One of my favorite moments in movies comes midway through “My Dinner with Andre,” when Wallace Shawn explains to his dinner-and-conversation companion, Andre Gregory, why it would be foolish to try and scale Mount Everest as a way of experiencing life anew. If you could truly see everything that’s going on around you, says Shawn, then you’d find just as much mystery and excitement in the cigar store next to this restaurant as you would scaling Everest. Shawn’s point might come off as a defense of his own couch-potato nature (why bother going to Everest?), but there’s a tantalizing life-enhancing Buddhist liberation to it. If you really know, at every moment, what life is, then who’s to say that the exact place you’re in is any less magical than any other place? Who’s to say that you’re not, right now, at the center of the universe?
That message — which, when you begin to think about it, can tease out the underlying adventure of every moment — ripples through the lovely small-scale documentary “Jay Myself,” even if the film doesn’t present itself in that cosmic a way. It comes on, instead, as one of those miniature snapshots of an only-in-New-York oddball and the fluky predicament in which he finds himself.
In 1966, the photographer Jay Maisel, who was quite the celebrity shutterbug (he was a gallery-level image maker who became the hottest of commercial photographers), bought a building on the Bowery on the east edge of SoHo. He was looking for a place that could serve as both a home and a studio, and this was literally the first place that any real-estate broker showed him: a six-story, 36,000-square-foot Renaissance Revival landmark that had been built, in 1898, as a commercial bank; it sat like a fortress on the corner of the Bowery and Spring Street. The purchase price was $102,000, and the downpayment, which Maisel says he couldn’t afford, was $25,000. But when he tricked Life magazine, almost by accident, into doubling his pay for a 10-page spread, the fee for that assignment came to $25,000. So he figured he would take the plunge.
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“Jay Myself” was shot in 2015, when Maisel, who occupied the building that became known as The Bank for 50 years, sold it because he could no longer handle the maintenance costs, which had ballooned to $300,000 a year. (The irony is that he sold the building for $55 million, in what became the largest private real-estate transaction in New York City history.) The movie is really about how Maisel used The Bank for the half century he was in it — as a storage space for his sprawling, ever-expanding collection of cherished objects. One floor was a living room that doubled as a basketball court; one was an elegantly lit photo gallery; one contained his kitchen, bedrooms, etc. But most of the 72 rooms at 190 Bowery were devoted to housing Maisel’s impossibly vast collection of trinkets, tools, geometric baubles, mechanical objects, bits and pieces of mechanical objects, curios and gimcracks, toys and bric-a-brac — an endless ramshackle trove of what some might call “junk,” but that Maisel saw as treasure. Or, at least, something he couldn’t live without. Which is why he refused to part with a single piece of it.
The documentary was directed by Maisel’s former intern, Stephen Wilkes, who became his gofer and protegé back in 1979. Wilkes views his old mentor with affection, but with a supreme awareness of what a crazy-charismatic crank he can be. At first, as Maisel gives us a tour of all the stuff he’s collected in all his rooms, we run through the standard jokes in our heads about hoarding, OCD, etc. Maisel, tall and gray-haired, a barrel-chested cigar smoker with a slight speech impediment, is a talky imperious fellow who suggests, in his sprightly 80s, a cross between Don Corleone and Gary Marshall. Between his noodgy personality and his junk-museum building, we think, “Is the entire film going to be about this?”
It’s not. “Jay Myself” is a portrait of the luminous artist Jay Maisel was in his heyday, and still is (he started in 1954, and his black-and-white photographs of jazz and movie stars in the ’50s are bedazzling). The minor splendor of the movie is the connection it makes between his photographs, which are miraculous compositions of everyday light and color, and the way that he lived, treating the random objects he collected as sacred, because what he knew is that they weren’t just objects. They were the stuff of this world, each one with a purity of design that made it completely…itself.
“Jay Myself” is only 79 minutes long, and some of is devoted to the logistical fascination of how Maisel lifts his stuff, and his life, out of that building, working with movers who take four months to execute the job. He compulsively kvetches about the headache, and the heartache, of it all, but as we get to know Maisel’s wife, Linda (known as La), and his daughter, Amanda (who seems supremely well-adjusted), we realize that Jay Maisel built the obsessive version of a utopian paradise for himself. A number of noted artists, like Robert Rauschenberg, were buying buildings at the time (remember how the abstract impressionist played by Nick Nolte in Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” casually mentions that he owns the building that houses his studio?), and “Jay Myself” is, among other things, an eccentrically fantastic piece of real-estate porn.
But it’s really about how Jay Maisel, through his camera lens, takes in the world: as a place where every building, every street, every object, every person is endowed with a nearly mystical beauty. You’re tempted to say that he looks at things with the eyes of an angel, except that in almost every case the splendor of his images appears to capture nothing more or less than what’s right in front of him. (How did he snap a photograph in Washington Square Park of a girl whose head is framed by a glinting bicycle wheel that looks like an aureole? He didn’t plan it. He saw it.) After watching “Jay Myself,” you yourself may begin to see the world in a whole new way, as if you’d woken up to all the images that might have been invisible before, but only because you passed them by.