Co-directors Jenner Furst and Daniel B. Levin who first collaborated on Captured, (the 2008 documentary about New York’s Lower East Side) have come together once again to bring us Dirty Old Town. Dirty, which shares many of the same themes with the earlier film, is a triumph of cinema verité, comparable to Cassavetes’ Shadows or A Woman Under The Influence. Like Cassavetes, it is the thin line of distinction between real life and art that makes this a truly worthy film-going experience.
Dirty Old Town has its NYC Premiere at The Quad Cinema as part of NYIIFVF, May 5th, 2011.
Filmmakers to be in attendance.
I was admittedly drawn in by my past; a teen fraught with the boredom of a suburban upbringing, as a youth, I was always enticed to wander beyond my culturally bankrupt beginnings and head out in search of culture, and at the very least, adventure. For me, more often than not, that meant the dirty old streets of New York City.
I often found myself ditching school to witness the City’s nocturnal transformation into a carnivalesque landscape of surreal beauty, cool people and crazy freaks. It was a place full of mysterious characters, and ones which I should have perhaps steered clear of, but it was the New York City that I know and love. Dirty Old Town is a loving portrait of the disappearing landscape of this New York City, giving us a longing glimpse into a magical world that once was.
Dirty Old Town opens to Billy, (William Leroy) decked out in biker-leather, and a gray-blonde ponytail rumbling down a New York City overpass on a chopper en route to pay his landlord for two months back-rent on his Antiques Tent. The gruff-looking Houston Street antique vendor has got seventy-two hours to pay it all down, or a Starbucks is moving in, or so threatens the landlord.
The shop is the location on which the film revolves, and Billy the tough, streetwise single dad of a soon-to-be college-going daughter, struggles with financial and moral temptations while managing some great authentic comedic one-liners in the face of adversity.
At the Antiques Tent, the circus-of-regulars filter in. Billy commiserates with Nicky, (Nicholas De Cegli,) who delivers a compelling performance, as the wisecracking tough-guy with the neurotic, seven-note mutter of “nu-nu-nu-nu-nu-nu-nu.”
Nicky is the figurative mayor of their dirty old world who follows dirty old rules, without regard to what anyone thinks or has to say. So, when dirty cop Bobby, (Scott Dillin) approaches Billy’s Antique Tent and informs Billy, “I’m gonna fuck you right where you stand,” Nicky decides to take matters into his own hands. (Not that Billy can’t take care of himself, but because that’s just what Nicky does.)
Enter gypsy-junky, Rachel (Jannel Shirtcliff) an impish ethereal beauty, who moves seductively through the lens and is strongest when she takes pause to reflect. Shirtcliff’s allegorical muse gracefully drifts through the sideshow freaks and back-alley drug deals while fending off the likes of Clayton Patterson (of Captured) who tauntingly inquires whether she’s “still hookin’ and crookin’?”
It is Rachel’s self-serving actions, which unwittingly force the other characters to come to terms with their own questionable morality; a labyrinth of uncertainty, which becomes increasingly difficult to traverse as their collective escapades spiral out of control.
It is the same sense of boredom or adventure, which lead me to the New York streets as a teen, which leads Rachel around the streets and eventually to Hans, (played by real-life nightlife impresario and Club Guru Paul Sevigny.) In his hot-red pants, Sevigny plays his character as cavalier, dismissive, and dissonant with an almost American Psycho demeanor. Hans’ haughty personality collides with Rachel’s as she enters Hans’ immaculate, lavish apartment uninvited.
Behind his fetching blonde-hair, blue-eyes, and a storm of dissociative mannerisms are some deftly-held secrets. These are secrets, which are bound to get Rachel into trouble if she keeps digging. But, Hans is among the elite of Rachel’s men and one she can easily steal from. So when Rachel shows up at Billy’s with an unusual stolen relic formerly belonging to Hans, Billy is not entirely surprised, yet somewhat freaked out and more than a little apprehensive about taking possession of it.
But, needing the money, Billy negotiates on a promise that Rachel won’t spend the money on drugs. Of course, this is a promise Rachel has no intention of keeping, and she is off to the pad of the uber-insane deviant creep-show which is Ronnie Sunshine, (who is played by Ronnie Sunshine, himself.) A drug and sex-fest ensues, complete with leather whips swinging, sex-toys bouncing, porn playing on TV, and Ronnie chanting cheerfully incoherent nonsense. Naturally, the festivities conclude when Rachel blinks out like a broken light after attempting to outdo Al Pacino’s level of cocaine consumption in Scarface.
Meanwhile, Nicky meanders around Little Italy chatting it up with locals and tourists, and pouring on the charm and streetwise folly which he is known for. He’s embraced by the people around him, even strangers want to chat it up. Nicky is fiercely loyal and loves his friends without equivocation. His pathos is palpable and his acting is dead-on natural.
(Where has this guy been? Oh yes, a ton of award-winning movies like Bad Lieutenant and many others-- as well as actually being a longtime NYC nightlife legend.)
Soon, Nicky’s attention switches focus to tailing Bobby the cop, at which point he overhears a conversation between Bobby and Vic, (Sergio Valentin) the drug dealer. And, after witnessing some altogether too hairy and particularly illegal street activities, Nicky handles it as only Nicky can. Suffice to say, I can’t say any more without spoiling the plot, but Nicky’s discovery will change everyone’s life if they don’t change it for themselves.
Dirty Old Town is a loving portrait of the once vibrant and viscerally engaging New York City which now seems to be slowly vanishing under the corporate Disneyfication of this proud city’s rich past. The cast brings a tangible pulse to the characters, which lesser performers may have painted as caricatures. But, this gifted and agile ensemble delivers a rock-solid performance in this compelling film, which was shot over a few sweltering August weeks in Little Italy, and The Bowery.
What this film gets, which so many New York City films miss is the true pulse of the streets. Its fresh portrayal of this quirky, miscreant gaggle of kooks brings me back to my youth in this tribute to the soul of the neighborhood; a cogitating meditation on the streets. With the help of resourceful producers Marc Levin, Mark Benjamin and Stephanie Porto, Dirty Old Town brings to life an intimate study of peculiar variety, with subtle, well-placed New York style comedic jabs. Not only is the colorful mosaic well-filled by the cast, but the writing team of Daniel B. Levin, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason weave together a narrative structure which will keep the audience on the edge of their sticky New York seats, wishing they had brought some sanitary napkins to wipe themselves clean when the lights turn down.
Go to the city, walk the streets of the Dirty Old Town and meet these people (don’t let anyone hear you ask for a Starbucks though). Billy, Nicky, Rachel, Bobby, Hans and Vic are all there. If not in the flesh, then embodied by others you’ll run into. Just heed my warning-- do not enter Ronnie Sunshine’s pad… unless you’re into that sort of thing!
Review written by Ali Bell
Editor: Rod Webber
Published by Reel Zine © Reel Zine 2011