Friday, April 1, 2016

In The Street (1948)

Screen capture from Flicker Alley DVD
WHO: Photographer Helen Levitt is credited as co-director of this film along with James Agee and Janice Loeb, but she is generally acknowledged to be the primary creative force- the true auteur, if you will- of this film.

WHAT: This intentionally silent (a piano soundtrack was added later for a 1952 release) documentary stitched together glimpses of public life in one New York City neighborhood, many of them taken around Halloween time. This explains the above haunting image of "a black boy in a white pointy hat that eerily resembles a Klansman's hood", as Roy Arden describes it in his 2002 essay on the film. Arden writes:
In the Street is reportage as art. It reports the facts, but for their useless beauty above all. While it could be argued that the film tells us how working class residents of Spanish Harlem lived in the 30's and 40's - how they looked and behaved, the addition of expository narrative could have told us so much more. Statistics and other facts could have helped us put what we see into context and multiplied the use-value of the film. The absence of narration or other texts proves the artist's intent that we are intended to enjoy the film as a collection of beautiful appearances.
Although the word he repeats "useless" usually has very negative connotations, I'm pretty sure Arden is trying to apply it more positively in this piece. His final paragraph links In the Street to a tradition of moving image work by makers like Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol, and proclaims, "A look around at current media art would suggest that it could benefit from a knowledge and understanding of this tradition." Uselessness has its place in life, certainly, but perhaps there's another way to understand the word "useless" when applied to art. It's the opposite of "useful" or "purposeful", and the implication of those words may place limits on what they're describing. Once something useful or purposeful has fulfilled its use or purpose, it becomes completely obsolete. A statistic about life for the residents of Spanish Harlem might become dated and seemingly irrelevant shortly after it's cited, while the images feel far more timeless and important for a modern audience to try and connect with, than they might if accompanied by narration or fact-heavy graphics. This is why we are compelled to come back to it after sixty-eight years.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Victoria Theatre as part of SF Cinematheque's Crossroads festival of experimental/underground/artist-made film & video.

WHY: In The Street is an anomaly of the Crossroads festival in that it is a revived piece of cinema history sitting aside a vast collection of works made by current-day artists in the past few years, most of them receiving their very first Frisco Bay screenings. But, although I haven't seen very much else in the program yet, I think it's fair to say a good portion (perhaps even all) of the filmmakers involved are working in a tradition aligned with that which Arden described as containing Levitt, Brakhage and Warhol but not most of the "current media art" he saw around him. Hard facts are less important than deep truths. Useless beauty is celebrated for its own sake. There are few (if any) attempts to force a work to check the usual boxes of convention that signify "proper" adherence to a genre or form. Nine programs full of such work is a lot to take in, but at least a couple of advance previewers have come onto the scene to help the viewer sort out which programs should be their highest priority. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has written a generous preview in 48 Hills, and at Fandor, Michael Sicinski has compared the festival against the longest-running American festival of its type, the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan.

Meanwhile, in case you hadn't heard already, the San Francisco International Film Festival has released its 59th line-up, set to begin later this month. It includes quite a few programs of particular interest to experimental/underground/artist-made film afficionados, including Lewis Klahr's feature-length Sixty Six.

HOW: In The Street screens as a 16mm print as part of a program also including digital works Many Thousands Gone by Ephraim Asili and Field Niggas by Khalik Allah. According to the Film on Film Foundation there will be 16mm (and sometimes also 35mm or Super-8) work in all the Crossroads programs except for Program 5 & Program 6.

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