On a Wednesday night, in the otherwise deserted Westboro Plaza, a lopsided number of cars is clustered around Gizmo Pictures. This is the first gathering of almost all of the people who have contributed to the production of “Porubskys – Transcendent Deli.”
Matt Porubsky gets out of his red truck holding a case of Boulevard beer. “He held it on the way over, as he drove,” jokes Leah, his wife, “while texting David Kitchner.” She’s referring to the Gizmo employee, who has worked hand-in-hand (cellphone-in-cellphone) with Matt in the production of the film about Porubsky’s, his family’s deli and tavern.
David Kitchner is inside, along with about a dozen other people. He explains that since Porubsky’s is a not-for-profit project, and he also has other paying Gizmo gigs to work on, this film has become an extracurricular activity. “I’m working a lot of extra nights and weekends, just whenever I can,” David explains, seemingly enthusiastic about working extra nights and weekends and whenever he can.
As the photographer readies his equipment for the group photograph that will be included in the DVD press kit, the others mill around. There are musicians, artists, public relations, film editors, sound editors, directors, screenwriters… These people are all young, active in the community and very good at what they do. And, bless their dear hearts, almost all of them (including Matt & Leah) are doing it for nothing.
“It’s hard, being here. It’s the first time that I’ve been around everybody at the same time.” Matt pauses distractedly, and his eyes dart around. “I want to talk to everybody.”
Most of the collaboration so far has happened during small meetings, lots of emails, phonecalls and text messages. Here, everyone knows or seems to know each other. A small group is talking in indecipherable photographer lingo about the best lighting for the photo. Kerrice Mapes rolls her eyes while recounting a frustrating game of phone tag with a prospective venue for a fundraiser. Artist Justin Marable holds his shy, toddler daughter on one hip.
Andrea Koker stands nearby, film publicist to a T. She says publicist things like, “The documentary gives a great sense of the flavor of the history of Topeka.” Like everyone else here, she has a place in her heart for Porubsky’s. “Topeka is as much about who you know as where you go,” she says, then pauses to think. “At Porubsky’s, you feel like you’re family. It’s like you know everyone.”
All conversations are interrupted for the group to gather inside a room lined with computer equipment. The trailer for the film has finally been completed, and this is the first group showing.
After a lengthy list of sponsors, the trailer commences.
“Listen to the music. That’s just great,” says Sam Billen, who wrote the original soundtrack with his brother, Dan. Everyone laughs.
For the soundtrack, they ruminated on the little piece of Russia plopped down in the middle of blue collar America. Amidst mandolin, accordian, dobro, banjo and upright bass, some tracks also feature more “organic” sounds like ripping paper, stomping cardboard boxes and hitting empty wine bottles.
“It’s like ‘Amelie’ meets something,” Dan trails off.
“If ‘Amelie’ were recorded in Russia by a bunch of American hobos with one leg apiece,” Sam finishes. They both nod.
The trailer begins with footage of Matt, with his own voice over. Originally he’d planned to be behind the scenes for the entire film, but his personal investigation into his family’s business was too appealing to pass up as a story-telling tactic. His voice, his story, gives the film its spine: “There has to be more to it than chili, hot pickles and cold cuts. I had to find out.”
There are clips of customers trying to explain the lure of the deli. Interspersed are images of old photographs, made crisp and some even three-dimensional, thanks to digital artist Colin MacMillan. “I cut out the main subject, and then cloned the background so that it continued behind the subject where it was cut out. And then I put them back together,” Colin explains. “I still have more to do. Actually, I should be working on that right now.”
The entire group laughs at the clip of a man eating one of Porubsky’s famous hot pickles. “Woah-ho!” he exclaims, repeatedly, drawing in breaths.
The trailer is well-directed, the clips well-chosen, the footage well-shot. Each component moves fluidly together, so that a trailer for a documentary about a deli becomes, strangely, a beautiful dance. It’s enough to give even a vegetarian the chills.
There’s no question when Matt considers his background in poetry and then says, “There’s something about the film that everyone can pick out. Something transcendent. It’s a poem as film.”
This – the rooms full of computers, the poetry, the group of people laughing at footage of strangers eating hot pickles – all began with an idea that germinated in Matt’s head as he was lulling his toddler to sleep. As he lay in the dark, holding Sylvia’s hand, he thought of his recently deceased Grandmother Lydia and Grandpa Charlie, about the near-constant economic crisis the store found itself in and the nature of a place that had embedded itself into the memories of so many. After Sylvia was safely sleeping, Matt extricated himself from her room and ran the idea past his wife, Leah Sewell, his creative counterpart.
“Lovely wife o mine, we shall make a documentary!” He declared (or maybe not quite like that). When Leah matched his excitement for the idea, Matt then went on to a series of meetings that would decide the fate of the fledgling documentary.
Sans binders or folders or powerpoint presentations, Matt entered a bevy of offices “glad-handed” and ready to orate. He first spoke to Kathy Smith, executive director of ArtsConnect Topeka, who gave him the tip that he should set up a not-for-profit fund with the Topeka Community Foundation, and told him that he should also make sure to run the idea by Jeff Carson at Gizmo Pictures. He found receptive ears.
“Porubsky’s is legendary!” Jeff Carson gushes. “For him to approach us was very flattering. We jumped all over it.”
Jeff, co-owner of Gizmo, acts as a collaborator and sometimes mentor for David and Matt as they toil over the film. The style they’ve chosen is one with little productive value, Jeff points out. “There’s no fancy lighting, no dollies and no tripods used in this film.” Instead, all footage was taken with hand-held cameras, which gives the viewer a feeling like they are there – inside the 63-year-old deli, listening to the stories, smelling the homemade chili, drawing in their own hot breath as they eat spicy pickles.
If you drive over the Sardou Ave. bridge (which gives you the best view of the Topeka skyline, by the way), there’s no way you can miss Porubsky Drive. The off ramp was built in 2001 in honor of the late Charles Porubksy – also because the alternate route had required waiting long durations for trains to pass. At the end of the street, Porubsky’s stands. Shambley. Rickety. Defiant. On a Tuesday at 3 p.m., the lunch rush has passed and there are no other cars in the parking lot. The screen door squeaks open, then slams shut. A rain breeze blows through the length of the tavern, where a handful of worn booths squat beside a line of worn barstools. Behind the bar, Charlie Porubsky (named after his father, of course) lies on the floor, invisible except for his denim-clad legs and work boots. A toolbox sits nearby, with several tools strewn about him.
His head emerges from inside the cooler. “Hi,” he says, casually, propping himself on one elbow. “You want something to eat?”
Here, soda is sold by the can and sandwiches are ridiculously cheap. Here, director Matthew Porubsky is referred to as “Little Matt.” But he isn’t making the documentary for his family. Or for Topeka. Or for Kansas. “It pertains to a national heritage that is disappearing,” he asserts.
In making the film, Matt and David continuously ask each other, “Why does the guy in New Jersey care?” Which means, basically, how does this documentary appeal to everyone, even people who can’t find Topeka on the map? Matt believes that Porubsky’s isn’t just a deli in Little Russia. It stands for all of those little delis and diners and corner stores all over America – places that are disappearing, being overrun by the Wal-marts and Burger Kings. Places that can’t been seen when hurtling down the freeway.
But maybe instead of trying to save time by speeding through hypermarts and drive-thru’s, what people need is to slow down.
“Porubsky’s serves the need that people have for feeling comfortable,” Matt explains. “The world slows when you’re there. It is continuous and dependable.” However, Matt insists, what people bank on to give them comfort can still disappear. What’s that they say? You don’t miss your water till your well’s run dry. “One day, Porubsky’s is going to close. How can it compete with this fast-paced life?” Matt says, sadly. His power now is in preserving the legacy of his family’s business in the only way he can. “It would break my heart if it went up in a puff of smoke.”