Houdini-style escape artists, street magicians, fetish performers and other urban adventurers try to handle the angst of life on the Lower East Side in "Escape Artists."
By JOSHUA TANZER
"Escape Artists" is more existence-driven than event-driven. Populated by some highly distinctive characters on the Lower East Side, the movie is about personalities, surroundings, look and style. The atmosphere is the plot. It's, uh, plotmosphere.
Written and directed by: Michael Laurence.
Cast: Tatiana Abbey, Alene Dawson, George Demas, Peter Dinklage, Lee Dobson, Donna Germain, Josh Hamilton, Nina Hellman, Kevin Kuhlke, Michael Laurence, Edgar Oliver, Marc Palmieri, Eric Roemele, Anna Thomson, Rebecca Wisocky, Mary Lou Wittmer.
Cinematography: Elia Lyssy.
Edited by: Michael Laurence, Michiel Pilgram.
Music by: Marcelo Zarvos.
Anthology Film Archives 32 Second Ave. (at Second Street) September 21, 2005
The ensemble is led by writer-director Michael Laurence as Gabriel Grey, a not-quite homeless magician who's been warned that his spooky nature and questionable hygiene make him "not good family entertainment." His landlord, while settling up the back rent with him, offers some friendly advice:
"You could be working Las Vegas, Gabriel. They'd give you a nice room in a casino hotel. Someone would clean up after you, make your bed."
"I hate Vegas," Gabriel says. "It's degrading."
"You're not degraded here?" the landlord retorts.
He's probably right — "degraded" is, perhaps, the whole point of the movie. The loose circle of people around Grey are all involved in some combination of sex performance, fetishism, rogue fashion, panhandling, and simple groping around for love. They do street magic and Houdini-style escape stunts or, depending on gender, stripping and domination, for petty cash. These people are destitute and a little desperate, but from the point of view of the film, fundamentally they're the adventurers of the world.
But life is not all adventure in the "Escape Artists" world. In fact, living on the edge is accompanied by a steady state of static dreariness. These folks' passions and their experiences are expressed through their inner lives — not through any engagement with a larger culture. They tend to exist in lonely ones and temporary twos, interacting in limited ways, sometimes literally hiding themselves behind masks and costumes and their own standoffish personalities.
Perhaps an atomized life is what the filmmaker truly wanted to show; if so, he succeeded. But this loosest of ensembles also fails to draw us into the subculture it is meant to represent, because culture is absent. Not every New York tribe has to be "Seinfeld," granted, but the theme of "Escape Artists" is the spectacle of isolated individuals not making it. If that's the kind of drama you respond to, as inherently limited as it is, you've got it.
SEPTEMBER 27, 2005
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