If your movie-going schedule is already jam-packed with all those other film fests (LES, Rooftop, and Nitehawk, just to name a few) you probably haven’t even realized that the Manhattan Film Festival started Thursday and runs through June 25. But don’t sleep on it: the fest is offering excellent opportunities to see two docs about Greenwich Village institutions.
The first, screening Tuesday at 5 p.m., is Joe’s Dairy, about the now-shuttered Sullivan Street cheese shop. That’ll be a somber one. For a more upbeat portrait of a Greenwich Village fixture, check out Portrait of a Park, filmmaker Simeon Soffer’s documentary about the legendary West 4th Street Courts. Produced by Ethan Sprague, the unofficial court photographer, and drawing on nearly 30 years of his photos of pick-up ball, the film tells the story of “the cage” from the perspective of ballers like Joey “The Soho Kid” Goodwin and the hustlers, spectators, and old-school New Yorkers who are drawn to the raucous blacktop at Sixth Avenue and West 3rd.
Here’s what you’ll learn after watching the film.
1. There’s a lot of trash talk.
“I snap on the players, I snap on the crowd, I snap on everybody out here,” says the man they call Butter. One of his burns: “He’s a meat byproduct, he shouldn’t even be on the court.” Regulars can smell weakness: “Be a little too soft or emotional, they’ll kill you in here,” says one player.
2. There’s no ref, and the calls get ugly.
“There’s no trusting no calls,” one player says. Twelve-point games can last an hour and a half while players fight over calls, blatantly ignoring the “Unnecessary Noise Prohibited” sign nearby and sometimes pushing and shoving each other. Rule of thumb: “If you’re new in the park for the day you’re not getting a call.”
3. Everyone has a nickname. And some of them are ridiculous.
“Frederick Douglass,” “Archie Bunker,” “Moneybags,” and an Asian Man called “Fried Rice” are among the characters who’ve been photographed by Ethan “Jetson” Sprague. Present-day players include Special K, The Green-Eyed Bandit, CIA (“because I wore sunglasses”), and The Grim Reaper (“whenever I step on the court, all I do is kill”).
4. There are cottage industries.
Dwayne “Tree Man” Johnson, who has been living under a tree next to the court for over nine years, sells loosies for 50 cents a pop. Leo Jones, who resembles an older, black Matthew McConaughey, rents folding seats during tournaments. It’s $2 for a seat in Leo’s Lounge, which, according to its grumpy proprietor, is better than being in the “peanut gallery” because “you can’t do a lot of profane language over there.”
5. There are street characters, some more warm and cuddly than others.
A man who’s shown yelling maniacally at passersby is described as a “mascot for the neighborhood” who “keeps everybody up on their tippy toes.” He attributes his erratic behavior to tall cups of McDonald’s coffee: “Coffee’s like cocaine or crack.” Another man with addiction problems acts as the court’s self-appointed “sideline bench coach,” watching the games from atop a milk crate all day long. “It keeps my mind off of crack, off of relapsing, and off of just wrecking my life,” he says.
6. Pro ballers sometimes return to the park.
Former Lakers player Smush Parker considers the park his home. “I owe everything to who I am to West 4th,” he says. “It gave me the toughness to handle myself in the street and in the NBA. It’s not just a park, it’s a lifestyle.”
7. It’s all about the love of the game… but money makes it interesting.
One handball players says he takes home $100 on a good day.
8. The women’s games are just as fierce, if a little bit different.
“Pardon my ignorance but I didn’t know female basketball players were that talented,” Parker admits. “They’re more disciplined as basketball players.” One of the female players says, winking, “the ladies are more about fundamentals, we talk a lot, we actually play defense compared to the men.” One old-timer observes that the women “don’t cry as much as the men do.”
“Portrait of a Park” screens June 25 at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., Greenwich Village; tickets $14.