Revisiting a film is much like revisiting a city. A return can confound expectations and confirm or deny a previously held judgment. My first trip to New York in the David Dinkins era of 1991 left me enthralled, from the snow-canopied trees of Central Park to the frightful squalor of 42nd Street. Revisiting the city 12 years later, I recognized much from my previous visit. However, the Rudy Giuliani law and order age along with the disfigurement of the skyline had changed New York. Those same trees in Central Park now bowed over at the hip, wilting from the heat, and 42nd Street blinked and chirped like a Disneyland attraction.
I first saw Matthew Harrison’s Rhythm Thief at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival and walked away unimpressed. I felt the narrative was built upon a plodding structure that blunted any of the energy often linked to this kind of guerilla-style curb-view filmmaking. The story of a dickhead who ekes out a living on New York’s Lower East Side selling pirated cassettes of local musicians did nothing to impress me, failing where Nick Gomez succeeded with The Laws of Gravity.
The intervening 14 years has either aged the film nicely or it is only I who have aged (I’m partial to both explanations). Rhythm Thief captures the music of New York’s streets with great skill and affection, exhibiting both a kinetic visual style and a novelist’s eye for detail. What I had expected to date as poorly as a Spin Doctors album instead exhibited an odd timelessness, a historical limbo that mirrors the weightlessness of a clutch of characters fettered by economic and imaginative poverty.
Simon (Jason Andrews) is a feral force of nature, a creature dedicated to survival and self-preservation above all. He prowls a New York previously inhabited by Jamie Conway from Bright Lights, Big City along with similarly unresolved mother issues, and even appears to have sub-letted John Lurie’s apartment from Stranger in Paradise. Outwardly, he appears to want a life devoid of human interaction but he can’t keep free from the entanglements of other people.
He is a lone wolf who attracts a pack of followers that see through his diffidence and detect a soulful human; the hopeful protégé Fuller (Kevin Corrigan) who nips at Simon’s bulldog haunches like a panting terrier; Cyd (Kimberly Flynn) his partner in theoretically empty, aerobic sex; or drug-frazzled Rat-Boy (Bob McGrath), a skittish bootlegging competitor who has the balls to stake out Simon’s sidewalk hawking spot but cowers when the man comes to reclaim his territory.
If Simon had ever read a self-help book by a cut-rate armchair psychologist, he would claim these losers project their own needs onto the blank canvas he provides. But Simon would never consider such a syllabus, because he is an asshole and proud of it.
When Marty (Eddie Daniels) arrives from his hometown with unending patience and letters from his dying mother inscribed on her arms, Simon’s tightly constructed life buckles from the pressure.
The New York of Rhythm Thief is a small world, indeed. The lead-footed rhythm of the story that I had disparaged in the past helps to create this hermetically sealed atmosphere, a gutter-level view of New York that equals the outlook of the characters. They are trapped by the web of the city, unable to crane their necks up to garner a better look at the world’s greatest metropolis. Instead of Nora Ephron’s fairy tales or Spike Lee’s street-corner racial divides, director Harrison depicts a New York of egalitarian decay, an equal-opportunity dead-end street. It is a city of sagging bodegas, ancient club date flyers on palimpsest lampposts, and hopelessness for all.
Oddly, this film’s closest relative is not another New York story but one from across the ocean. Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, released in the same year, told a similar story of despair in a French ghetto. Just as telling are the subtle differences between the two. Whereas Kassovitz’s black-and-white film glowed with a luminous art house sheen, Harrison’s is a love letter to Super 16 grain. And while Kassovitz paints the characters as birds with clipped wings, a heartbreaking sense of undeveloped potential gone to waste, Harrison presents people with no chance who tend to the business of quotidian survival, seemingly more out of habit than any kind of zest for life.
Harrison loves his cast of dead-end kids and it is contagious. He also loves reggae and dub, music used to great effect for most of the film. Unfortunately, when the film shifts into a tragic last act, his unwavering use of it undercuts some of the drama.
The extras on the DVD are as lean as the film itself, including some aimless behind-the-scenes footage. The commentary track is a mild embarrassment, as director Harrison seems as intent on reading from a scrapbook of positive reviews for the film as providing insight production.
These are minor quibbles, however. What remains is a moving portrait of an unmovable man, whether by circumstance or bad luck. Much like New York itself.