate just how great this sacrifice both is and -- after all that Imran has now learned and experienced -- maybe is not.

The final film of the five -- Black Cherokee by Sam Cullman and Benjamin Rosen -- is in some ways the most bizarre, as it shows us a father (Otis Houston, Sr., who is failing via Alzheimer's) and his caretaker son (Otis Houston, Jr., an artist and performance artist), shown above and below, who sells his wares on the streets.

In its short 23 minutes, the movie tackles everything from art and freedom to caretaking and providing for family. As odd and oddly appealing is the younger Houston, there is so much more we might like to learn about this man and his beliefs that I wish the movie has spent a little less time simply watching him and more time asking him some questions. But that perhaps was not the moviemakers' intentions.

More to the point, however, is another question: In a movie entitled True New York, how "true" is it if a full 50 per cent of the population has been left out? I am talking about New York women, whom we barely see in any of these films. (Workman does interview a couple of them for his film; we catch a glimpse of one lone female taxi driver; and Imran's mom makes an appearance cooking in the kitchen, whis his dad manages to insult a woman at the family's slaughterhouse.) Granted, each film here was made in its own time and for its own purpose, but I would think that, in choosing the films to be included here, at least one of these ought to have concentrated on a female. Or is it possible that no female filmmakers or female subjects of short films actually exist? So much for diversity. (The fellow shown above, now deceased, is one of the most interesting of all Taxi Garage's drivers.)

This five-part documentary anthology, from First Run Features and running 131 minutes, hits the street on DVD this coming Tuesday, November 15, for purchase and/or rental.

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