Documentary shows decades of the Villages impact on American culture
By JERRY TALLMER
Edward Albee sits on a park bench in Greenwich Village and says: Id read about the Village, how Bohemian it was, and after getting thrown out of college, couldnt wait to get here.
Norman Mailer, at his ease in the White Horse, thinks back to his boyhood in Brooklyn in the 1930s: Our one idea above all was to get laid. The mecca for that was Greenwich Village. It had a wonderful patina. I got to the Village in 1955. One of the ironies of today is that unless youre pretty high up in the bourgeois world, you cant afford to live in Greenwich Village.
He talks of E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Hart Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain
Tim Robbins sits on a stoop on St. Lukes Place and says: What astonishes me about growing up [on King Street] in Greenwich Village is that Id be walking down the street with my baseball glove going to play softball, and Id be walking next to Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan.
Steve Schlurak, bartender at Chumleys, points out Table 8, where Scott and Zelda Fitzerald are reputed to have consummated their romance.
Woody Allen looks back to his start in Village clubs like the Comedy Cellar and The Village Gate (where this journalist first saw him): You always had an audience and they were good ones.
Lorraine Gordon in the Village Vanguard talks of her husband Max This was his salon, his living room and of Dinah Washington, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Yul Brynner, Mingus breaking down the door, Bill Evans looking like a wounded bird.
Roy Haynes talks of playing with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum at Café Society Downtown, and of Billie Holiday, in that basement at 2 Sheridan Square.
Maya Angelou sits on a stoop in North Carolina and talks of her middle-class background, her early reverence of poets, and of how when I got to the Village I felt like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch
home at last, home at last.
Another Maya, and a great one, filmmaker Maya Deren, you wont see in this film, because she is long gone, but if you look sharp you may catch a glimpse of her as the camera pans past a wall of book jackets at Chumleys.
It was in fact the legacy of Maya Deren, in particular her golden glorious Meshes of the Afternoon, that inspired Karen Kramer, the first time she saw Meshes, back in college in Denver, Colorado, to become a filmmaker herself.
The climax to a full career of almost 30 years in that line well, the climax so far is an evocative, informative 70-minute documentary, The Ballad of Greenwich Village, more than a dozen years in the making, thats on its way to the Quad Cinema on 13th Street.
Allen Ginsberg you wont see (except in beautiful photos of him as a very young man) because he died just before Karen Kramer could get him on camera.
Id had a preliminary meeting with him, she says. A very generous guy. He talked about Walt Whitman and other poets. It was when Allen died [in 1997] that I took whatever little money I had and began to interview people, beginning with the folksingers. (Theres also some strong, frantic footage of cops manhandling folksingers and listeners in the 1960s in Washington Square.)
When I met with Richie Havens in front of the Bitter End, some nearby construction was making a lot of noise. Richie asked the construction workers to stop, and they all did. After the interview he went up to each of them and shook their hands.
What had taken all those years until then was two things. One, to raise the money, and two, because Im such a thorough researcher. Even before I interviewed Norman Mailer, in December 1999, I went and read all his books.
All of them?
She moves her hands in a gesture of Oh, well. Some I skimmed through. But I read all his nonfiction. And with Edward Albee, I read everything. I hope people get the symbolism of Edward being interviewed on a park bench a visual reference to the whereabouts of The Zoo Story, Albees first produced play,
I did not think the funding would come easily, she says. But beyond that came the problem of how to take this enormous amount of material and put it shaping the figure with her hands into a funnel.
It kills me, all the stuff I couldnt put in. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitneys studio on 8th Street. Eddie Condons on 3rd Street. Pfaffs Beer Hall of the 1850s. Charles Pfaff, a German immigrant, was Americas first Bohemian. And on and on and on. All the artists and writers. Every writer passed through Greenwich Village.
I began to see that certain things have to stand for everything, like Café Society for Jazz. You know, some people hated Café Society because it was interracial. Theyd throw tomatoes at the customers.
Karen Kramer had been making movies about other places, other cultures including Maya Derens Haiti since 1977, when one day, standing in line in a grocery store on Bleecker Street, she got chatting with an 87-year-old woman who started telling anecdotes about all the wonderful people shed known in the Village.
I never saw that woman again, but I thought I really should document some of these people before its too late. Maybe I would tell the story of Bleecker Street. Then, when I began research, I saw how far back Bohemia goes in Greenwich Village back past the hippies, back past the Beats, back past John Reed
The more research I did, the more it got like one of those Russian dolls within a doll within a doll. I had a very logical plan. I would raise the money, do the research, write the script, start shooting.
It didnt work like that. A whole other component was getting the archival material. A task so labor-intensive, working with the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Public Library, the Library of Performing Arts, also with private collections.
There are at least 120 stills in the film, but its not just finding the stills. You have to get the rights and thats not easy. And once youve got the photo and once youve got the rights, then you have to make the photo compatible with the editing process and thats a nightmare.
And theres a third component, says the filmmaker. I wanted some neighborhood people to be in this like Jean Murai, for instance, that elegant lady in a red suit. She used to be a folksinger; shes also an activist, interested in human rights. I first met her at a protest meeting against something NYU was doing. She called the other day and said: Karen, whens my movie opening?
Its opening July 22 at the Quad, and Leroy Street resident Karen Kramer, who as a young woman made a beeline for the Village from where shed grown up in the suburbs hopes that all Greenwich Villagers will be proud of it.
I will die, wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay, but that is all I will do for Death. This documentary seconds the case.