by Lela Scott MacNeil
June 15th, 2010

See “Unnatural History of Wall Street” at “New York Non-Fictions” this Friday at Rooftop Films.

This Friday, June 18, Rooftop Films is screening a collection short films about life in New York City at the “New York Non-Fiction” program. One of the films, Unnatural History of Wall Street, is a jazz inspired, fast-paced animation by Gary Leib.

Leib’s career was launched with the publication of his comic book Idiotland, and he went on to create animation for several film projects, including American Splendor. Unnatural History of Wall Street was first released as part of a series for the New York Times entitled Concrete Jumble, which was a visual “attempt to capture and chronicle change in New York City.” The story is brought to life by the hand-drawings that made him famous. The animated sketches play alongside the rumblings of a saxophone, which for Leib represents the city itself.

The original release of Unnatural History of Wall Street coincidentally coincided with the fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2008, when it lost over 21% of its value in four days. And the film continues to remain culturally relevant as we continue to struggle with and reevaluate how we feel about the world’s financial capital. Rooftop Films spoke to Gary about the true essence of New York city, what exactly an “unnatural history” is, and the way the film almost seemed to predict the 2008 stock market crash.

Rooftop Films: Give a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Gary Leib: Unnatural History of Wall Street is an animated financial history of New York City, one of a series of short animations for the New York Times online called Concrete Jumble. I worked on the piece all summer and delivered it in August, but the paper held it back because of the Republican convention and election news that would have robbed it of its spotlight. Unnatural History of Wall Street finally appeared on the New York Times website on October 5th, 2008. On October 6th the DOW dropped 370 points. The next day the market plunged 508 more points and 2 days later the Dow was down 867 points more. Release of my cartoon history of finance coincided with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing over 21% of its value in four days. This kept the link to my piece on the op-ed page for days.

RF: What, exactly, is an unnatural history?

GL: A history forced into being by an artists will and imagination, then described using some formal language, in this case hand drawn animation. A natural process, like mold growth, yields different results.

RF: Your film is part of Rooftop’s annual “New York Non-Fiction” program. What do you think is uniquely New York about it?

GL: What is uniquely New York about the piece is the cartoon vernacular used, a language that was developed in New York City by artists as diverse as Winsor McCay, The Fleischer Bros and Wally Wood. The horn stylings of New York saxophone genius Michael Hashim envelope and motivate all the action. Saxophones, cartoons and New York City are mated forever in the popular imagination, at least in mine.
To quote Lee Ving:
New York’s alright if you like saxophones
New York’s alright if you wanna get pushed in front of the subway
New York’s alright if you like tuberculosis
New York’s alright if you like art and jazz
New York’s alright if you’re a homosexual
New york’s alright, New York’s alright
New York’s alright if you like saxophones

RF: Could you make similar “unnatural histories” elsewhere?

GL: Certainly, Im always making stuff up.

RF: Why did you choose Wall Street of all the streets in New York?

GL: Its history is so boring that its fun to make up your own using a few images based in natural reality for inspiration.

RF: How would you describe the visual style of the film?

GL: Sketchbook brought to life by a wild horn.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker?

GL: Yes

RF: Describe your next project.

GL: I am working for a documentary about memory athletes called “You must Remember This.” The Unnatural History is one of an ongoing series of short animations for the New York Times online called Concrete Jumble. These minute long cartoons highlight different neighborhoods and aspects of life in New York. Others in the series have been History of The Meatpacking District, Second Ave, and King Xmas.

This summer I have some of my cartoon animation in a feature film called “The Extra Man” starring Kevin Kline, coming out at the end of July. The film is directed by Bob Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. I had worked with them before on the film “American Splendor”.

RF: What excites you about having your film screened at Rooftop?

GL: Having my drawings of Manhattan skyline projected big in front of the real Manhattan skyline is pretty darned exciting.

See “Unnatural History of Wall Street” at “New York Non-Fictions” this Friday on the Lower East Side.

Tickets and more information here.


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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.


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