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Street Views: a Conversation with James Nares and His Cinematic Ode to New York

Street Street

In James Nares’s 1976 film Pendulum, a large metal sphere swings ominously from a bridge in a desolate TriBeCa street. We watch with unease as the ball, viewed from multiple positions, traces a giant arc, pulling on the cable, which emits a low rhythmic groan on the soundtrack. This tense, hypnotic Super-8 film, which transforms a forlorn streetscape into existential theater, offers a strange love-letter to a city (at that moment) riddled with danger and alive with artistic possibility.

Pendulum was made several years after Nares’s arrival in New York at age 21 from his native England. The city’s been his home ever since. He immersed himself in the ’70s downtown art and music scene, playing in bands with James Chance and Jim Jarmusch and directing the No Wave classic Rome ’78 (his only narrative film). In the ’80s, he began painting, but he has continued to make films, as evidenced by a 34-film retrospective organized by Anthology Film Archives in 2008. Nares is now enjoying attention for his ambitious new film, Street, which is currently screening at the Metropolitian Museum of Art.

Street is that rare populist art film, like Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), that is both accessible and sophisticated, and it may introduce Nares to new generations. Composed entirely of ­New York street scenes shot from a moving car and set to an original guitare score by Thurston Moore, this 72-minute film transforms everyday observations into a mesmerizing cinematic experience. Together with Libbie Cohn and J.P. Sniadeki’s recent People’s Park, it may signal a larger trend among today’s filmmakers to focus on urban social spaces.

Nares’ film captures New Yorkers going about their daily business. The filmmaker uses ultra-slow motion HD, typically reserved for sports photography, to render every gesture and facial expression as vivid and dramatic events. Street offers a privileged view onto a fascinating array of faces, body types and personalities. The film’s central conceit—that we’re given permission to gaze freely at our fellow New Yorkers—feels revelatory.  It’s a must-see for anyone who’s spent time navigating the city and its social codes.

Nares shot the film in Manhattan during September 2011, and while it’s not designed as political work, New York’s millennial street iconography of ear-bud wearing pedestrians, Duane Reades, and Crown Vic cabs—may still resonate with certain post-disaster associations. (The film’s production 10 years after the September 11th attacks is, according to Nares, a coincidence.) If there’s anything operating under the surface here, it’s a quiet meditation on the social dimension of public space. The street is, after all, the modern-day agora—a place of exchange, equality, and most recently, occupation.

In the Met’s exhibition text, Nares states that his goal was to capture people frozen in time “Pompeii-like,” and to produce a film “to be viewed 100 years from now.” Is Nares suggesting it’s a time capsule for a time after New York is gone? Whether you read the film as urban portraiture or a love-letter to New Yorkers’ timeless resiliency, Street offers a wonderfully alive and immersive cinematic experience.

Nares, now 60, remains invigorated by the city’s energy, and he’s busier than ever, with a concurrent exhibition of new paintings at his Chelsea gallery. He sat down with Filmmaker for a conversation about shooting from a moving vehicle, eye contact, and why one of this year’s best films is playing at the Met.

Nares’ Street is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 5 to May 27. An exhibition of Nares’ paintings, ROAD PAINT, is at Paul Kasmin Gallery until June 22.

Filmmaker: Let’s start with the point of origin for the film.

Nares: The point of origin was the combination of my interest in those old “actuality” films from around the turn of the last century [Edison and Biograph films]. The actualities very quickly turned into a sort of documentary-style of filming. People realized that they could manipulate [film] to tell their own stories and to distort the truth. I can’t think of anyone who did anything like that [with film] until Andy Warhol made his films. He just let the camera run. That’s always appealed to me as a way of filming—to interfere as little as possible with the subject.

Filmmaker: The actualities were films shot on streets, correct?

Nares: Yes, and they’re the films where people mounted a camera on a trolley bus.

Filmmaker: Those are also called “Phantom Rides.”

Nares: Yes, I think that’s right. They would ride through cities. People couldn’t travel in those days. I think they would take [film] New York and show it to people in Chicago.

Filmmaker: I thought a lot about those early films when I was watching Street.

Nares: They were a big part of it. [They] capture people just going about their daily lives. Sometimes you get people who see the camera and clown around, but it’s basically seeing life as it’s lived. I think probably the most famous one is A Trip Down Market Street (1906), just before the earthquake in San Francisco. It’s really good. So, I had the actualities on one hand [as a point of origin] and the high-speed films I’ve been playing around with over the last few years. I think 1989 is the first time I used high-speed film. It’s something I’ve returned to over the years. I do a lot of driving through the city, and I bought this cheap camera called the Casio Exilim—a small hand held DSLR with the ability to shoot at a high frame rate. You can do about 600 fps with a full screen ratio, and 1200 fps, with the screen cut in half horizontally. You can do about 2000 fps, and the screen is cut in half again. At that point, the image is just a thin sliver, which is kind of beautiful. But the resolution is really bad, even when it’s going at 600. I was using the camera to get an idea of the best speed—the best frame rate and the best car speed. So I got that figured out. Even though the resolution on the Casio was bad, the video was very smooth. I cut a little short five-minute film using that footage, and showed it to get the money to make the film Street. For the final film, we ended up shooting at about 780 fps.

Filmmaker: What camera did you end up using for Street?

Nares: It was called the Phantom. [Phantom Flex Camera]

Filmmaker: That’s an appropriate name!

Nares: I didn’t put those two together. That’s so great. I love it.

Filmmaker: Did you know that it would be an hour-long film? Did you already have a structure in mind?

Nares: Yes, it’s actually funny. I wrote a proposal for a Guggenheim grant about three years before I actually shot the movie, and the proposal is word for word exactly what I ended up shooting—driving around Manhattan, shooting out of one side of the car one day, the other side the other day. I imagined it to be about an hour long. I wasn’t going to be looking for any moments of great dramatic interest; I was going to be looking for nuances of things happening between people. So I kind of had the whole thing in my head three years before shooting it.

Filmmaker: Did you also imagine that it would be a silent film with a musical score?

Nares: No, to begin with I had not wanted to have music. I wanted to have sound, manipulated in some way that revealed a kind of inner life to the world of sound in the same way that slowing down the images revealed a kind of inner life of what you see. I tried various methods. I recorded lots of sound around the city and I tried manipulating it in different ways but when I slowed it down, it didn’t sound very good and had a digital ring to it. Also, with the film, it just made the whole thing drag. With the sound also going slow, it made the whole world feel interminable. So I tried something else. I had a shotgun mic in the car pointed out at the street like the camera, and drove around catching snippets of street sounds and conversations—a sort of collage. I tried taking pieces of sound and repeating them to make rhythms, to try to turn the street sounds into a musical track. But none of it worked. And then I was sitting, looking at the footage one day, and there was music playing at the same time—I can’t even remember what it was—but it worked very well.

Filmmaker: Speed is an essential component of the film, on many levels. You filmed from a car moving at 30-40 miles an hour.

Nares: Yeah. I tried to keep that speed to give a consistency of motion. I thought [the film] would be very difficult to edit. I thought the cuts and the changes in direction would be extremely obvious. When I was shooting out of the left side of the car, everything moved from right to left; when I was shooting out of the other side, everything moved from left to right. You can’t imagine a more glaring kind of cut. The strange thing is that when you move from left to right, and [the subject] moves from right to left, the people in the street are moving the opposite way. The street is moving one way, the people are moving another, [the car] is moving the other, and somehow it manages to make the cuts quite fluid.

Filmmaker: When you watch the film, you’re aware of the changes in direction, but I agree it all feels very fluid. How did you determine when you were cutting from scene to scene?

Nares: There aren’t many cuts. I think I filmed for six and a half or seven days, and I was shooting out of one side of the car one day, and out of the other side of the car, the other, so there’s only about six changes of direction in the film.

Filmmaker: Did you retrace your path each day?

Nares: Pretty much. I had to hang the structure on something that made sense. At one point, I’d thought about filming just Broadway, so it would be like a single line through the city, but Broadway is actually not the best street to shoot on, for being able to see people and not have cars in the way. So I ended up going all over Manhattan. We did shoot in Brooklyn a bit, but it just seemed that I had to stop somewhere and Manhattan made sense. I pretty much assembled the film in the same sequence that I shot it. It was the only thing that made any sense—the thread of my wandering through the city. It made sense with the light changes. The only thing I did switch around, are the rain sequences. There were two different days when it rained and I combined them into one rainy sequence.

Filmmaker: One of the pleasures of the film is trying to recognize different streets and neighborhoods. It looked like you start up near 125th and end down around Soho.

Nares: [Laughs] I can’t remember. We were just following our noses. We were following the light. We were just being adventurous, and just looking for places where there were people accessible by camera. Being behind the camera myself, I probably lost track of where we were more than anybody. There were four or five people in the vehicle at any given time and the choice of where to go was a kind of group decision. Someone would say, “Oh, Fifth Avenue is kind of good,” or “34th is really good” and we’d head off.

Filmmaker: It occurred to me while watching Street that you might not have known what you’d captured in each shot until much later.

Nares: Well, I did know what I had because I could monitor it instantly. Shooting at that frame rate, I had six seconds that I could shoot, and I could view it back instantly. If there was a section I wanted to keep, I’d keep it and get rid of the rest. It was sort of like on-the-job editing. Once I decided what to keep, we then had to wait about ten minutes to download, to get the file off the camera and onto the hard drive, before I could do another shot. So the shots themselves became very targeted, and really special moments. I couldn’t waste any of that time.

Filmmaker: The process inverts the normal relationship to the digital capture. Here, it’s more like shooting celluloid film, in the sense of being extremely economical and deliberate with each shot.

Nares: Yes, you’re right. It’s just like shooting film. I call the film a “movie” because it seems more movie-like than video-like, to me.

Filmmaker: The image quality also doesn’t seem especially digital to me.

Nares: I know. That camera is really incredible. It’s super high res. Typically, from frame to frame, a digital camera takes the information from the previous frame and then kind of adapts it to the next frame very rapidly. But with [the Phantom], each frame is a whole new set of information, so the raw footage is loaded detail. The files were massive. And the guy I was working with gave me iPhone versions of everything we shot the next day.

Filmmaker: Like rushes.

Nares: Yes, like rushes on my iPhone. It was great.

Filmmaker: There are three conditions in the film: observing people who don’t know they’re being observed, observing people who notice you and make eye contact. And the last condition might be emptiness, or those moments when something breaks the gravity, such as the pigeon fluttering or the cigarette being tossed.

Nares: First of all, the emptiness. I wanted the film to be about the people of the city, not about the architecture so much. But it just seemed, rhythmically and emotionally necessary to have a bit of blank space now and again. Those moments happened very organically. A couple spring to mind. The beautiful shot of a person—you can’t really tell if it’s a man or a woman—hooded, walking across Broadway in the rain, facing away from the camera. It’s just this lonely figure walking in the middle of the street. That’s a kind of emptiness. There are also times when you’re just looking at the sidewalk for a few minutes.

Filmmaker: I love those moments. I think they’re very necessary.

Nares: The second condition is people who notice me filming, and I like that because it engages you as the viewer. It reminds you that you’re in the kind of privileged position, and to look at people, which is really not something we typically have the opportunity to do. We can’t stare at people in the street, without being really rude. Kids can do it. More than anybody in the film, kids and African American males noticed the camera in the film. For different reasons, they are aware of their surroundings visually. With kids, their eyes are just open to the world and with African American males, it seems more necessary for them to keep they’re eyes open on the street. It’s just what I see from watching the film. I love those moments in the film. I never felt voyeuristic making this film. It felt ennobling people, in spite of themselves. It’s important for people to feel good about themselves, even in their most awkward moments. Those moments are beautiful too.

Filmmaker: There’s such a panorama of faces and body types, but it never feels grotesque. It just feels like one more interesting presence in this landscape.

Nares: Yeah. People are pretty cool. I’ve developed a kind of super vision from making and editing that film. I find myself on the street capturing little shots in my mind, and thinking how great they’d be.

Filmmaker: I do that all the time.

Nares: People are guarded by necessity, but no one is that guarded. There are always little cracks in the veneer, and those moments are great. Someone just shifting his or her eyes to look at someone else achieve great significance in the film.

Filmmaker: One of the through-lines, back to your previous films, might be this connection to gesture. With Street, you’re very aware of what people are doing with their hands and how bodies occupy space differently.

Nares: Yes, it’s also very much like one of my brushstrokes in one of my paintings, where you get to see things that happen too fast for the naked eye. With painting, you can extend time or lay bare the making of a mark. It was very important to me that the camera should be moving the whole time, and that might be a similarity.

Filmmaker: Your own body is often very present in your work. In making this film, you, the camera, and the car become a single apparatus.

Nares: There was a great deal of coordination between the driver and myself and the guy doing the capture on the computer in the back of the van. We really had to work as a team. If I saw something coming up I wanted to shoot, I would have to let people know, and I would have to adjust. The light also changes very rapidly as you’re driving around the city, so the decisions about focal length and focus and f-stop and framing had to be made in the blink of an eye. And then the driver had to get the car up to the right speed. So it was the finessing of multiple things at once, which lead to some humorous moments. If we were stopped at a red light, and we noticed something good on the other side of the street, we would just hold our place until the light changed, while everyone was honking at us. Then we’d take off like a thunderbolt, and get up to speed really quickly. Of course, we sometimes looked like the FBI.

Filmmaker: Five or six years ago the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, attempted to pass a law restricting street photography. Patti Smith and D.A. Pennebraker, and Jem Cohen were among thousands who signed a petition to prevent its passing.

Nares: That’s right. I went to the Mayor’s Office of Film to ask them if what I was doing was okay or if I needed a special permit, and they said no, as long as the camera’s not on a tripod. If the camera is in a car or hand held, you aren’t required to have a permit. They did advise me to stay away from bridges and tunnels, which we did.

Filmmaker: It strikes me that what you were doing is not dissimilar to the Google cars, with their roof-mounted 360 cameras.

Nares: I wonder about the people in the photos, whether they know if they’re there.

Filmmaker: Going back to the soundtrack, how did the collaboration with Thurston Moore come about?

Nares: I’d been talking with Thurston about doing a book together, so we’d already been in contact. I immediately figured that he could do a great soundtrack, because he knows New York and he knows noise and he knows the narrative of the inner life. And I wanted to have it solo because I felt that, as a solo viewer, you inhabit the mind of each person you see on screen, briefly. I thought that a soundtrack of Thurston playing a solo instrument would—in the way that he plays it, where he moves so freely from one emotional state to another—that he never quite gives you what you expect. It’s very rich and pure in its narrative voice.

Filmmaker: Did you cut the film and then hand it over or did you work in tandem?

Nares: Well, he started off by saying that I could use anything I wanted off his last two albums. I thought, “That sounds good,” but it wasn’t really what I wanted. And then he offered a whole bunch of music by the band that he’s been playing with, called the Northampton Wolves. And again, it was great, but it didn’t work [with the film]. Then he played me this album of solo twelve-string guitar and it was just beautiful. I asked, “Can I just use some of this?” and he said “Sure! And I’ll make you some more.” He took a DVD of the film and sat with it. He only had a couple of days, because he was going off on tour and I had to finish the film for Miami Basel. He took a DVD of the film and sat with it, wrote the music, and handed it over to me. Then I along with Bill Seery, who is credited as sound designer on the film, cut the music as raw material with the film. Thurston had recorded it at home on the computer, and we needed to give it more body, so we put it through a tube amp, and that gave it a warmth. We really crafted the soundtrack. Without interfering with the spirit of the music, we played around with it, repeating certain sections. We made a couple of little themes that repeat, so [the soundtrack] wasn’t a straight improvisation watching the film, but it was a kind of wondering soul. It creates a kind of parallel universe to the film. I didn’t want [Thurston] trying to illustrate the film.

Filmmaker: Street is screening at the Met, along side two galleries of art objects you’ve selected that relate to the film conceptually or spiritually. Some of the selections are quite surprising.

Nares: That was such fun. We put a lot of work into that. I spent weeks going through the Met’s database trying to find appropriate things, and also unexpected things, such as the Jackson Pollock sketch of the woman’s face.

Filmmaker: The exhibition felt like a sketchbook of all the references we collect over time, and which feed, in one way or another, into a work of art. One that stuck out to me was the Egyptian Relief Fragment Depicting Royal Hand.

Nares: That was one of the first things I saw, and I immediately knew I wanted it. When we approached the Egyptian Department, that was also the first piece they suggested.

Filmmaker: The emphasis on gesture seems to correspond directly with the film. There’s also a Robert Frank photo (From the Bus, New York, 1958), and your wall text talks about the image being at that moment when he’s moving from photography to film. I thought about how Street is also between the two.

Nares: I’ve always loved that series From the Bus, but I haven’t seen many of them [exhibited]. I’ve seen a few reproductions, but there’s no catalogue. Of course, it connects very directly to my film. And they were made at that time in his life when he was transitioning to making films, and it’s such a beautiful transition—the movement through the city [on a bus] being like a film unfolding.

Filmmaker: Perhaps in the digital age, the line between still and moving images has been dissolved. I’m thinking of pieces like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, for example.

Nares: Yeah. You know, I didn’t realize when I was making the film, how closely it related to old street photography, especially the New York street photography, which has been done by such great photographers. The first week spent looking through the [Met’s] archive, I was almost totally immersed in Walker Evans. They have his entire archive. Doug Eckland’s [the Met’s Curator of Photography] first job when he came to the museum seventeen years ago was to catalogue the entire archive. He said it took six or seven years! At one point, Doug made scans of some of the negatives and printed a few. They’re beautiful because they’re sequences of photographs that are very cinematic and show [Evans] moving around the subject and shooting four or five shots. There were also some that he shot from a car. I wanted to have them in the show, but they weren’t actual prints.

Filmmaker: There’s something fascinating about seeing Street in the context of the Met, and also drawing large art historical connections that are probably off the map for most people.

Nares: Yes, and what’s great is that most people seem to love it. It all started when Doug saw my film Pendulum (1976) at Art Basel in Switzerland and wanted to buy it for the museum. About six or nine months later, the sale went through. Three or four months after that, he asked me to come up to the Met and sit with the department around a big table while my film played at one end of the room. We’d all eat sandwiches and have lunch and I’d talk about the film. Most everybody ate his sandwich but mine sat in front of me while I yakked away. I brought with me a DVD of Street, and as I was leaving I handed it to Doug. A couple of weeks later, he called up and said, “I want to buy it.” Then, the next day, it was “I want to show it.” The time span between him first seeing the movie and the show opening was only like three and a half months, which is very rapid for any museum, really. Then Sheena Wagstaff (Head of the Met’s Modern and Contemporary Department) saw it and she and Thomas Campbell (Director and CEO of the Met) are, I think, very keen to break down barriers between departments and try to read history in a more connective way, and I suddenly found myself as the spearhead to this. Kind of by default—I just walked into it. Sheena thought she could curate a show around Street, and halfway through the meeting [to discuss it], she turned to me and said, “I think you should curate it.” I said, “Wow, yeah, I’d be honored. I’d love to do it.” And then she said, “And if it’s a complete disaster, you’ll be the one left holding the ball.” [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Well, it’s a triple home run.

Nares: I know! I just walked into it. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into, but it was a great experience and a great education. The whole Photography Department is wonderful people to work with, Jeff Rosenheim and Ian Altaveer from the Modern and Contemporary Department. Even Philippe de Montebello loved it, and was dragging people into see it!

Filmmaker: I feel that Street is a rare work that can appeal to both an art crowd and the general public.

Nares: I had no idea I was making a film of that kind. I was very happy when I realized that little old ladies and young kids and people who knew stuff and people who didn’t were all getting something out of it.

Filmmaker: It’s the people who are in the film who are then the audience. It comes full circle: the same cross-section of people who are in the film then becomes the audience, in a way.

Nares: Yes, that’s true. There were a couple of teenage girls watching it at the Met the other day, and one of them was saying, “Ok, it’s coming up, it’s coming up!” and “Now, now!” And her friend got out a camera and quickly took a picture [of the screen]. It was one of the girls in the film. There’s a scene with four teenage girls in a row who all pretend not to see the camera, until I’ve passed and then one by one they lift up their eyes. It’s a beautiful moment.

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