The film opens with Jean Michel Basquiat’s wondering why he is in a hospital and closes with his driving away from New York City. What happens in between seems almost unimportant in this remarkable film that follows the artist through a day in his life. The plot is not the main attraction: Downtown 81 is as much about the painter, Jean Michel Basquiat, as it is about the old New York City.
In pre-Giuliani times, the Lower East Side looked “like a war zone,” not a Bohemian playground. Graffiti and sex stores were still rampant. Astor Place didn’t have two Starbucks. Most importantly, it seems as though there were as many creative, crazy, and experimental artists then as there are Barnes and Nobles now.
The film seems almost like a home video with something of a budget. The course of events are utterly stream of consciousness. Basquiat runs into some musician friends (rap legend Melle Mel, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, and Suicide are just a few of the artists on the soundtrack), meets a model/ sugar mama who falls in love with him, sells a painting for $500 (you have to wonder how many thousands it would be worth now), and runs across a suitcase full of money in a dark alley. The plot is merely a whimsical means to the main draw: Basquiat’s narration and the visuals,which are stunning after seeing the gentrification of downtown twenty years later.
Throughout the film, Basquiat provides a running commentary in his cool, poetic voice. At times he sounds as if he is trying too hard to be wise, yet his musings evoke Yogi Berra. At other moments, his words resonate with a stirring rhythm like that of slam poetry. In his monologues, he glorifies New York City even while he is being accosted by drug dealers and prostitutes. He revels in the grimy and colorful downtown that seems to be bursting with creativity. On impulse, he graffitis one of his characteristically nonsensical sayings on a wall; the next moment even Basquiat’s landlord grabs his french horn and plays.
The atmosphere of the film is almost unrealistic in this sense. As Basquiat stumbles upon friends who always offer him help, or who are struggling with their own artistic endeavors, one has to wonder how uncommon Basquiat’s experience had to have been. It seems then that the mission of the film is to educate the viewers, presumably not all artists, as to what it is like to be one. The film focuses on artists, frustrated and successful alike, by showing musicians in the recording studios or performing at a concert and designers creating and showcasing fashion.
Manhattan residents may rejoice in seeing New York as a place where those who are truly talented (or just desperate to become famous) can triumph. As Basquiat says as he is being released from the hospital in the beginning of the film, “I was off to be the wizard.” At 19, when Downtown 81 was shot, he probably didn’t suspect his rise to fame and ultimately sad end. But, for all the praise he gives Manhattan, he seems perpetually lonely and uneasy. The common ways we identify the 1980s (drugs, bad hair and clothes, promiscuity) are all present in the film, but instead of regarding them as the excesses of the time, they for once seem like the symbols of people who were trying to find a new identity for artists in America and more specifically in New York City.
Downtown 81 will also be shown with Heart of the World, a six-minute black-and-white short.
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