The Return Of NYC Grime

How a handful of New York auteurs are resurrecting an antiquated style of East Coast genre cinema.

NYC Grime arguably had its filmic heyday during the early '80s – when movies made by Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer, Ms. 45), Bill Lustig (Maniac, Vigilante), and Larry Cohen (Q: The Winged Serpent, Perfect Strangers) were utilizing the city as a backdrop for genre exercises that simultaneously smuggled subtexts regarding feminism, classism, and the overall struggle to endure in an urban wilderness. They were pre-gentrification tales of vicious woe, cast with both recognizable faces and gaggles of Big Apple citizens representing characters their creators saw in everyday life. These movies weren’t afraid to present us a metropolis in crisis – every store front and passing vehicle seemingly covered in a layer of grit, where violence threatened to explode whenever the wrong alley was explored. They’re time capsule snapshots of an era where surviving life in the big city meant just that: surviving.

But there was also beauty contained in these portraits of decay and madness; moments where streetlights cast a radiant glow over the Hudson Bay, or caught the windshield of a cruising taxi cab to create a brief sparkle. Living in a post-9/11 Giuliani/Bloomberg world, we don’t get these instances of street level grandeur, because those Mayors made a point of scrubbing NYC of its filthy veneer, and replacing it with a generic, corporate sheen of safety. While it's undeniable that their efforts generated postcard-friendly tableaus, it also worked to hide the real New York that isn’t generally represented in cinema any longer. In short, these alterations were great for its residents, but bad for movies.

Thankfully, a new generation of auteurs are working to bring dirt back to the Big Apple. They’re the Grime New Wave – lo-fi mavericks who are yanking audiences out of Times Square’s glitzy nonsense (which is ironic, given The Deuce’s grindhouse legacy), and dropping them into working class neighborhoods. In their eyes, New York is made up of lumpy, damaged individuals who dwell in dingy apartments that are definitely overpriced. These are the budding visionaries who are bringing us the NYC those in City Hall would rather not be photographed, as it’s still filled with scumbags and murderers, lurking just down the block from the local bodega, ready to snatch a purse or a life with the quickness. 2017 has delivered three defining NYC Grime pictures, hopefully signaling a new artistic movement that will guide us through the darkest streets these Five Boroughs have to offer.

Bag Boy Lover Boy (d. Andres Torres, w. Toni Comas & Andres Torres)

Abel Ferrara is arguably the Patron Saint of NYC Grime, and Andres Torres’ debut feature is working double time to emulate Driller Killer (even though the co-writer/director swears he had no intention of creating a work in line with the master filmmaker’s). A scummy, shoestring budgeted assault on the senses, Bag Boy Lover Boy is an exploitation movie about exploitation, as an immigrant hot dog vendor (Jon Wachter) is taken under the wing of a sleazy photographer (Theodore Bouloukos) with the false façade of teaching the naïve kid about “art”. The line between expression and brutal pornography blurs, as the cart pusher soon spirals into a cycle of murderous madness. Nasty and shot with an eye for the seediest individuals who call NYC home, Torres pulls no punches as he explores the darker, angrier side of the city’s art scene with a flair for bloodstained black humor. By the end, the bodies are piled high and you’ll want to take a shower, as the filth of Bag Boy Lover Boy almost becomes too much to bear.

The Transfiguration (d. & w. Michael O’Shea)

Freshman writer/director Michael O’Shea’s powerfully grimy entry into the NYC splatter canon doubles as a mournful treatise on loneliness and the haunting nature of grief. Unlike Bag Boy Lover Boy, it’s a picture that doesn’t just proudly wear its influences on its sleeve, but also inserts them into the actual text, as a young Far Rockaway murderer (Eric Ruffin) hordes crudely labeled VHS tapes of vampire classics such as Near Dark and Fright Night. From those fuzzy, dubbed copies, he cobbles together a personalized mythology, which he uses to help define his own violent existence. O’Shea’s vision is based in the pre-restoration New York genre cinema of William Lustig and Larry Cohen – cheap thrills that were not so subtly about how the city becomes a societal prison, divided by class and privilege, for many folks who call the Big Apple home. Milo (Ruffin) may be the loneliest boy in New York – far away from the Wall Street Brokers who create capitalist-driven collapses, yet a few stories above groups of bullies who call him “freak” and take turns trying to pin the kid to the cracked concrete and piss on his plain grey tees. Like the Safdie Brothers (Heaven Knows What), O’Shea is most interested in characters who live in the city’s cracks; too often cast off by mainstream society, and whose stories never get told. The Transfiguration is a Portrait of a Serial Killer riff on potential redemption, with Coney Island Ferris Wheels dotting the horizon as Milo finds hope in another abused soul (Chloe Levine). But we know escaping himself won’t be that easy, as O’Shea creates a suffocating aura of impossibility, as skyscrapers loom like reapers made of metal and glass.

Good Time (d. Josh & Benny Safdie, w. Josh Safdie & Ronald Bronstein)

When you talk to the Safdie Brothers (The Pleasure of Being Robbed), they realize that their latest, Good Time, feels like a movie out of touch with modern filmmaking, while still being completely in sync with the times in which we live. The central bank robbing brothers (Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie) dash from their latest crime, get tripped up by the cops, and Connie (Pattinson) ends up spending one wild night trying to get his mentally handicapped sibling out of Rikers before the animals inside eat him alive. Good Time is as propulsive as motion pictures get – feeling like it was shot out of a fucking cannon, as Connie wheels, deals, steals and almost gets more than one person killed along the way. The naturalistic live-shooting style the Safdies employ is immersive, getting you into the parking lot of a Queens White Castle and the fluorescent, screeching bowels of shithead central, Adventureland. But there’s also a sociopolitical subtext injected into the proceedings, as the white criminal manipulates perception. Connie’s fully aware of the privileges his skin color earns him, blaming his numerous mishaps on the People of Color around him. While the Safdies may be sympathizing with this scumbag, they alternately never let you forget just what a piece of garbage he truly is, and that the lowest Caucasian male will still be passed over during a police stop for his black counterparts. This is what puts Good Time over the top, and marks it as the pinnacle of this current Grime resurgence – it marries pulp aesthetics with a genuine point of view regarding how society treats the multicultural denizens of its greatest cities.