Andy Mann Street Tapes & Cable Access

Andy Mann Street Tapes & Cable Access

In 1968 Andy Mann was one of the only people in New York City with a video camera. He carried it every where he went, and he was treated like a god, an anchorman, or something in between. His video camera consisted of a VTR unit about the size of a modern microwave oven, which was strapped to the operator like a large, heavy backpack and tethered to the camera unit by a cable. The camera itself was still larger than the largest handheld/shoulder mount VHS cameras that would become ubiquitous at Disneyland 25 years later. He shot in black and white, and he turned his camera on himself for video diaries (which look like the earliest versions of today’s YouTube rants) and he took his camera into the streets of New York, where an unrecognizably un-cynical public reacted to him in ways I do not recognize as human beings. The beauty of their innocence is constant and revelatory. Everyone in New York City is happy to see this man with a video camera. The first 8 chapters of this DVD proceed throughout the 1960’s and 70’s in New York, and feature the videographer happily exploring the city and its people. Each entry is revolutionary, and riveting even when it is formless and bare.

Chapters 9-13 take place in Houston in the late 1980’s and 90’s. These chapters are considerably less cheerful, in fact, they are bleak. The world has changed, his scenery has changed, and the artist seems to be isolated and unstable. But these chapters are just as revolutionary, riveting, and even revelatory as he is cooped up in an apartment in Houston still experimenting with video.

In the first chapter, titled Video Diary #1, we see what I felt like was the earliest version of true home video that I have ever seen. It is black and white, set up on a tripod with a quaint South Hampton, New York landscape behind him, Andy Mann begins speaking openly about his life. Today this is a very normal thing. People broadcast the most intimate details of their lives on the internet with pride. In fact they broadcast details of their lives that I would not even tell my own family, if I were them. Well, Andy Mann seems to have invented this. I thought people only started doing this when became a hit. I don’t know of an earlier version other than maybe 2002 or something. The “confessionals” on MTV’s The Real World are the closest cousin. Video Diary #1 is breathtaking, like an artifact of real life that I never thought I’d see.

Subway Tape is the 2nd chapter (the chapters are titled, not numbered), and in this, Andy Mann is on a subway car, alone, late at night in Manhattan. He runs the length of the car yelling, exclaiming his happiness, and (jokingly?) stating his intent to kill then-President Nixon. He documents every square inch of this empty, running, subway car in 1970. Then a stiff old man in a hat and overcoat steps onto the train. Andy Mann sits quietly. A jumpcut later the train is empty again and Andy Mann is running the length of the car carrying his camera. I have literally seen many similar videos made in the past decade, but again, the date that this one was made makes it an irresistible curiosity.

One-Eyed Bum opens with a particularly rotten, dilapidated 1974 New York streetscape in the Bowery. Buildings are windowless and broken apart, even as well dressed pedestrians walk by and nice new cars sit parked next to the rubble. (watching the cars and the clothes, hairstyles and window dressings is an incredible treat when watching these early videotapes) As Mann’s camera investigates a disgusting dump of an empty lot, an off-screen voice shouts “You there, what are you doing?”. Mann turns his camera to an oncoming homeless man with one eye. As the man approaches we see that his dry, drooping eyeless socket is filled with an ill fitting sphere of blue-grey marble or something. The homeless man cheerfully approaches the equally cheerful Mann, and they have a cheerful exchange. Everyone who sees this must agree that this could never happen today. People are more cynical and suspicious now. Of course the fact that nobody he’s taping has ever seen a video camera before is the reason for this, but the effect is heartwarming and fascinating. The man tells his life story, and walks away. I could watch this for hours. I only wish I had these raw tapes to watch. It’s incredible.

There’s Going To Be Another War is a staged, unexplained streetscape where Andy instructs a blonde woman to recite dialogue and run across a street. It seems to be a lost scene from an intended larger piece. After speaking the line and then running away, as instructed, the woman never returns, as Andy continues documenting the real life street scene. It made me wonder if he even knew the woman. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was just a random stranger. It seems like most strangers would bend over backwards for him. Andy walks down the street shooting in the plate glass windows of street level Manhattan, and the resulting video is priceless. (think of how fascinating Mad Men is, and then imagine if it were real, and unedited.)

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, 1974, features a young African-American boy peering into the pond of the botanical garden. The boy is enthralled with the wildlife, Andy is enthralled with videotaping this piece of real life, and I was speechless at the beauty of both. The boy’s older brother stands behind the boy reading a book. My first impression is that nobody would let a grown man, in 2010, videotape and interview a young boy in this manner. Not anywhere. But this boy, and his brother are quite happy about it. In the end, Mann asks the boy what his favorite part of being at the gardens is, and the boy answers “My brother.”. The effect of Mann’s verite is sublime.

All Across Boston (1975) is the DVD’s first chapter outside of NYC, and represents a highpoint in Mann’s life, as far as this narrative goes. In this, we see our first image of Andy Mann since the opening Diary. He has aged a little. His light brown afro is shorter, we are seeing him in color, and we get our first look at his video camera set up. He is in a public television studio being interviewed by an old school TV newsman. This video is a 6:00 excerpt of a 60:00 episode of “Video/Television Review” which is introducing him, as they have commissioned him to create a video portrait of Boston. After watching the entire DVD I remembered this one as Mann in his element, working at the highest level, healthy, happy, and well adjusted. This, I assume, was the prime of his life.

St. Anthony of Padua is a narrator-less streetscape of an annual Italian-American parade in New York City. Andy stands in the middle of the parade, and everyone (I mean everyone!) seems to feel that his presence elevates the importance of their parade. People try not to stare, but their eyes light up as they file past him. Some people smile when they see him. Old men, young mothers, altar boys, and boy scouts all feel edified by him as he documents them, and their signs that say “Watch Over Us Saint Anthony of Padua”.

Andy Gets A Haircut (1972) is the last excerpt shot in New York, in Andy’s youth. He is in a chair, with his face and upper body in frame while a pretty young woman in a flower girl dress circles him trying to cut his large, unruly afro. He speaks to an unseen 3rd person, a radio plays, and we experience the last of Andy’s youth that we will see on this DVD. It is unremarkable in it’s content, until you see what comes next.

The Night Show ran on Houston Cable Access in 1989. Throughout these cable access shows I kept wondering if I’d ever watched any of Andy’s shows during their original airings. In this one, we see Andy vigorously exercising in a small apartment. Andy has edited footage together to make it seem even more strenuous. Andy is only 14 years older than the (1975) Boston video we saw earlier, but if in the earliest videos he seemed like a more harmless version of Rupert Pupkin, in these later ones he comes across as a dark, edgy, almost Travis Bickle-like character. He seems like a very serious man, perhaps given to a touch of cabin fever. In Houston there are no street scenes to document. People don’t “walk down the street” in 1989 Houston in quite the same way they did in New York City, and the ones that do aren’t as receptive to a wiry New Yorker with a video camera. In 1968 his hobby was expensive and new and fascinating to everybody he ever met. In 1989 that same hobby has driven him 2,000 miles from home, indoors, taping himself doing exotic push-ups, ranting about the people who have wronged him, and experimenting with video feedback in an obsessive-compulsive way, even as trash piles up around him in his small apartment home.

Disclaimer And Last Hit is a series of title cards where Andy has written slogans against cable television. It seems humorless and angry and completely separate from his earliest films. The hope and discovery is all gone, and has been replaced with a much more recognizable anger and cynicism. As the characters flash across the screen, decrying against the dangers, and evils, of cable television, I could not believe it was every allowed to air.

Punishment TV (1990) is Mann standing in his Houston home, explaining his homemade “Sparkle Box”, which is called “a kaleidoscopic video sculpture” in the liner notes. It is, in fact, an ingenious form of video feedback using lights, and the video camera’s on board effects. Mann uses old video cameras which were feature heavy, and he is clearly an expert with every camera he uses, but this video seemed to me to be another example of how his isolation affected his work. It is just as fascinating as his earliest work, but where the early videos were devastating in their beauty (think of the young boy looking at goldfish in Brooklyn Botanical Garden) these are sad portraits of a lonely man driven to perfecting his obscure hobby in a small nondescript apartment in Houston, Texas.

The Anti-Tom and Lee Show is a 5:00 excerpt of a 30:00 cable access program where Andy rants about the Houston cable access station’smanagement (Tom and Lee). The DVD’s final excerpt, Beard Rap, shows Mann in his small kitchen laying bare the most intimate aspects of his life. The liner notes call Beard Rap “a cable access show dedicated to the deceased, with a monologue about lost friends and Mann’s art career”, but I was so mesmerized by him at this point in the DVD that I could hardly hear his words. I heard music that wasn’t there; a swan song with a thousand strings. I could tell this was the end of the DVD but I did not want it to end. I, perhaps like the Houston bound Mann, longed for the simpler days of an 80 pound video camera and VTR slung across his body. I longed for that early discovery and wonder, but I also accepted today’s grim reality of Houston heat, and how “pay TV” had diluted the talent pool, even as it soared in popularity. I know that today, when more people participate in video than ever before, a simple art like Mann’s gets lost. And I know that the Aurora Picture Show, in their wisdom, has produced something special. This DVD represents 13 short excerpts from over 800 tapes that Andy Mann left to The Aurora Picture Show. I hope they release them for years to come. I look forward to watching them all.

Produced by Andrea Grover for Aurora Video
Running Time is 70 Minutes Color and B&W

Feature photo courtesy of the Andy Mann Archive.

BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, September 28th, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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4 Responses to “Andy Mann Street Tapes & Cable Access

  1. Andrea Grover on September 28th, 2010 at 3:28 pm


    I LOVE your review. Thanks for the wonderful analysis – you nailed it.


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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aurora Picture Show and Aurora Picture Show, Andrea Grover. Andrea Grover said: SWEET review of *Andy Mann Street Tapes & Cable Access* DVD I produced for @aurorapicture – […]

  3. Justin on October 5th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    You sold me on this. I feel that I have to check it out now.

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