Bedford Avenue Subway by Carlton Bright

Carlton Bright, “Bedford Avenue Subway” (all images courtesy the artist)

Stereoscopic, or 3D, vision is a technique usually associated these days with blockbuster movies. But, using a simple stereo camera, Carlton Bright rollerbladed around Williamsburg from 2003 to 2013 documenting a series of “modules” or “vignettes” about the neighborhood he loves and calls home. The word “love” is operative, as it’s the same chest-thumping, dyed-in-the-wool affection evinced by documentaries of cities like Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” or Richard Sandler’s “Gods of Times Square.” Those films capture the grit, and especially in Sandler’s work, the gentrification, via spontaneous man-on-the-street interviews of the sad, funny, and outrageous characters abounding throughout his version of Gotham. The mad prophets were more than happy to mouth off on the changing scenarios around them, lending the film a poignant, narrative thrust.

In Bright’s film, WILLIAMSBURG: 3D of a Decade, which recently screened at Nitehawk Cinema, the wonder of 3D vision shows panoramic vistas of neighborhood rooftops swooping off into the East River, and they have a truly Lilliputian effect, turning cars and people into dollhouse pieces. It’s a setup that raises the question: what makes a civilization, a people, and a place in time? The vignettes that Bright includes, in both still photographs and 3D footage, are certainly authentic. There’s the Italian American Giglio feast, in which men affiliated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church lift the 55-foot-high Giglio Tower topped by a statue of San Paolino. The neighborhood’s whispered roots stretch back to the old Mafia, most notably Joey Bonanno, who grew up around Havemeyer Street.

Carlton Bright, “Punk Trio”

There are a bevy of Bedford Avenue itinerant musicians: hungry, broke, traveling folk and outrageous subway performers. City dogs get their comeuppance, as do tightrope walkers in McCarren Park. Shots of the New York City Marathon, with its own group of loopy hipster cheerleaders, morph into a view of a street poet, who sits on the sidewalk behind a fold-out desk, pecking away on an old-fashioned typewriter, with a sign saying, “name a price, get a poem.” There is the lovely 3D origami of slow-motion flapping pigeon wings, the now copper (it used to be green, before the big money began pouring in) onion-bulb Russian Orthodox church dome anchoring McCarren Park, a wallop of a snowstorm, 3D snowflakes,  the endless music festivals on the rebuilt waterfront, hipster Hassids wheeling around homemade menorahs, the wacky mini Bedford Avenue Halloween parade, and fireworks exploding on July 4th. Obama wins the Presidential election; hipster girl goes topless and hipster boy strips down to his undies for a celebration atop a car roof on Bedford Avenue.

Carlton Bright, “Couple at Concert”

After a while, though, the thrill of 3D winds down, and the fabulous Neverland of Williamsburg becomes a place where nobody seems to work and the parties are endless, like the Moulin Rouge during the time of Toulouse-Lautrec. September 11 is referenced for just a few seconds via the nighttime Tribute in Light, and rapacious development boils down to a few moment of pterodactyl-like cranes chewing up buildings like toothpicks. Most people are white, privileged, or at least downwardly mobile, and unbelievably daffy.

Carlton Bright, “Old Lady and Couch” (click to enlarge)

Bright glides over the substance of neighborhood issues with the speed of his rollerblades. He hasn’t shown the Polish/Ukrainian or Hispanic anger over displacement; El Puente is nonexistent. Disgraced former Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s solid base of senior centers and low-income housing is nowhere to be seen. None of the political battles over rezoning appear, and none of the menace of terrorism hangs over the morning commute of thousands on the L train. No sight of the thousands of forced evictions of artists that happened after 2006 as a result of the rezoning of 2005. Hurricane Sandy, a film op waiting to happen, is surprisingly absent. Williamsburg is portrayed as just one enormous glistening soap bubble wafting by over the past 10 years.

Bright needs to push himself further and dig deeper, editing his massive, gorgeous inventory of 3D stock to develop tension and thematics beyond the purely aesthetic. A film that employs documentary methods and a cool technology should also tell a documentary story, not just glide by on technique and stereotypical characterization.

Carlton Bright’s WILLIAMSBURG: 3D of a Decade screened at Nitehawk Cinema (136 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) on November 14.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

5 replies on “All Style, No Substance: Williamsburg in 3D”

    1. Agreed. Williamsburg contains multitudes. I was at the screening last week, and heard Bright say afterward that he has lived in W’burg since 1987 — so he is well aware of the neighborhood, its populations, and how it has changed.

      The stories glimpsed in Bright’s documentary (which I also saw previously at Ventana244) may not reflect the very particular agendas that this reviewer wants to see highlighted. But that’s not a problem with Bright’s strikingly composed and well-observed film — it’s more about miscalibrated expectations, I think.

      (Perhaps it’s also related to the ongoing stigma attached to 3D, that brands it as an inevitably “superficial” medium? Recent documentary work by Herzog, Wenders, and other respected filmmakers should have dispelled this notion, but it persists in some quarters.)

      And in fact I saw considerable political and socioeconomic commentary in the piece — albeit of the subtle rather than strident variety. The film does reward repeat viewing, so it’s worth checking it out again next time it’s screened.

    2. She’s not saying the film about Williamsburg should have been about Portland. She’s saying that a film that purports to document Williamsburg over a decade has left out vital parts and pieces of the story of Williamsburg. I don’t think that’s criticizing a film for being about one thing and not another; it’s criticizing a film for not fully exploring its stated topic.

  1. Bright’s film provided a visceral sense of Williamsburg as a small, arbitrary dot on the earth. Williamsburg, with it’s rich history, is a slightly different place for each of it’s inhabitants. I delighted in seeing my neighborhood through Mr Bright’s eyes. It was as much about one man’s experience of life as it was about the spot on earth called Williamsburg. Ellen Pearlman’s concern that the film is not political enough is really a concern that Bright portrayed his Williamsburg, not hers. So much has happened on the streets of Williamsburg in the last decade. His choices are his art.

  2. So you’re criticizing Mr. Bright’s film for not telling the documentary story YOU want to see?

    Mr. Bright served as a neutral observer in his film, documenting a period of time in Williamsburg, it was also an ode to the diverse colors and rhythms of NYC in general. Mr. Bright played witness to both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of people’s everyday lives, and in doing so, created a beautiful film that fairly pulsates with a visceral energy and life, even in its soundtrack-less silences.

    The title of the film is Williamsburg 3D of a Decade, not Williamsburg Politics in 3D. A documentary rife with political commentary on Williamsburg seems to be what you’re looking for, but you can’t fault Mr. Bright for not creating the film that you expected. Appreciate it for the documentary story it’s telling.

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