Thursday, November 12, 7 pm
By Matt Whitman
As an ongoing, provisional history textbook of New York City, modern and contemporary cinema populates the city with the characters of a specific moment in time. In some cases, these are the characters that we desire (or think we desire)—Al Pacino’s portrayal of the disaffected, whistleblowing cop Frank Serpico or Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and his diseased brand of vigilantism at a time when the city was infamous for a high rate of crime, corruption, an unprecedented fiscal crisis, and about eight years before the name Bernhard Goetz had made city headlines. In other instances, the cinema gives us the characters we fear: the Gordon Gekkos and Patrick Batemans of Wall Street—typifying (to this day) all of our suspicions and resentments of late 20th century greed, not to mention a penchant for violent misogyny and even homicide.
Yet, through all of these portrayals and maybe a kind of cathartic actualization of our city’s own psychology—the idea of some iconic “New York character” remains blatantly settled in a larger, pathological assumption of what precisely characterizes the city itself. After all, the physical space of the city is a shell—
without the eight-plus million of us living out our lives here, there would be very little to stereotype in the first place.
It is for this reason that the program The New York Character at Jefferson Market Library will focus on what some might call the “minor histories” of the city, found in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s collection of 16mm films. One of these films is Crosby Street (1975), a documentary film portraying the changing lives and livelihoods in an all too familiar story of neighborhood “change.” Our viewing of this film and others will be followed by a panel discussion with Carmen Nigro who specializes in local history and genealogy at The New York Public Library’s Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy; Brooklyn based filmmaker Heather Quinlan, who produced and directed the 2013 film If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent; and award-winning painter, writer, and native New Yorker Mira Schor, who has witnessed firsthand so many of the city’s changes and evolutions. I hope that you will join us for what is sure to be a lively conversation, as we attempt to unpack the many understandings of the New York character.
Matt Whitman is an American film and video artist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently part-time faculty at Parsons the New School for Design. Whitman holds an MFA in Fine Arts from Parsons The New School for Design and a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies from The New School for Public Engagement.