Imagine knife fights in knee boots; graffiti in clops; turnstile-hopping in coyote fur; The Warriors in heels. That’s the latest short film idea by director Sean Baker, whose new film Khaite brings high-class fashion to the New York underground.
In Khaite, now available on YouTube, Baker’s approach is familiar; he looks at New York through the eyes of someone intimate with its nooks and crannies and sees the shortcuts of the inner city. Set to Ace Frehley‘s “New York Groove”, the short film’s grimy gangs argue, cajole and wreak havoc on the city to an internal, self-justifying musical rhythm.
Baker’s central concept is a gender-swap parody of Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors, with a general nod to that era’s shaky-cam realism. But Baker’s gangs aren’t a sweaty, buff ensemble; they’re the downwardly mobile, a collection of models who take the underground for themselves.
This top-down look at New York mixes high fashion with hard crime. Baker’s punk models climb down the social ladder and live how the other half lives — having fun while doing it.
It’s tinged with a vision of ’70s New York, filled with lawlessness and urban decay — the gang members run from the police and harass pedestrians, being, in general, reprobates — but Baker aims to muddy these models’ beauty. They jump turnstiles and spray walls with graffiti, but with a taste for the “finer things” in life: they wear puffy red coats and black dresses and elaborate sweaters while they rebel. Baker’s ironic conceit is that these lawbreakers aren’t just pretty; they’re vicious, too.
As a filmmaker, Baker’s interests have ranged from a “hard-hitting” documentary view of immigrant life (his look at a Chinese immigrant in 2004’s Take Out) to a downright romantic look at how impoverished people live (2017 hit The Florida Project). Baker’s focus on poverty has always been sympathetic. But in Khaite he betrays his previous subjects by striving for prestige, unlike his film’s punks, who abandon it.
Confusingly, Khaite embodies Baker’s ambivalence about urban life and poverty. His look at the nouveau poor stresses the contradictory feelings of those who idolize New York. This view of city life abandons the social havoc of crime — the misfortunes of the people who live in poverty — for status quo nostalgia. In doing so, Baker conflates systemic failure with freedom and fun.
Khaite will invite the fancy of Baker fans, as well as the bohemians and the upper-class who can afford Khaite fashion, but it negates and mocks the unseen hard-strivers he used to valorize.