Sunday, July 4, 2021

Film Archive

Who are they,
these men and women, accelerated by camera speed
and walking feverishly in grainy black and white footage
with celluloid dots appearing and disappearing,
with jagged horizontal lines and sharp edits
as they dodge trolleys, horses, and mules,
play stick ball, tag, lean on chummy shoulders
in anachronistic New York?

They wear long skirts and dress shoes,
suits and ties and hats,
knickers tucked into high boots,
aprons of cloth, denim, or leather
as they cross the street,
mug for a camera on a tripod,
sell newspapers and vegetables at the Italian market, 
buy penny whistles at the open-air five and dime
or hurry to work uptown
in brick buildings and skyscrapers
on a concrete island floating on film.

What are their concerns,
their occupations, loves, or debaucheries?
What are their passions now silenced by headstones
and tamped down by dates of birth and death,
bookends to the frenzy of their pilgrimage,
double-time marching to careers and ledgers
or rotund wives making soup for lunch,
pounding pavement on stuttering reels
caught on sprockets, gears, metal teeth
and their turn-of-the-century
black and white ways?

A man with a bushy white mustache
holds forth, standing square before the lens,
expounding some arcane explanation,
some answer to these downtown riddles
as he adjusts his coat and natty bow tie.
He tilts his head left to right,
puffs on a pipe and gives the smoke away,
then smiles, a newspaper tucked under his arm,
folded thin pulp holding no clues.
A tip of his cap, and he’s gone.
His message, I believe, was this:
We’re all here, but move fast.
The film may break at any time.
Carpe diem. Chop chop.
The master comes at an hour you least expect.
We all end up on the cutting room floor.

~William Hammett

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