This week in New York saw two celebrations of zero-budget filmmaking. At the Museum of the Moving Image, Larry Cohen's independently made 1972 debut "Bone" got a proper screening, at last, while at the IFC Center Aaron Katz' far less political Mumblecore mood piece "Quiet City" kicked off a week of screenings. In the meantime, Film Forum celebrated times gone by with a look at New York from 1894-1906, as seen in new clips of the time.
"The year is 1970, the most powerful nation in the world wages war against one of the poorest countries, which it finds impossible to defeat," reads the chillingly pertinent opening title card of horror schlock master Larry Cohen's mostly unseen 1972 directorial debut "Bone," which received a rare screening on Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of its series "Uneasy Riders: American Film in the Nixon Years 1970-1974." The film is an outrageous satire of American social and political mores, about a well-to-do middle-aged white couple whose marital problems are brought front-and-center when a young, black man kidnaps them in their home, threatening to rape and kill the wife if the husband does not close out his bank accounts in an allotted time.
The movie itself is extraordinary, a true lost classic. "It was very much a one man operation, there were only about five people on the crew," recalled actress Joyce Van Patten, who was present for the Q&A. "Anytime we were out of the house, we were running from the police, believe me, because he didn't have a permit for anything."
It was not a film that found an audience, unfortunately, "people were not as in love with low-budget films then as they are now," said Van Patten, "you didn't hear much about it." According to Cohen, who was unable to make it to New York for the screening but who teleconferenced in to the Q&A, it was a failure of marketing. "The film was ruined because it was sold in theaters as a black exploitation film, like 'Supafly' or 'Shaft.' People showed up at the theater expecting to see an action film, and they got black comedy instead." MOMI concludes its Uneasy Riders program this weekend, with screenings of Alan Pakula's "Klute," starring Jane Fonda in her first Oscar-winning role, and Robert Aldrich's alternative western "Ulzana's Raid."
On Monday night, Film Forum presented "NYC Treasures from the Library of Congress", a collection of turn-of-the-century silent, actuality footage of New York, as part of its program "The Silent City: New York in the Movies, 1898-1928" (although the footage dated from as early as 1894.) On hand to present the strips, which varied in length from 30 seconds to five minutes, were the Library of Congress chief film curator Mike Mashon, who explained the restoration process, and Film Forum director of Repertory Programming Bruce Goldstein, who provided the running commentary.
The films themselves, accompanied with a live, improvised piano accompaniment of old standards, were a fascinating assortment, featuring an extended tracking shot of the 1903 skyline of Lower Manhattan taken from a boat rounding its southern end, to an extended look at the amusement parks of Coney Island, to a medley of films displaying the problems of garbage disposal.
Mashon arrived at the screening from Culpeper, Virginia, where the Library of Congress has recently built the mammoth new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center to house its entire film library, its film restoration facilities, and an onsite theater. "Our collections were in five different states," said Mashon, "and now that we're able to get to the collections a lot faster, we can preserve them a lot faster."
The footage is all taken from paper prints submitted for copyright registration before 1912. "These paper prints are an accident of history," explained Mashon. "Before 1912, there was no national system set up for storing a film library, so enterprising filmmakers exposed their negatives directly onto roles of print paper in order to copyright them". Technology invented in the 1950s enabled film restorers to transfer these paper prints to film, and more recent digital technologies have allowed them to do so at a faster rate.
If some of the footage looks familiar, there's a reason; when footage of a fish market appeared on the screen, Goldstein called out "Trust me, you have seen this in a documentary before." The footage is available online on the American Memories website http://memory.loc.gov
In other news, Mumblecore. Mumblecore, Mumblecore, Mumblecore. Have you tired yet of the word Mumblecore? Well, welcome to New York this week, where the SXSW darlings have been harvesting a bumper crop of press, due to the large part to the ongoing series at the IFC Center which delicately avoids mentioning the word by calling it "Generation DIY: The New Talkies." Nonetheless, the word was everywhere around town; the moment has really reached its crisis when I get a call from my mother in Wisconsin asking me if I've heard of this Mumblestuff she read about in the Times.
There is some variety in the films themselves--its less a movement, per se, than a set of filmmakers, actors and audience with similar iPods--though they share a twee outlook and slight ambition, none moreso than Aaron Katz' spare "Quiet City", which opened its weeklong run at the IFC Center on Wednesday. It's a moody and, at times, frustrating film--its sense of time and location are so strong (you can feel the Park Slope, Brooklyn winter in your bones) that it makes one wonder what the director could have accomplished if he hadn't deliberately stripped its likeable characters of any interesting traits. The entire plot can be boiled down to "boy meets girl. Pause."
And yet it's nice to see the film get exposure; Katz clearly has talent, and despite the fact that the film was made for nothing, it looks terrific, due in no small part to the sunset-heavy cinematography of Andy Reed. Following the screening, Reed admitted, "We borrowed the [HD] camera, and only had two days with it before we shot. I had never shot on HD before, and I ripped through the manual." A similar mentality was in place throughout the shoot; said producer Ben Stambler, "I think the only paperwork we wrote was the DVD distribution deal at the end," while Katz recalled shooting in the city subways at 3:00 AM to avoid curious police.
Producer Brandon McFadden perhaps summed it up the production best: "The total admission price for tonight maybe exceeded the budget of the film." The film will play at IFC through next Tuesday.