Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Program Introduction

“My current lover of eight years and I first met when he was homeless and selling books from a blanket spread out on Seventy-second Street.  Our two best friends for many years now are a male couple, one of whom I first met in an encounter, perhaps a decade ago, at the back of the now closed-down Variety Photoplays Movie Theater on Third Avenue just below Fourteenth Street.  Outside of my family, these are among the two most rewarding relationships I have: both began as cross-class contacts in a public space.     
Visitors to New York might be surprised that such occurrences are central to my vision of the city at its healthiest.     
Lifetime residents won’t be.     
Watching the metamorphosis of such vigil and concern into considered and helpful action is what gives one a faithful and loving attitude toward one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one’s nation, the world.”   
- Samuel Delany

           Almost from its earliest imaginings, narrative cinema has sought to capture New York City and reflect it as the embodiment of the site where illusions are created:  a kind of locative metaphor for the process which cinema itself performs.  It seems quite natural that this city, often referred as ‘the 20th century city,’ its various neighborhoods standing as metonyms for so many important tropes of American culture: the musical theater of Broadway, the avant-guard of literature and painting of Greenwich Village, the mid-century commercial culture of Madison Avenue, and the international financial capitalism of Wall Street.  For much of the 20th century, these diverse forms of cultural and social power, met each other at the cross-roads of the world in which the public needs for information (news) and the private needs of the individual (sex, physical pleasure), should arrive to intersect in one tawdry, exuberant space called Times Square.

             In this series of films, we hope to lead the viewer through a trajectory of thinking about  many of the central ideas in Samuel Delany’s 1999 book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, including the various forms of interclass and cross class contact which inspire and support personal and cultural liberation from prejudice, fear and the oppression caused by social structures of oppression (classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, for example.)  As you will notice, the title of this program, “The Hustle” refers not just to the familiar refrain of the “hustle and bustle” of the city, nor to the famous Van McCoy song "Do the Hustle" that animated so many disco floors, but to the many and diverse forms of “hustling” as a structure of social relationship.  In Delany’s conception, hustling, often framed in terms of sex work, goes beyond just sex, and can be seen as a metaphor for ephemeral encounters—temporary exchanges—where the parties involved receive some benefit from the brief exchange.  For Delany, the hustle may be what makes life in a city worthy living.  Instead, the Times Square Development Project hustles life out by exploiting fear and invoking "family values" to destroy a thriving neighborhood, using a bankrupt moral high-ground to convince the citizen power brokers of New York to disenfranchise a whole class of people.  

          In this program of films, hustling is often viewed as a form of interpersonal or personal exploitation, where the literal vocation as a hustler, or as metaphorical activity in which one character tries to take (economic) advantage of another or of a situation.  In these configurations hustling is just as likely to be one or another form of sex work, as it is to be a modus operandi for getting spare change, procuring a place to sleep, or finding an opportunity for a new life.  Hustling is a dance between need and desire, between will and one’s fantasy future; a negotiation between opportunity, chance and one’s own guile.  Many of the films seem to suggest, if one is willing to be exploited, there is liberation in the exploitation.   An American capitalist proposition, if ever there was one....  (Certainly, despite what Delaney would have us believe, the ‘hope’ of the Times Square developers was to “liberate” the area from its infestations of illicit sex, crime and drugs.)  But, perhaps these films are ultimately asking, ‘Can there be exchange without exploitation?’

             This set of films plots out the anxiety, glee, excitement, and danger of contact in New York City.  Several of the films have a clear agenda either to debunk the real through fantasy or uphold some notion of the gritty real.  But upon closer inspection, one may find it harder to locate where the fantasy ends and the real begins.  Part of what makes these films so humorous--even campy at times--is that they often seem split between a New York City that has led the characters astray, and one that has given them a new way to experience life outside of capitalist notions of productivity and middle American ideas of decorum.

              As former inhabitants of New York City, growing up in the suburbs and later, as adults, moving there, we have witnessed some of the radical transformations that New York City has undergone.  Like Delany, we are not proposing either a romantic or nostalgic version of the city, nor are we claiming that any magic from the past has been lost.  Instead we wish to use the styles and narratives embedded in these films as a way to talk about how New York City has both produced and its own mythology.  Literally at the heart of the city as well as Delany’s and our discussion, Times Square is the perfect site for a meditation on the ethics of public in our capitalist society.

          At 42nd St Times Square, as its subway station identifies it, we find the co-mingling of commercial spectacle (the “great white way”), with international news corporations (the New York Times, Reuters), along with the site of the annual marking of time passing (in name and action - the ritual of the New Year’s Eve ball drop).   As such, cinematic and literary images of Times Square rightly claim the physical location as a site of symbolic and imaginary importance in our nation’s very conception of the construction and flux of our social and cultural values, and in understanding the role of the public and the private in society:  the place where money, sex, light and story continue to fight for space.  This program of films is a meditation on cinematic imaginings of liberation, sexual, social and economic, and the ways that these types of liberation are often understood to be intertwined.