A FEW YEARS ago at Film Forum—this year celebrating its 40th birthday—I had a half-hour wait before the start of Manufactured Landscapes. The documentary examined the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, which find beauty in the odd detritus of economic globalization, rendering science fiction-like images of quarries, recycling yards and factories in China and Bangladesh. Because the filmmaker was on hand for a Q&A, I arrived early to secure tickets for me and my girlfriend.
With time to kill, I sat in the lobby— where even the film-school-bright ticket rippers are part of the ambience—basking in the intellectual atmosphere, high church of cinema aesthetics and delicious smell of what A.O. Scott calls “the best movie popcorn in New York.” Then my muse whispered to me: Why not write an essay on Film Forum? After all, I’m a teacher who writes, hoping to become a writer who teaches.
Doping out the piece from the sidewalk, I contemplated the theater’s glowing blue sign, cheerfully greeting pilgrims who emerge from the bowels of the 1 train on Varick. My own life took a cinematic turn, though, when a tough-looking man sitting in front of a nearby Laundromat announced to his cronies: “Hey, that’s De Niro’s wife!” She apparently knew this gruff Italian guy, who looked plucked from A Bronx Tale. They kissed on the cheek and exchanged greetings before she glided down Bedford Street. I stood transfixed, like a fly in the amber glow of fame. Still, I had enough wits about me to realize that my “Rupert Pupkin moment” (a character played by De Niro in the 1983 film King of Comedy—which I had the pleasure of re-visiting at a recent Film Forum retrospective—whose guiding mantra is: “Better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime”) was slipping away from me with each of her long-legged steps.
Working up the nerve to approach Mrs. Bobby D., I remained pinned to the spot, resigned to schmuckdom and a non-encounter with the wife of a show biz legend. What I needed was a shot of agency. Agency is a buzzword from the field of Education Philosophy. It means the ability to escape submergence in the everyday routine, to strike out boldly, to take action.
Interestingly, it was my teaching—my primary source of agency—that led to my Eureka-moment discovery of Film Forum on a spring afternoon in 1997. While student teaching at City-As-School, I stumbled by chance upon this cultural Oz during an ambling lunch hour stroll.
Remembering that I do, in fact, have agency—because I’m a teacher—I became an actor in my own life again! Lights, camera, action!
Through a sheer act of will, I overcame my fame-paralysis, shifted into gear and caught up with De Niro’s wife. “Excuse me ma’am,” I said. “I’m writing an article about the Forum, and was wondering if you had a minute to tell me what it means to you.”
She smiled. “It’s the greatest movie theater in the world! I go there once a month at least. They show everything from the classics to cutting-edge documentaries. I hope it stays there forever!” Then, bustling down Bedford, she spun around to sprinkle me with fame dust one more time: “Thanks for writing something positive about Film Forum!” I returned to the theater transformed alchemically by this magical encounter, my faith in the power of writing reaffirmed; in particular how when we write, reality itself bends to suit our purposes, the universe opening strangely unexpected doors.
Manufacturing Landscapes was revelatory. The opening-sequence alone, an 11-minute slow-pan inside a Chinese factory that captures the degradation of the worker-slaves (whose opportunities to be “king for a day” in their own lives are minimal) is incredible. During the chat with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, I wanted to mention the provocative political implications of the film. But the sophisticated Film Forum audience cowed me into silence. Until it hit me: Wasn’t I just chatting with Robert De Niro’s wife outside?
Bam! Summoning agency, my hand shot up. Baichwal danced around my political inquiry, saying that Burtynsky values the ambiguity of his work, and likes the fact that CEOs take as much pleasure in it as social justice types. Still, I spoke. I made my point, articulating my ideas like a ripple into the sea of the universe.
Exiting the theater, I turned to my girlfriend. “How did I sound?” I asked pensively. “You sounded good,” she said, in her sweet Colombian accent. “I think you’re gonna be famous.”