‘Free Time’ Review: City Life as It Was, Today

Through the magic of montage, the city symphonist Manfred Kirchheimer (“Stations of the Elevated”) brings fresh life to sights and sounds that New Yorkers have often taken for granted. At 89, he has a new movie, “Free Time,” that further assembles footage he shot with Walter Hess, a friend, from 1958 to 1960. (Their trove also served as the basis of three Kirchheimer shorts over the years, beginning in 1968.) It was first shown at the New York Film Festival last year, when the freewheeling street scenes had a historical curiosity but didn’t induce the same pandemic-era wistfulness.

“Free Time” affords moviegoers the time to people-watch. Children play stickball, feign sword fights and write on the streets with chalk. Adults wash windows, work at construction sites and sit in lawn chairs. Occasionally someone strikes a pose for the camera.

Some of the joy is architectural, and the choice of angles adds to the poetry. The film gazes down from a high floor (or perhaps a rooftop) at a man pushing a cart on the street below. The sight of a riverfront junkyard where scrapped cars are piled in oddly attractive patterns is offset by a kayaker enjoying a paddle in the distance.

Kirchheimer and Hess shot on black-and-white 16-millimeter film without sound, and all the audio we do hear — from the traffic noise to snatches of overheard dialogue — has been constructed. The sound effects are emphatic enough to call attention to themselves, and serve as a tacit, admirable acknowledgment that this material has been shaped. Even so, some of the clatter distracts from the purity of these great images.

Free Time
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 1 minute. Watch through Film Forum’s virtual cinema.

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