Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Elevated Stations

I've been in a bit of a crunch with overlapping work and freelance deadlines, and so haven't had much time to post here. In the spirit of the daily grind - or griping thereof - I offer a strange piece of New York nostalgia filmed by DA Pennebaker - of Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back fame - in the bygone era of the elevated rail system. This five minute short describes a fairly simple narrative centered on an early morning commute to "the city". Here's what Pennebaker says about his first film:

I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and it’s packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like the New York City paintings of John Sloan, and I wanted it to go with one of my Duke Ellington records, “Daybreak Express.”

I didn’t know much about film editing, or in fact about shooting, so I bought a couple of rolls of Kodachrome at the drugstore, and figured that since the record was about three minutes long, by shooting carefully I could fit the whole thing onto one roll of film. Of course that didn’t work since I couldn’t start and stop my hand-wound camera that easily so I ended up shooting both rolls and even a few more before I was through. It took about three days to film, and then sat in a closet for several years until I figured out how to edit it and make a print that I could show on a projector.

I took it to the Paris theater to see if they would run it. By pure chance it ended up with the Alec Guiness comedy, THE HORSE’S MOUTH which ran there for nearly a year. Since I had a large collection of jazz records, I figured I’d found a way to break into the film business with music films, and it did get me started, but I was never able to make another film like Daybreak.

Needless to say, I found this piece greatly inspiring. It's the kind of thing that first got me interested in film. On the one hand it is clearly dated - the train and the film-stock it was made on both no longer exist - and it captures a view of the city on the brink of enormous urban development. But, it is also somewhat timeless because it connects with the graffiti covered "el" and subway of the 70's and 80's and the futurist and constructivist films of the '20's - both of which used the locomotive to describe the energy and rhythm of urban life. Youtube can be full of crap - a lot of crap - but there are times when it comes of with some beautiful gems. Here's a playist I started with this film and some others. Hope you enjoy!
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