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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005
Art explosions taken to the streets
These days if you call yourself a "bomber" and tell people you plan to go "bombing," odds are that the boys in balaclavas will shove you in a sack and "rendition" you to Guantanamo Bay, where they'll put electrodes on your privates until you squeal like Courtney Love after 48 hours of rehab. But I digress: "Bomb the System," the debut of director Adam Bhala Lough, is about terrorism of the poetic kind, the "bombing" that New Yorkers call applying spray paint to private property.
We're talking graffiti art, yaknowwhaddah'msayn'?
Sure, it's a crime, but therein lies the thrill, the rush. And besides, when it's legal to park a sound truck in front of somebody's home and do a psy-ops on them by blasting the nationalists' hit parade through tinny speakers -- as it is in Japan -- well, where's the crime in prettifying ugly subway cars and gray concrete underpasses with eye-popping murals?
In fact, it's positively civic-minded; as one "bomber" in Lough's film puts it, the moment of epiphany comes when a train full of tired, stressed commuters roll by the same drab sprawl they see everyday and their faces light up at seeing that landscape reclaimed by color and art, by some shadow-slipping bastard who got away with one.
It's that rush that Lough's film captures so well, as it follows a group of young bombers as they experience the joys of making nocturnal, hit-and-run art, and the hassle of being pursued by "the man." Nineteen-year-old Blest (Mark Webber, "Storytelling") and his homeboys, Buk50 (Gano Grills) and Lune (Jade York), have a pretty good thing going as the city's most audacious crew of "taggers." Things turn dark, though, when Lane is grabbed by the anti-vandal police, who put some dents in him and dump him outside the city.
According to Lough, who spoke with The Japan Times during a recent visit to Tokyo, the strongarm tactics of the New York City police seen in the film -- which includes one bomber being forced to spraypaint his buddy -- is no exaggeration.
"All that stuff is based in reality," says Lough. "First-hand accounts, not hearsay. One of the actors in the movie is a graffiti writer who's been arrested 13 times, and he had his head busted open by the cops after he tried to flee. A lot of these guys take matters into their own hands."
The story of "Bomb the System" is familiar to anyone who's seen a "troubled teen" film, be it "The Outsiders" or "Boyz In The 'Hood": a thoughtful teen -- Blest -- is attracted to an exciting subculture, but sees there's no future, as parents and girlfriend constantly remind him. Still, there's always time for one last hit before going straight and legal -- in Blest's case, college or the world of gallery art. Tragedy, of course, beckons.
More interesting is the film's look. Lough professes a liking for the work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle in the films "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels," and it's apparent here, both in its kinetic cinematography and it's hazy, impressionistic look of the city at night. Lough explains that this approach was born of necessity. While New York City Hall -- never a big fan of graffiti -- had granted permits to shoot, these were rescinded about halfway through filming.
"We encountered a lot of problems: numerous graffiti violations, noise complaints, disturbing the peace. We ended up being shut down by the mayor's office," explains Lough. "They basically told us if we continued to shoot we'd be arrested. But at that point, there was no turning back.
"We were forced to finish the film guerrilla style. For the scenes of the kids bombing, there was no set-up. It was just a gaffer with a battery-powered light, the DP [director of photography], me and the actors. They were done on the fly, we either got it or we didn't, and moved on."
Lough also spoke of how Chris Doyle's use of a process known as "stop-printing" came in handy. "It's kind of derived from budgetary constraints," said Lough, "but it becomes very artistic and beautiful. What you do is shoot at only six frames per second, which makes it really fast, sped-up, but it also allows more light to come into the camera, so it allows you to shoot wherever you feel like with no lighting. Then when you print, you print each frame four times. (To match the 24-frame-per-second standard.) So it looks like slow-motion, but it's not more jagged.
"Of course, the big question is how Lough managed to get the graffiti-writing scenes up on screen. The director quickly admits that this was the trickiest aspect of the film. "At first we discussed using washable, non-permanent graffiti, but we very quickly ruled it out. It looks cheesy, and the colors don't blend -- they bleed. We also considered using flats, but it looked fake. We realized we were going to have to use real spray paint and it would have to be on the street level.
"We started looking for people who would allow us to paint on their walls, we found a couple of them, but we kept having issues with schedules and locations. So finally we just said, 'F**k it, we're gonna do this for real, and see if we can get away with it."
When asked how he managed to get the film's climactic shot, which involves tagging the Brooklyn bridge, Lough clams up, saying only, "No comment. Our lawyers have advised us not to talk about it."
Graffiti has always flaunted the laws -- indeed, the film shows Blest and his crew stealing their spray-paint, saying no real bomber would buy it -- but it has also produced some great art through its illegality. But coming up with a law that would allow artistic graffiti while outlawing nuisance-tagging is nearly impossible. When asked for his solution, Lough has one suggestion. "If I could sit down with Mayor Bloomberg, or the mayor here in Tokyo, I would say take certain parts of the city, certain walls, and make them legal, let kids do pieces on them. But no mayor would do that, because it would be endorsing it, admitting there was some sort of artistic merit."