When we wandered into a darkened room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we came upon a large-screen video of hypnotically slow-moving pedestrians on New York City’s streets. Even odder, the street scenes were shot in sweeping cinematic pans. These New Yorkers (and the occasional pigeon), whose movements were slowed to an otherworldly crawl, seemed to be part of a majestic, friezelike tableaux come to life. Moving through the ethereal streetscape were the hot dog vendors and children on scooters, bike riders and pedestrians on cell phones, lovers and fighters, traffic cops, garment workers, parking meters, water ice stands, wig shops and newsstands that we so often take for granted or notice only for a fleeting moment as we hurry past. These visuals captured from daily life were rendered so bizarre and unexpected that we assumed it was trick photography or that the whole endeavor had been staged.
But it was neither. We were watching James Nares’ film Street, a mere two and a half minutes of real-time footage slowed down to 61 minutes. We stood transfixed until a guard told us the museum was closing and ushered us out.
Nares, a British transplant, best known for his large-brushstroke paintings, explained that the film was inspired by his obsession with the street life of his adopted home, New York City, and his love of actuality films of the early 20th century in which a camera would be mounted on a moving streetcar or horse-drawn carriage and record everything in its path.
But Nares wanted to shoot his own actuality film in slow motion. To test the concept, Nares shot footage of street life out of his car window using a cheap low-res camera, as he drove from his home in Brooklyn to his studio in Chelsea. One day, he was pulled over by a cop. "They thought I was some kind of kooky artist so they didn’t complain much," says Nares, "although they did tell me to stop." But what Nares saw in that low-quality footage convinced him that his concept would work.
It took Nares three years to get the funding to make the film that was to be shot with a high-speed Phantom Flex HD camera normally used to capture fast-action objects, like speeding bullets or hummingbirds.
In 2011, Nares had the back seats of an SUV removed and its windows blacked out. He mounted the camera in the rear so he could aim it out the left or right side of the car depending on which shot looked best. Nares had two drivers, and a technician and assistant to handle the complicated camera. His plan was to shoot Manhattan from Chinatown to Washington Heights, capturing New Yorkers of every age, race, and socio-economic group—the rich and the poor, the hip and the square, the workers and the homeless. Nares’ route through the city was determined by intuition, but each street had to follow certain criteria: It had to be fairly free of parked cars so as not to obstruct the film’s subjects, his car had to be able to get up to 30 miles per hour so that in the finished film the subjects would appear to float, and the light had to be right. The camera continuously recorded, but the digital files were so huge that the longest clip that could be downloaded was only six seconds so Nares had to be very selective in the shooting process.
During what Nares describes as an idyllic fall week with "many weathers," he and his crew set off for six and a half days of filming. Cruising through the city, he said, he felt like a shark, stalking prey. And, in fact, the lens of the camera, like a beady predator’s eye, can be glimpsed in the reflections of a few plate glass windows. Nares told us that he was not looking for the spectacular but for the nuances in everyday moments—"filmmaking that doesn’t interfere with what’s being filmed."
Having shot 16 hours of film, Nares took it in stride that he had lost half of his footage because of a mis-calibrated lens, telling us, "I looked at it once and then put it aside." In the editing process, he searched for moments that had some revelation, surprise or insight. "I’m not a narrative filmmaker, because that’s not how I view the world," he says. "But the film ended up being a collection of little narratives, stories within stories. You’re always wondering what’s going to happen next." And each scene that Nares chose for the final film feels epic, as if time itself were under a microscope—whether it is the Times Square crowd assembled as if it were enacting an ancient rite around the Naked Cowboy strumming his guitar, a businessman struggling across the street as he girded himself against a rainstorm with only a precarious umbrella as his shield, or the four teenage girls at a corner, standing in a row, who one by one spy Nares’ camera and swivel to meet its gaze, each in her own way.
To score the film, Nares invited his friend Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth to create a moody twelve-string guitar composition that emphasizes the emotional weight of Nares’s subjects, who appear to float through his surreal cityscape.
On watching Street Nares says, "There’s a beauty in the dignity of everyone in the film and it just feels good to me to feel this love for humanity. It sounds so corny, because any one of those people could have some ghastly side to them, but for a brief moment I can suspend all of that and just enjoy being part of this world and being part of New York City. I was really looking forward to showing it in New York City. And I didn’t know how I was going to show it. Was I going to rent a movie theater? Or was it going to be an installation? And the next thing you know, it was at the Met. I couldn’t have been happier."
Street is on view through May 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with works from the museum’s permanent collection selected by James Nares.