Back-To-School Season 2012: The Backpackening

My wife and I live in Morningside Heights, a very special nexus of education, privilege and the occasional triple murder. It’s a zone of the Upper West Side in which half the residents are signing petitions to halt Columbia University’s campus creep and the other half already work for Columbia in some capacity. It’s a fine if uneasy equilibrium—or so we always think, until summer ends and the students show up, their parents’ station wagons packed with the cheap furniture they’ll be cheerfully dumping on our curb come May.

And, my god, what an awful difference they make. Firstly, we’re across the street from the Manhattan School of Music, which means that for any given hour you’ll be treated to a tuba player practicing his scales or a would-be opera star singing arias with the sort of vibrato that makes you thankful for autotune. Giant cello cases take up space on the train. A cappella groups roam the corners, crooning at each other.

Then there’s the Union Theological Seminary. You’d like to think of these students as monkish and polite, unwilling to mix with the broader social scene. In fact, they’re always going on first dates that turn into heated arguments about the finer points of the Book of Revelation. And I am always sitting right next to them at the Italian restaurant when they do. (This is still preferable to hearing a dude explain what “indie” music is to a most unfortunate woman in a tone so pedantic I thought there’d be a PowerPoint display behind him.)

Oh, and let’s not forget the graduate students who live at the International House. Far be it from me to sling unfounded accusations at our guests from the other side of the globe, but it’s hard to imagine that non-Eurotrash individuals are responsible for the shattered bottles of SKYY Vodka on the steps leading up to Sakura Park. Take your brand-conscious hooliganism back to Cyprus, you wankers—here in America we drink out of paper bags. And recycle.

This weekend, of course, was also the beginning of freshman orientation. There were a Matt & Kim songs blaring from a sparsely attended Barnard lawn event and approximately four hundred undergrads blocking the sidewalk around 116th Street due to some kind of free empanada promotion at Havana Central. Here’s to nine months of hibernation!  

Kimberly Peirce on ‘The People’s Court’

“Wait, was that the night we were all pole-dancing at subMercer?” asks director Kimberly Peirce, the visionary behind Boy’s Don’t Cry and this year’s Stop-Loss. She laughs from her belly, and it’s incongruous, given that I’m here as her guest, to watch her accept the Andrew Sarris Award at Columbia University, her alma mater. After a montage sequence that projects her most moving scenes for a crowd of aspiring filmmakers and aging professors, Peirce takes to the stage. She scans the room, and says, “People always ask me for advice, for that one thing that might help them ‘make it’ in film.” Aside from truth and passion and all the ideals that one learns in film school, she shrugs her shoulders and jumps into an anecdote about how she found herself hitting rock-bottom on national television.

Boy’s Don’t Cry was conceived while Peirce was still in school, albeit not as a feature film. She had little money, and no resources—a film school pauper. The person she had entrusted to look after her meager finances had taken advantage of her naïveté, and somehow, she found herself paying back thousands of dollars in debt for a car rental service gone awry. “I didn’t even have my license!” she says, laughing now. She was served with papers from the person to whom she still owed tons of cash, and shortly afterward, found herself standing in front of former New mayor Ed Koch on “The People’s Court.” Before the big, wooden doors (“fake,” she says) opened in front of her, an ominous Moviefone voice echoed, “She set out to make a movie about a transsexual…”

In front of Koch, Peirce deferred as he asked questions like, “Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh never sold even one of his paintings while he was still alive? Did you know that he never made any money doing what he loved? Did you know that he cut off his ear?” Peirce nodded. “Well, Miss Peirce, maybe you are this generation’s Van Gogh.”

I can’t remember whether or not she won, because I was too enamored of Peirce’s self-deprecating charm. And as we waved goodbye to Peirce and the reception’s shrimp cocktail, we sort of think Koch had a point—about the genius, not the ear.