Upon receipt of my copy of Black & White from the film distributor, I initially was a mite confused. I had expected a slick new DVD release of James Toback’s early-noughties dissection of race relations in New York’s burgeoning hip-hop culture starring Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr. and Bijou Phillips. To my surprise I instead found a home-burned DVD in a faceless white envelope marked simply “Black & White” with a post-it – no extras, no nuthin’.
The accompanying catalog informed me that I was in decidedly non-Hollywood territory: the film was the latest project from Facets, a Chicago-based outfit specializing in plundering the arthouse and foreign film vaults, retooling and re-releasing undiscovered or neglected underground classics. The no-frills promo was a by-product of a DIY ethic and a company’s (which started as a local non-profit) passion for giving public exposure to these little-seen gems.
This film, directed by Boris Fruman, in contrast to Toback’s, is far from political. It’s one of those meandering, personal, slice-of-life stories – in this case from the perspective of a downwardly mobile immigrant in the Big Apple – which are so resolutely out of fashion these days.
Title notwithstanding, the closest we get to interracial love here is a mere brief stolen drunken (and grief-induced) snog. In fact, all of the characters in this film are deeply frustrated, due to either their circumstances of laboring under a system which allows them to slip through the cracks or because they simply cannot relate to other people, or the rigors of daily existence subsume the need to even seek out human connection. Reality constantly intrudes. It’s quite an antidote to the romantic comedy blight which has taken over both Hollywood and the IFC crowd, and the film doesn’t shy away from that corollary of easy urban intimacy, the swift and equally easy departure.
We are dropped in medias res into a subway car lurching through downtown Manhattan carrying the likes of coquettish-but-strong Russian émigré Lisa (Elena Shevchenco), her scumbag drug dealer boyfriend Gregory (albeit with a nice line in jewelry —he’ll sell you two grams of coke for 200 bones and throw in a ring for $250! What a guy!) and a male colleague. They’re goofing, singing, half-drunk, on the way to a party at a Boho gay dive on the Lower East Side – well, for Lisa it’s a party. For Gregory it’s a pretext to flatter his faux-big-shot ego, steamroll through, bully everyone and do a little business on the side.
When Gregory forcibly aborts Lisa’s good time delirium (dragging her from the party mid-nitrous oxide hit) and gets a little too rough in the subway station, attacking her for getting mouthy, he is tidily dispatched by a tall dark (and very handsome) but jovial stranger, Roy (Gilbert Giles). In short order, Roy invites the suddenly homeless (and soon-to-be-jobless) Lisa back to his place for the night, assuring her “Don’t worry, I’m not interested in white girls,” in the film’s single explicit nod to race, apart from the title.
No, Roy is just a good Samaritan in the form of the superintendent of a tenement building, and they happen to have an extra room available, to which, in sympathy with her plight, he hands over the key and spots her a bit of rent. The building is lorded over by Donald (Patrick Godfrey), a scrappy would-be Casanova strangled by his own deeply-rooted chauvinism.
Donald fancies himself a sculptor, but he’s little more than a hack using the women who model for him for easy sex, a Cynthia Plastercaster of breasts. In fact, in the apartment currently occupied by Lisa once dwelled Natasha, his former model girlfriend (the film’s Rebecca, a character solely by virtue of her ghostly presence). Once he sets his sights upon Lisa, though, in his mind she is designated to literally fill the void left by Natasha. Complicating things is the fact that he is currently seeing the quite vocally jealous Barbara (Gina Delio), who puts her foot down, refusing to be discarded or seen as an articulated extension of one of his plaster molds.
Other occupants of the building include Roy’s invalid father, for whom he cares, his ex and their young son, as well as another family of Slavic immigrants.
While Roy moonlights at the local athletic club and prepares an upcoming birthday party for his ailing father and Lisa deals with the compromises innate to her situation, desperate Donald pursues women with the frenzy and alacrity of a mongrel dog on heat. However, he occasionally shows a more complex and conflicted side. For example, it’s clear that he probably loves Barbara, his artistic muse, even making a stab at couples counseling therapy on her behalf. Just as the therapist argues that he cannot have a satisfying relationship with Barbara if he remains addicted to sexual novelty and fantasy, he hallucinates Lisa’s sexy image in a TV screen in the therapist’s office and storms out.
This performance is the sole weak link in a film loaded to the brim with naturalistic, convincing portrayals. He’s all awkward attempts at comic relief, and the campiness seems at odds with the gravity and warmth of the rest of the film. His ham-handed and misguided attempts to woo (read: rape) Lisa, including buying her during a stint as a call-girl, are embarrassing and horrifying, though perhaps necessary to the plot.
Contrast his character’s broad lunkheadedness with a recognizably human moment such as when an emotional Roy locks himself in the bathroom, wrapping a towel around his head so no one can hear him crying out (the film superbly captures that feeling of New York as a place where people really live in each other’s back pockets). That said, Donald’s best moment occurs when he gets so drunk he can’t make his way home, and is forced to bunk at a violent Salvation Army Mission.
On first glance the grainy, blanched photography, tinny sound, evocatively sleazy score and gargantuan shoulder pads which seem to overtake their wearers and the omnipresence of jaundiced-looking skin are all strong indicators that we are in early-‘80s low-budget land.
In many ways the film struck me as an unlikely flipside companion piece to Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s 1983 science fiction opus about (literal) aliens in Manhattan which zap the brains of unsuspecting fornicators at the moment of orgasm. Both films are Russian-produced and feature original takes on the dissociative experience of the immigrant filtered through a lo-fi downtown sensibility. Tsukerman’s film may hew to the extreme end of negative, but Black and White has an overall positive vibe, in spite of the gutter-based vantage point. And both explore microcosms in bringing home their respective points, the former the then-cutting edge East Village punk and new wave scene, the latter its ghettoized Melrose Place tenement milieu.
Overall , Black & White is an anachronistic little delight at a juncture in film history of constant envelope-pushing and one-upmanship as regards action, plot and effects. To accomplish what the director has done, that is, to create a universal slant on a narrow, highly subjective experience while maintaining a quality of refreshing aimlessness, to treat the subject sensitively while never veering into didacticism, and to bring the plot to a low-key but resonant denoument, is no small feat for a film so distractingly of a piece with its time.
*Note: a little research indicated that this film was made and released in 1991; the film has a much older look, underlined by the scratchy transfer!