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'Downtown 81' at Metrograph showcases NYC of the early '80s

Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988,

Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988, appears in "Downtown '81," which will be screening at Metrograph. Photo Credit: Metrograph Pictures/Edo Bertoglio.

A time portal is opening in lower Manhattan. And it’s only the price of a movie ticket.

New York’s most stylish repertory cinema, Metrograph, has begun a distribution line. In addition to newer indies and docs acquired on the festival circuit, it is re-releasing overlooked classics that just make sense. To that end, welcome to the world a new 35 mm print of “Downtown 81,” the once-lost snapshot of the underground art/music/film scene featuring the Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died at the age of 27.

Directed by Swiss photographer Edo Bertoglio, art direction by Maripol (the French fashionista credited with creating Madonna’s look) and produced by “TV Party” impresario and Warhol Factory-alum Glenn O’Brien, it’s fair to say that “Downtown 81” isn’t a typical “movie” movie. Is there a plot? No, not really. It’s mostly about a guy walking around, checking out clubs, saying hi to friends, hoping to sell a painting. Yet it is a pure document; it isn’t about the scene, it is part of the scene.

Intended to highlight a diverse array of bands from the era, the budget was so shoestring (lead actor Basquiat was homeless at the time, so he slept in the production office at nights) that it wasn’t ever finished. It was revived for the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. All the dialogue had to be rerecorded, but the music, from the Latin disco of Kid Creole and the Coconuts to the skittish punk of DNA and the Japanese New Wave of The Plastics, was luckily retained. Though she doesn’t sing, Blondie’s Debbie Harry makes an appearance as a kind of fairy godmother at the end.

The film will travel North America, including a second NYC appearance at BAM, following its Metrograph bow at the end of the month. As a run-up, the downtown cinematheque/eatery/bar/bookstore/“place to be seen” is going all-in on the period with “NYC ‘81,” a curated series of 11 features or collected shorts set in the Big Apple from that year. It runs the gamut from mainstream titles you’ve seen on basic cable a hundred times to esoteric treasures. All are worth consideration.

Most similar to “Downtown ‘81” is the fly-on-the-wall documentary “Model,” from the still-kicking 89-year-old Frederick Wiseman. The 129-minute film shows how fashion sausage is made, leaving one agog at just how much work and professionalism it takes to make, say, a 30-second pantyhose commercial.

Two other titles are set in the Garment Center, including the absurd comedy “So Fine,” in which Ryan O’Neal and Jack Warden unintentionally create a sensation with see-through designer jeans. Richard Kiel (James Bond’s foe “Jaws”) is a hulking mob boss who hangs out at an ersatz Studio 54. The other film is Abel Ferrara’s “Ms .45,” a grimy rape-revenge exploitation picture that is either lurid trash or a feminist masterpiece depending on your point of view.

More upbeat is the Dudley Moore/Liza Minnelli romantic comedy “Arthur,” which is every bit as funny as you remember. Moore is perfect as the drunken rich snot who falls in love with outer-borough Minnelli, whom he meets when she’s stealing a tie at Bergdorf’s. Sir John Gielgud’s Oscar-winning role as the bone dry butler (“I’ll alert the media”) and the early ‘80s New York cinematography are a dream.

A little grittier is Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City,” starring Treat Williams, a true story about a cop going against corruption in his own department. Everyone from Jerry Orbach to Bob Balaban to a teenage Cynthia Nixon is in this one.

The most cerebral pick has got to be “My Dinner With Andre,” Louis Malle’s beloved conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. And while technically not shot in New York City, its essence is all over “Escape From New York,” John Carpenter’s dizzying apocalyptic look at Manhattan as an anarchic prison, which, I know, is just Friday evenings at Trader Joe’s.

Times and additional titles can be found at


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