“Jay Myself,” a new documentary from photographer and filmmaker, Stephen Wilkes, is an intimate and emotionally compelling look at Wilke’s longtime mentor, Jay Maisel, at an important intersection of Maisel’s life. For those that don’t know, Jay Maisel is a world famous photographer whose career has spanned more than 60 years. For most of that career, Maisel has made his home and office in a 6 story, 72 room, 35,000 square foot building which was originally the Germania Bank building in Downtown, Manhattan. In fact, the property, located at 190 Bowery Street, is known affectionately as “The Bank.” “Jay Myself” examines Maisel, his life and career, through the lens of The Bank and the life long relationship Maisel has had with this massive building
“The building has become a kind of enclave for me … a refuge” – Jay Maisel
In 2015, Maisel sold The Bank for $55 million, the largest private real estate deal in New York City’s history. “Jay Myself” follows Maisel and his family over the course of the 5 months that he’s been given to pack up his stuff and vacate the property. Wilkes captures the entire moving process on camera and through interviews and archival videos, chronicles what The Bank has meant to Maisel and the effect that moving is having on him.
“I always thought I’d die here, I want to stay but I can’t support it.”
Even in his 80s, Maisel comes off as sharp witted and sharp tongued. He drops the word “fuck” often in conversation, using its many iterations creatively, but you get the distinct impression that his bluntness is an endearing quality to those that know him best. Wilkes, who began working for Maisel in 1979, is able to secure candid interviews from Maisel and in each, Maisel is clearly speaking openly and honestly. This doesn’t stop him, however, from complaining that Wilkes needs yet another interview.
Over the course of the 5 months, you can see Maisel’s attitude towards the move change, moving from unsure of how he feels to settling somewhere between sad and angry that he has to go. We learn The Bank costs around $300,000 a year to maintain and so while we never get confirmation beyond the quote above, one has to assume this move is one of reluctant necessity than desire. And Maisel is mildly bitter about it. It’s deeply affecting to watch him be sad and bewildered as his belongings are boxed up and carted off.
“I have a room that’s just circles.” – Jay Maisel
What makes “Jay Myself” stand out, and makes Maisel such an interesting subject, is that his move from The Bank is unlike any move you’ve ever experienced. In 49 years of living in the massive space, Maisel accumulated a wealth of trinkets and treasures and some would say, junk, to the Nth degree. In the end, the move required more than 35 truck loads and every minute of the five months he was given. It also cost him at least $200,000 (based on a brief conversation we overhear in an interview). And even with all he took out of the cavernous building, he leaves a large
“He doesn’t make sense as a parent in a lot of ways. But he’s still a good one.” – Amanda Wilkes
“Jay Myself” focuses mostly on Jay and his trinkets and The Bank and the move, but there is a decent amount of time spent on both the span of his professional career as well as his family life. The Bank isn’t just his work space, it’s also where he lived with his wife and raised a daughter. The Bank was his home as well as his work and his daughter, Amanda, and wife, Linda, give several honest and sincere interviews on the man behind the collector’s hoard. It’s an important insight for us the viewer to see, in order to fully understand who Maisel is and what makes him tick. Wilkes is very smart to take the time to explore this portion of Maisel’s world.
“If I had to do it over again, I would have bought two buildings instead of one.” – Jay Maisel
There is a brief epilogue with Maisel, post-move, and we see how he is adapting to a more cramped lifestyle (how could it be anything other than more cramped after 35,000 square feet of freedom). In the end, Wilkes’ intimate camera work, pointed interview questions, and familiarity with Maisel allows us to leave the theater feeling like we too know Maisel. We identify with him and the impact such a move has had on him because I think we can all empathize on how we would feel in his position. Personally, I was deeply moved and after only 76 minutes of run time, wanted to hug the old man and also, maybe, pick his brain on life and photography.
If you get the chance to see “Jay Myself,” at Doc NYC fest or elsewhere, I highly recommend you do. Wilkes has documented the end of an era of twin icons, Maisel and The Bank both. Amanda Wilkes says it best during the film when she talks about her nostalgia for old New York and how her father’s move from The Bank represents a loss of that nostalgia. She’s a hundred percent correct and my take away was that “Jay Myself’ acts as an excellent last hurrah, a requiem if you will, for a little piece of NYC’s soul.
“What I’m trying to do, as much as I can, is have fun.” – Jay Maisel
One of the entries in “The Metropolis” competition at this year’s Ninth Annual Doc NYC, “Jay Myself” has its world premiere on November 11,
For tickets and more information on the documentaries in this year’s festival, head to Doc NYC’s website, http://www.docnyc.net/.