Gotham Fish Tales
THE MOVIE Robert Maass produced, directed, and shot this offbeat, weirdly engaging look at the New Yorkers who know the East River, Hudson River, and their surrounding bays and harbors as the thriving waterways that they are. Gotham Fish Tales splits its time between commercial fishermen who harvest mussels, clams, American eel, and horseshoe crabs from the greater New York bay and the city-dwelling sportsmen who cast off bridges, piers, jetties, and even into south Brooklyn’s formerly pollution-ridden Gowanus Canal and pull out striped bass, flounder, and porgy. One guy regularly pulls up an albacore tuna at the end of his rod and tosses it back.
Maass is so concerned with catching this cross section of people that the colorful characters themselves get shortchanged. So while second- and third-generation fishermen from Edgewood, N.J., manual clammers from Staten Island, and Sheepshead Bay charter-boat guides lament their declining livelihoods, they never become more than their jobs. Similarly, the urban sportsmen—the cabbie who uses spark plugs as line weights, the woman casting from the 69th Street Pier with a cigarette in her mouth, the guy who pulls in a mammoth 30-pound striped bass—remain quick sketch outlines, like people hovering at the edges of a Jimmy Breslin column.
It’s a directorial decision that eventually makes New York’s waterways Gotham’s main and only round character, with various professional experts and armchair opinion makers attesting to how and why the harbors, rivers, and bays have improved since the 1972 Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, how the fish have grown and improved over the years, complaining about the anglers who don’t obey the size and weight limits on catches, and, in general, shooting the proverbial shit about what it’s like to fish with Manhattan’s skyline right behind you. These stories make Gotham come to ebullient life—the Coney Island anglers who joke about fishing with the rats; the fly casters who fish in the morning for bait catch and then hook those for much bigger bluefish; the commercial fishermen who marvel at the perfect evolutionary design of the horseshoe crab; the man who catches, tags, and tosses striped bass back. And while it’s too bad that this DVD doesn’t include any additional footage—the disc is sadly just the 74-minute documentary—Gotham Fish Tales does succeed in reminding you that Manhattan is surrounded by a waterway as vital to its local population as the Chesapeake Bay is to its.