City of Lost Dreams: The Rare Films of New York City

Window on Your Present

Exploring the depraved depths of the urban jungle, these rare films offer a longing, backward glance at a New York now long gone.

Window on Your Present

Director: Cinqué Lee
Cast: Maria Pineres, Sean Bohary
Distributor: Brink Vision
Rated: Not Rated
US DVD release date: 2011-10-25

Black and White

Director: Boris Frumin
Cast: Gilbert Giles, Elena Shevchenko
Distributor: Facets Video
Rated: Not Rated
US DVD release date: 2010-11-23

The Deadly Art of Survival

Director: Charlie Ahearn
Cast: Nathan Ingram, Beth B.
Distributor: Brink Vision
Rated: Not Rated
US DVD Release date: 2007-11-20

Doin' Time in Times Square

Director: Charlie Ahearn
Distributor: Brink Vision
Rated: Not Rated
US DVD Release date: 2007-11-20

In Cinqué Lee’s midday lullaby of desolate New York lives, there's an altogether new and familiar reading on the poetry of death. Window on Your Present (2010), a “lost” film now found in the overpopulated landscape of glistening big-ticket Hollywood soap operas, narrows the scope down to the haunted, intimate perimeters of a few collapsed boroughs.

Lee, younger brother of Spike, delivers a story that is not rooted in any of the kind of gritty realism his brother’s work is celebrated for. Rather, Window on Your Present functions as a series of images relayed from a dream and fashioned together with a linear naturalism. Owing much to the surrealist trance films of Maya Deren, Lee’s examination of homeless youth is framed by a fairy-tale narrative which follows a circuitous, internal logic.

Sometime in the future, New York City has been levelled to a barren wasteland where once proudly tall buildings now lie in scattered heaps. Wandering the broken and empty streets are lost children, who scavenge the landscape for anything of interest. In this portal of dreamed reality, no one sees in colour; there's just the insufferable monochromatic wash of greys, which fill every space of this enclosed and lonesome world.

Europa (Maria Pineres), a homeless, scavenging teen, who spends her days hunting the grounds for whatever she can find (food, things to barter with), happens upon a young boy her age named Leber (Sean Bohary), whom she saves after he is beaten and left for dead. Together, they aimlessly roam New York’s dilapidated streets, looking for something -- anything -- to alleviate their boredom.

It seems, in this grey and deserted city, that love is some kind of mythic emotion, existing only in the long-forgotten fantasies of a now vanished world. Europa and Leber will soon discover a mysterious pill believed to contain magical properties, allowing them, while under its influence, to feel this elusive emotion called love and finally see in color.

Filmed with an oneiric and desolate beauty, Lee’s film is the spiritual embodiment of the five boroughs distilled under a haunted pansophical lens. There is no dialogue. The entire story is communicated through Pineres’ hypnotic and dreamlike narration; her voiceover at once a disembodied, ghostly presence and the very spirit which permeates every structure, standing and fallen, throughout the city.

Despite the very loose and improvised feel of the film, Lee has a masterful grasp on narrative sequences; his ability to transmit a confluence of emotions in the simplest of scenes (stray dogs rummaging around a deserted railway yard or a lonely figure propped against a crumbling pillar) reveals a sharply observant filmmaker who cultivates his visual magic through episodes of happenstance. In the poetic streams of consciousness, a finely-wrought story of wasted youth and fatalistic desires emerges.

Brink Vision delivers a solid transfer in full frame. This is a low budget production shot on film, so certain issues with the print are down to the inherent technicalities of the print source. However, the beautiful blue-grey wash of the film’s color scheme is nicely rendered and the sound is crisp. As a supplement, Brink Vision also includes clips from an earlier (much shorter) version of the film dating back to 1980, with director Lee providing some interesting and informative commentary about the experiences of making a film during those times.

The full-length and completed version of Window on You Present was originally filmed in 1988 but wasn’t released until 2010. The film has since been regarded as an artefact concurrent with New York’s No Wave punk movement during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While the film certainly has roots in that movement (as its first incarnation was developed around that time), much of the film’s stylistic leanings are of a literary bent; it's a film that seems to have absorbed the influences of everyone from Anne Waldman and Frank O’Hara to Nuyorican literary movement founder Miguel Piñero.

While the rough, serrated edges of the story’s punk origins certainly show through, Lee exhibits an erudite touch in binding these stray images with skillful cohesion. Lee’s New York, discovered here within a scope both fantastical and funereal, is rendered with a focus highly intuitive and sharp. For a film whose story depends entirely on the weight of its emotional bondage, he articulates an uncanny world with immeasurable grace.

In sharp contrast to Lee’s grey metropolitan dreamworld is Boris Frumin’s Black and White (1992). Frumin’s film is the story of an interracial relationship between a black New Yorker and a white Russian immigrant. Typical of many American indie films of the time, Black and White works the angle of a plotless romance, which does away with the usual contraptions of conventional romance films in order to observe a most natural occasion of fish-out-of-water storylines.

Lisa (Elena Shevchenko), a young Russian migrant who’s just moved to New York, meets a young black man named Roy (Gilbert Giles) one night after a party. Lisa has just been harassed by an acquaintance and Roy steps in to help her out. Lisa is rather blasé about the show of heroics and leaves the party to roam about the streets aimlessly.

Roy is smitten with the alluring young woman and, together, he and Lisa wander the city streets in the dead of night, engaged in flirtatious chatter. Roy convinces Lisa to take a vacant apartment in the building for which he is a superintendent (a newcomer to the city, Lisa is currently between addresses) and, reluctantly, she agrees. A difficult, curious and sometimes tender friendship soon blossoms and both parties discover the complications of a love born out of racial tensions.

Frumin’s slice-of-life drama captures a pre-9/11 New York; a time and place which seems (at least in this film) to welcome a migrant influence of culture, albeit from a curious, observational distance. Much of Black and White’s story depends on the social difficulties with which New York struggles within the thick of its cultural melting pot.

Lisa and Roy’s cultural distance between one another expands and contracts in accordance to the personal dramas that are activated in either’s life. Roy contends with an ailing father, whom he lives with in his rundown apartment. His father is a heavy burden, a financial strain that causes Roy much distress in the wake of his growing duties as superintendent (a job given to him by his close friend who owns the building). Lisa is always short of money and manages to scrape by only because Roy allows her to live rent-free in the apartment, unbeknownst to the building owner.

Lisa’s emotional strain, the result of her near destitution, is the very issue that connects her to the one person Roy cares most about: his father. Both Lisa and Roy’s father are united in their respective marginalization; neither is recognized as a functional member of society who is able to contribute in any significant way. Roy becomes the reluctant but willing tie that bridges these two disparate outlier social groups (ethnic minorities and the elderly) in a way that is constructive and meaningful.

The story may just as well hang in a limbo of circumstances unresolved, with lives left asunder by situational strife. But Roy’s persistence in doing right by his father and Lisa, Lisa’s ultimate betrayal, and the surrounding lives altered by her arrival are the dramatic events which draw a narrative arc that leads to some sort of resolution -- one which we come to understand happens sometime after the film. Frumin’s quietly incisive way of defining moral responsibility through these sharply-drawn characters is what gives shape to this handsomely-nuanced story.

The presentation of Black and White by Facets Video, is fairly rough. There’s much print damage and dirt and speckle is visible throughout. While it would have been nice to have a cleaned up print, in a strange way, the rough quality actually suits the story. Black and White takes place around the Lower East Side and there is something about the lo-fi, crackly picture that bolsters the atmosphere of seedy desperation. Save for some static, the audio comes through nicely.

There are no supplements on the disc, but it must be noted that the very fact that Facets Video has reissued this extremely rare film at all makes up for any shortcomings. Black and White is a most appreciated relic of New York City’s pre-gentrification period (filmed only a few years before the city’s restoration) and gives viewers a most insightful look into relationships predating the digital era. Tender, gritty, and sincerely performed, this lost film offers many returns on its moving and delicate story.

An even rougher exploration of New York lives is observed on the nearly no-budget The Deadly Art of Survival (1979). Filmed crudely with no sense of story or direction, Charlie Ahearn’s guerrilla-styled martial arts drama maximizes the little it does have to work with on the strength of its anything-goes approach. Filmed in 1979, the story, which falls apart not even a third into the film, follows a young black martial arts master (Nathan Ingram) who gets mixed up in a crime ring. Ninjas, stolen babies, muggings, and dojo training are randomly thrown into the mix and what we are delivered is an almost surreal document of late ‘70s Lower East Side life.

The film (extremely rare and touted as an important relic of the No Wave punk cinema movement) definitely provides some interesting shots of now long-gone storefronts and buildings, which should satiate those who have a hankering for New York’s seedier days. While its story is inessential, it should be noted that this film is, quite possibly, the earliest pop-inspired martial arts film featuring a black actor in the lead. That honor often goes to Berry Gordy’s 1985 martial arts comedy The Last Dragon, but The Deadly Art of Survival gets a first footing on that title, even if it’s more of a non-film than anything else. Brink Vision’s release features a short interview with the film’s star and director nearly 30 years after the film’s production and release.

Ahearn’s companion piece, Doin’ Time in Times Square (released in 1991 but filmed throughout the early ‘80s), is a series of clips culled from the footage caught on his camcorder. This very brief documentary of the gritty and dangerous world outside of his apartment window (where Ahearn spent much of his time observing passerbys with his video camera) captures an early ‘80s New York with unflinching and uncomfortable realism.

Despite its brevity and unfocused amateurism, the film is a highly engrossing watch. In the crudely assembled shots, we see teenagers violently beat a young man to near death (later to be slowly revived by buckets of cold water thrown on him) before he's robbed by a mob of onlookers as he lies unconscious in the middle of the street. We see prostitutes and transvestites hash it out with one another in their drunken stupors. We see religious fanatics fervently dispatching their biblical warnings through bullhorns, much to the indifference of passerby. We see police break up brawls in the street while drunkards stumble out of porn shops and cafes. Intercut with the violent gratuity of the New York City streets are shots of Ahearn’s family life inside his apartment, which seems to exist inside a compartmentalized world of domestic bliss.

Doin’ Time in Times Square is an incredible artefact from a pre-gentrified New York that gives a searingly honest portrait of the bustling and sometime dangerous lifestyles of urban cities. Brink Vision’s disc has some great supplements, including an interview with Ahearn about his experiences putting together this footage. There's a short feature called Jane in Peepland included as well.

Ahearn’s invaluable contribution to documenting a now lost New York deserves notice. Like Lee and Frumin, Ahearn’s ingenious work of harnessing a certain manic energy has been surpassed by the succession of the antiseptic and manicured films of today, which frame New York as a trendy, hipster’s paradise with a Starbucks on every corner. Each of these filmmakers merge an overextending idealism (only limited by the boundaries of urban poverty) with the cold pragmatism of everyday living. Even in their most convoluted fantasies, these filmmakers manage to create something far more real than anything you could hope to see outside your living room window.

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