“Images that intrigue and confound me”: Talking to Poet and Super 8 Filmmaker Stephanie Gray

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06/12/2015 11:00 AM |

You Know They Want To Disappear Hell's Kitchen as Clinton - algorithm killed

This weekend, Anthology Film Archives shows three shorts programs by Stephanie Gray, a poet and Super 8 filmmaker (and former AFA publicist). In certain hands, Super 8 is a format that looks like the concrete aesthetic equivalent of the ephemerality of memory: its handheld wobbliness and volatile surface textures of Super 8 create the impression of a conditional subject, open to layers of misremembering and unexpected connections.

Gray’s films continue in that tradition. In black and white and color Super 8, close-ups of buildings, or of balloons in trees, come in and out of focus, and the sun shines into the lens. Gray frequently focuses on the marginal aspects of NYC (a teddy bear trapped in a chain-link fence, rundown old buildings), and gentrification is very much her explicit subject: some of her films focus on neighborhoods institutions going out of business.

Most of the films are silent, though some have a voiceover track; at Anthology this weekend, there will be live musical performances by some of Gray’s collaborators to go along with some of the films, and live readings of poetic texts over others. Gray answered a few of my questions over email.

Tell me about “your” New York.

I’ve lived in Flushing, Queens since moving here in 2004. The film “You know they want to disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton” came about from noticing the pockets of that neighborhood still retaining NYC character or—not to romanticize that—noticing that some areas and buildings had not been overly sanitized by glass building syndrome and chainification. And I realized that that was fading and disappearing fast. When I started filming that work, the Cheyenne Diner was still there, Manganaro’s Deli was still there, and I was thinking about the changes that had been happening to that neighborhood: the luxury housing and real estate industry were essentially trying to (not so quietly?) sweep the name Hell’s Kitchen under the rug and usher in “Clinton.” I thought about E.B. White and his “Here Is New York” essay while walking from the Penn Station area all the way west. That’s what started “You know they want to disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton”—I felt I was catching a neighborhood in the act of disappearing. Not too long later the Cheyenne was gone and so was Manganaro’s. I didn’t mean to be prophetic, but sometimes I have a sixth sense, or something pulls me to film it in ways I can’t always explain. It’s sort of like the city is speaking and even with my hearing loss I hear it.

The shorts of yours that I sampled are glimpses from your life in the city, clearly, but not necessarily time capsules in a straightforward way. Super 8mm is often associated with “film diaries” (the comparison is unavoidable given that the screening is at Anthology, cofounded by your former colleague Jonas Mekas). But, for those of us who watch a lot of movies there’s also strong associations between different eras and different types of film and digital technologies—so handheld small-gauge film and natural light is, for me, inseparable from the bohemian 60s New York City of Mekas and Warhol and Robert Kramer, in the same way that the comforts of the suburban 1950s have an outsized Kodachrome contrast in my mind, or that a recent film like Stinking Heaven uses uncompressed digital video to evoke a tawdry newsmagazine sense of 1990. Since you’re filing New York City in the present day, with a focus on the parts of the city often identified as “forgotten” or “vanishing” New York, I wonder if your films are records of the city as you’re experiencing it, or if you feel like you’re intervening in the city’s timeline by shooting the 21st century on Super 8?

I don’t think I’ve fully consciously thought about “intervening” so to speak in the city’s timeline by shooting on S8. I know what you mean, but I never really thought of it as: “I’m going to shoot on Super 8 specifically to rebel or turn back time on digital video or make an outright rejection of digital video.” I do, however, not really connect with the video format. I know—and I’m sure you’ve seen these arguments go on flaming tangents—there’s strenuous debate, whether it’s ridiculous to say video is flat, that it’s not the medium, it’s the image, composition, etc. But I really do think there’s a difference in the look of film and video. I know various film discussion lists can get really vocal about this and some say that now with digital video becoming more and more sophisticated that there’s not really an argument to shoot on film anymore. But I—and, I know, still some other folks out there—disagree. And some of us are on 35mm or 16mm and an even smaller amount on Super 8, and for those ONLY on Super 8, like me, the numbers get even smaller. So the Super 8 choice, while not an interruption, is also not a straight-up record of the city as I’m experiencing it (though partly so). It’s something that I’ve chosen due to its look, depth, and feel of memories in the making before our eyes.

I would hesitate to call my films records of the city, as I don’t think they are records, but more interpretations at certain moments in time, with the pulling of images that intrigue and confound me—and hence compel me to film. I’ve never really been a documentary filmmaker (though my city films could be maybe considered experimental docs and I’ve never really been a fictional narrative filmmaker), though the films could be considered at times to feel like a dreamscape within the city, a bit otherwordly though we know we are in the city. Part of that has to do with not knowing all the layered stories of the city, of the so many who came before us, and wondering about those layered histories…

This is maybe the same question, but more specifically visual. Is what we see on screen the New York that you see? Or are you manipulating the raw material of the world with your camera, to conscious effect? Or, are you as surprised by the play of light, focus and framing as we are?

It’s interesting you ask, as the second program of the series is called “What you thought you knew/what you knew you thought.” We could replace “knew” and “thought” with “see”: “What you thought you saw.” So on the one hand, I do “see” what you are seeing onscreen, as New York. Of course it’s being “seen”—but it is what is standing out to me, and I capture it almost as pulled by music. The city images often come after an accumulation of walking and seeing for some time. Like how documentary filmmakers supposedly need to spend a long time before even shooting to make effective films with their subjects. It’s like that for me. Now sometimes I will hear about a business closing and visit or visit again and stand still and watch before even filming. A roll of Super 8 is three and a half minutes. I usually edit in-camera and take a long time to shoot, purposefully, capturing the images, like song notes, that cohere together, whether through a sense of musical improvisation or association. It’s a kind of poetry. I remember when video cameras were first coming out there was an immediate difference in how things like family gatherings were being recorded—realizing how different these big bulky VHS cameras were from 8mm and Super 8, which seem to jump from one significant moment to the next in order to conserve film. The large headspace between the glare-white-lighted dining room table with the two-year-old eating the entire birthday cake in bright reds and blues. Compare that to the kind of dark and ashen two-hour long opening of the presents in the 80s and it doesn’t quite feel the same.

So getting back to your questions, while I am “seeing” the city, I suppose I’m purposefully connecting the poetry of the city’s images on purpose in this way, making connections that could speak to a revelation that maybe you haven’t thought of or had before. You know what they say about people who have a predictable routine, or take the same walk every day, that might seem boring but can lead to the unexpected? By taking the same walk every day, you notice the bits of poetry that stand out. I am as surprised by the light as viewers may be; I am thinking about the focus though at times I do experiment with it, knowing that light experimentation can bring about truly mysterious images that speak further to the unrealized depth of the city. Hmm. To think if I’m manipulating the material world with my camera, to conscious effect… I think I may be seeing the city as it is but consciously picking up on glimpses of it and the poetry of it, that both drives its mystery and potentially offers it up for interpretation at the same time—and makes you wonder.

Let’s talk a bit about your method, both for your film-poems, and for the visual and rhythmic aspects of the more subject-centric films. Looking at your shorts, I remembered a line from Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile of John Ashbery, from 2005: “He has a sense that everything will cohere somehow, though, because it all comes from him,” which I’ve always found to be a lovely encapsulation of the New York School of poetry generally, the personal voice, and conversational sensibility, as wobbly through-line through the social and cultural noise of the city. Are you carrying around your camera all the time, or are you noticing things and then coming back to shoot them? What guides you in editing together the footage? How do you know when a film is done?

Actually, because it is kind of heavy—at least if you walk around a lot—I don’t always carry my camera with me. It’s also so vintage that I don’t want to carry it around until I’m sure I’m ready to film. In a way, though, it’s like I’m always carrying the camera around with me. I will remember something I saw and come back to film it. But there’s always improvisation that will happen. For example, I remembered a batch of balloons that were silver and reflected the light above a corner park by a subway exit. For weeks, and months, I saw these silver balloons and wondered how long they would stay tangled up in this tree. They became a marker of time and place for me as I was walking to work. I finally said I’m going to film this and capture this blowing in the wind and the light glints and the otherworldly sense of “something happened here.” Well, that film became more, it became silhouetted figures in what ended up being solarized shadows through film hand-processing, and the silvery lettering of graffiti then around town: “you would.” As she said, “everything will cohere, somehow, though”… These images did, and they started with the balloons: Whose balloons were they? The mysterious silhouettes added that question to the train of image-making and thought, and the “you would” graffiti added to another thought behind that of who gave the balloons—just as if a musician heard another musician’s notes and latched on and continued.

To know when a film is done—it’s hard to explain this, but maybe not—I work against time, against the three and a half minute roll of film. Sometimes I will have sketched out a shoot loosely in my notebook with a list of images go back to and will aim to shoot until that image is done. Other times I have the bare skeleton of images, but I know that other poetry of the city will get involved—perhaps like those musicians who know what they’ll be starting with when performing improvisational work that does have parameters, but has that fluid space between what they know will be a beginning, perhaps an epiphany point, and end. I keep looking at my film counter and build up to a moment that I feel will leave the viewer thinking or in a revelation or with questions—I know it will be done. So it’s an all-process approach, going on both plan, intuition and, to borrow a 70s song, “taking the long way home.”

For that matter, do you feel like your films and your poems are versions of the same artistic practice, or are you following completely different impulses when shooting and cutting a film, and when writing and editing a poem?

I was just about to lead to that—the idea that I’m working with film and its trajectory over the course of a roll, and of the idea of the beginning and “end” of a film and also a poem. I think I do following some similar practices. I am thinking in poems, often bringing in remnants of what I’ve heard, which is taken off on a tangent since I do have a hearing loss, and also taking off from odd phrases I’ve read, and working with them intuitively, often to take the reader to a place they haven’t been to before—yet it might feel like a place they have. And what is that? What is that sense of recognition that can come from reading a poem that aims to turn your thinking a bit inside-out—is what you’ve heard really what was meant, and in the same way, is what you thought you saw really what it was? When we walk down city streets is it really all “just” a city—Duane Read and Block Drugs, it’s all just the same, buildings and such? I don’t think it’s all just the same but we don’t always have the time to notice this. What I’m finding in the images I shoot and the sentences/phrasings I write is a connection between what may seem to be unrelated. But is it really? Okay, so what are we doing when we read between the lines, what is that mental connection? I want to bring to the screen that part, from unseen to seen, and the same with the poems, although I do have a line in one of my poems about how if everything is about reading between the lines, then why should I even write anything…

One Comment

  • Stephanie could easily do a film on the morphing of her adopted neighborhood: Flushing, Queens. One spot in particular in the heart of downtown Flushing, where Main Street and Northern Boulevard, is the still standing, remarkable, shuttered for 28 years, once fully landmarked, neighborhood defining RKO Keith’s Theatre.