Sunday, January 9, 2011


Westbourne, London via Undercity

By: Amanda Halkiotis
With the recent release of Undercity: an exploratory gutsy documentary on New York's underground landscape, one can't help but wonder how the guys behind the scenes got into the business of excavating the deepest metropolitan jungles.  As a no holds barred urban historian, Steve Duncan, the narrator of the short film isn’t your typical textbook-regurgitating history buff.  Duncan who lives by his voyager passions, embarks on unusual excursions all over the world.  In one of his more recent ventures, Duncan slips with casual confidence into the bowels of the New York City subway system and then hovers without fear high above the East Side skyline--upon scaling the Williamsburg Bridge (see images and movie below)--all captured on film by friend and partner in crime, Andrew Wonder.

Williamsburg NY via Undercity

Duncan began his expeditions when he moved to New York to attend Columbia University at the age of seventeen--looking to apply both the street-life experience (working his way through tunnels while avoiding transit authorities), and honing in on his studies (of urban issues) to develop such back-alley shorts. His exhaustive knowledge of the places he investigates makes the film an exhilarating history lesson, and his unabashed accountability for each illegal risk he takes makes it a thrill to watch.  By the end of his account, you’ve acquired knowledge about New York you never knew you didn’t know (for example, the etymology behind Canal Street). The spirited sense of adventure is addictive and genuine, and his interest in what he explores matches this enthusiasm.

Old Crouton Aquaduct, NYC 

Undercity is just one of Duncan's many subsurface city explorations. Over the years he's visited several American and international cities--some highlights include climbing the Brooklyn Bridge, visiting the WWII/Cold War Era Bunkers in Berlin, the Ancient Roman Aquaducts, Tufa Quarries and Bomb Shelters of Naples, as well as the Pabst Brewery of Milwaukee (see some sample images below). He has also embarked on “non-urban” excursions to rural parts of California and Canada.

Ancient Mithraic Cult Chamber, Rome via Undercity

Catacombs, Paris

On the other side of the lens, Andrew Wonder shows off his skills with unwavering handheld footage of Duncan, despite technical hurdles like low lighting and ricocheting echoes of even the slightest noise.  As a dutiful and fearless cameraman, he captures sweeping shots that transition into clear and up close focus of scaffolding, pillars and skylights--all artfully executed, as are intimate angles of Duncan talking to the camera, making his commentary a fluid conversation with the viewer.  Duncan’s delivery in these moments are not so much an overload of dusty facts, as much as expert storytelling--made especially engaging through his patient, lilting Maryland drawl--which never patronizes, but instead explains everything down to a point without ever dumbing it down.

UNDERCITY by Andrew Wonder 

A graduate from NYU film school, Wonder has vast experience in directing and producing, having worked with networks such as MTV and MLB TV, and with acclaimed colleagues like Antoine Fuqua and Paul Shruder. In addition to groundbreaking projects such as Undercity, his portfolio includes directing music videos and stunning still photography on urban landscape and character profiles. Wonder’s artful direction and Duncan’s thirst for what lies beneath, and above, a city’s surface, has helped pave the way for a new genre of innovative, interactive historical documentary film-making.

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