The City Is Yours
By Mark Asch

Haley Elizabeth Anderson, U.S., no distributor

Tendaberry screens Friday, March 15, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

In a stray moment during Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s first feature, Tendaberry, a pregnant cocktail waitress named Dakota (Kota Johan), working at a South Brooklyn strip club, tries to upsell a faded customer a mixed drink called the “Steeplechase Sour.” Steeplechase Park—located roughly on the parcel where the Brooklyn Cyclones play these days—was one of the main amusement parks built on Coney Island around the turn of the twentieth century, when the trains began to reach the ocean and the area emerged as the People’s Playground. It fell into disrepair after World War II and closed in 1964. And whispery traces of it remain in the unlikeliest places; the city is a symphony of echoes.

Steeplechase Park isn’t otherwise mentioned, but footage of it appears in montages that interrupt the film, which Dakota narrates, expounding on the history and innate ephemerality of New York City as old images of the blinking lights of Steeplechase and Dreamland and Luna Park and the Wonder Wheel flicker by. Similar newsreel footage of the same wooden spinning-disk rides in Steeplechase Park’s old Pavilion of Fun, was also seen in Brighton Beach, Carol Stein and Susan Wittenberg’s recently restored 1980 documentary, in which interviews with the neighborhood’s current residents and footage of bandshell golden-oldie concerts are juxtaposed against undercranked black-and-white clips of bathing-beauty contests from the neighborhood’s glory days. A snapshot in time, Brighton Beach necessarily also includes all the past moments that reverberate through it—as well as all the future moments it will reverberate through. The Brighton Beach of the 1970s, then emerging as “Little Odessa,” the new home of predominantly Jewish Soviet immigrants, is the foundation of Brighton Beach in Tendaberry, where newer arrivals from the old SSRs dance under the laser lights at Tatiana.

An archive for the future is also what Anderson is building in Tendaberry. As the pandemic paused development on her logistically ambitious feature debut, the director turned to a looser, guerilla-style, diaristic project, developed around first-time actor Johan and inspired in part by the director’s desire to use a box of blank DV tapes she’d been holding onto since her days at Tisch School of the Arts. Shot stop-start over the course of two years, enough time for collaborators to drop into and out of the movie and for Dakota to make and lose friends, and set mostly along the stretch of the BQ between Prospect Park South and the beach, the film follows Dakota through four seasons of 2021 and 2022, time spent meeting cute with Ukranian Yuri (Yuri Pleskun), working at the dollar store, swimming in the ocean, heating her cold apartment with her gas stove, walking past the neighbor girls playing in the hallway, dancing in the park, checking out the most elaborate Halloween decorations in Ditmas Park, riding the Wonder Wheel.

Anderson, who as a UT Austin student did some street casting for Terrence Malick, has spoken of her profound admiration for The Tree of Life, and mines a similar vein of recovered-memory impressionism. The camera is rarely still, scenes rush together in a flow of snatched-at recollections, and at intervals they’re interrupted by those montages, making the border between Dakota’s self and others feel porous. Anderson jumps through time, incorporating her DV footage of street life, what appear to be Johan’s own home moves from the 2000s, and footage from other archives, collective and personal, some from recognizable sources, such as a snippet of Helen Levitt’s In the Street, as well as extensive footage from the video diaries of Nelson Sullivan, the amateur real-time historian of gay NYC in the ’80s. In particular, Dakota’s Malickian narration, a profuse, musical, and achingly plangent monologue on the ephemerality and interconnectedness of all things, speaks at length about the deep connection she feels to Sullivan—who is, like her, present in a moment that is always going but never gone—and to his city, which both is hers and isn’t.

Anderson has researched “genetic memory” in conjunction with another project, but it is a meaningful thing for a woman of color to insert herself into a flow of memory in this way, when for people from marginalized communities this kind of psychic heritage often serves as an ironic reminder of the more material inheritances denied them. Dakota’s consciousness is in part multigenerational: among her memories are blinking, sun-kissed impressions of her mother teaching her to swim as a very young girl. As in Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt or Tyriek White’s novel We Are Haunting, both works by emerging Black artists from last year, water imagery and an aesthetic of roving poetic subjectivity evoke a yearning for home, for the resolution of a legacy of displacement and dispossession.

New York is always being built and rebuilt on its own ruins, and Tendaberry’s palimpsestic vision of the city is inextricable from the consequences of gentrification—the city is always ejecting people like Dakota from its slipstream. Dakota’s apartment, whose angles we become accustomed to peering around over the course of the film, shows signs of water damage, and the prospect of eviction looms. The film is largely concerned with what it feels like to treasure a moment—the first blush of a romance, the way the light hits your eyes when you walk up the ramp at the end of Brighton 6th Street to the boardwalk—in the full knowledge of its eventual loss. And that treasuring, and that knowledge, is also implicitly political.

The narrative, such as it is, is largely an excuse to gather people in a specific place at a specific time. Like Boyhood, Tendaberry sometimes forces conspicuously scripted events on the characters it has assembled, though the coworkers Dakota feuds with or the real estate broker who puts one over on her are incidental to the flow of experience that Anderson evokes. At its best, her film approaches life open-endedly, with no preconceptions. Dakota and Yuri’s relationship, which begins as two attractive young people gradually discovering the contours of each other’s personalities, then reacts in near real-time to the Russian invasion of Yuri’s native Ukraine, which occurred during shooting. The plotline is authentically imperfect and unresolved, petering out in dropped calls and unanswered questions that will only ever make sense when we look back on it someday—or when someone else does.