Three Trembling Cities, A Web Series
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”
― E.B. White, Here is New York
Three Trembling Cities
A Web Series
Three Trembling Cities, written and directed by Arthur Vincie, is an innovative web series about immigrants in New York. Wait, don’t run for the exit. It’s not an earnest and/or sentimental diatribe about America as a country of immigrants; or a timely warning against the repulsive policies of Donald Trump, although this is a good time for America to consider its immigrant heritage.
But the word “immigrant” has become heavy, fraught with anxiety, anger, and melancholy, and Three Trembling Cities is anything but that. Using the flow of the Internet as it was meant to be used, Vincie has come up with a first season of ten short segments of drama and comedy that capture the rhythms of modernity of the Great City on the Hudson, and the constantly fluid desires and thoughts of youth, striving, and ambition. In six beautifully shot episodes, to the credit of the wonderful, always busy, but not nearly well enough known cinematographer Ben Wolf, the city sometimes stands before us in its solidity and sometimes streaks past us in bursts of energy. The context is perfectly rendered as the landscape of the fragments of lives in motion that Vincie brings to our screens, lives burrowing for roots, through a variety of characters from India, Hungary, the Middle East, and Africa, acted by a delightful cast of talented, charming actors. On board with the current interest in experimenting with fusions of fiction and documentary, notably by the great sixth generation Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, Vincie interpellates into the episodes some lively talking head interviews with real immigrants from India, Bulgaria, Mexico, Canada by way of Guyana, and with the daughter of a Taiwanese mother and a father from Hong Kong. Altogether, the fiction and the direct address are a shot of adrenaline—hope and as yet undaunted confidence—in these troubled times.
This is where I reveal that I am in the main title and end credits, along with my husband, as a co-producer. Please let me confess sadly, however, that I am not entitled to take credit for any of the achievements and pleasures in this web series. All we did was contribute a very modest sum of money toward its production through an online funding site, Seeds & Sparks. We made no creative contributions, never saw the script or were present during the shooting or editing. We are a certified part of the audience that watches Three Trembling Cities, not the creative community that brought it to life. And if I am not a completely impartial observer, I can promise you that I wouldn’t have put my fingers on my computer keys to inscribe this commentary if I hadn’t been enchanted with the finished episodes.
What is particularly wonderful about the series is its freshness which was brought home to me with a vengeance when just by chance this morning, on Turner Classic, I watched about 20 minutes of A Carol for Another Christmas, a 1964 updated version of Dickens’ short novel, made for TV by ABC. It was written by Rod Serling, who really went the distance to try to make American television worth the watching, and directed by the always self-congratulatory Hollywood liberal Joe Mankiewicz. And after all the numerous updatings of the Dickens classic, this one suddenly managed to impress me with the irony that the Dickens original and its variations tend to put at their centers a silver haired capitalist, in this version played wonderfully by Sterling Hayden, and marginalize the have-nots that the story urges him to treat as fellow human beings. I was hit hard by a realization that such fiction is always about “the rich guy,” and keeps “the others” as marginalized as the Scrooge figure made them before his conversion. I say this because Vincie has done the complete opposite.
There is never for a moment any suggestion that the humanity of the immigrant characters has to be explained or made relevant by seeing them through the conversion of a selfish profit hound. Vincie trusts us, the actors, and his script enough to merely plunge into their lives as they experience them: Urmi (Nandita Chandra) a graduate student whose husband suddenly leaves her; Ilona (Tjasa Ferme) heading off for Dubai, still in transit after having come to New York from Hungary, to teach in a university there and look for a rich husband; Behrouz (Araz Mokhtar), originally from Iran, now an actor on his way back there to be in a theatrical production; his sister Azin (Sherz Aletaha), her parents’ pride and joy whose perfect American life is not what it seems to be; and Babacar Yacine Djumbaye) a young African trying to start a jewelry business. These people are neither tarted up in glamour drag to make them presentable, nor visualized pathetically. They have the natural beauty of people, and yes, these people are looking good. We meet them in a world made up of moments not long arcs; moving like water from one piece of New York to another, much in the manner of Hal Hartley films. No one asks for our understanding or compassion; they all shimmer invitingly in their personhood. Moreover, they embody what so many have noted about the clarity of perception of “outsider.” The characters throw a radiant light on New York, the people who are born here, and the people who come here. One of the most lovely of these moments,, both visually and verbally, occurs when Urmi has a vision of the ways in which people look at what is not there.
It doesn’t take long for the image of the immigrant to lose its ponderous weight and be replaced by the sense of adventure that leaving home, whatever that may entail, involves.
To view: threetremblingcities.com It’s free.