Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: New York in the ’50s

I was looking for a community.

I didn’t know what I was looking for or who I was actually planning to hang out with, but this was one of my main reasons for moving to NYC two years ago. However, given my misanthropic tendencies I probably should have had the presence of mind that this plan would have run into a few snags.

This is not to say I’m not happy here. To the contrary, I’m at one of the most content moments I’ve ever been, which is saying something for someone who generally only has the time and patience to look at the dark side of existence.

My main complaint about New York, oddly enough, is that there’s too much to do. There are too many choices. Particularly for a committed movie hound, on any given day there are at least 15 movies I want to go see and I am constantly overwhelmed by a sense of guilt that I’m not adequately supporting all the theaters and filmmakers that I should be.

Then there are all the experimental and Off-Off Broadway plays I never attend. The museum and gallery exhibits I never see. The bazillion restaurants I pass by everyday I never eat at. The endless bars, lounges and clubs I never go drink, lounge and/or dance in. It’s a sensory overload nightmare enough to give someone a severe inadequacy complex.

So, I keep busy, maintaining a strict level of non-involvement in my activities, whether it’s a local Green Party meeting, a FAIR lecture or even a simple screening at the Anthology Film Archives. But there are those occasions where I try to involve myself in something that has the potential to be an event where one “meets people”, an event to broaden one’s horizons and expand one’s degree of social interaction. However, these sorts of adventures and experiences usually have the exact opposite on me. They send me screaming back into my ever-widening pit of despair.

The most recent example of this phenomenon was I recently attempted to take a night course in digital video editing at the New School, particularly how to use the program Adobe Premiere. I’ve had Premiere for about six months or so, but I wanted to take a class to learn some professional tips and help me utilize the program to its maximum potential.

However, the first night I attended, at which I was very scared and nervous (school has that affect on me), the professor dropped this bombshell on us: “I didn’t even want to teach this class. I wanted to teach Final Cut Pro since it’s a much better program, but the New School is forcing me to teach this first. I haven’t even used Premiere in years.”

The rest of the class was spent with us students introducing ourselves and talking about our experience and telling why we were taking the class, with some tidbits of information thrown out from the professor now and again. I didn’t learn one single goddamn thing that first night and I went home dejected and furious.

But knowing how I almost always look on the bad side of things, I tried to keep an “open mind” and tried to muster a vague hope that the second class (out of 12) would be better. My brother had also given me some very good advice. He asked that even if the professor was a pinhead, would there be something I could learn from the other students?

First of all, on the second night, half of the students from the first class didn’t even show up. As for the students who did come back for another dose of punishment, I don’t really want to say anything bad about them. However, being in that classroom reminded me of a time when I was very young.

I don’t remember what age I was, but I must have been in elementary school. During one summer vacation, my brother and I were sent off by our parents to stay with our aunt and uncle for a little while. While visiting, I had to go to Sunday school once and it totally freaked me out. Not that I was afraid of Sunday school itself, I had gone to my own church’s back home, but I was put in a room by myself with two teachers and a bunch of kids I didn’t know while my aunt and brother were elsewhere. And when they sat me down, the kid across the table from me opened up his mouth and I saw that he had black teeth. Black teeth! Like little pieces of coal shoved into his gums.

I burst into tears and one of the teachers had to go run and find my aunt to take me home.

With all this garbage on my mind, I went to see NY IN THE 50’s. The title is a bit misleading because it’s mostly about writers in the Village in the ’50s, being based on a book of the same name by writer Dan Wakefield who happened to be a writer in the Village in the ’50s, with the exception of a brief stay in Harlem that was somewhat glossed over in the movie.

The popular image of mid-century urban writers are, of course, the Beats, such as Kerouac and Ginsberg giving poetry readings in smoky coffee houses. It was that such image that I wanted to see in NY IN THE 50’s: A community of compatible souls finding each other out and forging a new consciousness and a cultural changing movement.

It’s a nice fantasy, anyway. As NY IN THE 50’s points out, the Beats were a relatively small movement and most writers of the time seemed to be more influenced by intense craftsmen like James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. It seems that NYC then was much like it is now: A dizzying collection of disparate cliques, nonetheless influencing each other by their close proximity and random intersections.

However, the film did make NYC seem more exciting than it is today. I still think I’d have a better time hanging out with Warhol and the Factory crowd in the ’60s, though NY IN THE 50’s filled me with a desire to immediately go out and purchase some Baldwin, Joan Didion and Dan Wakefield books.

And I did buy NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin, someone whom I had never read before. The first part of the book, which is primarily media criticism, I found incomprehensible mostly because I have no reference to what he’s discussing. But I am enjoying the rest of the book, which are mostly personal memoir essays and which have possibly influenced the tone of this review.