A friend once told me that she knew she was a “real New Yorker” after sitting in Tompkins Square Park one hot summer morning and seeing a pigeon carry a huge piece of roast beef in its mouth, periodically shaking it, like a dog with a chew toy. Anyone who’s spent time in the East Village staple likely has their own version of this story set in the surreal vital organ of New York City’s anatomy.
In his debut film Circles in Tompkins Square, available today on BetaPictures, New York artist Jack Greer reveals the icon’s vibrant soul through the lens of an unabashedly voyeuristic regular. The footage comes from a summer Greer spent bringing a consumer grade camera to the park every single day. He religiously filmed the inner workings of the ten-acre space, accruing hundreds of hours’ worth of footage that spotlights everything from the crust punks and homeless to the dog walkers, skaters, and neighborhood kids who consider Tompkins a home away from home.
The hour-long feature floats from vignette to vignette, subject to subject, and it’s edited so the footage unfurls chronologically to comprise a full weekend in the park. As a result, the project is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, where the meandering flow parallels the feeling of a meandering visit between Avenues A and B. But where Linklater’s Gen-X’er classic focuses on early 90s bohemian ennui in Austin, Circles is distinctly a product of New York today. “Sometimes you can tell more about an entire era by focusing in on just a couple subjects,” says Greer. “By telling a story tangled up in the specificity of a particular place, you’re able to discuss issues being dealt with by organisms all over the world.”
Greer’s film feels like an honest and extremely diverse representation of life in the park, and by extension life in New York. People of every age, ethnicity, and creed are represented, and events both dramatic and mundane pass by—sometimes simultaneously—in a way where judgment or meaning is left to the viewer. It’s a love letter to the city, and a cinematic gem that comes at a time when New Yorkers need reminders about what makes living here so inimitable. By phone and email, Greer talked about his debut film and the devotion that went into creating the ebullient time capsule.
Village Voice: How many years have you actually lived in New York?
Jack Greer: I moved here from California to study at Pratt in 2005, so it will be 12 years this summer.
Is there any truth to the cliches that it takes seven or ten years to become a “real New Yorker?”
It takes ten years, because part of being a New Yorker is carrying the tradition of those clichés, regardless of their legitimacy. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the confidence to make this film seven years ago if for no other reason than I wouldn’t be able to have that ten-year stamp alongside it. That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to make an account of certain New York neighborhoods I haven’t spent much time in. I couldn’t tell a story about Queens unless I really engulfed myself in it.
Why did you choose to focus specifically on Tompkins Square Park, and not another place in the city?
I like to make work about places I’m familiar with. I don’t want to break anyone’s trust or tell a story I don’t feel I have the right to tell. I had been going to Tompkins periodically since I moved to New York; once I got a dog in 2010 I began going twice a day, every day, and haven’t broken that schedule since. I’ve documented things in the park as I’ve documented almost all aspects of my circumstances; the film, however, is a result of leaving my studio in Red Hook and wanting to make a piece of art that didn’t rely on being indoors all day long. Tompkins was [a natural choice] because it was part of my daily routine. It wasn’t that I sought out Tompkins and then spent time there. It’s that I spent time there, and then realized there was an opportunity to make something out of it.
What was your day-to-day life like when filming all summer? Was the camera always out and on?
The best part about taking my dog to the park every morning was the ability to start the morning filming as people started their own lives. The summer in New York is hot, thick, and the light comes up quite early—getting ‘on site’ around 7:30 AM was ideal. After sitting in the dog park, I would take Iggy home, eat breakfast, and resume my time in the park.
There are many shifts in energy throughout the morning—sort of like the equivalent of surfers going and checking the waves at the beach to assess the day coming up. For example, there’s the waking up of the squatters and initial using by the junkies, the work rush to the train, etc. I kid you not, I would feel as though certain days were likely to be bleak and others were going to be wildly intense based on the vibe I felt in the morning.
Did you set up any rules or parameters for how you approached filming each day?
Being present was my only rule: You can’t make something about a particular time if you’re not there. Also, and maybe more importantly, I wasn’t trying to seek anything out. If you are trying to seek something out, you’re fabricating a story; you’re making a film. I still feel that in some respects I was making a film out of documentary footage, meaning I’m able to tell a story through my eyes but using real material. I didn’t seek anything out because it would be the first step in bastardizing the reality.
What did using a consumer-grade camera offer you?
It’s unassuming. People don’t feel as though you’re encroaching in on them and exploiting them, because it doesn’t feel like you brought a movie set to the park. I know I personally get offended when I walk into Tompkins and there’s a whole cast and crew there. It feels as though it’s not harmonious with the space. If I’m walking around with something around my neck that isn’t obtrusive and I strike up a conversation, there isn’t going to be some giant piece of metal and plastic that separates us from one another. This is why most of the people look at me and not the camera throughout the course of the conversations that occur in the film: I’m more present than the camera is. I think that’s very important. It didn’t need to be a consumer grade camera, but it needed to be on the scale that it was so it wasn’t a barrier between me and the people I was interacting with.
One thing that really stands out in the doc is that it’s earnest — it doesn’t gloss over the rougher aspect of life in the park, but it doesn’t put that stuff on a pedestal either.
I’m definitely not interested in making something that’s predominantly a downer, you know what I mean? My intentions aren’t to glorify what’s wrong with the world, nor to glamorize people on the fringe. It’s more so a voyeuristic exploration of what people are, and whatever they are is fair game to me, whether that be someone inspiring or someone on their last leg of life. I’m more excited about [films with] no hierarchy, in terms of not having anybody “featured.” They all have value and they all have experience and life.
You post videos on your Instagram account and have been involved with skate stuff, but did you have any filmmaking experience prior to Circles?
It was definitely my first time making a film, other than a full-length skate video I put together as a 15-year-old and the minute-long Instagram edits I post. The Instagram videos are somewhat similar [to the film], in terms of enveloping all aspects of day-to-day New York City life, but those are the only form of documentary I’ve made. My goal was not to make something that looks like a documentary, or looks like a film; it’s for me to tell my story the same way I would want nothing more than for someone else to tell their story. That’s how you become informed and that’s how you learn about things.
While you were making the doc, were you consuming outside film influences? Was there anything in particular that informed the project?
No, not at all. My friends suggested different filmmakers as references for things that could be relevant for me to see, but I saved them to watch now that I’ve finished the project. I didn’t want to be influenced in anyway while making it. Maybe it comes from a point of pride or audacity, but I would prefer to make something that could be possibly construed as naive, as opposed to something that could possibly be construed as someone else’s language. It’s easier for me to be blind to the rest of the world while fully immersed in my own project.
Your art practice has involved large-scale painting, sculptural work, as well as clothing design. How did it feel switching roles to that of a filmmaker? Was it a natural transition, or were there certain road bumps or challenges you had to overcome?
My methodology of working follows a narrow set of subjects while exploring them through a vast array of mediums. I like creating an archive, often times about a microcosm. It’s diaristic and self indulgent, but hey, it’s the people, places, and experiences that I know the most about. That said, I’m hoping that what I produced doesn’t appear as though it’s another page in my diary, or even about me. The film shouldn’t feel like, Aren’t I so special that the whole world wants to see it?
Do you think of this film as a love letter to the city?
I sure hope so, because I love this city. I would never want to make something to lampoon a group of people, a city, a park, anything. Whether or not the entirety of society sees what I make as being positive or not is up to me, but from a personal place, where I come from it, it’s love and nothing more. I’m proud that I have access to such a wonderful world of individuals and I hope to continue sharing my life with them. Living where I do, it would be a tragedy to turn away from the plethora of experience and people. You’d be surprised how many people have a story to tell if you smile and nod and acknowledge their existence.