Filmed with a high-speed video camera, James Nares’ “Street” is a completely captivating hour-long meditation on the throngs perambulating the streets of New York City. For 16 hours Nares’ camera, mounted in the side window of a van, was trained directly upon the view of sidewalk pedestrians. This particular video camera was designed to film high-speed movement such as rocket launches or explosions with the resulting footage being seen in slow motion. The use of high-speed cameras to create slow motion films can produce extraordinary, if predictable, results. In fact, a whole TV series was devoted to such footage: Discovery Channel’s “Time Warp”, whose viewers were regularly presented with slow motion videos of shaking wet dogs or bursting balloons.
Unlike the fast moving subjects filmed by the “Time Warp” program, the use of the high-speed camera to photograph pedestrian life was inspired. Movement on Manhattan sidewalks is often slow indeed and high-speed cinematography is certainly not required to record the action. And therein is the genius of this project: using slow motion cinematography to record slow movement. In this hour-long film, a streetscape of sidewalks, fire hydrants, no parking signs and storefronts glide past the camera, while the pedestrians appear to be moving extremely slowly or are almost frozen. The effect is of an endless procession of humanity passing across the screen with each figure appearing with startling three dimensionality. Sculptural friezes come to mind: figure upon figure exhibiting every imaginable pose, facial expression, and hand gesture. Some eyes look to the sky, others gaze downward or to something of in the distance. A man’s brow is furrowed, his face a rictus of suffering- or not. His expression frozen, his internal monologue is truly unknowable, but the viewer can imagine. As the camera moves relentlessly forward, new figures come into the frame as other figures pass from view. This procession of humanity is glacial, allowing our scrutiny of every body, but more to the point every face.
We viewers can stare at this spectacular array of human kind passing before our eyes, for what is more fascinating than staring at fellow New Yorkers? We can examine these faces, pondering what thoughts animate their expressions. Although the high-speed camera appears to have stopped people in mid stride, the camera records slowly changing expressions and moving eyes. In one comical interval a woman with large breasts moves across the frame while at the same time the eyes of a man sitting on a stoop behind her can be seen to follow her chest as she moves past him. The possible thoughts suggested by his gaze are few. A moment later both have vanished from our view to be replaced by other fascinating interrelationships.
The moving camera creates a few sublime moments. For an interval, the long procession of pedestrians is at a lull. Not for long: a Michelangelian index finger magically floats into view followed by the thumb and other digits, an arm, shoulder, a face and then a torso. Fixed mid gesture, a man is staring and pointing at something off camera. In another scene a young man in white tee shirt magically pops into view from behind a dark green light pole. The camera moves along with his progress for a moment until he disappears from the screen.
There are other delightful surprises: A man flicks a cigarette, the butt rapidly flies through the air in front of him, scribing an arc across the screen. Another scene shows a bumblebee flying in between statuesque figures. And in another, birds flutter and dart amongst inanimate humans.
“Street“ can be seen as a brilliant counterpoint to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, in which the camera was run at slow speed resulting in footage that was sped up. The film portrayed New York City as an intricate machine run amok. In Reggio’s film, the individuals are expressionless drones speeding across the screen. In “Street”, Nares’ high speed camera depicts slow emotion, offering for our scrutiny a panoply of complex facial expressions which animate the faces of pedestrians.