Film

The Man Who Both Inspires and Offends: 'Koch'

Koch lays out the essential dilemma of Ed Koch. As much as he inspired, he also offended, as his three terms as mayor -- the film's focus -- were defined as much by controversies as by achievements.


Koch

Director: Neil Barsky
Cast: Ed Koch, Calvin Butts, Ethan Geto, Michael Goodwin, John LoCiero, Carl McCall, Michael Powell, Joyce Purnick
Rated: NR
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-01-29 (Stranger Than Fiction)
Website
Trailer

Editor's note: RIP Ed Koch.

I knew at the end of the film when they follow me home that it's hard for me to walk and I don't look terrific from the back. I could have said I don't want it. I didn't do that. I knew exactly what [Mr. Barsky] was doing and it wasn't something that I liked. I said nothing.

--Ed Koch

When, in 2010, the Queensboro Bridge was officially renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, the City Council debate focused, at least for a few minutes, on the former mayor's status as a New Yorker. The moment is recalled in Koch, Neil Barsky's documentary. "Ed Koch is the consummate New Yorker," declares council member Lewis Fidler in footage of the debate. "He tells it like it is, he calls it the way he sees it, and he knows a wacko when he sees one, as well."

Here the camera pulls out and back to Charles Barron, who stands up from his seat near the front of the room, turning to look at his colleagues. "Y'all got to be kidding," he says. "This is not the Ed Koch the black community knows. It's the Ed Koch that every time he asked for something, he said, I will not be intimidated and then he asked the rest of you, 'How'm I doing?'" Here he gestures back at the room, concluding, "It was a tale of two cities. Ed Koch was our nemesis."

Here, in two minutes, Koch lays out the essential dilemma of Ed Koch. As much as he inspired, he also offended, as his three terms as mayor -- the film's focus -- were defined as much by controversies as by achievements. Repeatedly, he's identified with the city and just as often, reproved for his decisions and his disposition. "Here was a guy who really represented the rough and tumble of New York," observes Calvin Butts, "and he was just haunted and damned by one hell of a personality."

Screening on 29 January at Stranger Than Fiction, Koch cuts back and forth between then and now. At 86, he maintains an active public life (stumping for Assembly people, opining on current events, even writing about movies) as well as a healthy self-regard. Now and back in the day, he is at once exceedingly public and intensely private, depending on the question before him. He brings the camera crew into his apartment, where e shows off his bottle of pills and notes he's survived a number of maladies, including a stroke, a heart attack, and bypass surgery ("It ain't bad for one guy," he nods).

The film includes scene after scene from the '80s, showing Koch in midstride on the street, shaking hands, cajoling constituents. Today, Koch is helped down stairs by an aide, but as good at campaigning as ever, asking workers about their families, encouraging them to keep up the struggle. In the '80s, he hosted Saturday Night Live, and listened patiently to Eddie Murphy's lengthy list of "what's wrong with this city." At around the same time, the film indicates, his administration was cracking down on porn and other mightily visible "decadence" in Times Square, even as he was criticized fro becoming a "pro-business mayor." He explained it then as a strategic positioning, liberal on social issues while economically conservative. "He described himself as a liberal with sanity," recalls journalist Sam Roberts.

Looking back on his career, Koch offers some insights and his own versions of apologies. "I made a mistake, a terrible mistake, which was very costly in terms of support, he says of closing down Harlem's Sydenham Hospital in 1980. "And I'm sorry I did it. I should have given in to the same terror that the three mayors before me had given in and then there would have been no problem." He laughs here, leaving open the question of how sorry he might be or what he might be sorry about, exactly.

Neither is he inclined to open up about a question that has followed him throughout his public life. The film features a section in which Ethan Geto observes that Koch generated "enormous frustration" over his rumored closeted-ness, coupled with feeble responses to AIDS ("We gave out over a million condoms in gay bars, we closed bathhouses," Koch asserts, as if this is all they could do), but also early on signed anti-gay-discrimination legislation. Following, the filmmaker asks Koch essentially to come out, at which point, Koch says he disagrees with the premise that a public figure's coming out is good in and of itself. "I've always taken the position, " he says, "It's none of your fucking business."

This from a man who has made it his business to perform very publicly, to understand and embrace the drama of politics, as a means to effect change and also to wield power. Success, he says, is a function of "being bigger than life. It's theatrics." And so it is that Koch is using the film as another platform for his ongoing life performance, even as the film tells a story apart from his own version, a story that includes corruption (including his fights with Mario Cuomo, to whom he lost a gubernatorial contest and whose son Andrew he supported for governor (in a primary, he says, you have "feelings of anger, like a civil war, but it's over"); his egregious handling of Yusef Hawkins' murder in Bensonhurst, and the political aftermath; and his third term corruption scandals, including those associated with Parking Violations Bureau, exposed by Donald Manes' initial suicide attempt and then his suicide, both in 1986).

If the list of such stories seems daunting, the "personality", as Butts terms it, remains even more remarkable. He unfailingly works the camera: at a family gathering for Yom Kippur, he explains his position on the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, ostensibly because he's just come from giving a speech on the topic. Yes, he agrees, "They have a right and we have a right to protest and I protest." That protest, he says, is based on the fact that 19 Muslims committed murder on 9/11. "That doesn’t mean that all of them are murderers," he adds, "but a significant number of them support those murders."

If the reasoning is suspect, the show is perpetual and repetitive. In assembling the pieces of his career and his thinking about it, the film offers another angle on that show. Asked whether he might run for mayor again, Ed Koch recalls the line he's used before. "The people threw me out and now the people must be punished." He laughs, "And people love that one. I still say it occasionally."

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image