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Movie Review: Brave New York / Sway

DVD cover with scenes of New York City

When I was living in Brooklyn and my wife was trying to convince me to move to Los Angeles, she would ask me what is it about New York City that I would miss the most. I knew the answer, but it was one that was very hard to put into actual words. All I could really say was that I would miss the New-York-ness of it all. I would miss the promise of walking outside my apartment every day to have the opportunity to see some really wild shit.

Richard Sandler is a documentarian who not only lives with that promise, but has been smart enough to carry a video camera with him every time he walks out into his Lower East Side neighborhood. Luckily, Brink DVD has just released a compilation of his films. While the disc is called Brave New York / Sway after the two main films included in the package, there’s actually three films here with the third one called Subway to the Former East Village.

All of the three films have exactly the same format, but each has a slightly different focus. These are “free form” documentaries, meaning that none of the films have a specific narrative drive. They are just compilations of different scenarios that Sandler captured on video. While segments of each film have a certain thematic connection, e.g. Sandler groups homeless people rants together, then shots of graffiti, and so on, but the overall structure of why and how the different clips are strung together are not easy to discern.

The films thus really demand that you pay close attention to them. While the structure Sandler imposed on the clips is not easy to discern, the real narrative drive of each film is the excitement of wondering what wild shit you’re going to see next.

Now, having said all that, I believe Brave New York is arranged mostly chronologically. Early in the film there’s a reference in Wigstock ’92 and then towards the end there’s a brief shot of the twin towers burning on Sept. 11, 2001, plus reactions from residents in the aftermath. There are also some other major events chronicled that were important to and specific to the Lower East Side neighborhood that the film specifically focuses on. However, to outsiders these events, such as the closing of Thompkins Square Park and the destruction of the Loisaida Community Gardens, won’t have the emotional punch they have to the locals. Other than clues to the chronology of these events, although the film was shot over the period of twelve years, the Lower East Side seems to have a timeless quality to it throughout the entire movie.

Running for about an hour, Brave New York is stuffed to the gills with a ton of great rants from the LES’s crazier residents and a terrific amount of fantastic images. One of my favorite segments was a transvestite discussing the “transgender” impulse as opposed to “becoming the opposite gender” impulse. Kind of hard to describe, but I thought it was a fascinating perspective I hadn’t heard before.

I also enjoyed a brief segment with the Rev. Billy and his religion of “Stop Shopping.” Cops positioned outside of a Starbucks prevent Billy and his acolytes from entering the store, so after some brief sermonizing, Billy takes his flock down to protest the Barnes & Noble. (Sandler, it turns out, also gets a credit as a Camera Operator on the Rev. Billy documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, a decent film, but the good reverend is always a terrific hoot.)

Then there’s the bicycle rider covered head-to-toe in suit of aluminum cans and the two guys discussing whether or not 9/11 was the end of a “golden age” of NYC. One older dude thinks it is, while the other thinks the city’s always been shitty for the poor and destitute. In fact, there’s an odd tension in the film when Sandler sprinkles random shots of the World Trade Center throughout the film until the terrible day they came down. Of course, when Sandler was filming the towers, there was no way he would know what eventually would be in store for them. The towers were just a backdrop to the Lower East Side as much as any homeless ranter is.

Sway goes beneath NYC and is primarily shot in the subway system, particularly at the Times Square stop. Sandler captures various buskers, hucksters and dancers performing on the platform, as well as the various riders on the trains. Commuters are either shot head on or in reflection of the train windows. One might think Sandler is risking getting his camera lens punched in, much like a paparazzi getting in Sean Penn’s face, but his subjects are fairly blase about being filmed. The oddest segment comes when Sandler captures a subway circus act that takes over a car to Coney Island. Dressed in ribboned gowns, the performers tie themselves to the standing poles and overhead bars like a Cirque du Soleil troupe in confined quarters. Then, once on the Brooklyn beach in the middle of the night, some of the circus people take a skinny dip in the Atlantic Ocean.

Finally, Subway to the Former East Village is like an extension of or outtakes from Brave New York. The title of this last film comes from a segment where Sandler and a female companion sneak their way into a fancy apartment complex with an Italian renaissance courtyard that seems ridiculously out-of-place in a neighborhood of dive bars and angry anti-Giuliani grafitti.

After watching all three films, New York just looks like the craziest place on Earth, which, for some including myself and obviously for Sandler, makes it just about the most beautiful place on Earth. There’s one touching scene in Sway when Sandler talks with an elderly gentleman about how great NYC is. The old man can’t find anything to love about it while Sandler gushes about the amazing parade of life that passes by everyday. And thank God Sandler was there with a camera to catch it all.