Once Upon a Time in Brighton Beach

Two documentaries are playing revival runs at Anthology Film Archives this month. Both films are set in New York, were directed by women, did not previously get proper theatrical runs, and have slipped out of public consciousness in the decades since their releases, and both have been recently restored in 4K. In terms of subject matter and approach, though, these docs are profoundly distinct. That contrast only enriches the experience of seeing them in close proximity, particularly their differing snapshots of social perceptions in their respective times.

Directed by Carol Stein and Susan Wittenberg, 1980’s Brighton Beach originally screened at various festivals and periodically aired on television. The handsome restoration job performed by IndieCollect is yet another feather in that organization’s cap; as recently as 2020, Stein and Wittenberg had to crowdfund a digital transfer for just one public screening of the film. 

Less than an hour long, Brighton Beach looks at the namesake Brooklyn shoreline neighborhood as the 1970s were turning into the ’80s. As the area has long been an enclave for Eastern European immigrants, especially Russians, there are naturally a good deal of such people featured in interviews. The late ’70s saw a surge of Jews coming from the Soviet Union to the US, which also factors into the portrait. One of the more riveting interviews is with a Soviet émigré who speaks of her time as a soldier in World War II. She reminisces with surprising neutrality about often going without food or sleep. Other interviews are similarly matter-of-fact, with Stein and Wittenberg withholding any judgment. One woman bluntly expounds xenophobically about the supposed dangers of all the Russians coming in and taking jobs.

The documentary is not just a peek at the neighborhood during that time — its inclusion of archival footage and photographs from throughout the 1900s renders it a 20th-century retrospective. Brighton Beach neighbors Coney Island, which for decades was New Yorkers’ epicenter of summertime recreation. Footage spanning every era depicts different generations of beachgoers, bygone rides like the Parachute Jump or Human Pool Table in action, performers like the Barry Sisters at the Amphitheater, or more niche events like a beauty contest for elderly women. It’s catnip for history nerds, and the visual conversation between past and present makes for a fascinating study in how neighborhoods evolve. That more than 40 years have elapsed since the initial release only deepens this conversation — now, the entire thing is a period piece.

Not a Pretty Picture (1976) also sets up an interplay between past and present, but on an interpersonal rather than collective level, and via reenactment instead of the archive. For her debut feature, Martha Coolidge decided to make a film dramatizing the events around her rape during a date 13 years prior, when she was in high school. That work was never actually realized. Rather, it functions as a film within this film, which is structured around its making, particularly the conversations between Coolidge and the actors. Its form was radical, predating the modern wave of documentaries centered on recreation and reenactment.

The resulting film is equal amounts intellectually rigorous and emotionally harrowing. There’s constant friction between the staged and the real — Coolidge’s attempt to grapple not just with her assault but also with cinema’s capacity for such an interrogation. On the one hand, she’s able to use the medium to bridge her experience with those of others. Michele Manenti, the actress who portrays the younger Coolidge, opens up about her own sexual assault. Coolidge casts her real-life friend who was her roommate in school to play herself, symbolically extending her friend’s role as a lifeline and comfort. On the other hand, Coolidge and the cast continually talk about how they feel like they’re coming up short in capturing all the nuanced feelings and details at play. The film within the film is sometimes deliberately stilted, highlighting this disconnect between messy reality and neat fiction.

Not a Pretty Picture also documents a crucial shift in the cultural understanding of sexual assault. The idea that date rape and marital rape were, in fact, rape was just beginning to enter the mainstream — marital rape had only recently been criminalized in certain states. Coolidge admits in the film that it took years for her to even recognize what happened to her as rape. Jim Carrington, the actor who plays the perpetrator, talks about how difficult he finds it to convincingly transition from friendly to threatening, and how much easier it would be to portray a snarling brute jumping out of the shadows. It’s a sharp look at ’60s sexual mores that, as Erika Balsom observes in 4Columns, defies any nostalgia for the era.

Recent reenactment-focused documentaries, like Procession (2021), focus on the practice as a method of potential healing. This is of a piece with the prevalence of the trauma plot across many art forms. But back in the 1970s, Coolidge was already skeptical of the idea that there’s anything emotionally or psychologically redemptive about putting one’s pain into art. Instead, Not a Pretty Picture emphasizes the importance of communication and community — enduring ideas within cinema, no matter how much its form evolves.

Not a Pretty Picture (1976) plays February 2 to 8 and Brighton Beach (1980) plays February 9 to 15, both at Anthology Film Archives.

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