By Noma Faingold
Matt E. Novak accidentally came upon iconic photographs of jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and others by William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006) when he was doing research on the Library of Congress website for a feature-length documentary on country blues singer/guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, a project he has been working on for two years.
Novak, 41, who makes his living mostly as a film editor, was inspired by the intimate black-and-white photographs, as well as the stories behind how Gottlieb captured an era and genre of music. Novak couldn’t help taking a brief detour, creating a documentary short called, “On 52nd: The Photography of William P. Gottlieb.” It was a one-person production with no budget that he completed in one week in January. It will have its world premiere at the 20th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest), June 3-20.
“I found these really neat photographs and they’re all in the public domain. I started playing around with them. I put them to music (by those jazz artists) and found audio of Gottlieb speaking about the photos,” Novak said. “I got really excited. I kind of didn’t sleep for a weekend. I was very focused on it and hadn’t felt that for a while. Gottlieb was able to capture lightning in a bottle. It gave me chills when I was editing.”
Friends of Novak, who screened the six-minute film, encouraged him to “put it out there.” He recalled that one of his creative peers rhetorically asked him, “Dude, what are you going to do with this?”
The project reinforced Novak’s belief that he could “create something in a short time without a lot of resources and it can still be high quality,” he said. “Sticking with the idea and the truth is what holds it up in the end.”
The film’s title, “On 52nd,” refers to the street in New York City, which was known as the center of the jazz scene from the 1930s to the 1950s. Gottlieb, who was also a newspaper columnist, would go to clubs located just a couple of blocks from his office. Novak showcases the photos (the most famous being an image of Holiday with her dog), using quick cuts, accompanied by sound bites from Gottlieb, along with songs like Gillespie’s “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.”
”That song gave the film a rhythm, making those images move,” Novak said. “I learned that from skateboarding videos, cutting on beats. It’s the reason I got into editing.”
Novak, originally from rural Wisconsin, started making skateboarding videos with his friends before he was a teenager.
“I would earn money by mowing lawns, go rent a VHS recorder and shoot with my friends,” he said. “We would mix two tapes together. It was one of those DIY things that was also part of the skateboarding culture. It was a huge part of my growing up. There wasn’t much else to do.”
After high school, Novak visited San Francisco a couple of times before moving to the City 20 years ago. He instantly felt like he belonged. Three cultural communities drew him in: skateboarding, literary and film.
“There’s an energy here,” he said. “It felt like home.”
Early in his career, Novak worked nights and hung out in North Beach during the day. He would buy a book at the iconic City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, head next door to Vesuvio Cafe, or the now closed Caffe Puccini, and read.
“They used to give me slices of pizza at Vesuvio. I’d be reading there all day,” he said.
Novak lived in Alamo Square for several years, then the Outer Sunset. Recently, he moved in with his girlfriend of three years, Adena Jochowitz, in the Inner Sunset.
Once he landed his first job in the industry, he has been able to make a living as an editor, content producer and related jobs at various companies and organizations, including PBS, subscription streaming platform Fandor and his latest position as executive producer at a startup called Token Metrics, based in Austin, Texas. Novak works remotely.
“I don’t think I would be able to do what I do if I hadn’t moved to San Francisco,” he said. “I feel lucky to do this for a living.”
Novak has been told he is a visual storyteller and said he has a few stories to tell. He admires filmmakers Orson Welles and Agnes Varda, especially when they were able to realize their vision on particular projects. He named “Chimes at Midnight” (1965) and the 1973 documentary, “F for Fake,” as his favorites directed by Welles. Novak also singled out Varda’s 2017 documentary, “Faces Places.”
“I have written scripts. I continue to build my skills,” Novak said. “I would love to make feature films. That’s the dream. That’s the sweet spot. What I’m good at is finding stuff, putting it together into something new and showing it to another audience. Because, who knows who’s going to be inspired by it?”
The world premiere of “On 52nd: The Photography of William P. Gottlieb,” directed by Matt E. Novak, will be available on demand during the 20th SF DocFest, June 3-20. For information, go to https://sfdocfest2021.eventive.org.