Of all the things I discovered when I was fifteen, you were
the least detrimental to my health. In a year of crippling anxiety and one
particularly bad debate tournament, you were a shining star amidst the dark.
You, a mildly out-of-touch teen rom-com retelling one of Shakespeare’s worst
comedies. Who would’ve thought that of all the cinematic gold I watched that
year, you were the one I’d remember the most? 2014, the year of the action
blockbusters Kingsman: The Secret Service
and three different Marvel movies. The year of Whiplash and Foxcatcher.
Yes, all of those were technically good movies. And no, none of them compare to
the epic 99 minutes of Heath Ledger brooding all over the place.
But why? You’re just another
slightly offensive teen movie from the late nineties. In 2020, it’s easy to
look back at you and speak only of your questionable content. Like the sole
non-white character who’s wedged into the plot for a mildly comical political
commentary on race. Or Kat’s dialogue, which is full of so many hyper-intellectual
feminist buzzwords that she could’ve been my freshman year critical theory
None of that’s your fault, I
suppose. You were released in 1999—the same year I was born,
coincidentally—alongside another literary-adaptation-turned-teen-rom-com, She’s All That. You’re both relics of
your era, with leading men who’d soon become much more famous than the movies
where they got their start. But She’s All
That was just another retelling of Pygmalion,
following in the footsteps of My Fair Lady
and Pretty Woman before it. Aside
from its modern, high-school setting, it brought nothing new to the story. Its
shallow, nerd-to-prom-queen plotline is an updated but unoriginal take on the
source material, straight down to the misguided gender roles filled by its
You, on the other hand, don’t hand
over Kat and Bianca to the same cruel fates that awaited them in the source
material. Between you and me, The Taming
of the Shrew is an uncreative insult to Shakespeare’s ability as a writer.
The original reduces Kate, an outspoken, independent individual, to a shallow
and thoughtless object. Poor Bianca doesn’t even get the luxury of having a
personality; she’s the ideal passive object, her only purpose being the
McGuffin for her suitors. But in your retelling of this dated tale, the female
leads aren’t objects. In fact, by the end of the movie, Bianca’s fed up with
being treated like one. She beats the living daylights out of Joey Donner (your
Hortensio) after she learns he only wanted to date her so they could have sex.
Bianca’s not the tame, perfect bride Shakespeare wrote her to be. She gets to
play an active role in her own story, not sidelined for the sake of comedy.
Then there’s Kat, whose whip-smart
attitude was something I could only wish to emulate in high school. Maybe
that’s why I have so much affection for you: Kat represented the kind of person
I wanted to be when I was a high school senior. She was smart, independent, and
refused to take garbage from anyone else. Better yet, she remained that way for
the entire story. Yes, one could argue that Patrick changes Kat, but it’s not
through verbal and psychological abuse. He shows her an actual human
relationship. She, in turn, makes the decision to open herself up to someone
else. Kat reconciles her relationships with her family and Patrick without
changing her core identity. And Patrick, unlike Petruchio, falls in love with
Kat just as she is, not as some ideal woman he’s constructed in his head.
So, is that the source of my
nostalgia? The way you saved the heroes from an unfortunate demise? My writer’s
brain is inclined to believe so. You took Shakespeare’s plot and spun it into
your own story. The question then became, what about the changed storyline was
so memorable? At first, I thought it was because the romantic plotline was
believable. The characters still end up together, sure, but Kat and Patrick’s
romance is organic. They’ve fallen for each other, flaws and all. But here’s
the thing: I’m not a hopeless romantic. If I remember correctly, when I
discovered you, I wasn’t thrilled about watching a rom-com. And, as much as I
loved Kat when I was fifteen, it’s taken me some time to realize that name
dropping Simone de Beauvoir in your English class isn’t cool. She’s a wonderful
protagonist, but I don’t idolize her the way I used to.
Being quarantined at home with my
family helped me figure out why this film matters so much to me. At your core,
you’re a story about relationships. Cameron and Bianca. Kat and Patrick. But
the relationship that matters most? It’s Bianca and Kat’s. By changing Kat and
Bianca’s narrative, you didn’t just give them the chance to stand on their own,
you gave them the chance to be sisters. Kat spends the film trying to deter
Bianca from dating Joey because she wants to protect her. Everything she does
is an attempt to keep her sister from making the same mistake that she had when
she was Bianca’s age. And when Bianca finally finds her voice, she uses it to
stick up for her older sister and herself.
I’m an older sister. When I was
fifteen, I was worried about my younger sister adjusting to her first year of
high school. All I wanted to do was keep her safe. And after going through my
own crisis of mental health, I was terrified that she’d suffer through
something similar. So when I watched you for the first time, I could see myself
and my sister in Kat and Bianca. Their sisterhood, through all its ups and
downs, reminded me of my own.
not a perfect movie. But you hold an important place in my heart as a piece of
media that really resonated with me, flaws and all. So, for that, 10 Things I Hate About You, I say thank
Edited by Michelle Baroody
10 Things I Hate About You is screening at the Trylon from Friday, September 18 to Tuesday, September 22. For more information, visit trylon.org
There are few parts of my country in which I can take pride
as an American. Not its healthcare system nor gun control laws, both so
nonexistent that they blur the lines between barbarism and civilization. Certainly
not its oligarchy parading as democracy, by which the whims and desires of the
wealthy and powerful leave us with few political options (a dire choice
American voters will now have to face two elections in a row – we know how that
worked out last time). And most obviously not the many ways in which
institutional racism continues to oppress and threaten communities of color,
manifested through this country’s systems of education, employment, housing,
mass incarceration, and – unmistakable in light of recent events – police
brutality. This is the plague spread by America’s criminal justice system that
makes it a dangerous act for people of color simply to live their lives. It
would be the shame of this nation if the United States weren’t built on the
genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans forcibly taken
from their land.
One thing I could take pride in for the last decade was
Minneapolis, my adopted hometown since 2010. Previously I had lived in
Milwaukee, Madison, and Atlanta – all beautiful (and flawed) cities in their
own right. But the Twin Cities were something else, a glimmer of progressivism
in a country so often intent on looking backward. The parks, biking, public
transportation, and majestic landscape were an everyday haven, allowing me to drag
myself from my home in Near North to my job in Edina on a nearly daily basis
without a car. The music, film, theatre, and literature scenes were vibrant and
thriving; Twin Cities residents have always known that art is alive and well in
the Midwest. Communities seemed diverse and harmonious: you could rely on
neighbors and strangers for help, or at least a sympathetic conversation, if
you needed it.
I know now this rosy view of Minneapolis was a reflection of
my white privilege. I suspected as much at the time; you’d have to be severely
myopic to see the way cops lingered around the intersection of Broadway and
Lyndale (but ignored most kinds of drunken mayhem in Uptown) and pretend
everything was okay. But I wanted to believe, in the years of Barack Obama’s
presidency, that Minneapolis was a sign of where America was going: suffering
from a difficult past but working towards progress, visibly unequal but trying
to right those wrongs. I wanted to believe that the city’s pseudo-liberal
leadership and my semi-diverse (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhood were proof that
things were okay and would only get better. The ease with which I convinced
myself of that weighs heavily on my shoulders, as it does for a great many
white residents of Minneapolis.
To state the obvious: the last few weeks have made it disturbingly clear how stupid my assumptions were. When Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng murdered 46-year-old George Floyd, the city’s noxious history of police violence and racial inequality was thrust violently into the national spotlight. Floyd, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina and raised in Houston, was a star tight end and basketball player in high school and college. A rapper and musician, the father of two moved to Minnesota in 2014 and served as a security guard at several venues throughout the Twin Cities. “Knowing my brother is to love my brother,” said George’s brother Philonise. When police were called because Floyd allegedly paid with a counterfeit $20 bill, he did not resist arrest. He begged his murderer, Derek Chauvin, to release his knee from his neck and said, in a phrase that has come to encapsulate America’s racism, “I can’t breathe.” A preliminary autopsy (conducted by a state-led criminal justice system complicit in the ongoing slaughter of black and brown people) suggested that underlying health conditions and “potential intoxicants” led to his death (fucking potential – they’re not even trying to cover up the victim-blaming). An independent autopsy arranged by Floyd’s family later revealed that his death was “a homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain” – asphyxia that lasted nearly nine minutes as Derek Chauvin’s knee stayed pressed against George Floyd’s throat.
Black people are 13 times more likely to be killed by
Minnesota police than white people, accounting for more than sixty percent of the
victims of police shootings since 2009. Merely remembering the names Jamar
Clark, Philando Castile, and Thurman Blevins gives human faces to those
statistics. (And the killings of Justine Ruszczyk and Chiasher Fong Vue make it
clear that the MPD’s bloodlust is not strictly colorblind.) Racial inequality
is more pronounced here than almost anywhere else in the country, as the
typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family
in Minneapolis. In the wake of Floyd’s death, national
news outlets have made
these facts known to the world – facts that should have been unavoidable
long beforehand, and which more of the community (myself included) should have
worked to resist.
The multitude of violent, chaotic forces besieging our city is
staggering. White supremacists roam the streets after “curfew,” trying to stoke
fear and hatred. Friends and loved ones who live in neighborhoods throughout south
Minneapolis find weapons, supplies for committing arson, suspicious vehicles, deluded
white men who think their toys lend them some kind of legitimacy. These diversionary
tactics are meant to delegitimize the revolutionary force of the movement, distracting
from activists in the Twin Cities who employ property damage and expropriation
to foment an uprising. The chaos is heightened instead of alleviated by the murderous
pigs who have little interest in restoring law and order. (Some people, I’m
sure, will take issue with the word “pigs.” I agree it’s not very accurate.
American Nazis? The modern-day KKK? A 21st-century lynch mob? There
are more appropriate options.) The reasons why the Minneapolis police ignore
their supposed duty of upholding peace – instead opting to shoot tear gas,
pepper spray, and rubber bullets at primarily peaceful protesters – are
obvious: the agendas of the American police and white supremacists are
generally the same. The MPD has done nothing to convince us this isn’t the
And yet my pride in Minneapolis continues to grow. What I’ve seen in the aftermath are peaceful protests at which people come together, undivided by race or by attempts to stoke further animosity; they kneel or chant or march in unison because they refuse to live in a country like this. I’ve seen people converge on Lake Street or Bloomington Avenue armed only with brooms and rubber gloves and trash bags, working together to clean up the mess. I’ve seen people donate money and food and cleaning supplies and homes and vehicles, people that may have not been mobilized in the past. I’ve seen and heard a lot of traumatic things, but also neighbors who stay up all night to keep watch over their street, and business owners who would rather see their property damaged in an act of public demonstration than be complicit. Yes, I had a naïve view of Minneapolis as a blissful city that welcomed everybody, and on the political level that probably was never true; but at the street level, where so many of us are afraid and furious but still working together, that is the Minneapolis I’m seeing now.
If ever there was a clear indication of the time to abolish the police, it’s now. Protests throughout the United States and the world have ignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the police have demonstrated, time and time again, their despotic brutality. An eight-year-old girl maced in Seattle. Elderly activists shoved to the ground in Salt Lake City and Buffalo. Peaceful protesters bludgeoned and killed in the street in too many cities to name. To believe that the police are a necessary institution that provides protection and justice is to operate under an assumption of white privilege. For large parts of the American population, the police exacerbate instead of mitigate violence in our communities, and the last week has proven that in shocking, highly visible ways that the people of this country will never forget.
It may seem insignificant to talk about art at a time like
this – particularly movies, which have consumed my passion for so much of my
life. But this is exactly the time when we need great, radical, angry art
to mobilize us, to keep us pissed off at an unjust world. I remember applying
to volunteer at the Trylon Cinema the very first week I moved to Minneapolis. I
didn’t know anything about it; I saw its schedule online and was blown away by
its programming, which included so many political and volatile films. My love
for Minneapolis, its art and its people, has been synonymous with my time at
the Trylon, which has lasted the entire time I’ve been in this city.
I remember seeing The Battle of Algiers there. Gillo
Pontecorvo’s influential 1966 film depicts the resistance of Algerians and the
FLN (National Liberation Front) against French colonizers. Used as a lesson in
insurgent warfare (and the suppression of it) by both resistance movements and
political authorities, The Battle of Algiers systematically portrays how
freedom fighters can take down occupying forces (which the American police
are). Both sides commit violent actions (with Algerian bombings in the European
sector serving as responses to French torture and mass execution), but it’s
obvious where the film’s sympathies lie: a coda declares that Algeria
ultimately wrested its independence from the French military, presaging
decolonization wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe,
Morocco, Mauritania and other countries. The Black Panthers and Palestinian
Liberation Organization, among others, used The Battle of Algiers as a
textbook of sorts. To see it with an audience at the Trylon was to feel a buzz
of insurgency in the air.
At the Trylon, I also saw The Spook Who Sat by the Door,
an undervalued 1973 film by Ivan Dixon about the C.I.A.’s first black
operative, who drops out of the agency and uses his expertise to train young
black freedom fighters in Chicago; and Uptight, Jules Dassin’s
late-career masterpiece about a disillusioned young man who, in the wake of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, is shunned by his fellow black
militants (he favors pacifism over armed resistance) and decides to rat them out
to the cops. Both films depict the intense emotional and psychological toll
that political resistance takes on individuals, as well as the violent
suppression of such tactics by colonizing forces such as the police and
Earlier this year, as part of the Trylon’s volunteer
programmer series, I had the honor of selecting Peter Watkins’
pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971) as my volunteer selection. The
first time I saw it, about ten years ago, was a formative political experience
for me: I had never seen a movie that so explicitly voiced the atrocities the
United States had committed since its foundation and the flimsy rationale for
continuing to perpetrate those atrocities into the 1970s. In the film, a group
of countercultural prisoners, ranging from black militants to conscientious
objectors to academics, artists, and Communists, are rounded up and forced to
flee across the California desert. If they make it to a predetermined goal
alive, they earn their freedom; but the odds are stacked against them, as the
police and military are armed with vehicles, weapons, food and water, and have
the right to shoot the prisoners on the spot. Bitterly furious and utterly
cynical, the film clearly identifies with the outrage of the pursued leftists,
who denounce the Vietnam War and police brutality as riots erupt throughout the
country in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and the suppression of the
Civil Rights Movement. The conflict between a small number of dissidents who
try to behave justly, and large forces of trigger-happy cowards who take human
life instead of dealing with divergent opinions, is portrayed in all of its
appropriate fury. But that negativity is only more catalyzing for the audience,
who can’t bear to leave the theater and reenter a world so inconceivably cruel.
Seeing this film at the Trylon, and then having a tense but cathartic
conversation about it in the lobby afterward, was a political awakening all
over again: this is a film for our times, as seething in its indignation as
It’s not only the Trylon, obviously. There were Mr.
Freedom and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Take One) at the Walker, innovative
films about gung-ho American xenophobia and the conflicted, persecuted
construction of black identity. There was Crime + Punishment at the
Capri, the best documentary I’ve seen about systemic corruption in American
police departments and the minute, insidious ways that racism is not only
tolerated but enforced within its sphere. There was T-Men at the
Heights, which uses a gritty film noir storyline to imply that cops and
criminals operate in the same exact ways despite the police department’s veneer
of justice (and its impunity to kill at will).
The point is not to commemorate these physical places and
the walls that construct them (though obviously, like everyone else, I long for
the day when we can return to them). There are countless restaurants, bars, art
centers, local stores, and community hangouts that are endangered or already
damaged or destroyed, either due to instigators trying to sabotage the movement
or to a genuine outpouring of anger and grief at the failed society that
America has become (has always been). As James Baldwin said, “Any real change
implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it.” The destruction
of physical property can be intense, but bricks feel no pain; the destruction
of human life by state-sanctioned forces of white supremacy is unforgivable,
and that pain is felt by countless people and generations in its wake.
The point is that in commemorating George Floyd and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Iyanna Dior and Jamar Clark and Thurman Blevins and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and thousands of others … in commemorating them and trying to protect our city, we look to the friendships and pieces of art and conversations that have formed our ideas of justice and solidarity. For me personally, many of those ideas come from movies – the films that radicalized me, shouted furiously at me in the audience, told me never to accept my country’s failures and the racist cops patrolling its streets. These films are what helped instill such boundless pride in my city, which offered to me provocative and demanding viewing experiences on a nearly nightly basis. But from there, my pride and love only grew by deepening relationships with some of the strongest, most dedicated artists, freedom fighters, activists, friends and neighbors I’ve ever known. It’s those people who are now fighting for equality and fending off thuggish cops, white supremacists, forces of hate and divisiveness that have defined this country for too long. I see those activists, friends, and neighbors in this wounded city and believe we can start to be known for something else.
James Baldwin said another thing that bears repeating right now: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”
Enjoy local artist Dan Murphy’s artwork inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), with its timely title, a quote from the film.
After Hours was scheduled to screen at our favorite repertory theater May 1-3, 2020, and it is now scheduled to screen from July 24-26, 2020. I look forward to seeing it on the Trylon’s screen when we reopen. Counting the days…
You can read more about After Hours and purchase tickets here. And visit trylon.org for punch cards and up-to-date information about all our rescheduled screenings and upcoming programming.
At the time of this essay’s start, life is unstable and uncertain. HalfOne Over four million people have been diagnosed with a novel and serious virus; that number is still growing. The response has been a series of contradictions. The world has been brought to a standstill as it frantically works on testing, treating, surviving. Time is running out quickly even as every second in isolation feels longer than the last. We all need to stay distant, we all need to work together.
Such a resonant disruption to life has forced our society to answer many questions that it had been ignoring. What is the value of “unskilled” labor? Which workers are truly essential for a community to go on? Whose life is saved when resources are scarce? It has also raised questions few had ever thought to ask. How often do I touch my face? How long can I go without human touch? Are sports still fun without a live crowd in the background? Is live music still meaningful without an audience? In the age of Netflix and widescreen TVs, what’s the point of a movie theater anyway?
In the fall of 2016, I moved to Minneapolis with a close friend. I knew some people around the city and was even friendly with some of my new housemates, but for all intents and purposes, I felt myself to be in a community of only two people. Just a few weeks after unloading the last cardboard box out of my car, I drove to a movie theater that I heard was playing Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I walked past strangers chatting in a dark hall. I bought my ticket from a stranger who patiently waited for me to find cash, lost deep in my bag. Another stranger grabbed me water, scooped my popcorn, and buttered it with a smile. I asked a stranger perched at the front of the booth if the movie was 35mm. It was. I sat in the back row, overtopping a dozen more strangers softly talking, adjusting their coats. And then the lights went down. Quiet darkness enveloped us all.
Two hours later I walked out, surrounded by people I could no longer call strangers. We had gone through something together. I could now turn to anyone in the hallway and have footing to get to know them. And I did. People who had seen it half a dozen times talked about the moments they had still remembered, what surprised them this time, and the scenes they cherished. They listened to my thoughts in turn, and when I told them it was my first viewing, they reminisced about where and when they had first watched it. I doubt anyone remembered my name, but how could any of the people still be strangers? In a world continually growing more solitary, we all had a shared experience. Even just the fact we had sought out this film and this place meant we already had a common interest: something upon which we could start to build community. On my way out, I gave the projectionist my contact information, in case someday they needed more volunteers. The wait list was six months deep, but I didn’t care. I left that night with the first inkling that I might someday be at home in this new city.
Within a year, I became a volunteer at the Trylon. Within two, my original friend moved away, but I could weather the storm because I felt myself fully integrated into my new communities, including the Tylon. Between volunteering and seeing movies on my own, I can always count on new conversations about art and life and history and the merits of licorice. I have friends to bounce ideas off of, friends to show me new interpretations of old stories, and friends to challenge my ways of understanding. Every week I know I can have a communal experience. Every trip to the Trylon expands or strengthens my feeling of community.
Today, everything is on hold. No one knows exactly when we will return to the gathering places of life. We may have access to a seemingly limitless library of titles to watch at our convenience, but the movies as an experience exist only in our memories and hopes for the future. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch things, but I’ll miss the bonds created in the flickering dark of the Trylon. And I know some Monday not far off, I’ll be back behind the counter welcoming in people as strangers and saying goodnight to them as new members of this community we share.
What is the nature of the search? you ask. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
It is the strangest of times. So many of us are trapped in our homes, surrounded by endless entertainment—and yet, it all seems so limited and lonely. When I began to fall in love with movies, it was the height of the video store era. My parents were not huge movie people, but they liked going to the theater. My early cinema experiences (the Bambi re-release, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze, Return of the Jedi, Home Alone…etc) made a deep impression on me, but it was the video store where my mania took hold. In junior high, we moved to a small town in southern Minnesota, which left me melancholy and searching – what I found was the genre movies at Video Max and Cash Wise Video. I fell in love with the vast selection of horror, action, science fiction, war movies, and comedy. (I wouldn’t discover a true love of westerns or film noir until well into my adulthood.) It was the workers at these video stores who led me to the really interesting stuff—the “Staff Picks,” the 5 movies for 5 days for $5 deal, and more. In the store full of 4,000 films, I needed direction. I began to outgrow the video store near the middle of high school, and that’s when I found the kung fu collection at Suncoast Motion Picture Company. Through my love of Bruce Lee I made friends, and for a bit, only searched for the oddities of film.
The point is, I know what being in solitude and loving movies is all about. I have had the joy of watching dozens of films to find one more you can fall in love with.
But, this is different. In the past, I would have relished this moment and devoured the films stored on my shelf, the vast pile of movies yet to be watched. But, like most everyone, my world has turned upside down. Sure, my job is generally a dream of watching, thinking about, organizing, and writing about movies. But, for now, I am left astray. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending my time building LEGO castles, outfitting action figures, and playing baseball with my five-year olds. But I also miss the community I’ve come to rely on; I feel lost because I miss all of you, my fellow moviegoers. The rapture of seeing the long one-take in Hard Boiled or the fingernail-curling botched caper scene in Straight Time is exciting at home, but reaches an entirely different fever pitch when projected from a rare 35mm film print and surrounded by others feeling the same thing. In the theater scene in Omega Man, as Charlton Heston threads the projector and then goes to watch Woodstock for the nth time by himself in that epic wasteland, I used to see an existence of entertainment without responsibility. Now, I only see sorrow. The search for gems among the rough becomes null if there is no one to appreciate the gem once you find it.
No doubt, in these difficult times, films are frivolous, and closing the theater for the moment is the right choice. But, when movies are a huge part of your life, and sharing them with others helps you to swallow the bitter pills of existence, it is a hard blow to sustain. Maybe Alex put it best in Clockwork Orange, “It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
I miss you all. Stay Strong. Can’t wait to see you again soon.
There is undoubtedly a lot
of graffiti in Downtown 81. Featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat just before
he began his meteoric ascent in the world of galleries and museums, the film captures
the height of his public graffiti-writing period with numerous scenes of him
spray painting walls and defacing cars (“I was part of the landscape, I’m an
artist”). Within the first fifteen minutes, Basquiat runs into Fab Five Freddy
(later of Yo!: MTV Raps fame) and Lee Quiñones (who later appeared in Wild
Style) painting a “legal” mural (“I’m a tax payer, I can paint anywhere I
want”). Beyond these direct depictions of graffiti writing, the background is
filled with the stuff. Filmed on location in Manhattan in 1980, there is no
shortage of tags, stencils, elaborate murals, and artistically defaced property
(“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art… neon literature”).
There are also some slightly less obvious forms of graffiti in the film. In a perhaps-too-symbolic scene, Basquiat takes a sharpie to a book of Man Ray photographs in a rich patron’s swanky apartment, vandalizing a stand-in for the institutional art world as if it were just another concrete wall holding up a bank or a police station. Or, thinking more abstractly, Basquiat and his loose crew of artists, musicians, and freaks represent a kind of cultural graffiti, marring the streets of a metropolis built for the stuffed suits of Wall St., the mass culture hucksters of Times Square, and the elite denizens of the art world, represented by the imposing background image of the Guggenheim in the opening sequence. By offering a distinctly racialized vision of NYC, where black, Latinx, and other marginalized artists were central actors in a subcultural scene that wasn’t striving for mainstream success or museum prestige, the film leaves its mark on the shining image of America’s cultural capital (“I wanted to paint the town red, paint the town black”).
But is the film itself a kind of graffiti? Does it capture the essence of this mode of criminal art-making in its form? Does it offer an example of cinema as graffiti? As the examples above demonstrate, it certainly holds out the promise that we might experience something of the sort. And if the sounds made from stolen samples played over looped break beats in some of the early hip hop featured in the film, or the No Wave stylings of DNA that tried to deconstruct rock music, might be said to constitute a kind of musical or sonic graffiti, why shouldn’t we expect the filmmaking to capture the same spirit? Or if TV Party, the riotous early cable access program where Basquiat, writer Glenn O’Brien, co-star Debbie Harry, and numerous others in the film worked together before, could be said to have defaced television with its conflict-filled call-in sessions and on-air pot smoking, might we reasonably expect this film to find a uniquely cinematic form of disruptive expression?
I won’t try to evaluate its success or failure in that project here. Go and see it and decide for yourself. I will, though, leave you with one more thought on the topic. Near the middle of the film, Basquiat happens across a piece of his own graffiti, massive black letters on a brick wall: WHICH ONE OF THE FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE? ⃤TELEVISION ⃤THE CHURCH ⃤SAMO ⃤MCDONALDS. He steps back and takes a photograph of it (“I’ve made my mark in the world”). The potentially interactive form of the piece holds out the real promise of graffiti: the world isn’t built for you but you can leave your mark. By taking a picture of it from afar, Basquiat defuses it, turning it into an image to be consumed or enjoyed rather than a provocation to go out and find your own way to deface the world. As a “document” and set of images attempting to capture the unique avant-garde constellation of street art, early hip hop, punk/post-punk, video art, community media, and political discontent of the Downtown scene, I worry the film (especially when viewed forty years later) might be more like that photograph than the graffiti on the wall.
Edited by Michelle Baroody
A brand new 35mm print of Downtown 81 screens at the Trylon from Friday, February to Sunday, February 23. Purchase tickets and learn more at trylon.org.