From the Bishop’s journal-June 1996
John Melville Bishop
The flight was a red-eye to Detroit. I wanted to sleep, but an unhappy one-year-old in the seat behind cried piteously all the way and kicked the seat back. Nearing dawn we descended low over farmland covered in patches of fog, a mist hung only a few feet above the surface, disguising and diffusing the ground texture, but leaving the trees and houses poking above. We touched down in Detroit. “Only one more flight, baby.” An hour later, when we took off for New York, the sun was out and the fog burned off, and baby was on another plane.
Stephen Olech met me at the baggage claim, and Richard Broadman was waiting at the car nearby. Just like old times, except Richard seems aged and fragile. It is strange being in a homey bed and breakfast in Brooklyn, my experience of New York has always been Manhattan. This neighborhood is called Carrol Gardens, not far from Brooklyn Terrace and Bedford Stuyvesant.
We are shooting a film is about racial and ethnic tensions underlying demographic shifts in neighborhoods, and the subtext is the disappearance of the industrial base around which the neighborhoods grew and on which they depended. This first shoot looks at Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood where the German brewers lived. By the early sixties, its demographics were changing, and property values declining. People started burning their houses for insurance. In the1977 power blackout whole blocks went up in flames. We interviewed Ricky C. whose family’s three story town house (six rental units) was one of only four left standing in a four block radius when power returned. His mother involved Mayor Koch and spearheaded community redevelopment.
The filming was easy; it is what I do. Carrying the equipment is tiring. Meeting new people and exchanging ideas with Richard and Stephen is fun. We drank beer, fell asleep, then went out to a late heavy dinner.
New York feels toxic. People have a ghastly pallor—not enough sun, too much soot. Everyone looks like they have made big compromises to live here—accommodations in what they eat, their exercise, the places they can move comfortably. Still the most exciting place in America.
Brooklyn goes on forever, neighborhood after neighborhood of two, three and four story brick buildings. In some parts, whole blocks of storefronts have roll down steel security curtains, like Kathmandu or Bangkok. The city is huge, an enormous organism. Mile after mile has decayed and begun to fall apart. Where the rich brewers once lived, squatters huddle in the naked mansions with their broken windows and peeling walls. Every surface is covered in graffiti. Yet there are tens of thousands of people everywhere, playing dominoes on tables outside their stoops.
This doesn’t evoke it. I am trying to convey a sense of the city having been built by one set of capitalists; and parts of the city have grown and evolved through continued investment and grooming by the rich and powerful. While other parts have been abandoned by the forces that made them; the edifices, or parts of them remain, and have been filled by a completely different population—a number of such populations; all of whom have different ideas, values, ways of being—united only by relative poverty.
Last night, when we left dinner, a young man on the sidewalk was berating his girlfriend. He was thick and she just stood there while he shouted a few inches from her face. It was awful. Reaching deep into the enormity of his lack of experience, he was telling her how it was and should be, with an implicit threat of physical violence and real verbal violence. I rolled down the window, but Richard reached over and said not get involved. The light changed and we drove on.
The film is going OK. We started the day at St. Bridget’s to film a mass with Father Kelly, the polyglot Jesuit who has been at the parish for 32 years. We wanted to film his Spanish mass, but got his Italian one by mistake. He said of his Spanish speaking congregation—”Three hundred souls and not a vote among them!” (They are all undocumented, and therefore not voters).
We continued to the Sunset district (near where Saturday Night Fever was set) now almost entirely Chinese. We filmed a short a skit about labor organizing in the garment sweatshops and interviewed a young Chinese woman labor organizer. The rest of the day was spent driving around getting odd shots of buildings and landmarks. That part is hard. First because there are a lot of people around, and it is hard to walk into a crowd and start shooting. Second because there is no vision for what we are shooting—I could spend days looking for good angles, ironic juxtapositions. [Richard’s film were built on interviews, and we never had time to film distinctive location context. 3/17/18]
I called Naomi. She said I should go to the Lincoln Center dance library and that Ted Carpenter knew where it was. So I called Ted and Addie and talked a little. Ted says that the Smithsonian’s National Anthropology Film Center under E. Richard Sorenson was a CIA front, that is why all those hundreds of thousand of dollars were available, and why he hired the sons of so many local politicians to shoot, and deliberately avoided involvement by anthropologists. He actually articulated that he wanted filming to be undertaking by people with no training in anthropology or filmmaking. He said that he called for Sorenson’s firing at an AAA meeting, and it was approved, and a few hours later he was in S. Dillon Ripley’s office with a delegation, only to be told by Ripley that he was too late. Barry Goldwater and the rest of the Congressional CIA oversight committee had already called him to tell him that NAFC was sacrosanct. Sorenson was fired a year later. I may go over and have a drink with Ted tomorrow night.
Also called my father, this being Father’s Day (as well as Bloomsday—June 16, 1904 being the day so obsessively chronicled in Ulysses). He is going to take the train in to have dinner with me on Tuesday.
The critique of Brooklyn continues. I am trying to understand the tension between the place as it was built—vital and prosperous century ago, and the place it is today—a new vitality superimposed on the original.
The breweries were substantial buildings funded by the enterprises they housed. These buildings were outward emblems of the successful manufacturing and commerce that went in inside. And the town houses and mansions were the domiciles of a successful group of people, constructing a world to their liking. The buildings have all the flourishes and enhancements of that age, the carving, the decoration, the fancy brickwork.
All that is still there, but the factories are mostly empty, or shells in which marginal enterprises come and go. The commercial streets have the same ornate turn of the century buildings, but covered in graffiti. The storefronts have sheet metal curtains over the windows, the signage is flat, cheap and tasteless, and reflects a multitude of cultures alien to the ones that built the place. The area is thriving as a community, it houses lots of people who show pride in the way they dress, the way they add their own enhancements to the facades. Like hermit crabs that appropriate discarded shells, the new community has moved into these urban shells and fitted them to their own needs, uses, and tastes (which bear little resemblance to successful turn of the century German brewers).
We had a full day of filming. A young fellow named Aaron came along to help carry. Our first stop was with an urban planner named Eliot. Out of school, he got a job relocating people, encouraging them to move from perfectly good housing so that developers could raze the buildings and put up luxury high rises. Donald Trump was among his employers. Eventually he realized that he was doing a great wrong—breaking up communities, and displacing people. He outlined the arson for profit schemes. People kept a packed suitcase ready to run with if a courtesy knock came in the night suggesting their building was about to burn. In Bushwick, they could predict exactly which buildings would go up in flames next. He detailed schemes whereby a $20,000 house would be sold with a government guaranteed mortgage to a black family for $50,000. The seller got their money, the bank got their money, and the poor family couldn’t service the debt and lost the house because they owed $50,000 and it was worth $20,000. The community lost a homeowner and went downhill. Meanwhile the banks redlined the area so no market rate mortgages were available.
The particulars are not important. What is so numbing is the pain that people will inflict on others to make money for themselves without working. They break up viable communities, burn people out of their dwellings, force financial ruin on people to run a scam for themselves. This is the rule, not the exception.
Next we shot a priest in Santa Barbara church, a liberation theologian, one of whose triumphs was keeping the police/fire call boxes on the street. These evidently are the community’s first line of emergency communication.
Then we talked with Alberta, a community activist, particularly for the Bushwick projects. She pointed out that the difference between a politician and a local activist is that she can just do what has to be done, she doesn’t need to get elected or appointed. One thing they did was get housing projects spread all over, and none more than four stories high, so people were not all concentrated. She also got them to put up friendly fences and grass, which the tenants maintain.
This evening I subwayed to 222 Central Park South and talked for 1½ hours with Ted Carpenter. He was having dinner with two elderly people (in their nineties) —one a Jewish man who had been a lawyer and a woman who had been a Catholic nun. In the 1960s, she was the head of a college that he represented. They were held hostage by a group of students. As Ted said, their marriages didn’t survive and they married each other. She became an adviser to the Rockefeller trust, and later the Getty, and he set up a chain of storefront law firms to service the poor. The time passed pleasantly. Interesting things were said; I will vanish from Ted’s thoughts immediately. I took his pronouncements with a grain of salt, but his conversation is always stimulating.
I had dinner at a bistro on 46th Street. Bought a copy of the latest Flashman book (Flashman and the Angel of the Lord). And subwayed back to Union Street. My father called, and we will indeed meet tomorrow.
This afternoon we drove to midtown Manhattan, 52nd and Avenue of the Americas, and interviewed Ed Koch who had been mayor of New York for three terms. It went smoothly, he talked in a practiced fashion. I neither liked nor disliked him, having no associations. Clearly he operated at levels of big projects, the flow of big money, and when he made the lives of the poor constituents better, it was because their votes mattered. He gave a good sound bite about the tension between Jews and Blacks—pointing out that for a long time Jews sublimated their aversion to affirmative action and quotas, because in historical perspective, quotas were always used to limit the number of Jews; and furthermore, the Jewish ideal has always been a meritocracy, and that flew in the face of entitlements by race, gender, etc. I wish I’d written it down, he stated it so well.
Just before 5:00, I met my father at the Hyatt Hotel on the corner of Lexington and 42nd St. —the same place I once meet Alan Cary when he was playing in the lounge band there. My father had other associations with the hotel. Back in 1962, after he had left my mother for Cynthia and set up a struggling practice in Manhattan, he was on-call as hotel doctor for that same hotel, then called the Commodore. One night he was called to an emergency. A man of mature years, Guido (I don’t remember the name), who was the head of Mafia operations in Staten Island, had received the Black Spot, a message that he was to kill himself. So as a dutiful hoodlum, he checked into the hotel, and slit his wrists. He was discovered still alive, blood all soaked into the carpet. My father was called, and patched him up, got him some plasma, and a transfer to the hospital where he recovered. My father noted in the paper the next morning that Guido, head of the Mafia in Staten Island had attempted suicide at the Commodore Hotel the previous night. A few weeks later, two stereotyped mob muscles appeared in his office and counted out five $100 bills and told him, “The Boss says thanks.” Evidently the black spot had been mis-delivered and Guido went on extorting, pimping, and drug trafficking for many more years.
My father looked the same, maybe slightly older, but not much. He will turn 72 in December. We were early for dinner and had a beer while waiting for the restaurant to open. There was not much to talk about, other than to catch up on family members, and what we each had been doing. He had a bad fall last August — stepped into a pothole in the sidewalk. It weakened his right arm, tore his shoulder, and required amputation of the two smaller fingers of his left hand (which were already non-functional from a previous accident).
I took him to dinner at a fancy restaurant near Grand Central. After dinner we sat in the hotel lobby and talked, then walked over to the jitney stop and waited for his 9:30 bus.
It was not an emotional meeting. I ‘ve spent a long time digesting my upbringing, and have lived through many things and ultimately made peace with myself. My father may wish now that we were closer, but a late wish can’t undo a life. At one point he said that as an only child, he imagines that we (his offspring) are close to each other, and that we call each other all the time and confer about our lives and decisions. He seemed sad at the alienation his children feel with each other. But that is largely because of the distant and uncaring father that he was, the father never there, the father who could walk away, and stay away. I told him that Noah and Amanda are close; that they are going to travel to Europe together, and that they will probably stay close. I didn’t tell him that it was because Naomi and I put so much work and commitment into being a family, and being interested and supportive of each other.
It was a good dinner. My father seemed to appreciate it — I sense that he and Evelyn don’t have much money and don’t get out. They are on Social Security, and she works in the summers as a chef in a seafood restaurant on the Sag Harbor pier. Our conversation was warm and animated, and I didn’t feel there was anything that needed to be said that wasn’t.
Noah, who is sensitive, was troubled when he was about six, that I had no relationship with my father. Naomi said that Noah was concerned that he might become as distant from me as I am from my father. And at that point I made an effort to take the kids to see him. There is nothing between Noah and myself, or Amanda and myself that would drive us apart. I hope he no longer worries about it. [I will be 72 in 18 days. Noah and I went to a car show and out to lunch today, and when I got home, Amanda was waiting to walk the dogs with me. They chose to live in Portland near us, and they see each other regularly. 3/17/18]
As he got on the bus, I thought that this may be the last time I ever see my father. He looked so small and sad, already detached from me, concerned about finding a seat, worried that his car would be there in Southampton and how late it would be when he got home. It was a big thing to come to Manhattan; it had been five years since he had been in the city. We both made an effort, reached out to touch again—tried in four hours and eighteen minutes to reestablish a bond that had been sundered and neglected for how long—35 years. He sat down and the seat swallowed him from my view.
I walked back to the subway at Grand Central. On the long walk through the tunnels between the A train and the shuttle, a man was pushing a stroller and pulling an enormous suitcase. He had a spirited little girl of about three with him, and he would run ahead and she would laugh and catch up. I felt both a sense of pleasure in their easy play in the bowels of the city, and foreboding for the child’s safety, and wished for the continuation of their happiness. At one place the father ran ahead, and the girl stopped to listen to a saxophone player (who beboped right at her, much to her delight), but the father kept getting further ahead, and I held back to keep an eye on the child. She looked conflicted, delighted by the music and the musician, and apprehensive about her father getting way up the tunnel. But she finally waved good-bye to the sax player, and ran past me all the way to her father and they laughed together.
At the steps down to the A train, there was no way he could get the stroller and suitcase down by himself. So I reached over and lifted one end for him and even together it was a struggle. He spoke Spanish; I don’t know where he was from.
My father called this morning to thank me for dinner and to let me know that he got safely home.
It was a long rainy day of filming. We began with a firebrand Irish priest, Father Kelley, a polyglot Jesuit who has been 36 years at St. Bridget’s, who has seen the neighborhood change, gotten a law degree and helps his parishioners with immigration problems. He recalled back to the race riots that erupted in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He had a refreshingly cynical attitude toward greed, the root cause of all the troubles. “We used to call it original sin” He pointed out that in the arson for profit, the tenants also benefited because they got paid for furniture if their place burned And since they didn’t have furniture, that was $700 ahead of where they had been. In the afternoon we filmed Father Kelly helping a score of Hispanic immigrants. And then on to a Sicilian family that talked about their experience in Bushwick.
The film seems to be about the failure of social engineering. The conceit (and not a bad one) is that neighborhoods grow organically and respond to the people who make them up. And when large outside forces (school busing, urban renewal, massive relocation for public housing) conspire to make the world a better place, it really only opens venues of corruption, and fractures the existing elements that sustain communities. What had been a ragtag functioning place got raped by everyone (residents, politicians, developers) and left a smoldering shell. Not unlike the hostile corporate takeover that similarly enriches some distant people, and leaves many times more starving in the ruins. As Richard said, making films both allows and forces you do things, meet people, and go places that you never would otherwise.
Today seemed long. We began with a Puerto Rican woman named Hilda whose office was another five-flight walk up. She represented the admixture that really is the new world order, not just New York. She is from San Juan and her husband is Cuban. One daughter married a black man from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, another an American black, and the third married an Irishman from Pennsylvania. When you look around, there are people from all over, from Eastern Europe, from North Africa, from South and Central America, different parts of Asia and South Asia. And ultimately they are getting along, working on the current installment of the American dream, and interbreeding.
The rest of the day was a series of short pieces and interviews. We are woefully short on film.
This film, which I call Bushwick could be called Monster City, is Richard’s Catholic film, though he would never refer to it as such. [The first film I shot for him was Present Memory, about secular Judaism in America, and since we were working on several at once, it was always referred to as the Jewish film. To him the absurdity of Judaism is real, but he doesn’t grasp the space warping absurdity of mass Christianity.]
Look around at the number of churches here. There are interlinked Catholic churches whose priests double as immigration lawyers and community activists. There are scores of evangelical black churches thundering out their mix of salvation and social commentary every Sunday and providing a reality matrix in which the parishioners work out their personal and political troubles. And every third storefront is a Hispanic Pentecostal church, offering cultural continuity and material aid under the umbrella of faith. In other words, if you want a community it is in the churches, and taken all together, the churches are a unifying force and a source of political and social power. This is a film of Christian community—though the mix includes a wide array of other immigrants; Hindus, Moslems, fundamentalist Jewish immigrants…
The housing projects look punitive, so rectilinearly severe. The bricks are an unattractive color, the widows too small, there are no decorative flourishes or elements. The entrances are barely utilitarian. There is no reason public housing, edifices that declare the state and the community, that house tens of thousands, and that persists in the skyline for many score years shouldn’t be beautiful, shouldn’t proclaim the greatness of the city and its people. Probably the Puritan impulse once more. Poverty must be punished.
Another theme emerged in the interviews. People who moved out of Bushwick to the suburbs on Long Island, are moving back, buying places here again, because the cost of commuting is so high, and the mortgages and taxes in the burbs are draining them. We figured that with bridge tolls into the city at $3.50 each way, plus parking (and commuter train prices have also gone up), it costs more than $400 a month to commute into Manhattan. So as things improve in Brooklyn, people who once fled are coming back.
Last night was the solstice—today is the first day of summer. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and it got hot.
Had more short interviews today, beginning with a Black man named Vincent who spoke about the confusion between class tension and racial tension and how they feed each other and are manipulated. He spoke of himself as “poor people” and looking around his place, as with many places we have visited, you would assume poverty. The houses are run down, need paint and renovation, are furnished sparsely. But Vincent has been 37 years with the US Postal Service, is manager of a whole post office, and has three more years to a good retirement package. He must make a fair amount of money, and has owned this house for many years. He is not putting money into his house. Maybe he will sell it as is in a few years, and the next owner can put hundreds of thousands of mortgage dollars into renovating it back to the splendor that was Bushwick in the 1890s. Maybe he has spent large sums on education for children and grandchildren, or socked away money for retirement. Maybe there is a large class of people for whom home is a place to sleep and be secure, and as long as it is clean and comfortable; how it shows is of little consequence or value. Maybe it is protective coloration; not wanting to stand out.
Our bed and breakfast is the opposite. The brownstone is owned by a retired couple who serve us a fancy but not particularly palatable breakfast each morning in a scrap of back yard. We are in the furnished basement. The first floor, to which we were invited for tea, is meticulous restored like a high ceilinged mini-museum of paintings and antiques intermixed with family pictures. I suppose they live on the upper floor.
Stephen told me about the B&B they stayed in the night before landing here, one run by a lesbian couple who had elaborate place settings with silver flatware and named porcelain at breakfast and tea. It appealed to its largely middle aged, mid-west clientele who wanted to participate for a day or two in the imagined elegance of an older lifestyle fancy lifestyle.
This evening, beginning at 6:30 and for about three hours, I filmed in extraordinary circumstances. We drove to a busy intersection to meet Puppet, a self-trained artist who paints t-shirts with an airbrush and walls with cans of spray paint.
Friday 6:30, people were closing their shops and getting off work, and there was a festive air. These are largely island people with an easygoing aspect that we flinty northerners lack. You could feel a party building, even if was just hundreds of scattered people on their stoops, listening to Latin music and having a beer as the sun set (which it did with long golden rays reaching down the streets). Looking around, you sensed that every man and woman was going to drink, eat well, listen to music, dance, play cards or dominoes (or whatever), talk with their friends, and have sex. And all the kids would play out on the street. (It felt like St. James in Trinidad.) It was not me, but I could feel deeply how it all worked, and how everything fit together.
Puppet, who told us that he doesn’t know his father but his mother is Puerto Rican, bought us beers, and a large jug of malt liquor for himself and his clique, a group of men ranging from early teens to about 22. We all tapped the bottle before he opened it (and shared it with his peeps (peoples?). (Does hitting the bottle — the peeps did it top and bottom with a fist — constitute a ritual?) He and the rest also smoked huge doobies of marijuana.
I am not conveying the true feeling of this scene. These are gang members (or whatever). Several of the young men have had all their front teeth knocked out, and instead of a conventional set of bridge work with tooth-like surfaces, they have grillwork, heavy metal superstructure with decorative metal figures on each tooth in a contrasting alloy. It is grim when those suckers smile. If you confronted them alone on the street, you would say your final prayers and run at the same time. They are the middle class’ worst nightmare. But we are with Puppet and the camera crew is within a charmed circle (the same feeling I had in Mississippi with Alan and Worth—I was where I could never go alone). When we ran into Puppet’s friends, he’d say, “These niggers are with me.” I had never been a nigger before. And we are out on the street, going from mural to mural, Puppet talking up a storm, a large crowd around drinking, smoking, asking what is going on. It is intense, fluid, wild (the kind of thing I love to shoot, the sort of shooting I do best). And as I stood in the intersection bathed in golden light, a doobie dangling from my lips, a $30,000 camera on my shoulder, I knew I was either about to die or shoot some righteous footage.
We are in their turf. They own the street. They ride their bikes in an out of traffic. The passing cars thump with enormous bass speakers. Our peeps are swigging malt liquor and toking on enormous blunts and not a cop in sight. The murals are memorials to kids shot by rivals. Puppet says it isn’t gang turf they fight about, but drug turf. We are way deep into an environment out of our world, and it is going beautifully into the camera. And that is so exciting.
Puppet said, on camera and to his crew, that he was doing this (filming) because he could get shot tomorrow, and he wanted people to know the seriousness of what they do. At another point he said that these memorial murals are all that they have, they don’t have tombstones and mausoleums. This is all you get when you get shot and killed.
And he has power on the street. An ice cream truck came up the block, playing that tinny version of Pop Goes the Weasel and he sent his minions to tell them to shut the music off. They did for a few minutes, but we weren’t finished filming. So Puppet went over, and explained that he was requesting it be turned off, and it stayed off. The ice cream man said that he didn’t realize it was Puppet’s request when the younger kids asked.
Most of Puppet’s pieces, the ones in which he declares pride, are the memorials to Pupi (poop-e) who got shot by drug dealers about ten years ago. He must have been Puppet’s special friend, when they were both 17. Puppet said that drug dealers shot him, and knew they were wrong and paid for the spray paint for the first piece. Puppet had done tags, but not pieces, and he and a bunch of other niggers (as he put it) were just standing in front of this white washed wall, nobody doing anything and all the spray paint cans lined up in a neat row. Finally he picked one up and started writing Pupi. And that was his first piece. They have done a piece for Pupi every year since, on his birthday. Now Puppet has done many other memorial walls, but this one gang shooting ten years ago looms large. Maybe within the tight circle of a single crew, the attrition is not so high; maybe he has not lost any other peep who was so close.
His latest enterprise is to offer graffiti protection. Graffiti really means layer on layer of dull tags that look ugly and deface the neighborhood. So for $5000, he will do a commercial mural on a business wall, and because of his position nobody will deface his work, and if they do, he fixes it. He also airbrushes T-shirts. He works on a corner, with his airbrush and easel, but has a headquarters in the second floor barbershop that does the latest stylish doos. He has two daughters, maybe 5 and 7 years old. Their mother has split with him and is taking the girls back to Puerto Rico.
What can I say? This doesn’t convey the tension between the joy and hope of the situation versus the grim despair and hopelessness. It doesn’t convey the absurdity of a 50-year-old filmmaker plunged into this improbable circumstance, and being ecstatic at the images it provides, and the energy that forces its way on to the film. And it doesn’t convey that deep realization that once you have an introduction, you can relate intensely and relatively safely with almost anyone—and that filmmaking puts you in a lot of those situations that open your own universe of experience.
I love shooting film. I love these intense free form situations that are so vital and full of discovery. I started feeling this way when we went back to St. Brigid’s to film Father Kelly interacting (in a lobby and three cramped offices) with thirty people seeking immigration help (and his ear). I could barely move, but what went down on film was real and exciting. It is how I felt shooting Choose Life, and how I felt at the DTA rally in Tshumkwe. Enough, my words are so lackluster beside the experience.
Under the Manhattan Bridge, behind a housing project, on a street that still had cobblestones, I spied colorful flags that fairly screamed Tibet, and behind the wall was a bright yellow building with two sculpted deer and a mandala on the roof. In that industrial valley was the Dorje Linga Buddhist Center—right down the street from the black Church of The Open Door where we will be filming on Sunday.
Today was mostly scurrying around after little bits of this and that, not very satisfying, but it took forever and was exhausting. We concluded with another 300 feet of Puppet, more sober and weighty than yesterday. And on the way home, with the sky close to dark, some shots around the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The only other thing to add today is that literally just the other side of the tracks is Ridgeway and then into Queens, Glendale. These are white working class neighborhoods, and they are remarkably cleaner and better maintained. Their gestalt is like Quincy, Mass. The city puts more money there; services like road repair and garbage pickup are better and more regular, what have you. Poor people get the shaft.
I find myself feeling a mixture of admiration and horror, affection and bewilderment at this huge organic urban mass. As usually happens, when you stop and talk to people, visit them (even in the formal situation of a film interview), the individuals become so sympathetic, so multi-dimensional. I find myself in agreement with them about lots of things (regarding politics, the effects of unbridled capitalism and greed, sadness at the callousness of the other–in this context my people).
The sun rose brighter than myself this morning, a glorious day. At breakfast, the innkeeper took it upon himself to say how much he didn’t like Los Angeles though he had never actually been there. It is the only city, probably in the world, that people feel obligated to say they don’t like when you say that is where you are from. I have grown fond of LA. So I pointed out to Al that while people take this liberty, we do not greatly appreciate it.
This morning we hauled our sorry white butts down to the Church of the Open Door on the grounds of the Farragut housing project (home to 15,000 souls, several hundred of whom attend the church). We did an interview with Rev Taylor, the young minister and social activist. We are more the other, more the outsider in this space than in any other we have filmed this trip. He gave a snappy interview.
Then I watched him work the congregation. It was brother this and sister that, pressing the flesh, exchanging bits of news. And as a black service, it was energizing and uplifting. (In spite of the hierarchy of deacons and matrons and choirs, and ushers and all the overt acknowledgment of status and structure.) The senior choir sang a rousing hymn (nobody got happy, but a lot of hands up in the air). He introduced us as from Sin-Nayah
Films (Cine Research). It rolled languidly off his tongue, and said we were making a film about love and justice. And the part of the sermon we filmed was rousing. He has a hard job, all the politicking, all the hands on, and then he has to orchestrate and be soloist in a cathartic production. I really got into it.
I like religion, and religious expression. Odd for an old atheist, perhaps. It is predicated on such spurious nonsense, such maudlin premises; but speaks to deep emotional and existential needs. And it holds communities together, offers support, cares for the infirm and gives succor to the young. This was graduation Sunday, and three girls spoke. They all praised Jesus for their accomplishments and gave him the credit for their own hard work and dedication, and the support of the church and their families. One of the girls will go far. She is striking looking, shaved head, tall and lean, had a scholarship to a gifted school in Manhattan, accepted at Emory for the Fall, member of the track team, interested in journalism, published articles and poems in the school paper. She had success all over her.
Anyway, the congregation had positive feelings for us by the time we left, and I for them. It was another total immersion experience in this week of diverse experiences. Maybe this is the week that will push me beyond cynicism, into some new wisdom about how people work, how we can be. (Not many people get to experience the breadth that I have—but what do I have to say about it? Is it all just dinner party conversation in the end? Or is there some synthesis at the end of experience?)
It is 2:00pm. Soon we will head back to Bushwick for a last go at filming, Gaspar again if memory serves. I have shot about 16,000 feet of film, almost as much as the combined 1986 and 1989 Melemchi shoots. There is one full roll loaded and the ends of several others, plus 3 100′ loads.
Walt Disney’s bowdlerization of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has opened. If I recall the book, it opens with Quasimodo tied to the whipping post and being flogged for the amusement of the rabble, and ends with Esmarelda being tortured (and killed) by the cathedral priests. It is a dark tale of personal and institutional intolerance without many bright spots. Disney has made it a mindless musical. Somehow this bit of cultural imperialism seems particularly vile.
The rest of the afternoon was anti-climactic. We did another interview with Gaspar, and a few shots around Bushwick. Puppet finished our phat T-shirts.
It was Sunday, and all through Bushwick, and the other districts that we drove through, the storefront Spanish churches were full to bursting with people dressed to the nines, the women and girls in the bright style of the islands. All they want is some fellowship, and the occasion to put on their best clothes once a week and feel secure and at home (in the cauldron of Brooklyn). It puts the immigrants business in a different light. Regardless of whether they are Hispanic from Central America, or Hassidim from Russia; they just want to get by. They are not here to undermine the economy, to dilute the gene pool, or subvert America’s vaunted values.
Postscript—Richard died before editing this film. The negative and work print may be in a basement, but even if found, the cost to even look at it is high, and the subject’s time has passed. The shoot remains a cherished experience, and the last time I worked with Richard. –5/17/2018