New York Diary: Proof of Purchase

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The Independent Culture
PURCHASE COLLEGE is to American indie film as Goldsmiths' is to Young British Art. But the New York film conservatory is not even on the New York press radar. After all, it's public, and poorer than that other film school, NYU, alma mater of Scorsese and Spike Lee.

But on Wednesday night, Purchase showed off its cool school props most lavishly. At a screening called Reel Grit, held at Lincoln Center, graduates Hal Hartley and Laws of Gravity's Nick Gomez, along with assorted Sundance prize-winners, showed up for Purchase's student films.

Schooled in New York independent film, the Reel Grit film-makers favoured silent sound-tracks and shots of glass, amusement parks and carburettors. The films were lousy with skinny, depressed girls and their anorexic boyfriends, smoking, self-mutilating or slapping each other.

Though these young film-makers might as well belong to the Hal Hartley Film Society, at the screening's party Hartley was laconic about the youth oeuvre. He stood in the corner, avoiding the room's giant shrimp and numerous publicists. Frozen in an ennui-filled close-up, Hartley would only say that he liked his own films.

"Hal's extremely self-confident," said a fellow Purchase grad, David Schwartz. The young film-makers seemed just as confident.

"Purchase is sincere and close-knit; it's real," said Azakiel Jacobs, 26, there for his short film Kirk and Kerry. Jacobs, a skinny man with a pierced chin and a pork pie hat, was soon on his cell phone, which had a zany, half-inch-wide mouthpiece. "But this is my only phone. I'm fully homeless," he explained, in an accent best termed Greenwich Village homeboy.

Nick Gomez, now an LA-based lenser, said, "Unlike NYU, Purchase film- makers aren't looking to make the pre-prequel Star Wars." Others testified to the school as a training-ground for actors (eg Parker Posey) and directors who could never have afforded the fancier film academies.

When the after-party screening started, I discovered that Purchase was so real, young and cool that I even knew these films' heliotropic stars. One film stars a tough-looking blonde in the role of a beautiful, inscrutable car thief (Goddard, anyone?). This girl had, in real time, stolen my first boyfriend. I also recognised another film's young thesp, a Winona Ryder lookalike. Last I saw her, she was holding forth on her favourite erotica while drinking whiskey from Mason jars.

The student films were, indeed, militantly cool, promising a new breed of slender-hipped, gimlet-eyed Parkers and actor-directing Gomezes. Jacob's short was the best. His Goddard was the the post-'68 one. In his film, Jacobs and his film crew interrupted an intentionally actorly scene of domestic abuse. Yet some New York cineastes in the audience seemed unimpressed.

"The party is great but the films are blah. NYU's film department can sleep soundly tonight," said one distributor.

Not everyone was here to scout for raw talent to cook up for New Line or Miramax films. A pretty poet named Countryman told me he wasn't into film. He was really, not reel-y gritty. He had shown up, he said, "for the free seafood".

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