I started making short films in 2014 shortly after I turned 60. For many decades before that, I had focused exclusively on making feature length films. My long form films took me about 3 years to make; a few of them, like Jupiter's Wife (1995) and An Autobiography of Michelle Maren (2015), took 5 years. Feature length films are a particular mindset, and transitioning to a shorter format was not obvious to me. I was driven by one impulse: the urge to feel liberated.
I called the first series of shorts I made Existential Selfies. In part, I was inspired by Lee Friedlander's self-portraits, which are quirky, uncensored, and funny. My hunch is that these portraits, which spanned a period greater than five decades, were taken in between other projects. They feel whimsical, impromptu and sometimes even goofy. (I don't think of "goofiness" as trivial. One of the inventors of cinema was Buster Keaton, whose films were goofy and utterly brilliant.) With the Existential Selfies, I wanted to have some fun and loosen up. At the time, I shared them with friends and relatives and kept the distribution very limited.
Fast forward to Friday, March 13th, 2020. With rumors of an impending lockdown in my hometown, New York City, my wife and I decided to flee to our second home in the southwest corner of the Catskills. Our intention was to stay there for a few weeks and isolate ourselves from the pandemic.The weeks gradually extended and now, 15 months later, we're still living in the Catskills. It's an understatement to say our lives changed radically, and I know we're not alone. I also understand that we're among the very fortunate because we could retreat to a second home. My wife, an artist, created a small studio in our house and continued working. I made the guest bedroom into my editing room, and begrudgingly learned how to use Zoom so I could transition to remote teaching. (Starting 30 years ago, I've been on the faculty of film programs at NYU, Temple, the School of Visual Arts and the Vermont College of Fine Arts ). I also made a pretty significant "creative" decision: I was going to focus exclusively on the short form.
I have always championed what I call, "creative non-fiction filmmaking". I admire the work of Ross McElwee, Alan Berliner, Robb Moss, Doug Block, Alex Anthony, and Jay Rosenblatt. They're my contemporaries - my peers - and I know most of them well. What do these filmmakers share in common? They make personal films, and you can "feel" their DNA in the work they make. I tried to do the same thing in my own feature length films, but I'm not sure I was ever as successful as I had hoped. By focusing on shorter films, my aim was to lift a weight: the three act structure or narrative "arc" of long form storytelling now felt burdensome to me. I needed more freedom. I wanted to experiment and put less sustained effort into a single film.
From 2019 to 2021, I made a series of shorts I called Essay Films. The first film was Notes on Cinematography, a project I started while still living in New York City, and finished after I moved to the Catskills. Though I don't mention the pandemic in the film, it visually chronicles the transition. In another film, Natural Order in Unnatural Times (which has the longest running time of all my shorts at 35 minutes) I deal with the subject of COVID-19 directly because I couldn't avoid it. You will see why if you watch the film. The other two films in the series, My Color Theory and A World Before God, are more visual meditations with transcendent underpinnings. The latter has a more sober tone, the former a more playful one. At this stage in my life, I'm inclined to transition from light to dark in a heartbeat. My Color Theory is a personal interpretation of the classic "Boy and His Dog" genre - alas I'm no longer a boy - and it's light and upbeat. The story behind A World Before God is pure serendipity; towards the end of the lockdown, my wife and I were invited to the Galapagos, and because we were fully vaccinated we went. Going from isolation to one of the most isolated places in the world was a surreal and unforgettable experience. I read Charles Darwin's diary, The Voyage of the Beagle, before traveling to the equatorial Pacific, and his Theory of Evolution - which he referred to as his "Godless idea" in personal letters - informed many of my choices in A World Before God. It may also explain why the tone of the film is so foreboding.
I will say less about the other two series - Silent Films and New York, New York - maybe because I never intended to share them publicly until now. For me, they have archival weight because they were shot - for the most part - on the streets of New York. Years ago, in the 1960s, when I was a teenager and first became interested in filmmaking, I was inspired by the photographs of Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt and of course Lee Friedlander, who captured the unmediated energy of New York City. I would like to believe I learned something from them.
A small note about these short films: I make them on my own with a budget of zero dollars. I'm the cinematographer, the editor, the sound designer, the colorist, the sound mixer, etc ... I do everything but write the music. My son, Peter, is a seasoned musician who performs with, and composes for, the band Guerilla Toss. He did the music for two of the films, I've Been Here Before and I'm Leaving Now. I would love to collaborate with him more often, but he's busy doing his own work.
I looked at all my films again recently - from my new perspective as a country-dweller - and I was slightly dazed by the number of homeless people I had filmed over the years. My extraordinary hometown, New York, is the second richest city in the world, and I can't help but feel disheartened by the number of underserved people I see. I photograph them because I feel compelled to bear witness.
I also hope that a complete survey of the shorts might take you on my journey: from making work on a whim in between my "serious" films, to making shorts with greater conviction. The films may be personal and small, but for now, they're the best way for me to express myself creatively and cinematically. I also love making the work.
June 23rd, 2021
Livingston Manor, New York