“When you collapse the borders, things happen.”
Three Obsessions Listed Below:
The Idea of Authenticity
The Things That Forge Us
Food media has proliferated to the point where Netflix now pays for puppets to visit Peru and HBO commissions Selena Gomez to make an omelet. We’ve arrived here with precedent: for years, Anthony Bourdain used food as a sly cover to travel and make intelligent documentary journalism. Jonathan Gold and Lucky Peach made food writing literary and joyous. Really we might now be in the golden age of food media, because in addition to the endless shows where Jon Favreau-types make a sandwich for recognizable comedians, we have strange and story-forward documents that make use of food’s universal appeal to present something artful and sui generis—David Shapiro’s Untitled Pizza Movie being one excellent example.
Subtitled, accurately, “a history of fucking up,” Untitled Pizza Movie is a slice-shaped, three-sided story: Shapiro narrativizes his own past, the life of his friend Leeds Atkinson, and a gregarious once-criminal pizza man named Andrew Belluci. The three intersect in surprising ways. What starts as a reclamation and recontextualization of a ’90s documentary Shapiro made with Atkinson—wherein the two wear jeans and ask around for free slices of pizza—becomes a Proustian journey into the past, to the caves of Batu, and a small bird-filled park in the south of France.
Untitled Pizza Movie makes good use of Shapiro’s storage locker: both literally, because it uses the objects he’s kept for years behind a roller grate somewhere in Queens, and figuratively, when the film cuts away to objects in front of a white background—subtextual illustrations of memories, people, moods. The music, too, feels like warm vinyl pressed some forty years ago: music Brian Eno made when his hair was still long, 13th Floor Elevators, Iggy Pop, and Yellow Magic Orchestra—propulsive and cohering over interviews and documentary footage which recreate Shapiro’s wide-reaching and poignant archive: or, in other words, his life.
Jonathan Lethem, who is a master of this sort of archive work in his own fiction, and whose criticism contextualizes referentiality and influence with a great deal of éclat, spoke with Shapiro at Metrograph. We at The Believer humbly requested to run a transcription of this conversation—which can be watched in full for $5 at Metrograph—and then edited it lightly, for clarity.
JONATHAN LETHEM: David, where do we begin? We have this sense of intertwined legacy. I just finished watching the seven episodes again to get ready to talk with you, and it’s an overwhelming kind of immersion in your sensibility—your world—but also my own world. It’s a film that returns viewers to themselves because of its capacity to involve you in the constructions of memory and loss in the most remarkable way. Thank you for making it.
DAVID SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for speaking with me and being so generous in your words. As you just said, sometimes you meet somebody, and you feel like you know them—new friend or old—our symmetries are remarkable yet distinct. New York figures in both our facts, and our imaginations.
JL: I recently lost an old friend, Michael Seidenberg. There are ways in which he was a kind of Leeds for me, though I had a much better opportunity to be with him in the later part of his life. He used to have this joke. He’d say, when you meet someone who you had so much in common with and you didn’t already know them, he’d say, “Well, big world.” That’s how I feel about you.
DS: I mean, it’s The Naked City, right? If you’re one in a million, you think that there are seven other people like you. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll meet them on a subway car or at Katz’s or at a club, but maybe you never will.
JL: You and I share so much. It makes the project of talking with you about it really thrilling for me. I’m conscious of not wanting to exclude the listener, as we tumble down our own kind of Venn diagram rabbit-hole of concordances. This very difficulty in archiving memory, the chaos of it, the challenge I find even in organizing my questions for you—it’s really a subject in your film. The movement of the turntables, the sliding of memory stuff down a conveyor belt—it suggests that memory won’t sit still. And the way Leed’s brother reads the emails, and you begin to layer them sonically so that what starts like a calm reflection layers, and begins to resemble a more anxious or agitated expression. The viewer realizes this is how memory and emotion work—they won’t sit still. They cascade. And they begin to falsify or distort each other.
DS: My disclaimer for the whole work is there are no JPEGs used in this movie. Emails, photographs, milk crates of records—I made memories into things. I wanted to make memories into objects. And that’s the give and take, trying to put your hand on something that’s no longer there.
JL: Both film and memory are so intangible, and you seem to be trying to restore them to a material state with the sculptures and archival objects. And yet ironically, you and I are wanting to meet, and we’re in this dissociated state right now, right? Meeting without meeting, looking through these Zoom windows. The pandemic moment is paradoxical. In one sense it sticks us in locality: a house, an apartment. Gardening, cooking. You’re with your stuff. I’m with my stuff. [Laughs] But also, we’ve all been thrust into virtuality. I can kind of see your stuff, but I can’t touch it. This is something that your movie flirts with in a really interesting way, you know?
On Zoom, I’m constantly wanting to read the books on the shelves behind people’s heads. I’m familiar with this from watching moderately-interesting, “talking heads”-style documentaries on various subjects. Even if I’m very interested, I’m a little bored. I start to think: if only I could get into that room and turn the corner and touch the stuff. I’m looking at a room like that with you right now. Your movie is so much about physical archiving, the swirl of the objects. And yet it’s very plain that some of the objects are constructed for the occasion. You’ve made memories tangible. They won’t sit still and be completely understood, but they do repeat. The viewer is with them all the time and never able to touch them, and then you have these collectors, these fellow archive hounds. Some quite absurd. [Laughs] The business card collection, Bellucci’s dad. His mom sorting through those T-shirts. You suddenly realize, Oh, it’s another archive and we can’t quite pin it down, Then, you know, the odd idea of food as an archive.
So, I’m going to tell you a story: I was obsessed with Queen Pizzeria on Court Street as a teenager. There was a period where I was working in a garment shop in a floor right above the pizzeria, same building. I’d go down and eat a slice of Queen pizza every day. And I’d then take the wax paper, the stained greasy wax paper—you know how they’d give you this one inadequate, translucent sheet—and I’d put it in an envelope and send it to my friend Eliot. [Laughs] I did this every day for like two weeks. I ate a Queen slice and I put the wax paper in an envelope. Eliot’s still got them in a file, still bleeding grease from the ’80s.
DS: I mean, we may be freaks, but that’s close to my heart. I appreciate that. I appreciate the commitment, the intent, the want to preserve something, a moment.
This is in many ways an archive work, except I made the archive for the film, in some ways. I was recreating memories. Let’s say, Bellucci’s earliest memory is playing with a saucepan with some clothespins in it and pretending to cook. I just thought that needs to be seen.
JL: That’s fantastic.
DS: And maybe that’s a silly way to remember somebody, but it’s not. It’s in the details of life, like your work [Motherless Brooklyn], which attends to the clockwork of character stuck on certain things. And you have to go full cycle a couple of times to get past it.
JL: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s a fabulous method. Did you get to eat that casserole or was it ruined by the time it was under the lights?
DS: Well, it was a little funky. [Laughs] I’ll tell you one thing. A lot of the crew were vegetarians. What I thought would be pragmatic turned out to be dinner for one, which was not me. This massive P.A. pretty much ate the whole fucking thing [Laughs], which is perverse, but I was kind of impressed.
JL: That’s great. [Laughs] I’m mostly a vegetarian these days, but I kind of wanted a bite of that casserole. I love sauerkraut. All right. Let me try to talk about your formal decisions in the film, before the emotion overwhelms me—because there’s a lot I’d like to ask you about the feeling in the film, the personal material, the triangle between you and Leeds and Bellucci. But in terms of formal strategy, there’s a really interesting, deliberate result that you achieve, with the fact of “episodes.” The recurrence of an idea of closure which is a false closure. The serial return of the footnotes and the credit sequences. This become enormously important. I think it’s actually consoling to the viewer. Grounding. You begin to look forward to the credits in this thing. The funny thing about this “quality television” that we all watch now is that we get so damn annoyed with the intro and the credits, and they’ve put in a “skip” button. But you’ve made them so rich that it’s almost like, Oh, good, I get to go through another song and another version. What’s he going to do with the credits this time? When did you know it would be a seven-piece movie?
DS: Serial work is akin to a novel. You can go deep with character and with memory. You’re sometimes ahead of a viewer or reader, sometimes you’re behind, sometimes you’re complicit. But with serial presentation, like chapters in a book, you can go back three degrees over or forward ten.
I can try and represent a memory and go backward and forward and allow the viewer or myself even to remember it a little differently. What I started to realize was that in a serial approach I could use the credits to re-remember the work. It’s like the old card game Concentration, it’s like “I know where that sock is, that’s the lost sock part.”
JL: That’s perfect. We’re turning over this card again and again. “I peeked under that one again, I think i know what’s under there.”
DS: Yes, that’s right. Plus, I wanted to misapply the kind of corporate episodic model, which seems quite formulaic to me. I wanted to paint a very small story on a grand canvas. To employ the conventions and language of that but to turn it on its head to sort of make a Trojan horse work that tells a personal story. Everybody’s got a friend they came up with who maybe they went separate ways from—maybe bad things happen to both of you, maybe good things and bad things. Maybe you’re still friends, maybe you’re not. But that’s kind of fundamentally human. Set that against a city in the throngs of gentrification. I thought it was an interesting foreground background to rack back and forth.
JL: The rapid, remorseless transformations of the city create really different results when people navigate homesickness from up close or from a distance. Having done both, I think it’s actually devastating to return from afar. You think you can reclaim things that are long gone. The people who’ve been right there on the site haven’t even been able to hold onto them. But at least if you stay in New York, you’re a tangible witness to the transformation, you mourn them in real time. It’s as though Leeds gambled and lost. He thought he could turn his back on it and then return to touch it again.
DS: Or maybe he won. Maybe he got the fuck out just in time. I mean, it depends how you look at it, right? Like New York and New Yorkers suffer from the disease that we think this is the center of the world. And in some ways, it’s one of them. And in other ways it’s just a city. But like anybody from their hometown or their small town or their big town or their major cosmopolis, we’re obsessed with the things that forge us, whether we want to unpack them or not. Worlds that are huge when we’re tiny little creatures when revisited become diminished in stature. And like, this is where I played kickball and it seemed like the whole world was here and now it’s this little, shitty playground.
And that’s how I connect to so much of your work. You’re trying to grab hold of something that is ephemeral and maybe it’s about the bigger memory of what it means in your life. I remember reading one of your articles about a train station. You remember holding your mother’s hand in that station, and that was a beautiful sentiment. You want to etch it into some grand monument to give it meaning, but really, it’s about being a little boy and feeling a moment of love and security, and I can relate to that.
JL: Well, this doubleness is something you capture so brilliantly. The seven volumes evokes Proust, and yet it’s an unpretentious epic. It’s a humane and vernacular piece of work. There are allusions; moments when I realized that you are thinking about, for instance, the slice of pizza as a madeleine. There’s a lot of literary reference that slips in effortlessly, and I think it’s one of the more novelistic films I’ve ever seen. It resembles a novel in its capacity to think about memory itself as a problem. Not just to present the past, about the city as a personal site as well as portray it, not sociologically, but in a truly documentary sense. The objectivity of the camera reminds us that reality exists for everyone captured in your lens. Not just for these characters trying to reclaim their city, The city, and therefore the film, belongs to anyone who was there at the time. It’s also an essay film.
DS: I was trying to collapse form and live in the fault lines of the boxes of the Zoom grid—in an uncomfortable place. That’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Approaching something serially allowed me to revisit moments in different ways, and to have little biographies peppered throughout, to try on different ways of telling someone’s life in forty-five seconds, five minutes, in three shots, in three bites. And unlike working just with words, I have the privy of picture and sound. So, I can tell you what the subtexts are right now, or I can hold up something and we can look at it. [Shapiro holds up a miniature pizza box with Untitled Pizza Movie printed on the top of it and opens it; inside is a list of the Subtexts in the film].
That’s a different tool in the kit. That’s a different arrow in the quiver, and so I think collapsing the form between personal essay, biography, I mean, is it a film? Is it a series? When you collapse the borders, things happen. And I wanted to push it forward and make a hybrid work and just not worry about what it is. Just make it.
JL: Well, it’s a splendid result. And it really does raise each of those questions in the most intelligible way. One of the great Easter egg references is the flowerpot that’s got the first line from Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night circling around on it for an instant: “From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist.” I was like, I know that line! What is it? What is it trying to tell me? What am I? What’s happening in my head right now?
DS: There are a lot of autobiographies and biographies referenced in this work, literally and figuratively, and so that’s kind of what I was doing. It’s not necessarily a memoir, although there’s components of it. It’s foregrounding myself in a story. But there are documentary elements, too. There’s a pizzamentary, if you will. There’s a documentary of changing technology and of a city—when you have the element of time and a visual means to relay it, you can see something literally change right before your eyes. Where there’s Luchow’s one year, the next it’s an NYU dorm. And those documentaries become elements of the work that are interesting, in tandem with a deeply personal one.
And then, like your work or like any novelist’s work, I might suggest, there’s the reliability of the narrator, and how much do you trust and how much do you buy, and how much are you sort of keeping an arm’s distance from? And so, I try it on one hand, to be super honest and on another to play around with it a little bit like anyone would, and also to sort of announce when there’s a shift in form like, Hey, I’m imagining Bellucci’s pizza meltdown. So, in other words, this is speculative fiction. This is not a documentary, but if you’re going along with the ride and if I do a good job and it’s fun and entertaining and interesting and weird, maybe you don’t even hear those lines and you just feel like it’s real. And so that’s the kind of thing that I think a great novel does: carry you along and you’re like, Wait, this couldn’t have happened to this character, he’s imagining this in the book!
JL: Right? That’s great. It’s my luck to have watched the thing twice and been able to slow things down at moments and reframe them. I think the first time I saw, for example, Bellucci’s pizza meltdown, I was like, “he caught that. He just was there!” But then I caught it—or you confessed it. In episode five, it felt as though the pressure was building in you to confess the formal discomfort. You have Bellucci getting dressed to go out and he confronts you. He says, “I’m not an actor. [Laughs] This is your costume for me. I’m not wearing this costume. And in fact, it’s fucking with my life; don’t do this to me.” The involutions that happen there are so tremendous The film is a documentary also in the helpless sense that Thom Anderson describes when he made Los Angeles Plays Itself, which is that anything you capture in your lens is documented, by definition. I think Godard also has this remark that “every fiction film is a documentary about an interval in the lives of the actors.” So then you’ve turned this around the other way. Bellucci is experiencing his life partly through your request that he reenact or display parts of his life for your camera. So, he’s wrong. He is an actor.
DS: A social actor. Yeah, he’s a social actor. And to your point, that is an interesting area to work in. It’s an honest way to acknowledge the means of its making, which is to say, here’s what I’m doing. And I say, “Here’s what I’m doing,” sometimes or I’ll put it in text, “I’m going to do this,” and whether you as the viewer absorb it, ignore it, register it; whether it bothers you, whether you’re cool with it, I trust you to make that leap of I’m going to go along with this thing, or I hate this. Why did this guy do this now? And these are things in play when you have documentary fault lines, social actors, locations in style, you’re going to fall into fiction.
JL: Right. I mean, the editing desk is itself, you know? The minute you’re making selections. Memory is a fiction because it encompasses both memory and forgetting and exclusion. You’re aware of what you include and what you exclude. You begin storytelling almost automatically.
DS: That’s right. It’s constructed.
JL: Yeah, so there’s a comparison I wanted to offer you and see what you thought of it. Watching your movie, there’s a kind of an incredible heartache associated with the idea of lost footage and the unfinished film. The fact that Eat to Win is recovered and gets to exist inside Untitled Pizza Movie. It made me think, did you see Sandi Tannen’s Shirkers?
DS: I did, yeah.
JL: It seemed like the two things were in a kind of dialogue. Like you were both saying: I once tried to make a film and it collapsed, and it was also a piece of my life that collapsed. And it’s been hiding in storage or it’s been unavailable to me. Of course, another echo, a less direct one, but it came to mind for me, is the way we recently finally get to see someone’s reconstruction of the footage of Orson Welles, great last unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. And yet like Shirkers and like Eat to Win, Welles’ last film does and doesn’t exist. It only lives as a postulate, inside a documentary about itself.
DS: There is an inadvertent documentary in Eat to Win. On one hand, we knew what we were doing, and we were winking. On another, we were just fucking around and having fun and eating pizza for free, but, you know, we knew that we were kind of, in a way, trying to hang on to this thing because we knew it was a goner. I mean, like you, I can tell from your work. You’re born pre-sentimental. It’s built into the DNA of New Yorkers.
JL: You’re nostalgic for your present.
DS: Yeah, but that’s true of any city in the world. But New York is like on steroids because it’s like the great slate, which is, “This building was here for five years. Let’s bulldoze it and build a bigger one.” There’s no grace for history and the will to preserve it; it’s maybe the shitty, crappy things that we remember more fondly than the ones that are meant to be monuments.
JL: Dave’s egg cream!
DS: Yes! Exactly [Laughs].
JL: Why is that still in my head? Why can’t I prove to someone that it matters that it’s gone? [Laughs]
DS: And, you know, to what you’re saying before, somewhere between, let’s just say there’s a high-and low-quality here—pizza and Proust, right? Like, how do you remember something? How do you write about it? How can you take a voice that’s striving to be literary and talk about pizza? And then there’s making movies. Movies preserve things in ways that are intended and unintended, and it’s how, of course, you represent them that matters. I don’t necessarily believe in objective cinema; I think it’s completely subjective. There’s a person behind the camera.
JL: It’s a Reese’s peanut butter cup, the two are inextricable now. [Laughs]
All right, I want to get into the emotional or psychological heart of the matter. I really felt it this morning as I was finishing up my second viewing. I thought, Oh, you’re triangulating and trying to figure out whether you and Bellucci are more akin. In the end, whatever frustration one might feel with Bellucci’s capacity for self-reflection—or, you know, that he may still be exploiting people too; the 401k is a very telling clue [Laughs]—I was worried for his cousin. But there’s a sense in which he’s right when he says, “In life you need to have a thing and do it well. And I have a thing.” And you, David, you have a thing: you were making films. The difference between you and Leeds—even within the footage of Eat to Win—is you keep voting to give your shared film a formal closure, and he wants to live inside the project because he’s afraid of finishing it. Or because it is uncomfortable for him to consider presenting a result. You know, Bellucci gets results. He pulls the pies out and people eat them. And you’ve placed films in front of us. However long the journey might have been, or however lost you might have been along the way.
DS: Well, two things: first, I want to leap to Bellucci’s, I’m not going to say defense, but praise, because out of any person I’ve ever worked with, I think in some ways he’s the most honest. I tried to acknowledge that, you know, what we’re doing is working together to make this movie. I’m not just showing up and filming. I can’t do that. You know, it’s like what came first, the oven or the movie? What informed what? By turning on a camera, it sets things into motion.
So, on one hand, we were resisting each other. We were wrestling like collaborators, and on another, he was totally cool with going along with, you know, “Hey, will you wear this ‘time to get into pizza shape’ t shirt?” And he was like, “Yeah,” and he just put it on and, you know, a lot of people would not have done that, and that’s what I really like about him. And to your other point, he does get back on the horse. He is perseverant.
This is a triangulated film that sets three lives, three classes, maybe, three families, perhaps, in the same work. And it’s in the channels between them that I think the work lives. I don’t say it means this. I’m trying to take a stab at it in the middle of the work. But I trust the viewer to sort of extrapolate like, Oh, they’re kind of more alike than I originally thought, or, you know, they have more in common, even though this guy’s making movies and this guy’s making pizza. There’s something that is very different between Dave and Leeds, more than there is between Bellucci and Dave.
I called him Bellucci as a character because I’m interested in the idea that we play characters and that in the same work Dave and David can live. Even the person we are changes every decade. People might know you as Johnny is a little boy. I don’t know. Or Jonathan, it’s always been. Maybe at some point you tried J. Lethem.
JL: I’m just shaking my head because this is one of my key motifs in the Fortress of Solitude. The kids all have their tags. Everyone auditioning multiple names, multiple identities. And then sometimes they exchange tags. They both might wear the same name. And there’s the theme of the superhero. You’re Peter Parker and you’re Spider-Man. Slippage between names is a kind of negotiation. But let’s get back to the larger thing you’re saying about trusting the viewer. It’s more than trusting the viewer. You’re trusting yourself to work in a space where you don’t have the answer already. What I love in books, as a reader, and the space I try to try to stay in with my own writing, is that I don’t know that I’m thinking. The work that results is the sound of me thinking. And this film is the sound of you reality testing.
DS: It’s the sound of making it. It’s the sound of pizza. [Laughs]
JL: Yeah. You seem to be asking: what do I feel about losing Leeds? And was the friendship impossible and yet existed anyway? Does it have something to tell me about myself, or what about this guy Bellucci? Maybe I’m more like him and that resemblance forms a description of the distance between me and Leeds. A thing that was always inexpressible. The movie is the sound of you thinking and feeling your way into it.
DS: I want the work to be alive and organic, not just like a done deal where I’m following a blueprint. That is more static work, there’s a place for that. This, I feel, is more open to failure or open to things not resolving, or open to ambiguity, or opening to falling into the fault. And then you kind of have to crawl yourself up.
In a novel, in your books, you create rich characters with inner lives, and you set them into motion. And the hardest part, right, is not to protect them, is not to overdetermine what they do, but to let them do what they do and write it that way. Even if it’s not what you want them to do, you can’t help but be the person you are in a work of fiction or fact of life.
JL: How fantastic that we get to meet now. I really feel like it is such a time of life movie as well. We’ve both had the fantastic luck to stick around, to drift into the long middle and have a look around. When you get over survivor’s guilt, you can simply call it survivor’s luck. Whatever else happened, we have had the opportunity to measure time, to feel the deepening in our sense of the city and ourselves, our wonderment and appetite for these things. Changing and reframing in different ways.
DS: That’s a beautiful way to put it; some people put on blinders to walk through life. Some people stop and attend to detail. You attend to detail, Leeds attended to detail
Bellucci attends to detail. Did you read that plaque that we just passed on the church? That thing was built in 1620, or look at that bird or, you know, I like this kind of pepper, not that one.
JL: There’s a heartbreaking beauty to some of those Leeds’ emails. Then you make your visit to that tiny park where he sat to do the bird-watching. It’s funny because you mentioned going back and finding the space where you play kickball, or the front stoop that you hung out, and these places look so small and it seems impossible. Because when you were there they formed an entire world. But then there’s this kind of, as you say, attentiveness, that turns any scrap of sidewalk or any tiny park or the sound of a single birdcall into a world.
It’s almost as though Leeds were moving into a late style without ever having been lucky enough to figure out a middle style, you know? Like he was moving into a Zen space where a little bit of nothing was everything, and he was going to explore it, you know, and then write an email that would be almost crushingly gorgeous.
DS: On one level, I wanted to honor the very best of this human being. Even as a young boy, life was poetry in a way for him. He had a lot of privilege and a lot of forces that conspired to shape his life and he made choices with consequences and so on. No judgment. It’s more that I connected to that part of this person—walking down the street with him was an adventure because he would say, “Did you see that?”
And maybe like you and your old friend, or anybody in their old friend, when you’re in a place and time and you experience something together, it’s a shared, collective memory. but it’s really, how present are you in the moment? Because you can only do that once the rest of the time, you’re trying to recall it or re-present it or represent it, and it never works. But you’re lucky and, as you say, blessed to have that original moment.
JL: Yeah. And one can be blessed with the luck of family and friends who validate and restore what you remember, or what you suspect you know about your own life. It’s something you’re obviously fascinated with, and it has meaning that reverberates outside of this film. There’s a strength, you know, in that time when Bellucci visits his aunt and uncle and he tells you that they always just validated him. They’d say, “You’re in good health, you’re doing something great.” And at some point they restored him to himself with a passing remark, “Why don’t you go back to pizza?” And then you have that beautiful line, echoing something Bellucci said: “Our families didn’t love us any the less, and that’s a gift.” By contrast Leeds, with this extraordinary family lineage and all kinds of overt and implicit privilege. Don DeLillo has a line: “If your name sounds right whether you say it forwards or backwards, it means he went to Yale,” right? [Laughs] Leeds has one of those names. But this privilege collapses into a kind of burden of expectation. Regard was distributed in strange ways in his family space, people expected enormous things of each other and were almost automatically disappointed.
No one could ever live up to being part of that lineage. It’s delicate to say, because a lot of people never have any money and never get to waste any money, but you make a study of the ways in which a legacy, even a literal financial legacy, can be destructive.
DS: Well to examine a life is the great privilege of making work, whether it’s a fictive representation of a life or a documentary portrait, that’s a huge obligation and a huge gift.
I did want to look at the forces that shape somebody, and I started to realize that’s where Bellucci and I, we did have symmetry as opposed to Leeds. I mean, maybe on some twisted level, Leeds’s father was the one that I wanted to have because he was a writer. He was a poet. He was an artist. He hung out with these incredible people and lived this sort of fiction of what I had in mind was an artistic life.
My father was great, totally complicated, equally as much of a character, but he worked for the City of New York. But then again, he read books about Zen. My parents also let me make a movie about an acid trip, and he wore saffron robes and held a Ping-Pong racket. My mother had a plate of chicken with a T-shirt that said “parent.” And did they think it was mishigas and, you know, baloney, maybe. But they did it because they loved me. And so, I feel grateful like that, that I don’t know that he ever had that same type of—
JL: The clarity of that support. It’s so different to have that. In a way, you probably bewildered your parents, but they couldn’t judge it. [Laughs] They couldn’t make distinctions: this rock and roll band, or artwork, or movie, or this adventure you’re going on, is disqualified from our high standards, some index by which we measure cultural contributions. They had to be like, “OK, it’s what David wants to do.”
DS: A quick story is I had a show once in a gallery and I made a work that was a time-based sculpture. And I used extreme close ups from pornographic films, but like that crappy ‘80s quality, so it was really yucky looking like it looked like alien skin. [Laughs] And I don’t know if anybody’s had dinner yet. But anyway, it was gross looking, but it was kind of repulsive and attractive at the same time. And my mom came to the opening and she was standing around in, you know, the early ’90s or something— everyone wore black clothes, was pale, looked cool, chain smoking. And here is this 4-foot-11 woman, and somebody said, “What do you think of it?” And she said, “Well, I love it. My son made it.” [Laughs]
And maybe it’s an ethnic thing, I mean, I remember going to—you don’t want to make generalizations, but these are the examples I had to draw from in my life—I remember Leeds’ house and having dinner with his dad and all we talked about was the corn. Not like that Leeds was trying to write a book or, you know, and he’s like, “It’s good corn.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s good corn.” And I felt so like, am I allowed to put my shit on the table? And maybe that’s just I didn’t know how to do it. I was too young. I didn’t have myself intact.
JL: The greater likelihood is that there was a lot that couldn’t be said in that space. And you and that’s why you remember that moment that way. You recall what was spoken in order to keep other subjects at the margins. That you and Leeds were coming of age in a world that maybe his father couldn’t have understood. The truth is they might not have had the equipment to understand what mattered to the two of you. So they were holding it at a safe distance.
DS: One of the things I really enjoy about your work is the sense of invention and self-invention in the characters. Because New York figures in our facts and our imagination, as I started, it’s there often—a great center of invention, but you know how one invents themselves against this place where you’re supposed to do that and reconcile the fact that this is your hometown. It’s a big gulf, it’s a big problem.
JL: I agree. I had this theory, it’s not that original. In fact, I may have picked it up somewhere, that the true New Yorkers, the people who really define that place historically, they come from the sticks, and they claim it. It’s the Andy Warhol figure who comes from Pittsburgh and just seizes hold of Manhattan. “Now I can never be anywhere else.” Truman Capote or Dawn Powell, so many others. That gesture defines New York. It’s fundamentally an imposture, a self-invention.
But growing up inside this place that you’re supposed to seize and make your own, to be from it, is to be ambivalent because you’re made up of the stuff of this place. And so, you end up wanting to represent its authenticity against imposture. That’s a really tricky place to be as a New York kid. Especially if you want to be an artist of some kind, because you see how people flooding into this place, buying careers, inventing selves. If you’re from New York, you’re obsessed with the idea of the authenticity in your home space that’s being in some ways elided or glossed over by the renovations and self-presentations.
DS: Yeah, building off of that, as opposed to a smaller town or a smaller city where you get sick of the thing, and you’re like, there’s only so many loops and places you can go in New York, you can hide. You can have anonymity, but we do the opposite of what they do in other places, which is we try and make it small. We try and build a little village or a little kind of circuit and call it your own neighborhood. That’s what it used to be called before real estate kind of collapsed everything into, you know, zones for profit.
JL: Right now, the idea of neighborhood is really suspicious because the neighborhood definitions are driven by realtors who’ve invented new names for the place.
DS: When I was a kid, downtown was below 14th Street and uptown above it. I never went uptown. And there was no L.E.S., and there was not Tribeca. It was downtown. “I’ll be downtown.” “See you downtown.”
Back then, if I were going to meet you for a slice, I’d say meet me on 11th Street and 6th Avenue at six o’clock. And there was no way to send you a text or couldn’t check it.
JL: Yeah. You know, you’d wait you wait for a friend who was late for an appointment, you’d sit there for an hour and a half.
DS: Yeah. And you’re like, “What the fuck? Where are they?” And you can’t call them. And then it’s like, do I leave, or I hate this person? They’re always late or have I got to get there early? And it’s that weird dynamic that’s gone now. There’s a super fractured sense of time in the moment we’re living in, which is fucking us all up in immeasurable ways. But we’re finding ways to hang onto a connection between this box and that box. Or, you know, like look at my stuff and look at your stuff. And just like, how do we stay connected temporarily until we can all be together again?
JL: I think your movie is extraordinary partly for coming out at the time and on the terms that it’s going to. One thing I thought about is that people will be allowed to pause and rewind. Unlike sitting in a theater and letting the film have its way with you. That’s usually a traditional virtue of the cinema apparatus, right? You’re at its mercy. You’re in a black box. It goes at a set rate and you take what you can as it washes over you like a dream or an experience. That’s how I watched your movie the first time, even in seven sections. I didn’t pause it. But the second time through, sometimes I was like, “Dammit. I’m going to stop that turntable for a minute. Let me have a look.” People are going to have that power sometimes to stop your thing and dwell with it in a different way.
DS: That’s both a great thing and a horrifying thought.
JL: I’m sure that that horrifies you in some ways. [Laughs]
DS: Yeah, but, you know, I can’t complain because, you know, that’s just built into your enterprise, which is you can put a bookmark in and read that sentence again and be like, That’s what he meant, or, Why here?
JL: Yeah. And even the most popular novel in the world, people don’t pile into a room to read it all simultaneously from beginning to end and ending at the same moment. So, people are going to experience your film a little more like a book. They’re going to be in this individual space. And it’s a film that throws you back into yourself. I believe I said something like those exact words at the beginning of this talk. Your movie just means an impossible amount to me. And you and I are friends, even if we never speak again after this conversation. I’m with you.
DS: I hope that’s not the case. I mean, I’m with you, Jonathan. It’s a treat to get to talk with you and hear what you think about this and speak with you, but yes, you’re right. If we never see each other in person, you know, to live in the same world, in the same city, at the same time, and make work, it’s like sending letters to each other. You and I or other people write letters to each other vis-a-vis their work, and we see things in ourselves that are reflected in the work and vice versa.
JL: Fantastic. Well, it’s that’s such a summation that I probably should just let it stand. But I have one really specific question for you. It’s just driving me crazy. [Laughs] Is it not the case that the one and only time Bellucci fucks up a pie on camera is precisely when he’s trying to get the gig, to impress the big restaurant entrepreneur? And that one clam pizza comes out all erratic and screwed up. You don’t draw too much attention to it, but it’s just lopsided. It’s heartbreaking because he’s flipped so many perfect circular pies into ovens through the course of the film, and then he pulls this one thing out and it’s like a collapsed object.
DS: Well, to me at that moment, I felt two things: one, the documentary gods had shined their light on me; you couldn’t possibly have scripted that better. And on another hand, I felt for the human being I nearly burst into tears and collapsed. But you know, I’m not going to say happy ever after; things happen for a reason, and if the project was meant to remember people in a disposable world and we went through and are going through COVID, and we’re remembering people who were watching people try and keep themselves afloat, then maybe it happened for a reason in this way. And maybe that was just a station on the journey, his pizza journey.
JL: And in the very ending—I won’t do spoilers. [Laughs] But some of the some of the biggest things in the film happen in footnotes all the way through. That’s again, the magic of the episodic thing; we get footnotes continuously. These huge surplus pieces of portraiture just explode into our minds.
DS: Isn’t that what life is, what memories are? They are footnotes in our lives. And so, I just wanted to go with that idea of the very most important thing to you—maybe the birth of your child or the death of your father—is a footnote in your life. Like, in an obituary, you’re lucky if that gets one line, so I think it’s an interesting way to do it.
JL: Yeah. Well, David, thank you for making this. Thank you for finding me and having this conversation with me, so I can feel enmeshed in your thing. Almost like I’m in a little footnote now, right here. This would be attached to the back of the film.
DS: Thank you, Jonathan, for your grace and gracious time and may we all see each other in a dark theater soon.
JL: It’s a plan.