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Love and Death, in Rewind 

Like life, the New York Film Festival must be lived forward, but can only be understood in reverse


When I first arrived in New York, the city was reeling from a sensational crime that made headlines worldwide. Thirteen years later, the five young men convicted of raping and nearly killing a white jogger in Central Park are about to be released. They didn't do it after all.

I read it in the Times on the A train, off to catch my flight back to North Carolina. The news is of minor importance now, buried in the B section. Arrest 'em on the front page, release 'em on the back.

I'd come back to catch the end of the New York Film Festival and visit my older sister and some friends. But every trip to New York ends up a tour of memories.


"Sometime around August," my sister Meg remembers, "people started looking forward instead of backwards, and realizing the anniversary was coming up." It's dark outside and raining as we sit in a smoky workingman's pub called Ryan's, tucked into a narrow alley in lower Manhattan. "I was like, 'Just get me to September 12th'."

We're about five blocks from the World Trade Center site. My sister will not call it Ground Zero. Meg works nearby. I listen as she recounts the day again: "I can't believe I didn't hear anything when the towers fell."

After she goes home, I hop uptown to the Union Square 14, a super-swank three-story multiplex. Small world: as I enter Nathan Gelgud calls my name. The former Indy contributor and Madstone manager chucked it all a month ago and moved here, to write screenplays. He's smart, brash, likeable and he'll probably succeed. We're both seeing Punch-Drunk Love on opening night, despite the $10 tickets.

The theater's packed. Since the only seats left are directly beneath the twenty-foot high screen, I climb the steps and sit with others in the aisle.


Adam Shatz, a college friend and freelance journalist of increasing note, greets me in a crowded Brooklyn bagel shop. Every time I return, my old world has disappeared a little more. Some friends left for grad school. Others hit the road: in Germany with a boyfriend, writing a novel in Corpus Christi. A filmmaker friend lost a post-production job, and now rides a pedicab for a living. Another friend jumped off a 16-story building.

I bet Adam will remain in New York. He keeps threatening to leave--usually for Paris. Before we part, he tells me to see a documentary a friend of his made: How to Draw a Bunny.

I meet Godfrey Cheshire to catch a press screening of a Jacques Derrida documentary at Film Forum. The film's interviewer, a young, earnest but inept American woman, mangles her French when she asks Derrida why philosophers speak so much about love.

The contemptuous expression on his face is priceless. He says, "L'amour or la mort?" A dozen or so film critics explode with laughter.

"Too bad the filmmaker was such an amateur," I say as we leave. "Too bad she was such an idiot," rejoins Cheshire. We cross Varick Street and lunch at Brothers Barbecue: North Carolina pulled pork at New York pulled prices.

Godfrey's written a script from his work for a conflict resolution group called Search for Common Ground. It's based on a true story about a young American in Persia in 1907 who fought in Iran's first revolution. He's been told his manuscript is "eminently shoppable," so he's been sending it around, meeting with potential producers. Meanwhile, Faber & Faber, his publisher, is putting the heat on about a book on Iranian cinema he's working on.

After Godfrey leaves, I decide to catch Tom Tykwer's Heaven, based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Cate Blanchett plays a woman who plants a bomb in a tall office building and kills several innocent people, before she goes on the lam and finds redemption in a soul-cleansing ascension into the heavens.

Not surprisingly, it's a tough sell in New York just now. Still, it's rather nice, in a very modest, expectation-defying way. A lovely score by the post-God meditative composer Arvo Pärt doesn't hurt.

Afterwards, some coffee and a dart across Broadway for Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. The crowd outside Alice Tully Hall is middle-aged and intellectual, with an air of having just rushed over from work. In truth, we all look like Seinfeld extras.

Blind Spot turns out to be a virtually uninterrupted 90-minute interview with an elderly woman who was Hitler's personal secretary from 1941 on. It's pure Hannah Arendt: a story of bureaucrats in denial and the banality of evil. The woman was young and bright, but undereducated and impressionable; she took the position out of curiousity, and because her other options weren't as interesting. We watch raptly as she describes working for a man who was polite, well-groomed, neither a drinker nor a smoker, and a vegetarian who loved his dog.

Three movies today and it's only 8 pm.

Though I generally avoid the Upper West Side, I make my obligatory pilgrimage to Gray's Papaya at 72nd and Broadway. As always, I order the Recession Special: two hotdogs and papaya juice. Thirteen years ago, it cost $2. Now it's $2.45.

As I head uptown, I pass the Beacon Theater on 74th, where the marquee tells me that Ryan Adams, onetime bard of Carrboro, is performing that evening.

Back at Film Forum, I follow Adam's recommendation. How to Draw a Bunny is actually a portrait of Ray Johnson, an eccentric artist who puzzled, amused and amazed many of his more famous contemporaries, including Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. An air of guilt hangs over the enterprise, as these rich and famous men recall the exploits of their friend who never quite made it. Johnson jumped off the Sag Harbor bridge into Long Island Sound in 1995.


Remember the names.

This injunction resonates as I walk out of Jean-Luc Godard's latest, In Praise of Love. It's an annoyingly difficult film to follow, and its simple-minded anti-Americanism infuriates many viewers, including me. Still, it's essential for understanding Godard. Here, the man who once celebrated the pop sensibility of "the children of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola" pines for high culture and its guardians, the glue that once held civilization together, before television, The Matrix, and the rise of Godard's personal Golem, Steven Spielberg.

Earlier, I'd had seen Igby Goes Down, a tale of an uptown teenaged wastrel's lost months in the city. The film's milieu of privilege rang true to me.

My New York world is one more visible, more populist. It's in the streets, in museums, in offices, in movie theaters. It's on subways, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry--and in Madison Square Park. My day began there, marveling at the passing parade: strollers, readers, dog walkers, lovers on benches whiling away their lunch breaks, enfolded in each other's arms. The world's most civilized squirrels waddle along the paths and stop before each person, begging for food.

Thurston and Kim of Sonic Youth once sang "New York City is forever, Kitty," back in the '80s when they were young, punk and in love. I finger my camera, wanting to capture something of this magically ordinary afternoon, but I can't. New York can't be captured. It never stops. It's a movie that goes on forever.

At least I can remember the names. EndBlock


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