FREE TIME (Manfred Kirchheimer, 2019) and UNDER THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE (Rudy Burckhardt, 1953)
Film Forum Virtual Cinema
Opens November 11, $12 for three-day rental
In 2019, eighty-eight-year-old Manfred Kirchheimer was at Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater to screen and discuss his latest work, the subtly dazzling Free Time, which had its world premiere in the Spotlight on Documentary section of the fifty-seventh annual New York Film Festival. The German-born, New York-raised Kirchheimer has taken 16mm black-and-white footage he and Walter Hess shot between 1958 and 1960 in such neighborhoods as Hell’s Kitchen, Washington Heights, Inwood, Queens, and the Upper East Side and turned it into an exquisite city symphony reminiscent of Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s classic 1948 short In the Street, which sought to “capture . . . an image of human existence.” Kirchheimer does just that, following a day in the life of New York as kids play stickball, a group of older people set up folding chairs on the sidewalk and read newspapers and gossip, a worker disposes of piles of flattened boxes, laundry hangs from clotheslines between buildings, a woman cleans the outside of her windows while sitting on the ledge, a fire rages at a construction site, and a homeless man pushes his overstuffed cart.
Kirchheimer and Hess focus on shadows under the el train tracks, gargoyles on building facades, smoke emerging from sewer grates, old cars stacked at a junkyard, and grave markers at a cemetery as jazz and classical music is played by Count Basie (“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Sandman”), John Lewis (“The Festivals,” “Sammy”), Bach (“The Well Tempered Klavier, Book 1 — Fugue in B flat minor”), Ravel (Sonata for Violin & Cello), and others, with occasional snatches of street sounds. The title of the film is an acknowledgment of a different era, when people actually had free time, now a historical concept with constant electronic contact through social media and the internet and the desperate need for instant gratification. Kirchheimer, whose Dream of a City was shown at the 2018 NYFF and whose poetic Stations of the Elevated was part of the 1981 fest (but not released theatrically until 2014), directed and edited Free Time and did the sound, and it’s a leisurely paced audiovisual marvel. The only unfortunate thing is that it is only an hour long; I could have watched it for days. The film is opening virtually at Film Forum on November 11, preceded by Rudy Burckhardt’s 1953 classic fifteen-minute black-and-white short Under the Brooklyn Bridge, in which kids go for a swim under the iconic landmark and demolition goes on, set to music by Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc performed by pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.