Tales of Two Cities: Talking to the Safdie brothers about Heaven Knows What and privilege and struggle in modern NYC

05/26/2015 7:59 AM |
photo courtesy of Radius

It all began with The Pleasure of Being Robbed, a title that in hindsight perfectly encapsulates what it was like to be young during the Bloomberg years—having fun, going broke. In the movie, released in New York in 2008, Eléonore Hendricks plays a young woman who indulges her curiosity about the lives of others by stealing their stuff: handbags, books, photographs. Generous critics might have seen it as an airy indie fable. But most were unkinder; a headline in the Village Voice called it “A Whimsical Gust of Nothing,” and, in Slant, Nick Schager ended his one-star review by suggesting “the film would be better off being called The Pleasure of Being Shot, with Hendricks on the receiving end of the bullet.”

But I saw something else, something that’s kept me coming back to the Safdie brothers’ work every time they release something new: it wasn’t so much a fable as a parable, a story about New York City and how we live in it now. With its white woman effortlessly robbing us of the things that make us us, stealing the city out from under us, it was, weirdly and allegorically, about gentrification, displacement, development, white return—whatever you want to call the most pressing issue of the last 20 years and the next 20 years, an issue that the Safdies’s subsequent oeuvre has only delved into more deeply.

The brothers—Josh, who lives in Harlem, and Benny, who lives on the Upper West Side, because “Uptown still has a living-city vibe”—make movies about New York like no one else, finding little bits of the old city hidden in plain sight on the streets of the new one, little reminders of the Koch era sneaking into the post-Giuliani landscape like lost time travelers. The people from whom we look away every day are the ones the Safdies turn and point their cameras at, whom they make time for even when their characters won’t. “It’s an onion city,” the brothers write to me by email, “in that the outer layer is always indicative of the many layers beneath it. New York will never be dead because the soul of the city lies in its sidewalks.”

Their latest film, Heaven Knows What, is a perfect example. It’s “Inspired by” a soon-to-be published memoir about drug addiction and homelessness by Arielle Holmes, who also stars. “It’s more ‘based on’ than ‘inspired by,’” Josh writes. “It’s all the same, really. There’d be no film without Arielle and her story. Heaven Knows What is her story. I commissioned her writing. [Cowriter and coeditor] Ronald Bronstein, Benny, [producer] Sebastian [Bear-McClard], we all read her incredibly original writings as they came in. Most times I couldn’t read as fast as she could write! (Granted, I’m a slow reader.) Ronnie and I took her writings and condensed some characters and truncated time, as things always seemed to happen very quickly in her world and in her writings. We just wanted to get at the greater truth. Sometimes to tell the truth, you gotta lie a little.”

The story of how Josh and Arielle met “feels like a Disney film to me at this point,” he writes. It was “while deep in research in the Diamond District. She was there, working as an apprentice for a dealer while moonlighting at a dominatrix club in the 20s and living on the street. I stopped her as she was going into the subway and told her she really caught my attention, and that she should maybe be in this Diamond District film we were trying to do. I didn’t know she was homeless, madly in love with a beautiful crazy person named Ilya, or addicted to dope. I found that out after, during our second meeting. I didn’t know we were gonna make a film together till months into our friendship. I don’t know what drew me to her; you gotta look at what draws one person to another. I became her friend, and she let me into her world. I found an affinity in Arielle and in her friends. It was always now, which in the moment is always exciting. The problem became the curse of the now. With them, there was no future and no past, just drama. I’m a drama addict.”

The resulting movie feels present-tense, with little plot beyond immediate need. It’s a movie about young junkies, and like addiction itself it follows a basic cycle of ever-repeating conflict (how will I get my fix?), resolution (I’m high as fuck!) and conflict (now how will I get my next fix?). It’s a hard-eyed look that eschews sentimentality or theatricality; it’s not sociological—it’s ethnographic (with a nod to film history, as it’s based around the Sherman Square area, a la Panic in Needle Park.) Like the tiles of the mental hospital seen behind the opening credits, covered in a layer of institutional grime no set dresser could so authentically distress, the details give the movie an unfakeable verisimilitude: dirty fingers and bloody cuticles, bad teeth and glassy eyes, malnourished bodies and crushed cigarette butts clearly picked up off the sidewalk.

When I ask where that attention to detail comes from, Josh writes, “When I was a kid and I would draw a scene, I would often add as many details as I could. I liked the effect of feeling them rather than noticing them. When we were kids, our dad filmed us constantly with his camcorder, often focusing on small moments. As a kid, knowing that a camera is a tool for documentation, we’d probably ask ourselves, ‘Why is this moment so important? All I’m doing is combing the carpet with my hands.’”

The authenticity in Heaven Knows What is built in the foreground but also in the margins—with extras and bit players (including the rapper Necro), with familiar locations viewed anew in a different context or from a novel point-of-view. It feels like Kids for the 21st century. That’s one of the many titles the brothers cite when I ask which New York films have influenced them, as well as On the Bowery, Juice, The Cool World, Scorsese—from Taxi Driver to “Life Lessons” to Wolf of Wall Street—Jon Alpert and Spike Lee. “Saturday Night Fever is maybe one of the top 10 films of all time,” they write. “Richard Price always writes NYC with great nuance. I love Bloodbrothers as a great Bronx film… Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy is a great Queens film, as is, of course, Coming to America… James Gray did a great job in Two Lovers and We Own The Night… On the lower-budget side of things, Michael Bilandic’s Happy Life, lensed by Sean Price Williams [who also shot Heaven], captures a great New York.” (That said, they deny the new movie is inherently New York. “If Arielle did not live and breath here, I genuinely believe that Heaven Knows What could have been in any town,” Josh writes.)

“A well-captured city [in a movie] should act as a plane ticket and a felt experience, one without the stress of turbulence and long security lines,” they write. The brothers’ earlier films, Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs (also known as Go Get Some Rosemary), introduced viewers to the city from the point-of-view of its children of privilege. The bad father of the latter was played by Bronstein, director of the Richard Brody-celebrated Frownland (2007) and now a regular Safdie collaborator. His character was a Gen Xer aged out of hipsterdom into parenthood, but acting with startling (if also amusing) entitlement, not just in the way he’d drug or abandon his young children but in the way he abused his city.

I love the scene in which he becomes cross that a mugger (played by Abel Ferrara, a perfect cameo) made him drop his ice cream cones, but even better is another, in which Bronstein takes up tagging, scrawling “DAD” across a doorway, and then can’t believe that the cops who catch him treat him roughly. It’s gentrification in a single scene: the reclamation of a classic urban signifier, recast as anodyne, the watering down of the urban experience into the suburban experience where everything, even Times Square or graffiti, has to be family-friendly—and then the outrage when the old city, in the guise of the NYPD, oozes back up like the slime in Ghostbusters II.

Arielle Holmes, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie; photo by Eleonore Hendricks


The Safdies’ last two films have been about people from the other side of the privilege line, those still struggling in the world their first protagonists took for granted. Lenny Cooke was atypical for them, not only because it was a feature-length documentary and a sports film—about a promising high school athlete whose career unspectacularly fizzled—but because it also used a lot of footage they themselves hadn’t shot. In the context of their filmography, though, the movie helps us transition to Heaven Knows What, whose characters seem to inhabit the city that Lenny Cooke was brought up in: the hard city. Hendricks and Bronstein took whatever they wanted; Cooke had to hustle for it.

Lenny Cooke had the misfortune to be born into the unenviable socioeconomic conditions of 1980s Bushwick (before it became the basin for New Williamsburg’s spillover). The heroes of Heaven Knows What are to some extent more responsible for their lots in life: they’re junkies, not exactly born into this (unless you subscribe to hard determinism). Still, the Safdies make you feel the unforgiving demand that governs their lives; the movie is staged narrative, but it feels like documentary. “Ari says the film feels exactly like what her life felt like then,” Josh writes. “We tried to stick to the facts as much as possible. It’s a true psychodrama in that regard.”

The leads—especially Holmes, but also Buddy Duress, who plays the drug dealer she hooks up with for most of the movie—bring a naturalism to their performances that feels hard-earned. When the characters shout at each other on the streets—and they’re always shouting, melodrama being a side effect of youth and substance abuse—while gathering up their cardboard signs and Duane Reade shopping bags, or while they’re trying to bum Metrocard swipes, you have to stop to wonder: Was I there when they shot this? This all looks so familiar. Our city exists not next to theirs but right on top of it. “New York City just happens to be filled with a romanticism that comes with island-life, and being able to live 1,000 feet from Donald Trump and pay 1,000 times less rent than him,” the brothers write.

We all live on top of each other in the Safdies’ city. My favorite of their movies was barely a movie at all: it was a program of shorts called Buttons that played DUMBO’s now-shuttered reRun Theater in August 2011. I mean shorts: most of the films, shot by the brothers or Alex Kalman (a friend and producing partner whom they met in college), last only seconds, and are verité glimpses of life in Bloomberg’s city: people eating lunch, others riding the subway, a mailman with a radio, flies in an amorous pas de deux—what I once called “a pocket-camera ode to urban amblers and the sights they espy.” It was like they took my favorite parts of their movies—the way they’ll linger on the guy with a hot dog cart—and purified them, unburdened them of the weight of narrative demand. The “buttons” encourage us, like all the Safdies’ work, to keep our eyes and ears open when it’s so easy to tunnel-vision your way through the city. Everything that makes New York interesting enough to be worth living in is happening around your the edges of your senses. All you have to do is turn your head—or, if you’re the Safdie brothers, your camera.