Tenement (1985)

No matter how turned off or disgusted you are by Roberta Findlay’s grim & grimy oeuvre, you could never be a harsher critic of her work than the filmmaker is herself. In an incredibly rare interview on her time as a pornographer & schlockteur with The Rialto Report, Findlay disparages the supposed artistic value of her work and dismisses the fans who attempt to reevaluate her films as dangerous lunatics she wants nothing to do with. Findlay describes herself as a human barnacle who would latch onto & follow the whims of the men in her life rather than finding any self-driven motivation of her own. She uses this metaphor to explain how she transformed from a trained pianist who would accompany silent films in a repertory cinemas to a cinematographer & eventual director of hardcore pornography, a business that interested her late husband & artistic collaborator. Findlay herself was disgusted by the sexual extremity of the rough pornos she was filming for profit, a revulsion that carried over to her depictions of extreme violence in the grindhouse horror industry (once the VHS market made porno less profitable). I imagine her disgust & horror with filming rough sex worked against her porno films’ ostensible goal of titillation, but in her hyperviolent genre work it only enhances her accomplishments. In Findlay’s signature exploitation piece, the 1985 home invasion cheapie Tenement, the director’s self-hatred & disgust with the sex, violence, and sexual violence on display oozes through the screen in every scene’s grotesque tableau. Roberta Findlay may report to despise the grime & cruelty of films like Tenement, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of that ill-will in the final product, which makes us all sick to our stomachs along with her.

Instead of invading a single home, the murderous hooligans of Tenement invade an entire community, keeping the film true to close-quarters NYC living. A dilapidated housing tenement in The Bronx (the exact kind of run-down apartment complex Findlay grew up in herself) is overrun by a gang of hyperviolent squatters on Angel Dust. Recalling the similar crime wave paranoia of films like I Drink Your Blood, The Class of 1984, Street Trash, and The Warriors, the film pits helpless families trying to scrape a peaceful life together against hedonist drug dealers who stave off boredom by playing with dead rats, snorting cocaine off switchblades, and mutilating normies with real jobs & families. The film devolves into a PCP-addled version of Home Alone from there, with the building’s proper tenants inventing gangster-killing booby traps (like box spring electric fences & rat poison heroin) to kill off the encroaching squatters. Both the gang & the community of victims are racially & culturally diverse enough to avoid the usual political offenses of this urban crime genre, but Findlay finds new ways to offend all on her own. Sometimes, her amoral cruelty makes for an excitingly heightened version of the home invasion template, especially in how no victim feels at all safe from being torn apart by the crazed hooligans – not children, not the elderly, not single mothers, not pets, no one. Other times, the cruelty goes too far and makes for a deeply unpleasant, almost impossible watch – such as in the first-person-POV staging of a gang rape or in watching the villains bathe in dog’s blood for a fun lark. In either instance, it’s Findlay’s unflinching, self-hating depictions of human viciousness & misery that distinguishes Tenement in its crowded field of grimy NYC exploitation cinema. A lot of schlock peddlers in the business didn’t especially care about the hyperviolence on display beyond its capacity to sell tickets. Findlay, by contrast, despised the stuff and found her own films grotesque, which shows through in the work in genuinely upsetting ways.

Given the heartless cruelty on display, especially in its pivotal scene of sexual assault, it’s not difficult to see why Roberta Findlay dismisses Tenement (along with the rest of her porno & exploitation catalog) as useless, despicable trash. I would at least hope that she can look back with some pride on what she accomplished in her filmmaking craft, though. This is a shockingly well-shot, tightly edited picture considering its budget. Plotted over the course of a single day and regularly time-stamped for temporal perspective, the film boasts an incredible efficiency in storytelling its fellow video nasties rarely mustered. The close-quarters violence of its invasion plot is partly so memorably brutal because it’s never obscured; you’re always aware of exactly what’s being done to the victims, with the camera often pausing for a mood-setting detail. In some ways, this unexpected production quality allows Tenement’s nastiness to catch the audience off-guard. In an early scene, the PCP gang’s head honcho spins on a lazy-Susan while shouting to the sky “I’m going to get my building back!” in a tone that promises major-studio fun rather than the grindhouse mayhem to come. Tenement is also bookended by my all-time favorite movie trope: the plot-summarizing rap song, also a staple of a more corporate, more inhibited product. This grimy NYC nightmare is all the more effective for having someone behind the camera who actually knows what she’s doing, so that you expect a level of quality control in its content that just isn’t there. Findlay’s curse is that she was skilled at her craft but hated the immoral content her efforts were applied to. It’s a tension between creator & art that makes for a grotesque, unsettling experience for the audience – the transgression of a work that hates its own guts and knows it should not exist but pushes on for the meager box office payoff anyway. The results of that payoff are fascinating, even if you can barely stomach to look at them.

-Brandon Ledet

Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Brooklyn (2015)

three star

When I first heard of Brooklyn‘s young-Irish-immigrant-tries-to-make-it-in-NYC premise I expected a Christ in Concrete or The Jungle type narrative set decades before in a time where the Irish & other immigrant communities were worked to death building NYC’s massive infrastructure & quickly discarded once the job was done. There’s a little bit of that history visible in Brooklyn‘s 1950’s setting, particularly in the film’s second-generation Irish-American communities & in the old men left homeless after their construction work dried up. Brooklyn is an entirely different kind of immigrant-story costume drama, though. Its protagonist, Eilis, has a relatively easy journey to the United States, with a remarkably large network of support helping her assimilate into a new land. After a prison-conditions, sea-sick ship ride across the ocean & a nervous encounter at customs, Eilis’ journey is less of a history of immigrant struggle in the New World & more of a traditional coming of age drama & chest-heaving romance.

The conflicts in Brooklyn are less life-threatening than they are emotionally troubling. Eilis struggles with severing family ties in her big move, petty jealousies among her boardinghouse mates, neighborhood gossip, the possibility of lifelong poverty, Catholic guilt, the pressures of rapid dating cycles (mentions of “I love you”s & children are almost instantaneous) and, of course, culture shock. The concerns are far from the grim trials & tribulations I had assumed she’d go through based on the film’s premise & from past films like last year’s The Immigrant. Besides a prudish shopkeeper & an overactive teenage libido, there isn’t much danger in Eilis’ life at all. She loses intimacy with the family & community she left behind in Ireland & they try to suck her back into their world, but for the most part her conflict is internal. Her love for a little James Franco-type Italian weirdo & her transition into a confident, autonomous woman are what drives the narrative, with nearly every other conflict falling into place seemingly without effort.

Saoirse Ronan is an incredibly gifted actor, a world class emoter, and she does as much as she can with Eilis’ torn-between-two-worlds inner-conflict, but it’s difficult to say if the low-stakes narrative she’s afforded is worthy of the quality of her performance. A couple other gifted, familiar faces, including Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré and Frank & Ex Machina‘s Domhnall Gleeson, check in for limited impact, all dressed up with nowhere special to go. The best chance Brooklyn has for finding a longterm audience is in fans of costume dramas & traditional romance plots built on yearning & the threatened development of love triangles. Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found the film entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.

-Brandon Ledet

Apartment Troubles (2015)

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three star

Apartment Troubles is billed as a comedy, which makes sense in some ways. It certainly has a few cameos from comedians of note in it (specifically Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte, and Megan Mullally). It’s got some typical indie comedy quirks, right down to the struggling artist profession of the protagonists & the CoCoRosie song on the soundtrack. It’s even got some great jokes from time to time, especially from Mullally, who is a hoot as a wealthy drunk who is really into gigantic wine glasses. On the other hand, it’s not an overwhelmingly funny movie, but more of a low-stakes drama that aims more for humorous melancholy than knee-slapping quips & gags. Apartment Troubles might be dressed up like a comedy, but it’s more quietly sad than anything.

The story begins with two NYC roommates confronted with eviction & the sudden death of a pet. As an aspiring actress & a visual artist with wealthy parents, the pair occupies a strange space between well-to-do & dead broke. These are people who can take a private jet to vacation in Los Angeles on a whim, but have to claim that they’re not eating because they’re “cleansing”, when the truth is they can’t afford food. While in LA, the two best friends start to bicker & rub each other the wrong way like an old married couple. At the beginning of the film they’re comfortable enough to ask for the shirt literally off each other’s backs (“Can I wear the shirt that you’re wearing?”), but by the end they’re sickened by each other’s mere presence (“If I feel your breath on my skin for one more minute, I’m going to vomit.”). It’s definitely easier to read this progression as a somber break-up story (between friends) than a riotous indie comedy.

In a void, Apartment Troubles is a pretty okay, low-key movie with some memorable performances in its fleeting Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte, and Megan Mullally cameos. However it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to other emotionally-stunted NYC twentysomethings media that have been produced lately. If nothing else, I found myself wishing that I was watching Appropriate Behavior a second time instead. I realize this kind of direct comparison is completely unfair & it’s something I already said while reviewing the recent break-up drama X/Y, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Appropriate Behavior was something really special. Apartment Troubles is from the same funny-melancholy NYC break-up wheelhouse, but feels just okay at best. It’s the kind of film that’s pleasant, but destined for lazy afternoon Netflix viewing rather than the big accolades I’m hoping Appropriate Behavior garners.

-Brandon Ledet

Paris Is Burning (1990)

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fivestar

Although the subject of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (ball culture) is unmistakably NYC-specific, it’s not difficult to see its connection to a more recent New Orleans trend: sissy bounce. There’s very little connecting the two geographically-disparate movements in the decade or so that separates them, but there’s still a similarly effortless punk spirit & vibrant defiance that binds them in my mind, a superficial connection or not. NYC ball culture was a fashion-minded escape fantasy for the city’s POC, queer, transgendered, and often homeless youth who used the platform to feel empowered instead of disenfranchised. Where sissy bounce offers New Orleans’ queer & transgendered POC youth access to the largely homophobic & hyper-masculine world of hip-hop, ball culture offered that same minority access to wealth & the world at large. That access may have been to more of a fantasy than a reality, but it was a transgressive fantasy that was so goddamn fabulously punk that there’s really nothing else like it, sissy bounce included.

We don’t have a worthy documentary about New Orleans’ sissy bounce culture yet, but there is a more than worthy NYC ball culture doc to be found in Paris Is Burning. As a culture, the film’s subject has everything necessary for a great film: sights (in the homemade fashion), sounds (in the music & dancing that accompanies the runway “voguing”), and narrative (in its long history as told through the eyes of old-timers who had occupied the scene decades before the film’s camera crew arrived in 1987). Part of what makes the film so arresting is its combination of both surface pleasures & much deeper, more meaningful aspects. Sure the film is stuffed with lush, beautiful fashion and the absurd hyroglypics-inspired dance moves of voguing, but there’s a lot of real heartbreak at the center of the culture’s need for escape.

These are marginalized people who’ve been abandoned by their families & society at large; they depend mostly on petty theft & sex work to get by. Although there is an aggressive, competitive aspect to ball culture, there’s also an intense comradery that includes makeshift families called “houses”. Ball competitors are seeking to better one another for a chance at a “legendary status” or at least a trophy for their troubles that night, but they also serve as their own support network, giving each other a place to go and something to look forward to when practically everything else has been stripped away. As the MC at one ball puts it to the more “vicious motherfuckers” in the crowd, “We’re not going to be shady, just fierce.” There’s a catty atmosphere on the surface of ball culture, but it’s a thin veneer on something much more thoughtful & fulfilling.

It’s a little sad, then, that the isolated act of voguing was assimilated & diluted into a much larger, uncaring pop culture by enterprising folks like Madonna the same way New Orleans’ bounce maneuver twerking was assimilated (poorly) by folks like Miley Cyrus. It’s sad that such a rich, complex culture had been boiled down to such a singular, somewhat superficial detail, but that’s often how mainstream success works. Part of what makes Paris is Burning so rewarding is that it arrived in time to capture that culture before it was exposed to the public at large. There’s still time for sissy bounce to receive the same reverent treatment , but not much. The recent national fetishization of twerking makes it feel like the moment has already passed. Of course, I may be oversimplifying both sissy bounce & ball culture by linking them with such a concrete tether, but I’m certainly not the first one to do so. There was even a huge event thrown last year celebrating their spiritual sisterhood. Although one had voguing & the other twerking and one was stationed in Harlem & the other in New Orleans, there’s still a rebellious, punk spirit of inclusivity for groups of young people who are normally excluded from everything. As one of the ball culture’s old timers puts it, “If more people went to balls and did less drugs the world would be a better place, wouldn’t it?” If balls were anything like the way they’re represented in the near-perfect Paris Is Burning, I’m inclined to agree.

-Brandon Ledet

X/Y (2015)

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three star

It’s not the film’s fault, but I had a hard time appreciating X/Y after seeing a similar backdrop & story played out so excellently in the recent break-up drama Appropriate Behavior. The two movies aren’t even that much alike. They do both begin at the end of a relationship between a young couple in NYC, but while Appropriate Behavior closely follows the emotional fallout of a single protagonist, X/Y tracks the ripples of the dissolution in a series of vignettes that details how four friends’ lives are affected by the change. In light of their disparate structural differences, it’s far from fair of me to compare the two films, but there’s just something really special about Appropriate Behavior that makes X/Y feel inessential in its wake. The lack of a connection between the film’s free-floating segments (each named after the character they follow) didn’t help either.

“Mark”: The first segment concerns Mark as he deals with his recent break-up with Sylvia by flirting with strangers, working out, and drinking to excess. We also follow him to a business meeting where he’s trying to sell a script to a major film studio and his agent provides him the advice, “Don’t fuck it up with this ‘I went to film school so I have to make art’ bullshit.” We’re most likely supposed to identify with Mark in this moment (who I guess is a stand-in for writer/director Ryan Piers Williams?) but at the same time it’s easy to see how X/Y could’ve benefited from the same advice.

“Jen”: The “free spirit” of the group, Jen is the only character in the film not in an emotional tailspin from a recent break-up, but instead suffers from the emptiness of single life. Jen is currently between jobs, between romantic flings, and between moments of knowing what to do with herself while she’s alone. As she stares wistfully into her own city-life isolation while a Chromatics song gradually gets louder on the soundtrack, we start to get a clear picture of what the movie is aiming for.

“Jake”: Jake is the thematic bridge between Jen’s free spirit sadness & the Mark/Sylvia break-up. He’s a fashion model/EDM DJ/aspiring photographer/casual sex magnet that seems to “have it all” but is just as miserable as everyone else profiled here, as he struggles with both a less-recent break-up of a long term relationship and a quest for a solid personal identity. When Mark angrily asks him, “Who are you? You’re like five different people,” it feels like his entire character in a nutshell.

“Sylvia”: Sylvia is dealing with her break-up very similarly to Mark (alcohol, flirtation, exercise) except that she’s getting laid a lot more frequently. Her segment adds the least thematically to the movie, but instead is a sort of callback to the original conflict that’s supposed to tie everything together.

So, there you have it. Four NYC sad sacks drift in & out of each other’s days while all nursing broken hearts, a lonely sounding Chromatics song playing in the background to help flesh out their big city sense of isolation. It’s by no means a terrible film; it’s pleasant enough in its small scale ambitions & comfortably sullen character studies. It’s just not an especially essential film either. I feel like a real piece of shit for saying this, because the comparison is mostly unwarranted, but if you’re going to see one post-break-up NYC drama this year, make it Appropriate Behavior. That one is a real doozy & X/Y mostly just is.

-Brandon Ledet