Neighbor Manfred Kirchheimer Close Up
Manfred Kirchheimer has lived in our neighborhood for 54 years and his days of glory seem just to be getting going. Manny is an 87-year-old independent filmmaker. His documentaries are direct, personal, and driven by an aesthetic sense that can find narrative, meditative beauty, and social commentary in the claw of a huge excavator or a klatch of coffee-drinking friends.
Manny is a documentarian who received a Guggenheim at the age of 85, and a year later, in 2017, was honored by MoMA with its first retrospective of his films. The series unfurled over nine days with two screenings of each of his films and a world premiere of his film “My Coffee with Jewish Friends.” The MoMA reviews were great.
The retrospective was the brainchild of Jacob Perlin, a sort of guardian angel of cinema. Jake is the artistic and programming director down at the Metrograph, now in its second year.
A little digression here about the Metrograph, which if you don’t yet know it, is worth the trek to 7 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. Yes, you have to be able to tolerate its chi-chi side with a hipster restaurant-bar, not to mention the concessions stand which you just have to see and judge for yourself.
These revenue drivers, I suppose, are part of the business model to keep it afloat in today’s real estate market. But at its heart, the Metrograph is about cinephilia, screening archive-quality 35 mm films as well as new releases on state-of-the-art digital equipment. Quirky seating was made from reclaimed pine harvested from the now-demolished Domino Sugar factory. It’s a minimalist, gallery-type setting but that doesn’t stop the two-screen movie house from conjuring up the littlest film houses in Paris’s Latin Quarter, where you slip in and fall back in time.
The Metrograph has screened several of Manny’s films. “Tall,” Manny’s documentary about the American skyscraper and architect Louis Sullivan, ran there for five weeks and kept reeling them in.
The Metrograph-MoMA-Manny bridge is Jake Perlin. Jake became a celebrator of Manny’s work a while back and Manny now refers to him as his “agent.” The Jake-Manny story began when a cult classic of Manny’s film, “Stations of the Elevated,” went out of print from 1995 to 2014. It is known as the classic graffiti documentary. Now a precious time capsule, it was shot over three weeks in 1977, released in 1980, and is somewhat surrealistic according to Manny. It forms a diptych with “SprayMasters,” which is about four graffiti artists in their 50s. Separated from “Stations” by 28 years, “SprayMasters” (2008) combines footage left over from the former with recent interviews of the artists.
VHS copies of “Stations” have circulated for years fueling its cult status, most recently on platforms like YouTube. Like all underground cult classics, it needed to ride again, but one major hurdle blocked it: the prohibitive cost of music rights. The score included Charlie Mingus and Aretha Franklin. To rerelease it meant to cough up $30K. That’s budget enough for two or three films, the way Manny works. So Jake rose to the challenge, got the rights, and “Stations” is back in circulation.
Perlin eventually found his way to Manny’s Broadway and W. 101st Street living room to see the documentaries on real film –- projected as they were meant to be. He quickly pulled in Josh Siegel, MoMA's film department curator and, together at Manny’s home, they screened film after film. The idea for the retrospective was hatched and the rest, as they say, is history.
I caught up with Manny a few months ago and interviewed him. How was it to have this late career recognition? “It’s absolutely wonderful to have this moment,” he told me, “and it wouldn’t have happened at 40 years old. You have to live a long time!”
Manny retired from the School of Visual Arts in 2017 after teaching there for 42 years. He has taught for much of his career at places like CCNY, Columbia, NY Institute of Technology, and Philadelphia College of Art. But his movie-making days are far from done. “Dream of a City,” a tone poem about construction and other city phenomena, will be released soon. He is currently editing his new film, “Middle Class Money, Honey,” based on conversations with friends and acquaintances –- from millennials to octogenarians –- about earning, spending, and their relationship to money as they live in NYC.
Manny emigrated to the U.S. at the age of five. Early on, he lived in upper Manhattan, including Marble Hill and Washington Heights. After a short decade in Rego Park, he moved to the UWS in 1964 where he raised his two sons with his wife Gloria, a partner in crime when it comes to the documentary-making family trade. For example, following Manny's documentary film "We Were So Beloved," which dealt with the history of the Jewish community in which he was raised, Gloria edited and annotated the interviews and these became the book "We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community" co-authored by the couple.
I asked him how he keeps his enterprise nimble and manageable. The secret, he says, is that he stays close to home. Because financing takes years, he keeps sets and travel to a minimum. He has a devoted crew, some of whom are his former students, and shoots only on digital these days. He can film for about $5,000 before getting to the sound mixing; that costs another $3,000. He edits the films himself -- generally a one to two-year process.
He filmed “Short Circuit” -- a rare fiction in his catalogue and dating to 1973 -- in and from his W. 101st Street apartment, much of it straight out his window. From there, his camera filmed westward straight down 101st Street to the undeveloped Jersey side of the Hudson, and south down Broadway with a good look at several old-time storefronts. Like the shot at the top of this post, the images of the neighborhood are excellent. And the documentary-style footage is remarkable for both how integrated Broadway is and the degree to which people on the street engaged with one another -- something that has been completely displaced by cellphone usage. The story is also one about complexities of race relations and socioeconomics. The following description comes from the Union Docs website where the film was shown in 2014:
"In his apartment on the corner of 101st Street and Broadway, a documentary filmmaker begins to question his interactions to the white family and black workers he shares his daily existence with. Staring out his window he begins to drift and fantasize a parallel life, which turns into a complex sound and image montage of street photography depicting a long since vanquished Upper West Side. Full of doubt, a lifelong city resident looks at his liberalism and doesn’t like what he sees. Constructed reality and documentary fiction, an unclassifiable masterpiece of ideas and technique that by all rights should be considered a landmark, had it not been virtually impossible to see."
One of his most well-known films, “Canners,” (2017) was largely shot on the Upper West Side. It’s about the industry begat by the 5-cent deposit on soda cans and water bottles. It’s social commentary and anthropology and art, rolled into one.
I asked Manny about the retrenchment of west side cinema, dwindling into oblivion before our eyes. He fondly remembered the 1986 screening of “We Were So Beloved” at the Metro, right around the corner from his place. And he recalled Dan and Toby Talbot, their New Yorker theater having been torn down, moving to the Metro for some years. The Talbots of course went on to build the Upper West Side's taste for foreign and independent film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. There, this past fall, one of the last films Dan chose –- not knowing it would be Lincoln Plaza Cinema’s swansong -- was Manny’s “My Coffee with Jewish Friends,” which ran until the very last day of LPC, opening shortly after Dan passed away.
I asked him to reflect on his body of work. Like children, how could Manny point to his favorite of his films? He hedged by telling me that by financial measure, the most successful so far have been “We Were So Beloved” with “Stations” incredibly only in second place. I suspect that might change with more time.
But, he softened and replied, “Claw” was his favorite. Asked why, he explained “I think I sank my heart into it and then it came out so nicely. It’s a good film.”
You can have a look at a series of Manny's film trailers here. And keep your eye open for the next chance to see these in an art house.
Right under our noses lives Manny Kirchheimer, a filmmaker who is part of the city’s history, recording it, making it, while instructing aspiring filmmakers as to the ways of observing, commenting and documenting.
Until there’s a new house or Lincoln Center picks up on Mannymania, I guess I’ll have to say “See you at the Metrograph!”