A Man Doing the Most Basic Thing, Breathing

Filmmaker and artist David Shapiro shares journal entries from the making of his latest project, Untitled Pizza Movie, which is out this week.

Journal entry ~ January 26, 2020
In the winter of 1972, Frank Serpico stands on a NYC sidewalk and exhales. We see the vapor of his breath. Something about that image stayed with me all these years. I saw Serpico as a boy, in a movie theater, with my father, who was, until three days ago, a fan of the crooked cop genre.

Of the minor and major events, which lodge in our memories, the experiential and the representational vie for dominance. And often, as we grow older, they begin to swap places and became indistinguishable.

Movies, as such, hold remarkable power – seducing viewers with life-like performance, real-world locations, and special effects – to forge indelible images. For many, the lines between fiction (representations of life) and life (as lived), begin to blur, and become what we remember as life, and what we end up measuring our own lives against.

That’s not to say, as a 10-year-old watching Serpico, I knew any of this. But 10 or not, I saw something that day with Dad, captured in that image, something fundamentally recognizable – what being alive looks like. We lived in New York. I knew what it felt like to stand on the sidewalk on a cold winter day, exhale and watch the vapors trail away.

I suppose seeing that – a man doing the most basic thing, breathing – imprinted itself deep in my memory. Ephemeral moments, captured on film – the wind blowing through trees, a rainstorm, footprints in the snow – might be created in the service of entertainment, nonetheless, they are documents of a specific time and place, and of people moving through it.

I remember seeing Serpico many years later, as a man, at Film Forum, in the middle of winter. It was the 25th or 30th anniversary screening, I can’t exactly remember, but nonetheless, “Frank Serpico,” the man himself, was there in person, to speak after the film. And he spoke, of the personal consequence of his actions, his life of witness protection and mandatory anonymity.

So, as a filmmaker now, I watched the film again with scholarly purpose, a compelling story of corruption and one man’s stand against it. When I saw that simple, single shot, this time, I saw Al Pacino, not Frank Serpico, exhaling. But it did not tarnish my memory.

After the film and talk, a small group assembled in the theater’s foyer, to keep the conversation going. I took the measure of the actual man. He was ordinary looking. You would never know who he was without being told. He struck me as slightly jittery, as if all these years later, the corrupt men he exposed were still going to get even. He was looking over his shoulder.

And then everyone – like any circle of strangers – awkwardly bid goodnight. I watched Frank Serpico step outside the movie theater, take in a deep breath of cold, winter air, and exhale.

I’m about to premiere my movie at Sundance, Dad’s dead, and all I can think about is fucking Serpico.

Last January, I was about to premiere the first three parts of Untitled Pizza Movie at Sundance. Simultaneously, I was teaching college – a course about crime films. I was meant to write a lecture on Serpico. Days earlier, my father had died. He was 99.

Julius Shapiro (1920 – 2020) and Jean Shapiro (1925 – 2006) in David Shapiro’s Hallucinate, as featured in Untitled Pizza Movie.

Dad appears in Untitled Pizza Movie, in a film within the film, about an acid trip. He played a New School-y mentor-guru-Messiah, giving fatherly advice to his son. Not so many fathers would sit buck-naked on a tuffet, wearing only a sarong and pontificate about life and death, art and work, Zen and JewBu’s, all on camera. Nor would most fathers wear a saffron robe and hold a ping-pong racket, and stand swinging it front of a homebuilt blue-screen studio in a backyard, for a movie about their son’s LSD trip. I felt lucky then and more so now, that regardless of what my parents may have thought of my projects, let alone career choice, they supported me with love and generous participation.

As I was about to give birth to Untitled Pizza Movie at Sundance, so to speak, I began to realize that, on some level, this project was a means to process my father’s slow death.

One week after Sundance, COVID-19 had shut down the world. I would put Untitled Pizza Movie on hold. But that night, in the dead of a Park City winter, I took a long winter walk in the brisk air. It was hard to be excited. l watched the vapors of my breath trail away.

Journal entry ~ November 21, 2020, 3:21 a.m.
if no one reads your book
If no one eats your pizza
If no one hears your music
If no one sees your movie
Birthday party.

I had written that on a purple Post-It the night of my birthday. I was shitfaced and editing in my living room, COVID-style. Not much good came that night, ha. But in retrospect, I looked back on my last decade of birthdays. Each year, I was making a movie. I’m still in debt from the last one, but I’m grateful to be doing this. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Untitled Pizza Movie will be done soon. I have a year to find a way to begin another. The clock is ticking.

David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson in Untitled Pizza Movie.

Journal entry ~ December 25, 2020
Damn, it’s good.

I don’t want to spoil Untitled Pizza Movie for someone who hasn’t seen it, but our last day of production occurred on the Wednesday before Christmas, December 24, 2020. It was a great shoot. The film gods shined their light and the work flowed into the night. After we wrapped, the crew celebrated in the best way, truest to the work – we shared a Bellucci pie. Damn, it was good. It may well have been the greatest slice of my life.

Even though it reads better, I’d be lying if I said, greatest slice. Actually, I had five.

David Shapiro is an award-winning filmmaker based in New York. His limited non-fiction series Untitled Pizza Movie, which he wrote and directed, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and has an exclusive online run at Metrograph between February 26 and March 14. Shapiro’s feature documentaries include Missing People (2016), a nonfiction mystery following enigmatic art dealer Martina Batan as she investigates her brother’s long unsolved murder, and Keep the River on Your Right (IFC, 2001), winner of an Independent Spirit Award and a Jury Award at IDFA, based on Tobias Schneebaum’s iconic book about his life among the Harakambut People in the Amazon in the 1950s. David wrote and produced Finishing Heaven (HBO, 2009), for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. Shapiro’s visual art has been exhibited extensively in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including shows at MoMA, the Tate, the Norton and the Brooklyn Museum. His work is included in many prominent collections, including the Tate, the Whitney and the collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody.