"More Than thea Rainbow" is director Dan Wechsler's homage to New York street photographer Matt Weber. What is a "street photographer"? He/she is someone who simply wanders around the city they reside in snapping photographs at a rapid-fire rate in the hopes of capturing some spontaneous bit of magic. Weber prowls the back streets and main drags of Manhattan, the beaches of Coney Island and anywhere else he might find everyday people engaging in interesting activities. These might include playing with children, having casual sex in an open area, frolicking at the seaside, sleeping on sidewalks or park benches or engaging in violence. Weber's photos tell the story of a city: the good, the bad and the ugly. Weber looks like an unmade bed and talks in machine-gun fire fashion to such an extent that it often becomes exhausting just listening to him. However, he has an interesting story to tell and his photographs, which are seen abundantly throughout the film, are indeed mesmerizing. Weber began driving a taxi cab during the 1970s when Scorese and De Niro immortalized the profession in their classic 1976 Taxi Driver. In those days, Gotham was a deteriorating behemoth, with crime and pollution out of control. Weber ultimately sold his cab (an action he still sometimes regrets) in order to take to it to the streets to photograph the most exciting city on the planet. He admits that he got a significant financial boost to his meager income when he accepted $500,000 to move from his apartment many years ago. (The developer ended up going bankrupt before he could renovate the building into a luxury complex.) With a degree of financial security, Weber shoots photos virtually non-stop, admitting that the most memorable photos come about unexpectedly. He asks no permission from his subjects and shoots their photos before most of them have time to react or object. He's strictly old school, shooting in B&W on 35mm film. He describes the wonders of using his darkroom equipment to see an image appear from a blank piece of paper before his eyes-- and the viewer ends up sharing in his enthusiasm. (He does acknowledge the expense and limitations of 35mm vs. digital and seems to be weakening in his refusal to work in the format.)
The movie, which is set to funky jazz music by Theolonius Monk and Keith Gurland, is a rich looking production, considering its a rather low-budget affair. Wechsler, like his subject, is also old school and has shot at least some of the film in 35mm. The movie is bit schizophrenic in terms of its content. Although Weber is clearly the main subject, Wechsler also interviews numerous colleagues of his who are also street photographers. The problem is that the film begins to treat them not only as people who comment on Weber's life and work, but also subject matters themselves. Thus, the movie often drifts from its original intention, which is to present Weber as the focus of the piece. The other photographers are an interesting lot, however. Some are likable and engaging, others are so pretentious they remind one of the types of pretentious snobs who are satirized in Woody Allen comedies. One of the photographers, Eric Kroll, seems a bit out of place here. He does offer some biting criticism of Weber's work, which is refreshing in an otherwise cinematic wet kiss to its subject, but Kroll is not a street photographer in the traditional sense. Rather, he specializes in elaborate, staged sexual fetishes and there are plenty of eye-popping examples of his work in the film. He is also inexplicably joined throughout the interview by a lovely, well-endowed young lady who is virtually silent and sits attired in a corset that presents her two main assets in an almost 3-D effect. But what is she, or Kroll for that matter, doing in the film? They seem placed there purely for purposes of titillation.
The movie is at its best when it sticks with Weber himself. He relates his transformation from taxi driver to photographer and along the way there are interviews with his wife (presumably ex-wife, as it is revealed they were in the process of getting a divorce during filming.) She is a rather unique character in her own way. She damns Weber with faint praise by listing his attributes while simultaneously telling viewers he's virtually impossible to live with. In a bizarre moment, she also assures the viewer that, not to worry, despite problems in the marriage, their sex life was satisfactory.
More Than the Rainbow's greatest attributes are Weber's photographs and director Wechsler wisely lets the pictures do the talking throughout most of the film. His cameras linger lovingly on some fascinating slice-of-life shots that are mini works of art. A homeless man with a resemblance to Van Gogh sleeps on the sidewalk under posters that promote an exhibition of the artist's works. The beginnings of a brutal fight between two men arguing in the street are caught on camera. Small children in Harlem stand outside a seedy bar in their Sunday finest on Easter. A group of young sailors give Weber a cautionary glance as they move past the porn palaces of old Times Square. Weber is clearly among those who extol the virtues of that era. Many don't. The past is always glamorized but, while the edginess and danger of New York in those days does have an appeal in retrospect and in Weber's photographs, for many of us the "new" New York, with its cleaner streets and low crime rates, is a far better place. Still, it's fun to revisit the bad old days through Weber's extraordinary photos.
More Than the Rainbow is an ambitious and highly entertaining film about a genuine New York "character" who is every bit as intriguing as the subjects he photographs.
The film opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on May 2 and in L.A. at the Arena Cinema on May 24.