||A scene from Rudy Burckhardt's 1968 film "Money." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- Seeing Edwin Denby frolic as a lusty billionaire in Rudy Burckhardt's restored 1968 experimental film classic "Money," preserved by Anthology Film Archives and presented at its theater at 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street again Saturday and Sunday night at 7:30 (I caught it Friday), one gets the sense that this is the performance the greatest American dance critic of all time has been waiting to give his whole life, after a lifetime of watching and reviewing others. From the jig he does in front of the First National Bank when he tallies his one-billionth dollar -- kerching kerching! -- to his hop-step after tracking a couple of kids who rob a 'ghetto branch' of the bank from New York to rural Maine, surreptitiously taking their photos from a window and then pasting them up on a fence, this is Denby's antic, his chance to leave the staid critic's chair and really romp. Flirting with a much younger woman on a narrow bench in his country hide-away -- a shed whose walls are pasted over with paper money -- or chasing her across a field and over brooks after she sneaks back in to snatch some of the greenbacks, he maintains a leer in his gaze and a twinkle in his eye. But don't think he's not taking the acting seriously; after an investor he's ruined (seen earlier lavishing the money on a semi-naked harem to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade") falls off a skyscraper while chasing him, Denby reveals a moment of pained regret and even doubt before returning to chasing greenbacks. (Sometimes he doesn't even have to chase them; one sequence shows Denby's character, Hemlock Stynge, nonchalantly standing on a street corner while money magically blows out of passersby's pockets and into his.) The movie ends -- as it must -- with Denby rolling on a bed while bills rain down on him to the final sung chorus from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."
But enough of my drivel; here's what the master said of "Money": Noting that it "deals with old Mr. Stynge, the unlovable billionaire, and many other characters, rich and poor," he went on that "it shows the luxury and degradation of New York City and the simple fresh air of Maine. The story can't resist slowing up to look at a girl; it skips a few logical links when it gets too complicated. It is being told by a hard-drinking farmer to his son to inspire him to become a billionaire too. The photography is masterful and draws no attention to itself. The text by Joe Brainard, ditto. The documentary sequences show people and buildings on the kind of real life day when you keep finding comedy wherever you look. The characters are all pretty bad, money is the root of evil, and they ought not to enjoy themselves, but they do anyway."
Sharing the Anthology bill with this 45-minute gem is another restored treasure from 1948, "The Climate of New York," in which Burckhardt roams from midtown to Times Square to Astoria. What was most jarring for me, watching the neon signs from Times Square vintage 1948 blink on and off, was that they were framed night, set off by a canvas of pure black. In the Times Square of 2011, constantly illuminated, we have lost night in the putative center of the Western world, the neon signs devolving into little more than a vulgar land of a thousand commercials that never shuts off, devoid of their magic. So the preservation on view at Anthology tonight and Sunday night is not just the fine and important work done by Jonas Mekas and his crew in guarding the films, but that of Burckhardt in creating these time capsules reminding us of the free-flowing organic '60s -- and "Money" is nothing if not organic, a home movie made by a very sophisticated film-maker -- and of the relatively more innocent brand of commercialism that dazzled New York in the middle of the last century.