In this neoliberal age of the city, as a gentrified, corporatized landscape, it has become a mounting struggle for the majority of people to find space that is either affordable or meaningful. John Wilson is an artist invested in this ill, as well as the city’s still living potential as a site for subversion and idiosyncrasy, as articulated in his exploration of his home of New York, both in his short films independently released on Vimeo and most recently with an HBO series called How To with John Wilson (2020).
The series’ conceit is that Wilson is a New York-based independent filmmaker who compulsively documents his life and the world around him and in the process learns various life lessons. He films his routine and surroundings and records voice over contextualizing the experiences so that the audience can come to understand many of the annoyances and indignities that define modern life. Each episode takes on a seemingly received aspect or feature of the modern social landscape, from small talk to scaffolding to furniture covering. He then pontificates while going out and accumulating footage in order to find events and people that chime and demonstrate, in funny and imaginative ways. His ostensible first-person perspective created through a manifoldly resourceful manipulation of b-roll, shot and stitched together by Wilson and a 2nd unit team of camera operators who trawl the city for strange and everyday encounters.
It is not all bricolage. Episodes often become moored to Wilson investigating a particular group or locale. For instance, the first episode, "How To Make Small Talk" takes him out of New York to a resort in Cancun. Framed by Wilson, it becomes a mad, bacchanalian secret society, whose Jan Matthys or Jim Jones on the soapbox is here Pauly D on the decks. It’s an overstimulating experience, and yet the episode ends on a quiet, melancholy note, a good example of the show’s subtle weaving of tones.
Ultimately, both these more purposeful constructed sequences and all of the people-watching are of a single piece, part of a panorama of the 21st-century American experience as surviving in a state of near-total discombobulation, where paranoia and powerlessness rules the day. This is explicitly expressed with actual conspiracy-obsessed outfits, like a group that Wilson finds by chance in New York and then follows to Ketchum, Idaho for a conference. They take what could be called the natural vagaries of memory as evidence of a vast, world redefining stratagem called The Mandela Effect. While in episode 5, How to Split a Check, Wilson attends an association of referees’ annual dinner in New York City. Disoriented, he hopes to find a patch of level ground among people whose duty is to keep order. Instead, he finds a fracas as angry, underpaid and mistreated referees are simultaneously dined and swindled by a flagrantly corrupt board of officials.
It’s a bleak vision but not completely so. There is an optimism, occasionally stated, but more present ambiently in the sheer size and range of the flânerie, which shows New York is still a welter of unpredictable events and unaccountable personalities. There are two specific moments of this not-so-easy optimism in his short film work that are especially poignant. In How To Live With Regret (2017), Wilson visits a friend whose apartment building recently burnt down, consuming her cats and most of her belongings. As she roots through the wreckage she seems to be trying to be positive. Out of shock perhaps, but also a very human will to persist, even when left with nothing. And then there is The Road to Magnasanti (2017), Wilson’s best short and his most dystopian, which uses a game of SimCity as a springboard to explore New York’s gentrification. There is a brief moment where we see an old man who has gone beyond just sitting on his stoop or pavement. Instead has set himself up on the road, stubbornly owning his spot in the middle of all this homogenization.
Decades before Wilson developed his diaristic, instructional style, Luc Moullet carved his own uniquely independent and termite approach as a filmmaker and a social and self-critic.
Moullet started in the mid-50s as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma and directed his first films in the 60s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is from a working-class Parisian background, having been born in the city in 1937 into a family of peasant stock. His father, who earned their living by selling coalmen’s uniforms, was a Nazi supporter and the first of many figures of authority Moullet rebelled against. As an adult, this obstinate independence, along with a working-class identity he associates with a catch-as-catch-can practicality, would become the backbone of Moullet’s disposition. He said himself that he has a “woodcutter’s gaze”, as opposed to a theoretical one. And he holds the belief that filmmakers and thinkers should be independent, on the hunt for their own language and no one else’s.
This came to a head in his own film work with his fourth feature, Anatomy of a Relationship (1976). This is a unique film, with one foot in a realist and autobiographical current of French cinema, a’la Jean Eustache, and another in the radically left-wing, deconstructive tact taken by Godard—though its humor and methodology are closer to R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky’s couples therapy comic Dirty Laundry (1974-77). Co-directed by Moullet and his partner, Antonietta Pizzorno, it stars Moullet and Marie-Christine Questerbert (standing in for Pizzorno) as a couple whose relationship runs aground when she begins to chafe against his lackluster performance in the bedroom. The film is largely made up of a series of dialogues, eventually enacted on both sides of the camera as it builds to a breaking of the fourth wall, whereupon Moullet, Pizzorno, and Questerbert discuss the film, their roles and methods. This film established not only Moullet as his own favorite leading man but as a deadpan comic presence. He is more susceptible to fits of bravado than Wilson, but there are similar levels of anxiety and a mutual sense of impotence.
For his next film, the scale widens from a couple’s domestic life to a worldwide network of injustice. Genèse d'un repas (1979) is a documentary about the globalized production and distribution of food, with Moullet traveling and crosscutting between Paris, Brittany, Senegal, and Ecuador. Moullet fastidiously gathers a mass of stats, facts, and interviews to produce a damning account of this system of exploitation, where wealthy French agriculturalists and industrialists reap what impoverished Senegalese and Ecuadorian workers sow. He crowns this report with a sudden turn to self-critique, showing how his production is also culpable: from the gelatine culled from cows and pigs then used in film stock to his crew’s lodging in a factory owner’s hotel.
The 1980s brought for Moullet another change. Aware that scarcer funding opportunities would mean fewer features, he decided to focus on making films of short and medium-length instead. He was working within his means but also preferred it this way, as it would keep him out of pace with commercial norms and in line with his principles as an artist.
Initially, this string of shorts focused squarely on himself and his life, as subject and patsy, with La première brasse (1981) and Les minutes d'un faiseur de film (1983). The films then became more expansive and sociological, with Moullet concertedly parodying documentary and educational film forms. L’empire de Médor (1986) investigates Parisian dog culture, from grooming to shows, and its wider economic implications. He presents himself as an ornery dog hater, griping that they’re allowed to turn Paris into the “capitale de la merde,” while if he were to drop his trousers and shit in public he would be penalized. Essai d’Ouverture (1988) combines the educational film with consumer critique, with instructor Moullet attempting to show how to open a bottle of Coca-Cola. Ultimately, Moullet masters the technique, but to his exhaustion, as he is worn out by the faux possibilities of consumerism.
Perhaps the best of this crop of films is, in a way, the least typical because Barres (1984) does not feature Moullet at the forefront. Instead, the collective is the star. It is a “how to” and celebration of turnstile jumping, set at an entrance/exit of the Parisian Metro. In a series of Tati-esque skits, people variously jump over, slide under or assist each other around the turnstiles and bars in ways that are elaborate and hilarious. This dialogue-free film has intertitles, with jibing comments, explanations, and the declaration that turnstile jumping is an act of class-transcending solidarity and a nose thumbed against the forces of control. They are represented by cops, presidents Giscard and Mitterand, and a municipal ad campaign depicting lawbreakers as thieving magpies and rats. But for Moullet, they are not pests but heroic vagabonds, gung-ho and creative.
Wilson’s work is rarely ever as proudly belligerent as Barres. He is more of a distant figure. A dissembler and compiler who sees New York’s future as ominous. Still, with Moullet perched on the eve and Wilson in the midst of the current era of the city—increasingly privatized and stylized as a playground for the rich and powerful and a panopticon for the poor—there is a shared insistence that the urban space can still be used from the ground up, with imagination and against power.