the woman who turned her world into an aquarium


This weekend I had a playdate with my Dad, Tones. He came to Wellington for 24 hours and we had a pretty intense schedule to stick to.

We picked him up from the airport at 9.30 on Saturday morning, went to Nikau for breakfast, then to Diary of a Times Square Thief at the City Gallery theatre as part of the Documentary Edge programme. We mooched around in Unity Books for a bit and then caught the bus down to Reading for three more Documentary Edge short films – Smile Pinki, Notes on the Other and The Solitary Life of Cranes. I had accidentally booked us into the Gold Lounge, so we put our feet up and had a glass of wine, which was a pretty good accident, really.

Tones is a bit of a Hemingway nut, so I thought Notes on the Other, about the cult of Hemingway impersonation, would be right up his alley. It was quirky and well worth a watch, but Smile Pinki was, for us, the unexpected standout of the three short films. It’s a story about the quest of, a fully-funded project to fix cleft lips and palates in children throughout India, and a couple of the children whose lives the operations helped, including five year-old Pinki’s. It was lovely. I know lovely is a bit of an inadequate word, but that’s exactly what it was. It was one of those films that made me think two things. 1: What in God’s good name do I have to complain about in my comfortable, overly-indulged life? And, 2: What do I give back – what do I actually contribute – in the course of my day? (Not a question that bears much thinking about.)

Then we went to lunch, then to a massage at East Day Spa, then home for drinks, Listener crosswords, records and serious planning conversations. We played The Crate Game with Tones (to explain, briefly: in The Crate Game special guests are given the opportunity to sort through a crate of unopened vinyl and select the album of their choice to break open and play… some people take five minutes, some take an hour. It has turned into a bit of a household ritual.) Tones chose PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, although he had never heard it before in his life. Respect.

My favourite thing about The Crate Game is observing the selection process. Every single person is different. And, in a way, by the time the record is finally selected and cracked open, the actual playing of it is irrelevant. It’s all about the anticipation and the choosing. The thrill of the chase. Breaking the seal. Actually, scrap that. The seal thing is an innuendo I wasn’t going for.

We dropped Tones at the airport at 8.29 this morning, and that was my playdate with Tones, in a nutshell.

But what I mostly wanted to write about here is the Diary of a Times Square Thief documentary. But of course I got caught up in the preamble on the way to my point, as I am wont to do.

This was my pick of the bunch. It was even better than I had expected. But I was sad to note that our showing of the documentary was the Asia Pacific premiere. And we were in a room with perhaps 10 other people. This was a bit sad, to me, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s so good I just want people to see it, and the thought of a missed opportunity seems a real shame. Secondly, it comes down to money. If the punters don’t rock up to watch, maybe we won’t get Documentary Edge 2011. And that’s a bit shit.

[I should point out, though, that I went along to Art & Copy tonight and it seemed pretty well patronised… and deservingly so.]

I was going to write all about The Diary of a Times Square Thief. But I almost don’t want to ruin it by over-explaining.

I love a good documentary. What a privilege in our self-centred worlds, to get an insight, even just a glimmer, into other people’s lives. How rare and beautiful.

We are Channel 71 regulars, and with My Sky we now have the good fortune of watching even the most bizarre and obscure early-hours-of-the-morning documentaries. Today we played back a fascinating account of two hot-blooded fiends who only got off after armed robberies. It was aptly entitled: The Armed Robbery Orgasm. 

So to synopsise, in a paragraph (now there’s a challenge), Diary of a Times Square Thief comes about when Klaas Bense randomly discovers and purchases a journal on eBay. Its final pages are cut out. Bense makes the trek to Times Square to try and locate the author, an aspiring writer working reception at the underworldly Times Square Hotel, stealing dogs, killing time, taking drugs, taking polaroids of the parade of misfits, making a record of the Times Square underworld as he knew it. Where bodybags and everyday pestilence were more or less unremarkable.

The documentary crosses path with some of the characters who could have, and did, meet the journal’s owner. Each person eloquent in their own way, each interview a story in itself, interspersed with carefully captured, colour-saturated vignettes of the city. 

And I won’t give away the ending, but it’s the ending that makes it.

Meeting him.  His refusal to romanticise his past. The story about the seemingly kooky caped woman in the Times Square Hotel who turned her room into a painted aquarium, a possibly misunderstood hermit’s secret Sistene Chapel.

I guess I’d rather tell you to watch it than to talk it about any more (and, besides, it’s bedtime). To see the swimming fish and the cityscapes. And everything else.


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