Those who don’t live in New York City might dismiss it as a monolithic haven for craven “coastal elites,” but people who live here know that it is in fact a thousand places at once. From block to block, building to building, and one neighborhood or or ethnic enclave or class grouping to another, New York is an entirely different city for every single person who calls it home. The individual, the personal, the lived New York is at the heart of Untitled Pizza Movie, a documentary series from multimedia artist David Shapiro.
Shapiro is a hometown boy, born in the isolated Lower East Side housing development referred to as “Stuy Town.” For him, as it is for many of us, the culture of New York is deeply contained in its food, as the non-title of Untitled Pizza Movie might indicate. It’s a sprawling document of how the city has changed over decades, spiraling out from a personal project Shapiro and his childhood friend Leeds Atkinson attempted to make in the 1990s to document all of NYC’s pizza, slice by slice. That project went unfinished, and Shapiro and Leeds eventually drifted apart. Here, Shapiro revisits the footage decades later to reflect on a number of developments — how Manhattan and New York culture have shifted, how gentrification has unfolded, how relationships change — all filtered through the evolution of pizza.
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Shapiro intersperses interviews, archival footage, and B-roll of the city with objects photographed in a pure white gallery that speak to his memory of New York: childhood mementos, beloved records from his crate-digging days as a would-be beatnik in Lower Manhattan, assorted flotsam and jetsam of urban life. Shapiro narrates both with voiceover and visually, with textual footnotes that give insight into assorted pieces of New York history.
There’s a bit of a true crime tangent which is at times self-indulgent but interesting nonetheless: David and Leeds were particularly obsessed with Andy Bellucci, a wunderkind chef at the revived Lombardi’s who was eventually arrested for embezzling money from a law firm he’d worked at years prior. After his release from prison, Bellucci set up shop in Malaysia to introduce the country to pizza and his brash New York personality. In the present day, Shapiro catches up with Bellucci as he’s attempting to use his success in Malaysia to wedge his way back into the radically altered New York culinary world.
Much of the series — which at times feels as much like a multimedia art project or installation piece as it does a documentary — is about retracing the missteps of his years-long friendship with Leeds. He fills in the elusive creative’s adventures in between their falling out and Leeds’s sudden death in 2014. These are some of the most personal stretches of the movie, but unfortunately some of the least interesting. Many of us have had flash-in-a-pan friendships with difficult people. It feels like the material would hit harder for anyone who actually knew Leeds. That storyline runs on emotion alone, while the Bellucci thread is much harder to resist.
But it’s also easy to understand why Shapiro is so drawn to the life of a friend he only partly understood. Leeds is in some ways a perfect metaphor for the city, a native who lived a moment-to-moment life, someone who always hangs around but you never fully know. Perhaps it’s just my bias as a resident, but it’s hard not to get emotional thinking about how New York keeps changing whether you want it to or not, particularly in a time of so much closure and loss. Like a friend you lose touch with, the city just keeps on living. You can’t pin it down anywhere outside your memories, and even those are hard to hold on to.