Gorgeous, searching, and defiant, the Super-8 films of Flushing-based poet and cinema-artist Stephanie Gray urge us to look anew at subjects to which filmmakers have often attached sentiment: abandoned buildings, neon signs, shop windows, balloons in the wind, beloved businesses on the day they’re shuttered. Gray’s shorts have romance in them, a love for city blocks, for scraps of poster layered over scraps of poster, for odd fringes of wind-tickled plastic, for those overlooked places where beauty and trash edge into each other. But her work also exhibits a winning frustration. Sleater-Kinney insist that there are cities to love, but Gray reminds us that there are no cities to hang on to — especially when everyone and everything you care for in one gets priced out.
Even a filmed record of urban impermanence can be highly personal and subjective. Gray’s films about long-gone local landmarks, screening at the Anthology Archives in a welcome retrospective of her work, are split into three programs, all of them recommended. The third she’s titled “Too Lateness: Vanishing New Yawk City,” and its stinging treats include shorts whose names are eulogies: Magic Couldn’t Save Magic Shoes (2010) and It’s Not Roses for Five Roses Pizza (2009). One even has the weary, declarative bearing of a hymn: I Bought the Last Four Bagels at Jon Vie Pastries (2004).
These films are reporting, in a sense — records of sad events — but her camera, handheld, seeks out the unlovely corners, the surprise window reflections, the handwritten price tags on pairs of Adidas. You won’t see many faces, but as she surveys Magic Shoes, a Bleecker Street fixture from ’79 to ’10, you would feel the anger of something lost even if Gray didn’t cut to a sheet of notebook paper upon which she has laid out the financial reality: The shop’s rent jumped from $9,000 to $65,000.
Handwritten notes, handheld camera, hand-processed film: In her work, Gray puts her hands on time itself, shaping it as only film artists can. She studies each space she shoots like she’s attempting to commit its finest detail to memory — which is exactly what she achieves, although film, like memory, is inconstant, and can only be seen through the light of the now. This is especially clear in her arresting early shorts, in the retrospective’s first program, several of which capture what they can of her time in her hometown, Buffalo. In one, she films her bike ride to work, but the footage that she’s processed is a wonderful stuttering jumble, a dance of scratches and chrome waves of chemical washes.
Not all the shorts are urban reveries. The first program, “Earlyness: Queeahs, Bflo, Myles, Metal, Hearing,” plunges into her youthful media interests, including Metallica and Kristy McNichol, whose image thrums with VHS tracking static and last-century TV’s vertical hold problems. The section peaks with Never Heard the Word Impossible, a wondrous paean to Laverne & Shirley — or to the feelings its stars and their TV friendship stirred in Gray. She films a paused TV screen, or hugs in slow motion, and the show’s familiar silliness flowers into something intimate, strange, and transcendent of gender: Behold Cindy Williams’s face, tilted back, a Botticelli angel but also Lou Reed’s visage from the cover of Transformer.
The soundtrack to Impossible is a disorienting remix of the show’s chipper theme. Gray reads her own poetry over other films, the gush of words often incisive or funny — in You Know They Want to Disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton (2010), she’ll read a line from E.B. White’s “Here Is New York,” then respond with strong verses of her own, all set in counterpoint to the photography. At the Anthology, many of the shorts will be accompanied by Gray’s own live reading and by the sound artist Jeremy Slater, also from Buffalo, just one of the cities that Gray summons in light.
Super 8mm Poetics:
The Films of Stephanie Gray
June 12–14, Anthology Archives