Chris Gisonny majored in film at New York University, and graduated from the New School with an MFA in Creative Writing, for fiction in 2013. He moved into his apartment in Williamsburg this past February.
It’s a four bedroom flat that’s hidden away from South 4th Street. When you stop by to see him, you have to wait for a few moments along South 4th, as he makes his way toward the door. You’ll be looking up at the building that faces the street, and eventually you’ll notice when a door that’s just below street level swings open ––– Gisonny will be standing there, likely smiling, and waiving you down toward the stairs.
Once he leads you through a hallway that’s at the ground level, and then through the courtyard that’s between the buildings, you’ll walk into the apartment’s living room and open kitchen.
The exposed brick gives off a classic and well-established vibe, as though the place has always been and still is a salon for men and women of distinction to gather; discuss the state of the nation, and the world; drink Aberlour whiskey in the evenings; and gather around an Arduino espresso machine in the mornings, as all the while they try to set the course for the years to come.
Gisonny has a way of talking about important and contentious topics in a manner that’s still warm and inviting, and touched with a sense of humor. When Alex and I met with him on a bright and sunny Sunday morning in November, he talked about why it’s important to scramble codes, especially in a world that’s dominated by formula and algorithms, and automated thinking.
After about an hour of talking about the films that caught his attention as he was writing “Crisis Cinema: New York, Austerity, and the Movies,” we paused for coffee. Then afterwards, we went downstairs and into his bedroom, which we all agreed should be regarded as the revolutionary bunker.
Once we gathered down there, and just before we began batting down the hatches, Gisonny shared his thoughts about the merits of anarchy; considered how and when Occupy Wall Street will be resurrected; and offered and defended the idea that “art in general is political, because it allows you to conceive of things being different.”
Alex: This apartment feels very Chicago-like to me.
Chris: Well it’s a very bizarre New York apartment, and that’s kind of why I wanted to live here. It wasn’t really much more expensive than where I was, at Lorimer Street and Metropolitan, but I moved down here because the L is shutting down.
Alex: That’s a genius idea.
Chris: And I also wanted an outdoor area, and to have a nice little yard, and my own door too.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. You’re away from the street noise.
Chris: Yeah, it’s very quiet. I had noisy neighbors at the old place too, so now it’s just the four of us. And this place would be super expensive if you didn’t have to go through that sinister hallway.
Alex: Yeah, we looked at the door that you came out of before you came out of it, and I was like, “Isaac, do you think anybody actually lives down there? It looks like Igor might come out of the door, and then you came out of the door!”
Chris: Yeah, I should employ a creepy actor to let people in, like, “Come this way! The master is waiting.” I took a quick shower before you guys came over, to clean myself up for the world.
Isaac: You look great.
Alex: Yeah, very classy.
Chris: Yeah, since this is going to be preserved for posterity.
Alex: So what do you usually do on a Sunday morning?
Chris: Sleep. Or maybe do some reading or writing. Sometimes I watch movies, or play video games. I only really play one video game though, Zelda, on the Switch. Sometimes I do chores too, which is very boring; I don’t like them at all.
Isaac: What type of chores?
Chris: Laundry, or I’ll go grocery shopping.
Alex: But chores are like breathing.
Chris: Yeah, I guess. Or I’ll do the dishes. It’s just non-stop. The weight of existence. Just repetition.
Isaac: So can you take us through the chronology of things a bit, you were at N.Y.U. for undergrad, and then after you graduated from there, you moved away, and then you came back to the New School?
Chris: No, I went home for one summer. I had lived in the dorm system, which was a mistake.
Chris: The dorms were just incredibly expensive, and boring, but my parents were convinced that having an apartment in the city would be too dangerous. It’s kind of like what I say in the piece, in that people’s vision of New York was so permanently shaped, and it was just constantly thought of as a dangerous place.
Isaac: What year did you graduate from college?
Chris: 2008. A hell of a year to graduate from college.
Isaac: How so?
Chris: The global financial crisis, which essentially meant that we were entering one of the worst job markets, and as I was graduating from college, I was assuming that I’d just be able to get a boring office job to support my creative endeavors, but then all of those were taken by people who had been laid off, who would say things like, “I used to be the CEO of a major corporation, but now I’m doing data entry at ‘boring corporation.’”
Isaac: So you went home the summer after you graduated?
Chris: No, I didn’t. I stayed. I had three jobs.
Isaac: What were you doing?
Chris: I sold tickets at a comedy place. I worked for one of my professors from N.Y.U. I typed his books for him, which he would dictate. And I worked in film distribution. Eventually I got into copy-writing for a bit.
Isaac: When you were selling tickets for the comedy place, were you out on the streets, trying to bring people in, like you see in some places Midtown?
Chris: No, I was behind a booth, which didn’t have a working device through which people could speak. So people would bend over and speak to me through the window, and they would tell me that I had to fix the microphone, and I would always say, “I know about the microphone. I know we have to fix it.” It was as really fancy club. They had big comics there. I think they had Louis C.K. there a few times, before he really blew up. It was on Fourteenth Street, on the west side. It no longer exists. They were trying to do a lot of different things. To be a very fancy place, but also to kind of be a sports bar. You know that kind of place, where they seem to have many different roles, and every one of those places will have a big Buck Hunter machine. This place just over-extended itself in that way.
Isaac: How did you find the place?
Chris: My friend and roommate at the time worked there, so he got me a job. I’ve always gotten my jobs in New York that way. That’s the way to do it in New York, I’ve discovered, especially if you’re an artist.
Alex: I think that that’s just the way to do it in life.
Chris: Yeah, that could be.
Alex: Or hang out a place and volunteer and bug them until you get a job, which actually works much better than you’d think.
Alex: You just have to be patient.
Chris: That does work.
Alex: Tried and true.
Chris: Alright, well, hit me with some more.
Isaac: When did you first start writing for Slant?
Chris: For Slant? I did that years ago. During the 2007 New York Film Festival I met a very generous gentleman named Keith Uhlich, and he was a critic for many different publications. He was Time Out New York’s film critic for a long time. I met him through my friend Vadim Rizov who edits Filmmaker Magazine now, and back then Vadim was a freelance critic. And so I talked with Keith, and he gave me a chance. I don’t know if I was ever really serious about being a film critic, I really wanted to just write in general, so that was a good learning step to take, working with him. He was a very generous editor, and he gave me a chance. It was a scary thing for me -–– as an undergraduate, seeing my name it print, but it was pretty exciting. And I did scattered reviews over the years. I also did a few things for the Barnes and Noble Review. Barnes and Noble, I don’t know if they still have it, it’s like a review page for critics to go on. I think Greil Marcus had a column there, and Robert Christgau, and so I did a few reviews for them.
Isaac: Do you remember any of the reviews specifically, for Barnes and Noble?
Chris: I did a review of this movie called Lola Montes, which was a Max Ophüls movie from the ‘50’s. It was pretty great, very colorful, and it was a real feast for the eyes. And it’s a great story too. It’s a woman who is working as a courtesan, who winds up having affairs with everyone all the way up to the king of Bavaria, and then falls from grace, and then goes around with this exploitive circus company, which re-enacts her life, so there’s all of these circus performers around her. It’s a pretty bizarre movie to be honest. I watched it with a friend recently, and it became his favorite movie.
Chris: Which it should.
Chris: Because it’s great. This guy’s a great director. He influenced Kubrick, and there’s a lot of moving camera. It’s just a masterpiece, you can tell when you watch it. It’s just one of those, when you get that feeling. There are just certain movies in the history of cinema where you can just kind of sense it, immediately, that it’s really special, very singular. When you see a singular movie it doesn’t mean that you like it necessarily, but you can sense that there’s just something about the way that it operates, and the way that its component parts form some organic whole. It sets out a certain logic and it always obeys that logic, and it allows it to flourish. I think that’s what makes a masterpiece. So I can recognize some movies as being that, ones that I still don’t really like, necessarily.
Isaac: Can you think of any that you would recognize, but not necessarily like?
Chris: That’s a good question. Give me a second. I’ll think of one . . . I think it kind of shifts from time to time. Well, there are some Ozu movies that I saw in the past, which I’m not a huge fan of, but I could tell that they were great, but they were just very slow.
Isaac: I guess a different question would be, do you think that Taxi Driver is in that category?
Isaac: What do you think that movie does particularly well?
Chris: Well, visually it’s beautiful. The colors are stunning. The camera work is very inventive. It’s got sort of a patience and yet it’s still very vigorous. The score; it was Bernard Herman’s final score, and I think it sort of underlies the tension that’s in the movie. I think the voiceover is pretty amazing. So you’re working with a great script, a great score, a great cinematographer, a great director, great actors, and they all kind of come together. And it achieves this feeling where you don’t really know where it’s going to go next, when you watch it for the first time, and you just feel like you’re sinking into this really dark place. And then with the explosion in the end, with the violence, it really delivers on the promise. And it’s very layered. It operates on multiple levels, and it has an ambiguous ending. You don’t really know if that’s his dying thoughts, or if that’s actually what happened. Is he actually considered a hero by the news? Does he actually take Betsy for the final cab ride, which is a way for him to show his indifference to her? There’s this whole psychological thing that’s going on with that movie, and the visuals are imbued with it. The soundtrack is imbued with it. The performances are imbued with it. So everything is operating very smoothly together. There’s nothing in that movie where I would say, “Oh, they could have done that differently.” It’s its own thing. It’s a real work that I feel like I can admire on multiple levels. I never get frustrated. I never roll my eyes and think, this is something that’s taking me out of the film. Some movies have that. I never get bored. I’m sucked in. I’m hypnotized. It’s this hallucinatory thing. It’s this fever dream of New York that captures it during this very special era.
Isaac: What’s the name of the senator, Palantine?
Isaac: And DeNiro’s character says something like, “I want to take this city and flush it down the toilet.”
Chris: Yeah, that’s that great scene, when they’re both in the cab, and he’s like, “Oh, hey, I’m a big fan of yours!”
Isaac: And Palantino’s like, “I’ve learned more about the American people while riding in the back of cabs than I ever did in a limousine.” Because he’s a man of the people.
Chris: Yeah, right, of course. With that whole thing. I can’t remember whether that movie was released before or after Squeaky Fromme tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. She was a Manson family member, and she tried to kill Ford, but it was foiled. I think the gun didn’t go off or something. And then Reagan of course was almost assassinated by Hinckley, who was inspired by Jodie Foster’s character in Taxi Driver.
Isaac: Is that right?
Chris: Yeah, there’s a connection between Taxi Driver and real life assassination of presidents.
Isaac: DeNiro’s character gets somewhat close, but eventually he’s able to flee before he really does anything.
Chris: Yeah, and then there’s that great scene when he talks with the Secret Service guy, and he gives him his zip code, and the Secret Service guy is like, “That’s six digits.”
Isaac: Oh yeah, “I was thinking of my telephone number.”
Chris: I think that of all the movies that are in the essay, the one that’s a true masterpiece is Taxi Driver. I think the rest are very fine films; some of them are kind of silly, but I think that one is particularly special.