Let Me Tell You About NYC – A Film by Andrei Shah

Let Me Tell You About NYC

Once upon a time the place was called (among other things) the center of the world. That’s along with The City that Never Sleeps. And New York is famous for The Great White Way (aka Broadway and Times Square) as well as having a Little Italy, and a Chinatown which make up just two of a multitude of neighborhoods – what you might call ‘villages’ within the overall confines of New York.

I know this for a fact as I am a former New Yorker who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (East 91st Street between Park and Madison Avenues) through parts of four decades. My neighbors at times were Woody Allen, journalist and author Carl Bernstein, film director Sidney Lumet, actor Burt Young, hockey star Wayne Gretzky to name but a few.

Across the street was The Dalton School – First Program where the children of Diana Ross and Donald Sutherland attended and napped in their very first classrooms. I think I saw Kiefer Sutherland in a pram before he was even old enough to count to 24. Across Madison, but still on 91st was the The Spence School, an all-girls school. The daughters of the Bouviers, Bloombergs, Fricks, Astors, and Bianca Jagger went to school there. And at the end of the block – on the corner of 91st Street and Fifth Avenue is the Convent of the Sacred Heart, once a private home, now a private school.

Let’s see, Ethel, Joan, and Caroline Kennedy went to school there. As did Gloria Vanderbilt, Elaine Stritch, Suri Cruise (yes, that would be Tom’s daughter), as well as Stefani Germanotta who these days is widely known around the world by her working name – Lady Gaga.

That was my neighborhood.

Nowadays I take the sun, my morning coffee, and when I shave, the cuttings circle down the drain in Sarasota, Florida. So I’ve lived in the Big Apple, rooted for the Yankees, Jets, Knicks, and Rangers for so long that I can recite the New York anthem, called New York, New York and made famous by Frank Sinatra – by heart.

But that’s just me.

For others, visiting or living in New York is either a strong desire, a fond wish, or a bucket-list item, so they come, and they’ll struggle to survive (to make it) and maybe they do, or maybe they don’t. But they continue to come and give it a try.

New York is not the easiest place to live – just have a look at the lyrics from Tom Waits crooning about the Downtown Train

Or Billy Joel singing about coming back because he’s in a New York State of Mind.

Then there’s Alicia Keys known best for her stirring and hopeful Empire State of Mind.

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York!
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New Yooork!

Maybe you know The Beastie Boys – No Sleep Till Brooklyn? Or your preferences are bit more classic like Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train, or Billie Holliday’s version of Autumn in New York.

After the horrors of 9-11-01, when New York was brought to its knees, many found strength in Bruce Springsteen’s New York anthem – The Rising.

But New York is about more than just music and songs, actors, cabbies, chefs, waiters and busboys, bankers, artists, cops, lawyers, fashion models and fashion designers, furniture salesmen and interior designers. And let’s not forget about the one guy, and there’s one of these on every block in New York, with designs on a certain woman. There are doctors, and nurses, and homeless, and students, dreamers, and wanna-be’s of every stripe, and for all of those who both get here and stay here, there are millions with broken dreams.

For those of us who have lived and worked in New York, we have our own ideas, dreams, hopes, and visions of the city. But each visitor comes with his or her own ideals and expectations.

One such person is Andrei Shah. He’s from the UK, a Londoner, and he came to New York, because he wanted to and because he’s a film maker. Along with his masterful and creative visions, Mr. Shah brought his cameras, and his imagination.

He went around the city and he focused on images that stirred something within him. Was he looking for the secret to New York, (the so-called mythical keys to the city) or was he intent on watching New Yorkers from afar as they went about their business. Or was he just going about his  business to watch, record, and document life in many of its infinite ways (and nowhere else is the word infinite more correct than in New York) as it passed by him.

The answers to those questions are ephemeral – just out of reach. Mr. Shah’s intent was to shoot New York through the eyes of a visitor, or a newcomer. He tended to avoid some of the city’s most famous landmarks or visual icons – but clearly not all of therm. We will find ourselves on identifiable street corners, and some that you won’t know. We get around, through the magic of Andrei’s camera on land, sea, as well as in the air.

While much of the film is beautiful to see. the impact is not just about the visuals. The weather was hazy, or overcast, and sometimes Mother Nature was just intent to offer up a plain and dull sky. Mr. Shah did not get any right-of-way or permissions to do what he was doing. He was just a guy in the street with a camera.

But when we add in three other elements that make up this fine short film – it is all of seven minutes and forty seconds in length – we see and understand how film making is truly a collaborative effort. So yes, there is a musical soundtrack that plays beneath the visuals. Since there was no reference about the authorship of the music that we heard in this film, I’m going to assume that Mr. Shah is the creator.

So that means we’ve covered half of the film’s elements. The visuals and the musical. What’s next is the poetry of Joseph Fink. Now Fink is a former Californian, and these days,  disregarding the location of where ever it is that he rests, Fink is more of a citizen of the world or the net than a New Yorker. He’s a writer, an actor, a publisher, as well as the author, co-creator and performer of Welcome to Night Vale – which is sort of landless state that exists on the internet. Or said another way – a road movie without the roads or film. Or to be most accurate – a twice-monthly podcast.

Mr. Fink has what I think are strong opinions about New York, and New Yorkers. His words are the basis for the film. Mr. Fink both pokes fun at New York and its denizens. while at the same times, he’s also embracing all that New York is.  In his words, New York is both the center of the cosmos as well as a provincial collection of neighborhoods.

While his tone is never scornful, there’s sometime a sense that we are listening to the ideas of a guy with a small chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t resent the can’t help but be intrusiveness that follows the tourists like shadows, as he isn’t a true New Yorker  himself, although I do get that he might be growing into the role.

Fink’s words give us a thought that he’s protective of the city, and despite the fact that he must share the environs of New York with celebrities and tourists, and wanna-be, would-be, and hope-to-be future New Yorkers, he’s coping with it.

His words are both funny, and in the neighborhood that you transit through just before crossing into the place called caustic, but Fink never intends to be hurtful or mean-spirited.

But the words of Joseph Fink need a voice. Enter the film’s narrator – Guy Breen. Breen is from Brooklyn, and he does voice-overs when he’s not working for a major banking institution. He’s also worked for a Swiss bank, as well as doing security work on Broadway. He’s a real New Yorker and so, he bleeds Jets Green.

Breen has the perfect pitch for this narration. For this film, he sounds like he’s partly a wise-guy, partly a Brooklyn born and bred, and you’ll hear some evidences of a New York trucker, a New York Bartender, and a New York cabbie. This character is a not a smart-Alec but he’s been around the block a few times, and he’s seen most of the best and worst of what New York has to offer.

And that’s why Andrei Shah’s film works so well. It is a near perfect blending of New York in terms of the sights and sounds, words and pictures, and all of it backed by some nice, make that very nice – music.

I think it is a safe bet, that the New York Tourism officials, won’t make this film a part of their marketing kits. But hey, what do they know?

My two cents are that this is a film about New York, and any one that has either been here, or passed through New York on the way to another story whose conclusion is not certain, will appreciate this short film.

And if by chance you are still a Manhattanite, or you hail from the Bronx or Queens, Williamsburg, or even the Isle of Staten, I’d suggest that this is a film that will both bring back memories, warm your heart, or put a smile on your face. You can check out Let Me Tell You About NYC on Vimeo. Here is your link:

https://vimeo.com/153614650

Or you can have a look at Mr. Andrei Shah’s website :

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You About NYC – A Film by Andrei Shah

  1. Hi All,

    First of all Michael, big thanks for your write up.

    In response to questions and a bit of background toward the project, here are my thoughts, both pre and post production.

    The trip to New York was fuelled very much with a simple desire to visit one of the most iconic places in the world. Having only ever seen the city as a backdrop for many films, it had always been on my list. The idea to shoot a short film came a little later and since there were many months in between, I was able to think and develop ideas. Funnily enough, I came across Joseph Fink’s poem by chance. The general nature of the poem struck me as being rather tongue and cheek, sarcastic, but with also with a strong sense of power and pride. “A cloaked figure wonders Times Square, penduluming a censerful of white smoke over the empty square, and no one sees, because no one is there, because no one goes to Times Square.” – Just beautiful, powerful words. Words which somehow connected me with a place I’d never visited before.

    You mention filmmaking being a collaborative endeavor, something which I couldn’t echo more. One of the joys this film brings me personally, is the authenticity of the character played by Guy. It was imperative to me that the artist playing the native New Yorker had to be believable and direct. Thankfully in Guy, I found the perfect artist who not only sounded right, but had the experience of living in the city. Something which I truly believe does reflect on the final product. I think we only had about 2 or 3 takes. There were a few small tweaks here and there, but generally I thought it best to leave Guy to it and be as natural as possible. Once the narration track was finalised, I then started building an idea of time and pacing. I matched the voice track with Tony Anderson’s ‘Dwell Snowfall Remix’ soundtrack and established the build ups, high points etc.

    The shoot was fantastic and in many ways gave me more reason to travel into areas of the City I perhaps might not have done ordinarily. I’ve great memories of long 3/4 hour walks in the grey mist of New York, followed by many long, tipsy lunches afterward. Roughly 70% of what I shot across 10 days didn’t make it into the final edit. In some cases I felt I shot too much of one thing, other scenarios where I wish I had more. It certainly meant I had a lot to go through over the Christmas period.

    With regards to the equipment used, my camera is a Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.5, MFT). I use a speedbooster adapter to allow a larger field of view as well as the access for my Nikon lenses.

    What’s next for me? Well, more of the same I suppose. The joy is very much in the exploration, both of countries, cities, climates but also in the many different ways one can go about filmmaking.

  2. I cannot wait to see this film! Thanks for a great review, Mike, and how cool to also get Andrei’s comments here too. Great stuff, and I’m pumped about seeing this now. Also, you really need to write about your own experiences in living in Manhattan. You’ve apparently got some great stories!

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