Thursday, November 20, 2008

Movies: Wild Style

In spite of (because of?) its wooden actors, amateur screenwriter, and purely functional cinematographer, Wild Style manages to be a perfect document of its time: 1982, in New York: the proto-hip-hop scene. Of course, I was just barely getting born then, so perhaps I am unqualified to make that judgement. What I am qualified to say is that the worst parts of the movie are the best, the groaners will make you laugh, and the incredibly naive depiction of race relations is probably more on point than any of today's elaborate dissertations.

The plot, which is sort of an coming-of-age tale, is just a loose character sketch that strings together episodic scenes of emceeing, b-boying, turn-tabling, and spray-painting. Lee Quinones, real-life street artist (not real-life actor, and it shows) is trying to win back his girl (Sandra Fabara, not much of an actress herself) while painting up whole subway cars in the yards at night (we get a brief visit from his older brother, in a military uniform, telling him to clean up his act, but that's as close to any parental involvement we'll see).

Meanwhile, a "lady reporter," who turns out to be a party girl styled on Debbie Harry, is coming up to write an article on graffiti art; she is in most of the best scenes, not because she can act, but because her extreme whiteness provides the perfect catalyst for delightfully awkward moments. The first is when her car breaks down in the middle of a burnt-out tower block wasteland, and 25 little black boys descend upon it. They look harmless enough but she's clearly threatened, but as soon as the kids discover that she is the reporter, they all push her car to her destination, a few of them getting trampled in the process. The next is when she walks out of the club without her black male escorts, and finds herself about to get held up at gunpoint. Her friends arrive in time to save her and, as they all pile into the car, she squeals with delight at the fact that she almost got shot (it's all part of the tour). Seeing her surrounded by a club full of black kids b-boying is just as funny as watching Lee surrounded by a bunch of Manhattan art collectors, which is the next stop. At the cocktail party, the hostess commissions Lee to make her a painting, and when he asks for a hundred dollars for materials, she writes him a check for two, then seduces him (and let me point out that Lee is uglier than the ugliest member of Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony on the last day of the month, even if you dig the Thuggish-Ruggish-Bone).

The film ends with a big hip-hop celebration on the Lower East Side, where Lee has finally addressed his demons and painted the entire bandshell, and the Cold Crush Brothers and Busy Bee and Double Trouble have all come out to emcee and the Rocksteady Crew dance on a rolled-out sheet of linoleum and the credits roll and we all miss old New York (which, I have to say, might be coming back—I'm starting to see groups of kids get on trains, clear a space, and break right there for change—something Giuliani thought he put an end to.

Now, if we could just bring back the painted-up subway cars I'd be happy. I'm not asking for lawlessness, just art. For the MTA's anniversary, the city ran old cars from the turn of the century. But I'd rather see one from 1982.

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