'One October': Film Review
A radio host takes a man-on-the-street snapshot of New York City in the month before Barack Obama's election in Rachel Shuman's doc.
Years before Brandon Stanton started a web sensation with his lovable Humans of New York blog, a radio journalist called Clay Pigeon was assembling his own portrait of the city, conducting interviews with strangers in New York about nothing in particular. Following this endearingly open man through the month of October 2008, Rachel Shuman's documentary finds a city excitedly looking forward to one kind of change even as it reels from others.
Pigeon, who grew up in an Iowa town of just 3,000 people, found his way through music and DJ work to WFMU, the legendary freeform-radio station located across the Hudson from NYC in Jersey City. We hear clips of him hosting "The Dusty Show" there, musing in a quiet voice on the day's weather and the like.
Then we're with him in the city, as he holds an antique Radio Shack microcassette recorder in front of whatever passerby will speak to him. Guilelessly, he asks deep questions early on: As soon as he's established that two people are in a relationship, he may ask if they've ever cheated on each other; realizing that he's talking to a transsexual, he wants to know everything about her awakening. In a probing talk with a man who's been homeless most of his life, Pigeon asks if he has ever considered suicide. But as his tone is not salacious but compassionate, people open up readily.
Surrounded by campaign materials on the street — that pro-Obama "Make America Great Again" mural sure looks different from here — Pigeon naturally falls into talk about the election that's just weeks away. In Harlem, he finds plenty of hopeful Obama backers, and shares one woman's concern that the soon-to-be-elected president will be assassinated before his term is up. This also being the peak of the financial crisis, we get to see protests at Wall Street.
Time-specific protests are interspersed with those of a perennial variety, like an ACORN-grown rally for affordable housing. But these agitated gatherings are only some of the mass displays Pigeon and Shuman happen across. We spend time uptown at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where in an annual tradition tied to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, priests will bless any animal brought to them. We watch tourists try to make sense of things in Times Square — and for once, a street vendor is willing to pass up a sale because his underage marks don't realize he's selling novelty condoms.
Wandering around downtown, Shuman pointedly includes last glimpses of now-vanished institutions. Look, it's Mars Bar! Hey, a Blockbuster Video! When she passes the Yonah Schimmel knishery right afterward, a viewer shivers: That's not gone now too, is it?! (Nope. Still there, for well over a century.)
But she sees the cranes and the sky-high condo buildings they're erecting, a topic Pigeon raises frequently. He frets with interviewees about gentrification, the cost of living, the disappearance of the city's funkier pleasures. Remarkably, he keeps the gloom in check, commiserating without dwelling on the downsides of what some people call progress.
Throughout, Shuman's eye, her editing, and Paul Brill's charming score weave the individual stories Pigeon finds into the tapestry of life on the street. Moments of peace in Washington Square, listening to a busking jazz combo, or wordless scenes of merchants tending sidewalk displays keep the pace varied.
And then we begin to see people in costume, lingering on the street before the famous Halloween parade in Greenwich Village, and we realize this One October is over.
Director-Editor: Rachel Shuman
Screenwriters: Rachel Shuman, Annie Bruno, Whitney Henry-Lester
Producers: Garret Savage, Rachel Shuman
Executive producer: Edward Norton
Director of photography: David Sampliner
Composer: Paul Brill
Venue: Maysles Cinema