The City of Cine-Jazz

Francis Thompson's NY NY

published in Film Comment Vol.45 No.1, New York 2009

The first Blade movie (1998) opens with a scene befitting a contemporary tale of urban night life. Pump Panel’s bone-crunching acid techno reconstruction of New Order’s "Confusion" peaks with the gushing of blood from ceiling sprinklers prior to Blade (Wesley Snipes) decimating the nocturnal denizens. It’s a dark mix of industrial architecture, narcotic addiction and black rhythmic noise. In other words, it’s cine-jazz – a cinematic concoction of how the city at night is persistently auralised by the intoxicating modernism of black music.

A recent restoration of an obscure amateur short by Francis Thompson titled NY NY (circa mid-1950s) obtusely connects to this audiovisual ‘sonography’. Ostensibly an impressionistic 16mm cine-portrait of New York city’s architectural aspects and socio-urban activities lensed through various filters, NY NY serves as a semiological catalogue of how the busyness of the American metropolis and its fractalised energy found its sound in jazz idioms. Gene Forrell’s score recalls George Gershwin’s paeans to bustling melodiousness, which popularised a modernist pastoralism of early 20th C citadels, their mechanised thoroughfares, and the city folk who lived there.

NY NY also reminds one of European modernism’s strong hold on the American psyche in the first half of the 20th C. US cities saw their own modern aspirations refracted in the para-Cubist metropolitan images of European capitals. Rome, Paris, Berlin and Moscow each strove to redefine their artistic zones in ways counter to historical determinism, and mechanization, automation and industrialization bore a new visceral noise unheard in the museums and monuments of their collective past. By contrast, American cities were born this way. Artists on both sides of the Atlantic resonated with New World modernism, raucously kick-started by the visual noise and social uproar prompted by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, No.2 (1912) exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913.

Yet for all the formal visual violence expressed by Cubism, Futurism, dada and Constructivism, these Eurocentric schools often leaned toward American jazz as their soundtrack. With its improvizational polyphony, feverish chromaticism and contrapuntal explosiveness, jazz withheld a formal noisiness which predated atonal excursions and musique concrete experiments. So even though musicological charm codifies NY NY’s score (making it most sound like a Gerald McBoing Boing short), it typifies how jazz aptly ‘musicalised’ the sound of the city. Forrell’s gestures of brushed piano strings, lumpen tonal clusters on the lower register, jackhammer sound effects, and twee prepared piano tinkling are each as semiotic a sound byte of its cine-urban era as acid techno remains so in the post-MTV era.

Like so many amateur cinematographic documents of times bygone, NY NY is now blanketed by a warm anthropological aura. Less mythic and more actual, Thompson’s New York is proffered as a material locus of the ‘city’ oft-depicted in cinema but less regularly named. This generates a further audiovisual schism. While the musical score betrays a burlesqued rendition of compositional stratagems devised by John Cage, Henry Cowell and Harry Partch to name a few, the visuals retain a solidity through their optical ingenuity and the palpable visibility of their surroundings (beautifully evidenced in the restored print which screened at MoMA alongside Charles Seeler and Paul Strand’s Manhattan [1921]).

Audiovisually, NY NY is a token from a bygone era, when New York still believed it was the future. Somewhere between “I Love NY” T-shirts and the clean-up of Times Square, New York became a nostalgic well, its reflection darkened at the bottom and enveloped by echoic voices. I vaguely recall an early 90s TV campaign to promote digital video film-making capabilities (a supposed sign of the future). Grainy black and white footage of downtown New York and modern jazz a la Brubeck unironically achieved the McLuhanesque paradox of driving into the future while looking into the rear-view mirror of the past. NY NY audiovisually stands at the crossroads where dizzy jazz beckons on one side while acid techno blares from the other.

Text © Philip Brophy 2009. Images © Francis Thompson