Double-billed at Georgia State University's cinefest are two views of hipster days, both of which imbue cutthroat competition, heroin, wild parties and suicide with a relative air of innocence. Your average MTV video looks more decadent than the scenes chronicled in New York in the '50s and Downtown 81.
New York in the '50s testifies to the allure of Greenwich Village, where kids from Indiana and Iowa -- suckled on the Eisenhower-era belief that bigger cars and more stuff would placate them -- flocked to be a part of that city's literary scene. Drawn from Dan Wakefield's book about the hard-drinking, bed-hopping scene, New York in the '50s interviews a host of luminaries: Robert Redford, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, William F. Buckley, Village Voice founder Ed Fancher, Joan Didion, Nat Hentoff and Ted Steeg.
All testify to the energy that stoked the Village, the sense -- which surely all bohemians must have -- that they were puncturing the bubble of middle-class complacency for the very first time. As most recall, drinking was the social sport of the day, Salinger was God and psychoanalysis was the sexy pastime that made your fussed-over angst a tantalizing carrot for the opposite sex.
Others give a less wide-eyed account of some of the funkier layers to slackerdom, mostly women -- girlfriends and aspiring writers -- who had to play obedient appendages, waiting for their big break. As Helen Weaver, Jack Kerouac's girlfriend, recalls in a bitter nutshell, it was a "boy's club."
A fairly stodgy documentary about that scene, New York in the '50s seems determined to offer a corrective to a popular conception of the era as a tranquilized boob-eoisie of TV-doped consumers, as well as the notion that Jack Kerouac and his Beats were the end-all of Village life.
The fire escape parties and piles of books used for drink rests in New York in the '50s look positively House and Garden compared to the post-apocalyptic, graffitied rubble of the Lower East Side in another bohemian document, Downtown 81.
Starring the renowned graffiti artist-turned-painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Downtown 81 follows his discharge from an uptown hospital and subsequent day-and-night crawl through the new wave clubs, tenement apartments and alleys of '80s New York, with periodic stops at brick walls to leave his tag. With its badly dubbed dialogue and random, make-it-up-as-you-go-along flavor, Downtown 81 captures some of the sloppy enthusiasm and garish color of the scene. There's a funny, amateurish charm to events, like a crude scene obviously filmed in some slacker's apartment where Basquiat visits a "rich lady's" apartment to sell her some work, and the woman's maid is a New Waver.
Basquiat, sweet and kid-like with his neatly tied dreadlocks and ragamuffin tweed coat, is a haunting, sensual presence in the film. The New York Times called him an art world James Dean for his live-large, die-young kinship with the fallen thespian, and he certainly has some of that rebel's slouchy allure.
The plot is fairly aimless and amorphous: Basquiat tries to catch up with a pretty girl who keeps leaving him in the dust, or struggles half-heartedly to recover his band's stolen equipment.
With its chronic dragginess and drug-addled, bohemian flavor, Downtown 81 is a moody summation of never quite making it but ever-trying, and of too many nights spent out on the town and too many days spent trying to recover. Downtown 81 has a shabby charm as it passes a legion of real-life demimonde in the night: Diane Brill, Nan Goldin's tragic muse Cookie Mueller, Debbie Harry (prominent in the film's credits, but easily missed if you blink), John Lurie, Vincent Gallo, Fab Five Freddy and performances by the Japanese New Wave band The Plastics, DNA and James White and the Blacks.
New York in the '50s praises the idealistic creative hotbed of the Village, but it ends with a sense of burn-out, as the drain of city life caught up to its habitues. Too much drinking and hard living, Joan Didion notes, made her realize, once she'd quit the scene, that for years she'd suffered from a perpetual "low-grade" hangover. Downtown 81 addresses a sense of fatigue, too, as one musician describes first the drain of rejection and poverty, and then the hucksterism of hooking up with the record companies. And Basquiat's presence in the film is another reminder of the toll of living large on a scene notorious for drug use and permanent burn-out. Dead by age 27 from a heroin overdose, Basquiat dwells in the evergreen bohemia of Blondie's imperative to die young and stay pretty.
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