It’s late Friday afternoon at Veneto, and we’re having dinner with two Irish guys. Traolach Ó Murchú and the less-exotically monikered John Murphy. They’re back in Rochester for the first time since the summer of 2016, a visit that included a Rochester Red Wings game, and now Murphy is offering his impression of American baseball.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know what was going on,” Murphy confesses. Although he did grasp the concept of the “Taco K Man,” where each game a member of the visiting team is selected, and if he strikes out anytime during the game everyone in attendance wins a free taco.
More importantly, Ó Murchú and Murphy knew what was going on with the Veneto menu. Both men ordered wood-fired pizzas, a culinary creation that’s gone international. Italy and Brooklyn step aside, you can get wood-fired pizzas in Ireland. Peat-smoked, I suppose, for the adventurous. As we ate, I got a lesson on Gaelic football and hurling, the latter a sport which I gather is kind of like lacrosse and rugby, in which you can pass the ball backward to a teammate or flatten the guy on the other team if he hangs onto the ball too long. That’s the part Americans would understand. Flatten the other guy.
Ó Murchú and Murphy had returned to Rochester for the showing of their documentary at the One Take Film Fest. Photo City, the story of Rochester’s deep connection to photography, and the impact of the collapse of Eastman Kodak on the city.
I wish I’d had time to see more films at the three-day One Take Film Fest, a lineup of documentaries shown mostly at The Little Theatre. As time allowed, with a culture-choked weekend here that included what has quickly evolved into the most-meaningful holiday of the year – for me anyway – Record Store Day, I was able to take in only two films. And three cocktail parties.
I have my priorities.
One of those films was The King, an exploration of the Elvis Presley phenomena. Most of the audience seemed to approve of The King, a patchwork of people’s observations on Elvis, loosely tied together by various celebrities taking a cross-country ride in Elvis’ – or what I assume was one of Elvis’ many – Rolls Royce sedans.
The scene where the car breaks down with the singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier on board is kind of representative of how I felt about The King. I’m not sure what I got out of actors Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke sharing their thoughts on Presley. I think they were little kids, at best, even during Presley’s slow fade into Vegas parody. And maybe the producers thought that allowing newsman Dan Rather to present an overview of the Elvis phenomena added the proper gravitas. But it all just seemed… unnecessary. We know the story. Actually, the amusing comments by actor Mike Myers, with his distant Canadian perspective, seemed most incisive.
The message of The King seemed to be: Decay. We’re watching the talented, handsome rock star as he’s corrupted by what he sought most, stardom. That story of downward spiral is an overly familiar one. But connecting it to the decay of the country itself, through cutaways to Donald Trump campaigning for the presidency, and then being sworn in, is a real reach.
Yet there are some parallels. Greed plays a role in both stories. And racism is evident.
Cultural appropriation is a tricky question, it depends on how the culture’s being used. Racism presents itself in The King as white America’s acceptance of black music only when performed by a white man. Yet we shouldn’t condemn Elvis for that any more than we should criticize a black person for playing classical music. The pursuit of any muse should be open to everyone. The economic exploitation of culture? That’s a different story. As The King points out, at every fork in the road of Presley’s career, his manager Col. Tom Parker chose the most-lucrative path.
These questions become much-more troubling when considering Trump’s calculated greed and racism. Especially when compounded by other factors playing into the downward spiral of the White House. It is disease that runs far deeper, and is more complex, and more insidious, than what happened at Graceland.
Photo City is about decay as well. People in Rochester you may or may not know, talking about Kodak’s glory days. And then the decline. Photographer Max Schulte is prominent early on, ruminating on photojournalism. Frank de Blase and his wife Deb Jones are in the living room of their home, where Frank is shooting photos of a nude woman, offering hilarious and self-deprecating philosophies of cheesecake. Ó Murchú and Murphy follow Rochester photographers into crumbling neighborhoods and homeless shelters and to a tent city beneath a downtown bridge underpass, recording images of destitute Americans eating pizza.
They interview Joseph Morinelli and his father in an empty parking lot outside of one of the now-silent Kodak buildings. Joseph Sr. worked there for decades. Joseph Jr. plays guitar in Joywave, a Rochester rock band that tours the world. Wherever it goes, the band makes sure people understand it’s not just from New York, but from Rochester, and all that comes with that. All five of the guys in Joywave have connections to Kodak through their families. Joywave writes songs influenced by Kodak, and growing up within sight of those smokestacks, in homes that depended on Kodak paychecks.
Ó Murchú and Murphy aren’t intrusive, they gently back into the story of each character. At one point they’re talking to a guy. Only after a few moments does the audience understand that this is Steve Sasson. Hey! He’s the Kodak employee who created much of the technology that became digital photography. During breaks in his work day. Digital killed the film industry. But it’s not Sasson’s fault. He showed his new ideas to his bosses. As he says in Photo City, they didn’t ask: How? They asked: Why?
There are images of racism, yes. Local filmmaker Carvin Eisen discusses that in the film, and the Rochester riots of 1964. And he was at the post-film talkback the first night of the showing at The Little, asking a hard question: Was it really necessary to show a photo of a black woman, lynched, dangling from a railroad bridge over a river, the bridge lined with dozens of white people celebrating their accomplishment?
Yes, Ó Murchú and Murphy said. The photo wasn’t exploitation. Photography is a serious art, it speaks uncomfortable truths. In fact, The King showed two different images of black people who had been lynched. Those photos are a shocking truth. Black Lives Matter has a much longer history than Ferguson, Missouri.
The tone of Photo City is often depressing. Yet it closes on an unexpectedly upbeat note, as hundreds of the city’s residents gather downtown one evening to be a part of “The Big Picture.” A photo of Kodak tower lit at night.
Is Rochester a photographer’s town? It is “generally true,” Murphy says. But that picture is evolving.
“It’s really changed in the 18 months since we shot the film,” Murphy says as the wood-fired pizzas disappeared. “A lot of the buildings, they’re kinda gone. Kodak has that big MCC sign on it now. And we’ve noticed a lot more people downtown, just walking around.”
The two filmmakers had never been to Rochester until they made a film about it. Murphy said they were expecting to find people expressing anger and frustration at Kodak. Yet, “Everyone we met was incredibly proud of the town.”
“The more people you meet,” Ó Murchú adds, “you get a better sense of the city.”
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