Film Review: Harvard On Hudson (2014)
"Harvard On Hudson" is the second film (this time a short) from Raymond Guarnieri, the award-winning director, writer, and producer of "Buffalo Boys". I first became acquainted with Guarnieri's work when I reviewed "Buffalo Boys" and, I must say, it has been a long time since a new filmmaker has blown me away this much. "Harvard On Hudson" is quite a departure from his first film in that it is quite abstract in nature. The film centers on Julian (played expertly by Paul Castro, Jr.), a young man from a privileged background who is now questioning his own raison d'etre. He has long been forced to become the type of person that others want him to be. But as he reaches the age of reason, he finds himself asking who he really is. The film begins with Julian wandering the streets of New York, looking for anyone who might be able to give him some answers. The narration begins: "A plastic bag floats over well-dressed corpses, looking down on them, dripping mothers' ersatz tears and fathers' burly coughs of strategic pause." The camera pans over the gorgeous facade of The Plaza Hotel, finally entering to show the audience the lavish decor.
As a wealthy couple leaves the hotel, Julian follows them, taunting them with questions about the state of the world. They ignore him, presumably in much the same way they have ignored matters that they consider to be beneath them. The surreal nature of the film continues when Julian appears to leave his body behind and continue his walk around the city. As he passes buildings he fades in and out between being transparent and solid. This, to me, depicts his inner conflict regarding who he has been and who he wants to be.
Julian then meets Grace, a high-end escort. He asks her, "How do you feel, doing what you do?" To which she replies, "Good. When I'm doing it." The two go to a bar to have a drink and seem to have a conversation without ever uttering a single word. Afterward, while walking, he describes to her a feeling of being inside when you are actually outside. Like if you closed your eyes, you would feel as if you are alone, surrounded by walls and a ceiling when you are actually still outside. To me, this describes Julian's intense dissatisfaction with his life. He feels confined even in an open space.
He takes her to "Harvard on Hudson", the City College of New York. Although not specified, one gets the feeling that Julian must have attended college here. It is here, on the campus grounds, that Julian explains to Grace that he is sick of having to fit into certain molds, he is sick of being pressed and folded. He goes on to say that "there is no price too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."
Later, in Julian's beautifully decorated apartment, the two have sex. But it is very detached and impersonal. When he offers her money, she calls him out on his behavior, telling him that he's just like all the other rich guys paying for sex. He treated her with contempt and disrespect, and she stood up to him. He seems to realize, with a shock, that even though he doesn't want to be like the other wealthy assholes in the world, he is acting just like them.
As with his first feature, Raymond Guarnieri succeeds in presenting an abstract film about an inner struggle. I really like his choice of wide angle shots juxtaposed with close-ups with the camera literally in the face of the actor. The lighting and cinematography are superb. The word that comes to mind would be exquisite.
Paul Castro, Jr. is authentic in his portrayal of Julian. He has the ability to convey a depth of emotion without having to say anything. You can see the pain of his inner struggle all over his face. And as Grace, Aly Miller has the same ability. She is expressing so much even when she is quiet. But when she speaks, you can hear the righteousness in her voice. The camera loves both of these actors. Great screen presence.
The film is currently in post-production with a Kickstarter campaign to help with promotional costs and festival entry fees. The campaign can be found by clicking here. Please consider contributing to this wonderful film. The team of Raymond Guarnieri and Paul Castro, Jr. has once again succeeded with as near a perfect film as you can get.
I will be updating this page as I find out more information regarding release dates and where you can see the film. Keep your eyes open for projects from this team. Good things are coming.
I was also lucky enough to ask the director some questions. The following is our Q and A:
1. What is the origin of the title “Harvard on Hudson”?
"Harvard on the Hudson" is a very old nickname for The City College of New York. Its meaning is to imply that City College, while originating as a free institution for the working class- and still being known as a place to get a very low cost yet high quality education, is on par with Harvard University in all aspects. This sounds nice, but the irony is that City College students (which to me are representative of my generation) are indoctrinated with subtle feelings of inadequacy as they inevitably recognize that they do not attend an ivy league school such as Harvard...
That's part one of my answer. Part two is that, while intentionally not made explicit, Julian attends City College (or attended- in our little backstory he'd just dropped out) and is resentful toward this concept of "Harvard on Hudson"- and that he's constantly faced with the struggles of being "pressed and folded" into someone/something that is societally acceptable. In the end- I wanted everything to be representative of these broad constructs as opposed to explicit so that the audience experienced something more of a subliminal emotional journey as opposed to a clear, linear dramatic structure. The idea was to break free from the confines of plot and character and evoke a more pure journey through the moving image.
2. What is Julian quoting at the beginning of the film?
Nothing! This is an original poem I wrote to establish the tone of the world Julian envisions & his emotions toward it! I'm flattered that you think it's a quote of something though. :-)
3. The film reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” as far as the style goes. Is he an influence and who are other influences for you?
Stanley Kubrick has definitely had a big influence on me as a filmmaker and guess what- he went to City College. ^.^ My other biggest influences are Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Vincent Gallo (his music as well as his films), and the painter Wassily Kandinsky. There are certainly more but those are some of the important ones that come to mind right away. I watch A LOT of movies.
4. How did you and Paul Castro, Jr. begin to work together?
Paul and I met when he auditioned for "Buffalo Boys." It has been one of those working relationships that was clearly meant to be. Paul and I relate on a lot of levels- personally and professionally, but especially when it comes to work ethic and passion for our respective crafts. I know very few people who are as hungry as me to keep making their work come to life and Paul is definitely one of them.
5. When do you expect to complete post-production?
We're soooooo close at the moment. We're looking to put the final touches on the audio mix & color correction by around the 25th of February because we're submitting the film to the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at this years American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival. In our opinion this is the perfect place to premiere as it would put the project in front of its target audience and give us an opportunity to experience that "next level" we talk about in our Kickstarter video.
6. I know you are from Buffalo. Where did you study? Did you always know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I get this question a lot actually and people are often very surprised to hear that I didn't go to film school before directing "Buffalo Boys." I made a few (admittedly bad) short videos with some friends using a DSLR, and then once I felt like I had a handle on screen grammar and visual storytelling I (quite literally) jumped into making a feature film. It was a huge success considering this and our budget and the other various constraints of being a first time filmmaker making a very indie film.
Since then I've enrolled in film courses at... you guessed it! The City College of New York! I'll graduate with a BFA in Film and Video Production.
I didn't know that I wanted to be a filmmaker until after I made my first short film (which I will never show to anybody ever again because it's sooooo bad.) I started out as an actor and graduated The American Academy of Dramatic Arts- one of the oldest acting schools in the world- in 2010. From there I acted in a few award-winning films one of which- "Payin' The Price," dir. Jordan Coleman, won Pest Picture at the HBO Martha's Vineyard Film Festival. After that I made the aforementioned bad short film in an attempt to generate material for a better acting reel. In the process of directing- I very quickly discovered my true passion. It's a rush I've been chasing ever since and I can't imagine pursuing anything else. The desire to direct is truly what drives me every minute of the day.
A special thank you to Ray for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an honor to be able to interact with you. Keep up the good work!