Critics usually talk about Charlie Ahearn’s WILD STYLE (1983, filmed 1981/82) as a documentary of the moment when hiphop made contact with with the dominant, “downtown” culture, shortly before hiphop became dominant culture, in America and worldwide. Vincent Canby’s 1983 NYT review sets the tone by laboriously, and very whitely, explaining graffiti, rapping (“Like good calypso, good rapping is a mixture of the primitive, sophisticated and topical”), and breaking. But unlike more recent, retrospective reviews, Canby takes the plot seriously. Here’s how it looks to him:
The slight narrative of ”Wild Style” is about Raymond (Lee George Quinones), a skinny, outwardly mild-mannered Bronx teen-ager by day and, by night, the notorious “Zorro” [sic], a celebrated but unidentified spray-paint artist for whom every subway car is an empty canvas. Raymond scorns his fellow graffiti artists who turn their talents to legitimate, commissioned murals on the walls of playgrounds and business establishments….
”Wild Style” also has a slight love story involving Raymond and Rose Lady Bug (Sandra Pink Fabara), a spray-paint muralist who brings Raymond back to his senses when he takes his art too seriously.
Others, understandably overwhelmed by Wild Style‘s documentary importance, call the plot “inconsequential,” “slight,” or “almost non-existent” (here, here, and here). They also might have called it a total mess: Raymond’s brother has come back unexpectedly from the military, threatens him with a gun, and…nothing else happens; despite the long build, the story of the white reporter (played by Patti Astor) goes nowhere; the downtown party with the white art dealers, when you think you’re witnessing the birth of another Basquiat, just happens, with no consequence; and the conniving promoter Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) never seems to rip off anyone.
These are dead plots; or they’re narratives that just don’t matter. Ahearn, more or less deliberately, has set us up to expect a certain kind of movie about art. We expect the story of the artist who “makes it big” by getting in with the rich people, or we expect this to be a tragedy in which the artist, on the verge of getting big, is drawn back into the streets, gunning for the man who cheated him and the girl who dumped him or getting gunned down by his own brother.
We expect a movie that, like several, other, shittier films about art (eg, The Horse’s Mouth) concerns a man versus the world. After all, Lee Quinones’s Raymond goes by “Zoro,” a name that’s the signature, and, in being a signature that hides the artist, also a “Zero,” a cipher. Raymond prefers to work alone (in fact, Quinones himself refused–wisely!–to let Ahearn film him painting in the subway yards). He does take his art seriously, and he thinks of himself as a lone man against the world. Meanwhile, it’s not that Rose Lady Bug doesn’t take her art, or his, “too seriously,” but rather that she works in a group, for groups, for her “community” (as she says); and she wants to make legitimate money doing so.
That‘s the central conflict: Zoro wants to work alone, anonymously, as a pure artist, and Rose Lady Bug, an artist herself, doesn’t think that doing art separates her from her world of friends, obligations, and fun.
Here’s where the conflict’s resolved, when Zoro hits a creative wall while preparing the East Side Amphitheater for the film’s big concert climax:
RAYMOND: I’m trying to paint this figure in the middle, and it’s not even coming out right. I’ve already got the hands on the side, like the hands of doom, and they’re representing the city, and the environment around this artist. And what I’m trying to draw is the artist in the middle. And he’s like–like–he’s like painting all by himself in his own world and whatnot. He don’t care about nobody around him, and that’s what the hands are–everybody around him.
ROSE LADY BUG: Yeah? Who is this character? That’s Zoro, right? That’s you.
RAYMOND: Who told–What gave–Who gave you that idea?
ROSE LADY BUG: Come on, man. I been knowing it for a long time that was you.
RAYMOND: That’s ridiculous.
ROSE LADY BUG: You just didn’t trust me. You didn’t tell me about them things, so I’m going to tell you now. I’m also going to tell you I don’t like your mural. I don’t like the idea.
RAYMOND: Just get outta here. I don’t care.
ROSE LADY BUG: No, hell no. I’m just telling you the truth. All right? “Zoro this, Zoro that.” We don’t want to hear about it. You’re only worried about Zoro. Concentrate on what the whole thing is about. It’s a jam. Rappers are going to be coming down. They’re going to be the stars of this thing, not you! Damn man.
RAYMOND: That’s an idea.
ROSE LADY BUG: Idiot.
RAYMOND: You know, that’s a hell of an idea. You did it! That’s beautiful!
And that’s it. Raymond gives up on his artistic isolation. He listens to his sometimes girlfriend, who’s no cipher, no mere muse (unlike Helen Mirren in Age of Consent, as bad an art film as The Horse’s Mouth), but rather an artist herself and a critic and organic intellectual, who–with all due respect to Vincent Canby–does take this stuff seriously.
Wild Style‘s last shot of Raymond has him sitting on top of the amphitheater during the concert, in complete ecstasy over its success. He’s above the performers, loving their work, loving the crowd, but also invisible to the crowd, who, like Raymond, are just dancing and loving the Gesamtkunstwerk of this community.
And with that, the myth of the tormented, alienated male artist dies.
For more, watch the film or read Ed Piskor’s superb comic and read this short, sweet article on the 30th anniversary reunion at the Lower East Side amphitheater. And definitely read this Bill Benzon piece on graffiti over at 3 Quarks.