You’d have to go back to Bloomsbury to find another set as insular, self-promoting, self-destructive, imitated, parodied, publicized, and at last mythologized as the crowd that hung around New York’s East Village in the late 1970s. All things in proportion, of course. Compared with their English counterparts, the Alphabet City group scored far lower in investment income, Cambridge certification, and connections to the gentry, and far higher in ethnic diversity, assertive queerness, and heroin use. There were also a lot more of them—if not swarms, then a shifting mass who earned their credentials by being young and showing up, and who believed that the right to be called an artist (or at least artistic) was best enjoyed without prior mastery of a skill. That said, democratic upstarts, too, can be snobs. Speaking some 40 years later, one of the memorialists in Sara Driver’s documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat can still praise the scene’s favorite dance hangout, the Mudd Club, with blinkered sincerity: “Everybody who was anybody was there.”
As one of those long-ago anybodies, and a respected film-world somebody today, Driver brings to Boom for Real a quality that’s both unexpected for this topic and invaluable: balance. On one side, she’s visceral and immediate, without falling into the trap of autobiography. She knows people who can describe for her the smells and sounds of the Lower East Side in its 1970s dereliction (rank, skunky, eerily quiet) and recall the details of what they ate, where they found their clothes, and how the pace of life changed throughout the days and nights, from idling to making up projects to partying. She also knows how to get her hands on amazing archival images of her title character, from around 1978 (when the 17-year-old Basquiat was going around with Al Diaz, spraying “SAMO”-tagged messages on buildings and infrastructure), to 1980–81, when Basquiat first made paintings that were meant to hang on a wall rather than cover it. Slender, beautiful, and apparently all business, the artist-in-development is more than the subject of Boom for Real; he’s the film’s chief presence.
And yet he’s the chief absence as well, since the footage of him is silent and ghostly. That’s a clue to the other side of Driver’s balance. She loves Basquiat and his milieu in themselves, but she also sees them as the product of outside forces: from the white flight and economic dislocation that had ripped through broad swaths of New York (as mentioned in President Ford’s so-called “drop dead” speech in 1975, excerpted on the soundtrack) to the graffiti art, rap music, and break dancing that flourished in the Bronx and were imported to Lower Manhattan by Fred Brathwaite, the Sol Hurok of hip-hop culture. Brathwaite was instructive even for Basquiat, whom he tutored in bebop history. (At the time, Basquiat was devoting himself to playing clarinet in a noise band, when not slathering paint over any object within reach.) But, more generally, Brathwaite helped diversify a downtown scene that had intuited that, as curator Diego Cortez tells Driver, “the Age of the White Male was already over.”
Enter the master graffiti artist Lee Quiñones. Interviewed by Driver in his present-day studio and seen in footage from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 feature Wild Style, Quiñones functions in Boom for Real as a kind of alternate-universe figure: the man Basquiat might have become if he hadn’t made it big in the high-end galleries and museums but survived into a productive middle age. Quiñones comes before the camera with a calm and thoughtful demeanor: by any reasonable standard a successful painter of historic significance, confident of his merit, proudly Nuyorican, and above all alive. But that wasn’t what Basquiat wanted, any more than he wanted to make a name by painting subway cars. (He learned from the graffiti artists, but despite his “SAMO” period he never really was one himself.) As one after another of Driver’s subjects testify, Basquiat was determined to achieve greatness, with all its benefits.
Boom for Real ends at the moment when the 20-year-old Basquiat got his wish, taking off in his career with such speed and power that Driver illustrates the effect with a rocket launch. She is not concerned with what came afterward: the escalating prices, critical disputes, and untimely death. What matters to her is that Basquiat lifted off, and in so doing raised to glory the whole amorphous clique in which he’d lived. Many commentators speak of his art as an assertion of blackness in a white-dominated art world. To Driver, though, his paintings are important because they condense everything that she and her friends were watching, listening to, and doing. Think what you will of the insularity and snobbism of the downtown crowd. Basquiat, more than anyone, made good on its boast of having become a culture.
That’s all over, of course. The streets where Basquiat scuffled are now lined with pricey restaurants and boutique hotels. The paintings belong to those who can pay $110 million at auction (hammer price plus buyer’s premium). When you watch Boom for Real, though, all that disappears for a few moments, and the lost downtown Bloomsbury swims into view. No, not everybody was there, or wanted to be—but how marvelous it is, to be able still to visit.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in New York: The immigrant Mexican laborers in Jim McKay’s En el Séptimo Día pedal around Brooklyn delivering food, clean vegetables in corner delis, mop the floors of porn-video stalls, or hawk cotton candy in Times Square. Those are their days. At night, they cook for each other and then sleep jammed into an apartment that six or seven of them share. Or maybe eight; the guy who finds them jobs and collects the rent is liable at any moment to show up with somebody who just came off the bus from El Paso and will now occupy his own slice of the floor. It’s summer 2016, according to a title at the start of the movie—not a good time for immigrants whose papers aren’t in order, though not as bad as it was going to get. But the characters in McKay’s sparkling fable have things to worry about beyond Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These roommates have formed their own soccer team (the jerseys say “Puebla” but might as well read “Apartment 3B”), and with just one week to go before the league final, they’re short a man.
Part De Sica, part Loach, and all Brooklyn, En el Séptimo Día is principally the story of José (Fernando Cardona), the apartment’s leading scorer and mainstay of the bicycle delivery team at a Sunset Park restaurant that aspires to white tablecloths. Trim, slope-shouldered, and oval-faced, he’s everybody’s low-key Mr. Reliable: the guy who is last to leave for practice (because he’s been in church, praying for the team) and the first to step forward to ease problems with the boss. On Monday, though, José runs into a labor issue he can’t negotiate. The restaurant’s slick young Anglophone owner (Christopher Gabriel Núñez) tells him with the blandness of unchallengeable authority that he’s needed on the coming Sunday, the day of the league final. No substitute or excuse will be accepted—it’s show up or lose his job.
Now the team’s at risk of being short by two—and Mr. Reliable, who wants to please everyone, doesn’t know what to do or how to tell his buddies.
Premised on a single though multilayered workaday problem, filmed on location, and cast almost entirely with nonprofessional performers recruited in Sunset Park, En el Séptimo Día plays out day-by-day with the unfussy integrity you’d expect of neorealism. Every detail seems as solid and dependable as José himself, and the actors (an array of vivid, unforced personalities) look and feel at home in whatever they do. But as McKay understands, there’s more to neorealism than negativity: the rejection of artifice, the outcry against injustice. The tradition can also affirm the resilience, humor, and even charm of its characters—which En el Séptimo Día does so generously that it gave me more pleasure than any film I’ve seen in a while.
Much of that pleasure comes from sheer visual satisfaction, prompted by the joy that cinematographer Charles Libin finds in every street corner, walk-up apartment, and stretch of public park. When José interrupts his deliveries to phone his lover back in Puebla—his pregnant lover, whom he needs to bring to New York without delay—he tells her something you’ve been thinking yourself, that it’s a beautiful day in the city. José may have paused for this call under a lane of trees near an industrial waterway, but it’s the freshest, calmest, most glistening industrial waterway you’ve ever seen.
To get this kind of cinematography, which releases the inner light of things rather than imposing a vision on them, it helps to have a director with McKay’s crisp, self-effacing style. To cite just one of the thousands of decisions he’s made: Look at the scene where the members of the soccer team first appear, loaded with gear as they clatter one by one down a staircase in their apartment building. McKay has positioned the camera on the staircase itself, on a low step, to emphasize a sense of narrowness, crowding, and high spirits, as a seemingly endless stream of players pours down from the landing.
The deepest satisfaction of En el Séptimo Día comes from these characters, these comrades, as they improvise a piecemeal scheme to rescue their championship hopes and José’s self-respect. He has struggled quietly with himself throughout the movie; he has listened to reasonable people advise him that no soccer match is worth his future in the United States with his lover and their child. On the other hand, the people he plays with are more than just teammates; they’re his sustainers, his community—and he’s really good at this game. When the tension is released at last and the dilemma’s put to rest (you can’t really call it resolved), McKay does not cheat on the darker implications of the story. But like the rest of the film, the culminating image is radiant: a close-up of José smiling in the soft, late-afternoon light.
En el Séptimo Día has been knocking around the festival circuit for about a year, having started its tour, appropriately enough, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It goes into general release in early June, which means you can now watch it without having to search for a special screening. All you’ll get is a special experience.
The Catalan filmmaker Carla Simón has been on the festival circuit, too, with her autobiographical Summer 1993, winner of the award for Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. Don’t let the prize put you off: “Autobiography,” combined with “first feature,” can spell trouble for juries, which are too often tempted to reward the emotionally overwrought and stylistically flashy. Simón, though, has made a blessedly subtle film, which despite a core of terrible loss unfolds with the gentle patience of someone unwrapping a gauze bandage.
“Why aren’t you crying?” are almost the first words spoken to the point-of-view character, tousle-haired 6-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas), as she plays in the nighttime city streets. A fireworks celebration is in progress, while upstairs, in a small apartment, Frida’s relatives are packing boxes for an imminent departure. Straight-faced, dry-eyed, Frida lets herself be put into a van, clutching a doll as well as the half-remembered words of a prayer that she’s been told will keep her close to her mother.
When she wakes up the next morning, she’s at her new home: a farmhouse in the hilly, forested countryside. Though no one spells out the situation, it’s soon enough clear that Frida is now in the care of her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marga (Bruna Cusí), a handsome young couple whose informal but polished manners and artistic tendencies suggest they’re back-to-the-land types. From the first, they’re warm, generous, and accommodating toward Frida, but she’s having none of them, or of their little daughter Anna (Paula Robles), for whose benefit Frida explains the name and origin of each of her dolls while insisting they must never be touched.
There’s something unburdening about spending time with a cold, angry, watchful little girl. She’s not asking for your sympathy, and when it comes to trying to amuse her, as you would with an easier kid, the pressure’s off. Summer 1993 gives you the imaginative distance to sit back in freedom and observe, as you do in the film’s many shots that trail along behind Frida. That said, Marga isn’t privileged to sit in the audience. She has volunteered to make an effort and has been deputed to do it as well, and you feel for her, as her frustration gradually comes into the open. Frida is trouble herself and makes trouble with Anna, while Esteve, who’d rather play his guitar than take a stand, is worse than useless. You sense Marga needs a breakthrough; but you also understand you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who does not traffic in cheap catharsis.
And yet this modest, quiet, deeply felt movie comes through in the end. Frida lets herself smile. Marga gets her crucial—if unacknowledged—moment of acceptance. And Esteve, with his usual good-hearted inadvertence, sets off the tears. Just enough of them; just in time.