Birth of the Sun – Grady Alexis and the East Village

Featured

GradyCoffee

Grady Alexis drinks coffee in the kitchen of El Taller Latino Americano during the late 1980’s. Image by Demian Palombo.

Birth of the Sun is a short documentary video about Grady Alexis and the East Village of the 1980’s/90’s. Using interviews, art, and archival footage, the film explores the life and times of the Haitian artist who moved to New York City when he was a young teenager, lived on the street while he sold his art in Tompkins Square park, found community and shelter with other artists and outsiders, and finally died in a traffic scuffle with an off-duty policeman at the age of 26.

Grady lived on the edge, bonding with the artists and activists he met through the downtown community, developing a style based on his own experiences in New York City that also became firmly rooted in the tradition and culture of his native Haiti. Grady never had a legal address, living in squats, on the street, at El Taller as “Resident Artist”, and with friends and lovers. He was a collaborator, which brought him into touch with many people, movements, and cultures. Birth of the Sun examines these distinct sides of Grady’s life. It looks at the family that he found when he became “artist in residence” at El Taller Latino Americano, when he was involved with the artist known as “the Maroons” and his time with the artists who convened at the Mars Bar.

Grady Alexis Freeze side

Grady Alexis at an art opening at El Taller in late 1980’s. Freeze frame from video shot by Bernardo Palombo.

Grady’s life was also on the street during a time when violent crime was at a peak and police-community relations were strained and tenuous. That is where his life ultimately ended. On the evening of May 6, 1991, Grady Alexis and two others were confronted by two men, one an off-duty policeman, at 8th street and Fifth Avenue. Grady died hours later from the eruption of violence that ensued. His untimely death on the evening of May 6, 1991, was swift and had a lasting impact on those who knew him. When he died El Taller seemed to collapse beneath the tragic weight of the event. The Maroons had already broken up, although Thom Corn and Grady had continued to collaborate. The film is about the many people who still remember their friendship with Grady.

The filmmakers use many narrative and stylistic techniques to examine the life and death of Grady Alexis and his lasting impact. Working from a photograph of his long-lost mural “the Birth of the Sun”, people who knew Grady, and artists from El Taller have gathered to recreate the mural. The completion of the mural, which is documented in the film, culminates in the celebration of Grady’s life – a gathering of people from past and present at the first retrospective of Grady’s painting and sculpture. The filmmakers sorted through hundreds of hours of archival material that spans the entire duration of El Taller’s rich history to find the small bit of video documentation that exists of his life. Birth of the Sun is in many ways an investigation. The filmmakers are interviewing numerous people who knew Grady and were active in the arts and political culture of the time, attempting to put his life – and death – into a broader social context. The film uses subtle and artistic re-enactments to explore the relationships that defined Grady’s life and death. The filmmakers also documenting much of Grady’s surviving artwork – paintings, sculptures, masks, murals, and installations. The film has a rich and completely original soundtrack that reflects the many musicians who knew Grady.

Birth of the Sun uses an artist's rendition to represent the events of May 6, 1991. Richard Pliego was the artist.

Birth of the Sun uses an artist’s rendition to represent the events of May 6, 1991. Richard Pliego was the artist.

Although Grady’s life ended almost 25 years ago, his death was part of a turning point in the city’s cultural and social landscape. Birth of the Sun, which was produced in 2008, is about that time and will shed light on the life of Grady Alexis and this unique moment in the life of New York City.

Screening in Houston, Texas

Featured

It would be great to have films in so many festivals that one would have to pick and choose which ones to attend. Not the case so far, but it was wonderful to have my short Rooftop Serenade selected for the Extremely Shorts Film Festival in Houston, Texas. Aurora Pictures is a great and dedicated group of film makers/producers/exhibitors/ enthusiasts who are doing important work to keep the spirit of film art alive. The breadth of quality filmmaking that made up the screenings, all selected by guest curator Jolene Pinder of the New Orleans Film Festival, was remarkable. Stop-motion and 2D animation, poetry, slices of real life, quirky, sad and funny narratives, funny twists, good music, social critique – 80 minutes of unconventional and totally satisfying film viewing.

And it was a smart and appreciative audience – after each evening’s screening Mary Magsamen, the creative director of Aurora, invited the filmmakers in attendance up to ask questions, joined by Ms. Pinder. It was fun to be part of this young, select group and to answer questions during the Q and A and afterwards (there was a lot of interest in the fact that my film was shot and cut on 16mm film).

And Houston was fun to explore – everyone drives but the mass transit is civilized, runs on time, and affordable. Excellent museums (the Menil Museum and the Rothko Chapel are next to each other and not to be missed), good food, and a bridge in the middle of the city where thousands of bats sleep and emerge from every dawn.

After film party Aurora

After Screening gathering at Aurora Picture Show. Beer, Pizza, good film talk.

Beer Bottle House

This is a Houston house made from beer bottles, cans, and lids. It has Quasi-landmarked status.

Joline and Mary Aurora

Judge Jolene Pinder and Creative Director Mary Magsamen introduce the festival.

BarBQue

Just down the road from the Aurora Picture show is Good Co. BBQ!

Film Stills for Rooftop Serenade

Featured

Rooftop Serenade Still 1small
I was looking through a box of old photographs and came across some production stills from the 2002 Rooftop Serenade shoot that were taken on film. It was a really hot and bright day that was full of visual contrast. The photographs were taken by Holly Leavy.

Gretchen  ColorGeorge ColorGretchen and G shadow300Tom and LightTom and Light CU Hand

Rooftop Serenade – Short Film


RooftopImage2B

Shot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rooftop Serenade is about an unusual and fortuitous meeting between two people (Gretchen MacLane and George Vlachos) on the roof of their building.

The soundtrack features the voices of Holly Leavy and Thomas W. Campbell, and original music by Mr. Campbell. Rooftop Serenade was shot on a single roll of Kodak reversal film with a Bolex camera and is two minutes and twenty five seconds in duration.

Update 1: 
I recently found the 16 mm master of this short film so will be producing an HD ProRes HQ version, based on a film to PRoRes transfer made through Color Lab.

Update 2: The HD transfer of Rooftop Serenade played at the Extremely Shorts Film Festival in Houston, Texas in early June, 2015. It played at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, in July. Stills from the original shoot can be found here.

The film can be seen here.  The password is: west

 

Three Levels of Nolan

Scott Foundas and Christopher Nolan talk Dark Knight, Wednesday, November 11, 2012

Scott Foundas and Christopher Nolan talk Dark Knight, Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Thoughts on the recent Lincoln Center/Film Comment evening of discussion between contributing editor Scott Foundas and Christopher Nolan

On Wednesday, November 28, 2012 Lincoln Center and Film Comment brought Christopher Nolan to a public audience to discuss the Dark Knight trilogy.  The discussion itself lasted for about an hour and a half (with clips from the trilogy). Then there was a free special 12 page edition of Film Comment with beautiful images, and a printed conversation between Foundas and Nolan. Drilling deeper there’s a link to a page with another, longer version of the discussion, and a few other articles (and a video). I look forward to reading the longer versions of the discussion – meanwhile here are a few things I learned from the evening.

1- Christopher Nolan, known for his uncompromising adherence to shooting on film instead of digital video, also uses the “photochemical process” in postproduction. Accomplished for getting as much of the film within camera as possible, Nolan still matches back, as much as possible, to the original camera negative.

2- The transition happened rapidly, but now most films that involve any level of special-effects or blessed with at least a modest budget go through what is known as the DI or “Digital Intermediate” stage. Film is digitized to take advantage of color correction, effects, adding animation etc. Whether it was a slip of the tongue, or intentional, at one point Christopher Nolan called the process of going from film to the computer “digital interference”.

3- Scott Foundas is an excellent film writer and contributor to Film Comment. I’ve seen him do Q&A’s before the New York film Festival and his knowledge of film speaks for itself. But it was silly of him to say, after viewing the football stadium sequence in the third Dark Knight film, that it would be a crime if Nolan’s film doesn’t win a Special Effects Oscar. He must have missed Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas,The Avengers et al.

4- Nolan had Heath Ledger go to the source of Clockwork Orange, the book by Anthony Burgess, as they began to imagine who and what the Joker would be.

5- I’ve heard Nolan discuss the Dark Knight films three times and there’s no end to the amount of time I would designate in the future to hear him speak about his work. The event was barely an hour and a half including film clips – which is much too short. Especially when there was no Q&A involving the audience.

A Discussion with Film Composer and Performer Makia Matsumura

Featured

Makia Matsumura in a recent silent film performance

Thomas W. Campbell

After finishing college and moving to New York I saw my first silent film in a movie theater, probably at the Bleecker Street Cinema where I was working at the the time. Even more memorable were the occasional silent film screenings at the Carnegie Hall Cinema with live accompaniment. Silent films were never really silent and here was a link to the past, to the time when movies were performed by musicians who, at their best, really understood the art of the live cinematic experience. The Carnegie Hall Cinema is probably where I first saw Lee Erwin, an elegant man then in his late sixties, accompany a silent film. He played at least once a month, and did so with such dedication, precision, and joy that he seemed to lift the films from the past and deposit them directly into the theater. But the real revelation was hearing him perform on the huge pipe organ of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The precision and power of the massive organ and its towering tubes was like an adrenaline injection straight into screen.

These memories flooded back to me when I learned that Makia Matsumura, who I had met within the context of her band m2duo (a collaboration with violinist Machiko Ozawa), was performing for silent films. I was intrigued. Since 2003 she has accompanied silent films in Japan and Italy, and began, in 2008, to play in the United States, including at numerous theaters and museums in New York. She also scored the soundtrack for the Kino International DVD release of the 1923 Frank Loyd feature Within the Law. Makia first began performing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in 2010 and, on September 8 and 9, 2012 she performed in the Film Society of Lincoln Center series “Capturing the Marvelous: Ukranian Poetic Cinema”. Both films were classics by Alexander Dovzhenko: Zvenigora (1927) and Earth (1930). We met in the busy Indie Food and Wine Cafe at Lincoln Center before her accompaniment of the screening of Earth. Makia was gracious enough to discuss her work before crossing the street and sitting at the piano to play for an audience eager to turn back the clock to the days when films were silent but the music that accompanied them was anything but.

Thomas – What is it like to prepare for each of the films? This will be the second film that you perform this weekend. What is the preparation process like to prepare for the performance?

Makia – This time I was lucky to see the film beforehand so obviously I could learn how the story develops, what the background will be, what the visual tone of the film will be. How the story would proceed, is it an action narrative, slow paced, like that. It helps a lot to have that information. Depending on the film I might do some research. If a movie is set to a certain historic period, if there is a dance hall scene or something that might call for a specific reference to a certain type of music, then I might do some research. I might not play that exact referential piece from my research, but it helps me to get an idea as to what kind of music could go with the film.
Continue reading