Shadowman (Tribeca 2017)

Shadowman (2017)

Oren Jacoby’s Tribeca documentary Shadowman looks at the vibrant New York street art scene through the life and work of graffiti artist Richard Hambleton. Along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Hambleton became representative of the gritty energy of emerging street art as he painted over the streets of the Lower East Side with his famous “Shadowman” paintings. The stark, ghost-like paintings that appeared on walls and buildings around New York City were calculated to produce the maximum effect on the viewer, interacting with and informing on the urban landscape. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Hambleton survived the epidemics of disease and drugs that decimated the scene, instead vanishing suddenly at the apex of his fame. Through talking head interviews, copious archival footage, and contemporary chronicles, Shadowman paints itself through the 1980s and into the current period, following Hambleton’s strange and meandering path around (and on) the Manhattan streets.

Shadowman presents itself as a window into the gritty, wild, energetic art scene of the Lower East Side, as well as a more personal look into the enigmatic nature of Hambleton himself. Though his studio art was valued at a higher rate than Basquiat’s, Hambleton is not the household name of his contemporary. Some of this is a result of the latter’s personality: Arrogant and self-destructive, Hambleton falls out the bottom of the scene as he increasingly refuses to engage in the branding and sale of himself as a commodity. His drug addiction and connected problems further alienate him from those who try to help him when he stops being dependable. He’s used by friends, who take advantage both of his drug addiction and his desperation; he makes agreements with gallery owners and enthusiasts only to renege on them for no clear reason.

What Hambleton—and, by extension, Shadowman—grapples with is the notion of public art when it becomes mainstream, and the ever-present dichotomy of artists needing to survive while at the same time avoiding selling out to a market. By any stretch, Haring and Basquiat sold out, choosing to play the art world game, branding their work for mass consumption. Hambleton didn’t, moving from his Shadowman paintings to an obsession with the Marlboro Man in his studio art, and finally to the “beautiful paintings” that he produced as he became more involved with drugs and eventual homelessness. Owners of Hambleton paintings recall being asked by gallery owners if “Richard is still alive,” knowing that his art will increase in value the moment he dies.

As the film proceeds, Hambleton becomes more, not less, enigmatic. He’s “rediscovered” by several gallery owners and patrons in quick succession, but he’s erratic, unwilling to declare pieces finished despite constant deadlines. He’s found living on the street, in abandoned gas stations, or in flophouses with prostitutes and drug dealers, trading paintings for a meal or drug money. When he’s rediscovered yet again, he’s sick with skin cancer (for which he refuses to get treatment), his back twisted by scoliosis, his body and mind damaged by years of drug abuse. He’s finally offered the opportunity to open his own show, and to once again make enough money to get himself out of the vicious cycle he’s lived in since the mid-eighties. But Hambleton continues to resist commodification, even when it’s in his own best interests. Yet his rejection of commodification isn’t particularly represented as political—it’s rather his inability to do anything except produce art, even to the detriment of his body. He produces art because he must.

Simultaneously tragic and honorable is Hambleton and his total unwillingness to compromise. It would be easy to categorize him as the artist fallen low, or to try to paint his arc into a redemption narrative. But what Shadowman hammers home, intentionally or not, is that life does not fit into comfortable narratives, and that even artists might not fully understand, or be able to articulate, the reasons behind their work. Like his surprising, frightening shadows, now no doubt painted over and subsumed beneath gentrification, Hambleton remains. As the film closes, he becomes a living embodiment of the old New York, a shadow, a reminder of the city’s violent, beautiful, and tragic past, and the people who lived it. There’s something deeply artistic about that.

Shadowman is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Off The Rails (2016)

Off The Rails (2016)

*Streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.

off-the-rails

This year has seen a preponderance of excellent documentaries, as no doubt the Oscar race will attest. Many have been all-too-topical, as increasing police violence, hate crimes, and the divide between the rich and poor ever widens. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails joins Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Andrew Cohn’s Night School in an examination of the intersection of poverty, race, and perceived criminality, this time through the singular life and more singular crimes of Darius McCollum.

McCollum’s story is an odd one: born and raised in Queens, he became increasingly fascinated by the New York transit systems, especially the subway, as an escape into the calming world of schedules and time tables that contrasted with the uncertainty of his life above-ground. Transit workers favored him with tours and lessons on the intricate workings of the system, increasing his fascination and plunging him deeper in an obsession. When he was fifteen, McCollum wound up accidentally commandeering a subway train when a transit worker left him in charge. He safely made all the stops along the route until he was caught and arrested. Thus began a so-called “life of crime,” which resulted in his being jailed 32 times for impersonating transit officials and stealing trains and buses. McCollum became what he refers to as a “volunteer” in the MTA, attending trade union meetings, working for workers’ rights, and even successfully impersonating a superintendent. He’s spent twenty-three years in a maximum security facility, despite never injuring anyone.

If ever there was a criminal who shouldn’t be in prison, it’s Darius McCollum. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, though this made little difference to the municipal authorities or the DA’s office. His crimes, while potentially dangerous, are victimless: despite commandeering hundreds of subway trains and buses, McCollum has never injured anyone, and, according to the film, has even been responsible for helping people in crisis. His passion for the MTA is real; his love for it unique among workers. Yet he’s never been employed by the MTA, who views him as a danger and an embarrassment. The news media refers to him as “joy-riding” on trains, labelling him “notorious,” a “transit bandit,” as though his crimes are entirely self-serving and constitute public endangerment.

The film spends most of its runtime in examining McCollum’s character and obsession, conducting long interviews with him, his mother, attorneys, social workers, and psychiatrists. A picture emerges of a bright, capable boy who took to the transit system as a world in which things made sense: trains run on a schedule, there are rules and regulations, structure. Because of his very public arrests, McCollum was barred from working for the MTA (he applied to them twice and was rejected both times). As his crimes mounted up, the MTA continued to decline to employ him. His lack of comfort and direction in life only made him retreat more to the place where things made the most sense, stealing more trains and resulting in a cycle that landed him in increasingly secure facilities until he was imprisoned at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.

But although the film takes McCollum as a very special case, his experience exposes the severe failings of a criminal justice system that is incapable of dealing with a man like him: someone whose crimes are strange, non-violent, and largely non-threatening. Judges refuse to take his Asperger’s into account; he’s left in prison for years awaiting trial; he’s given little social or economic support once he does emerge from prison. Now in his fifties, he’s never held a regular job, never paid rent, never supported himself. Despite a small support network of attorneys, social workers, his mother, and an Imam who worked in his prison, McCollum continues to return to the same behavioral pattern, unable to break the cycle by himself and evidently without the extensive support and therapy that he needs. The system has rejected him, preferring to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and imprisoning him rather than trying to help and understand his problems and find a solution. It is a spectacular failure of the justice system that a non-violent criminal, a man who has never harmed anyone, has spent so much time behind bars.

Off the Rails has a few weaknesses. As McCollum falls in and out of jail, the story itself takes on a cyclical structure, which does become a bit wearing nearing the end. There are also gaps in the narrative: interviews with psychiatrists and Asperger’s advocates are featured, but it’s never explained how long or how often they’ve worked with McCollum, or if they’re simply there as authorities on Asperger’s. The film doesn’t really address the spectacular failure of a transit system with such lax security that someone without licensing or official training can operate a transit vehicle – a brief scene at the MTA bus depot shows that McCollum, or anyone, would easily be able to just drive off with a bus. Brief sequences of animation, as McCollum compares himself to Superman, fall flat and have an edge of unintentional mockery.

But any failings that Off the Rails has falls flat in light of the sorrowful and slightly hopeless story. The film sheds a clear light on the failings of the justice system in the United States, the way in which people are labeled criminals, and the needs for mental health support and therapy. By focusing on a unique story, the film manages to open up a narrative of injustice that spreads far wider than Darius McCollum. If the system has failed him, it has failed thousands of others like him.  We see a justice system that doesn’t seem to want to rehabilitate or help prisoners, but to lock them up, throwing away their lives because they do not fit into prescribed social order. Darius McCollum has been wronged, and the justice system doesn’t seem to care.

Off the Rails is streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.