Between 1958 and 1960, two men took 16mm footage of the various people and neighborhoods within New York City. Back then, Manny Kirchheimer and Walter Hess probably didn’t know they weren’t just filming leisurely afternoons of kids playing stickball,.They were recording a moment in time, an era now built solely in nostalgic minds. That period is brought back to life in Kirchheimer’s meticulously restored and expressive documentary: Free Time.
Filmed in the tradition of cinéma vérité, the subjects are mostly unaware of the camera’s presence. Old men perform their daily routines: opening lawn chairs to sit in front of their homes, conversing with one another. Women stand in doorways, sharing secrets we’ll never know. And kids play stickball while dodging cars in the streets. They all exist within New York’s milieu of stoned houses, edifices with ornamental carvings of leaves and berries. The vitality of the filmed summers spring through each extreme close-up of these sculptures, and every foley sound of cars, wind, water, and children yelping. Once more, the people exist within the confines of the city around them—as they’re often small objects as part of the larger whole: window washers and bustling business men, in the shadows of buildings that no longer exist in formal suits made stuffy today.
There aren’t any reoccurring characters or individuals, except for one old muscular Black man who bundles flat cardboard boxes. He walks with a slow and steady pace, and in many ways summarizes the different rhythm of the period. The beats to this life arrive slowly, with only slight upticks happening through a score comprised of Bach and Count Basie. Kirchheimer gives the full reach of New York. Shot in Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, and Hell’s Kitchen—Free Time paces through idyllic neighborhoods, blue-collar enclaves, and even dilapidated stretches of rubble: existing under the brief tangibility of a puff of smoke.
Through the sunny days, women smoke long cigarettes while caring for their babies as individuals read newspapers while the once-before sun glints off skyscraper windows, conjuring fragile dreams of the past. Only two people react to the camera: a white woman who playfully curtsies to the filmmaker and a little Black girl spinning around a metal pole. They know the fleeting moment. Kirchheimer summarizes the changing period by concluding with shots of a junkyard filled with crushed and disused cars, an old man in his heavy overcoat during winter hiding in a doorway, and a cemetery in Queens. In under an hour —58 minutes —we take in a lost way of American life that would seem unbelievable in a period piece if not for the incredible footage of Free Time.