Billy Gray

Archive for October, 2008|Monthly archive page

"The Roaches Wave Hello"

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2008 at 12:31 am

Mars Bar does not blend. Its exterior is caked in evolving neon murals and graffiti, “Dive In” scrawled above the glorious dive bar’s rickety front door. But its outward brazenness betrays a dark, dank inside whose patrons want nothing more than anonymous bender. Recently, both sides have taken a hit. The Mars Bars windows have been cleaned. Timid passersby can finally look in and the customers, reluctantly, can see out.

A series of Avalon luxury buildings have enveloped Mars Bar’s block in a cloak of hastily constructed glass mediocrity. Down the street you’ll find Blue and Gold, a high priced boutique imported to the East Village from East Hampton, the neighborhood’s spiritual antithesis despite the shared geographic moniker. Also on the block is Bowery Wine Company, co-owned by Bruce Willis (who honed his chops as a restaurateur with the highly regarded Planet Hollywood franchise) and easily among the most generic bars an unlucky soul might stumble upon in Manhattan. Across Houston is a behemoth Whole Foods store, saved from complete yuppie oblivion only by the marvelous, cheap beer store at its northeastern corner. True, Mars Bar does have a neighbor in debauchery with The Cock (nee The Hole), the notoriously louche cesspool of a gay bar just an eightball’s throw away. But gone are the days when Mars Bar was the rule of the area and not the exception to it.

As one of the ever-dwindling holdouts of the East Village’s CBGB heyday, any sign of a Mars Bar cleanup or, heaven forbid, renovation is greeted with consternation by it grizzled, stumbling clientele. Rex, the Dee Snyder look-alike who does not appear to have left the bar in eleven years, says the cops (who have busted into the place on the few occasions I’ve found myself there past New York’s 4am closing time) have it in for the joint. But with a set of customers like Rex, Crazy Dave (thrown out of the bar an average of twice a day) and Handsome Eddie (whose Lazy Boy chair occupies a corner), you can rest assured that one of New York’s great bastions of sleaze and grime will not go gently into that good night. Where would East Villagers drink when the sun comes up if it did?

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George Washington

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2008 at 6:28 pm

“He just wanted greatness.” That’s how Nasia (Candace Evaofski) describes her friend George (Donald Holden) in David Gordon Greene’s George Washington. The same could be said for the wunderkind director himself, just 25 when he made the ambitious, lyrical film. George Washington depicts one summer in the lives of impoverished youths in a decayed North Carolina town. Tragedy and triumph bookend the season and catapult the protagonists into complicated, compromised adulthood.

Greene flaunts his influences. The film is uncannily reminiscent of Terrance Malick’s masterful Days of Heaven. This means lush cinematography (by Tim Orr) of pastoral landscapes threatened by (and dependent on) modern industrialism. Evaofski’s stirring voiceover narration, packed with plainspoken childhood wisdom (“The grown-ups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends. They had worked in wars and build machines.”) also recalls Malick. But unlike Malick’s seemingly effortless beauties, Greene’s film, while an ascetic delight, occasionally falters under the weight of its artistic flourishes.

Editors Steven Gonzales and Zene Baker’s provide an elliptical structure that compliments the film’s dreamy tone, but negates Greene’s naturalistic dialogue and simple plot. Moments of ethereal grace—George visiting his friend’s burial place (“No one will bother you here”), Nasia telling George, “I hope you live forever” — rub against stalled narrative asides and Orr’s overdependence on slow-motion.

George Washington suggests a literary horror film. Characters are challenged by their own mortality. “I’m not a very good person. I didn’t feel anything,” says Sonya (Rachael Hardy) after witnessing a friend’s death. Viewers will not say the same of Green’s fitfully transcendent debut. Thankfully, the young director is unlikely to face his own mortality any time soon.

Hack to School

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2008 at 1:53 am
The few compelling scenes in Antonio Campos’ Afterschool occur within its first thirty seconds and do not belong to the movie itself. Robert (Ezra Miller) watches You Tube clips from his boarding school dorm. There are cackling babies and sleeping kittens. The bits grow ominous: a skateboarder crashes onto concrete; Saddam Hussein’s is hanged; a young girl is debased in a needlessly protracted porn outtake. Sadly for the audience, it only gets worse. When Robert starts shooting his own videos, his camera catches the drug overdoses of two popular students. The memorial video he is assigned to produce details the school’s and his own unraveling.

Afterschool mistakes formal pretension and glacial pacing for art. Cinematographer Jodie Lee Lipes favors spare wide shots and reluctant pans. This refinement suggests a corrective to crude viral videos. But the framing is still an amateurish debacle. The images lack the beauty and foreboding intrigue found in Elephant and Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s deliberately paced studies of teenage disaffection. Some good will come out of Afterschool if You Tube amateurs realize they can save their money and skip film school.

Campos’ dialogue is similarly muted and unadorned, realism at odds with the clinical photography. Characters betray zero emotion and lack a plot that might have mitigated these flaws. But there is no narrative arc or climax to supplement the contemplative stillness; the film is all reaction. A cheap last minute twist excels only at audience manipulation. Afterschool is a joyless lecture on How We Live Now. It suffers from the same shortcomings of the Web 2.0 culture it means to critique. Only here, artifice compounds banality. Stick with the sleepy kittens.

Iowa Lineman

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2008 at 1:42 am
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is named after one of the titular musician’s songs, but it also describes the relationship between the Iowan teen runaway and the 1970s downtown New York counterculture he helped define at its multicultural, pansexual peak.
Russell was a beguiling composite of divergent traits: shy, yet forceful; avant-garde with pop sensibilities; a perfectionist who never met a deadline and painfully insecure about his talents despite genius. His reticence and transmutability—he struggled to accept his homosexuality—formed a charisma that drew people in just as his stubborn work ethic repelled them. The most heartrending moments in the film are the interviews with those who never questioned their allegiance to the complicated, difficult man: his overwhelmingly decent parents— have Kleenex ready for their segments—and his boyfriend, Tom Lee.
Russell’s music imbues Wild Combination with hypnotic grace. The documentary’s most vivid moments feature how-did-they-get-this footage of ecstatic dancers at legendary downtown clubs like The Loft. Russell drew on the orgiastic ferment of the 1970s New York underground with nods to disco, soul, folk, spoken word and the ambient “echo noise” that later defined the New Wave movement. The movie expertly captures that dynamic, bygone time that claimed Russell, who died of AIDS in 1991, as a victim.

Wild Combination is the rare film chronicle of art that registers as art itself. It is a compliment to say that the films more esoteric shots—wake from the Staten Island ferry, spasmodic bursts of monochrome synced to the music, lyrical shots of farmland—are reminiscent of the gorgeous, calculated randomness of Russell’s work itself.