Just two months ago, Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side finally opened. For the unfamiliar, imagine: towering glass structures, boutique stores, and luxury apartments. This, the Hudson Yards website declares is “a template for the future of cities.” But for whom and at what cost? Reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Ada Calhoun’s St. Marks is Dead, it’s easy to glamorize yesterday’s New York City. One could seemingly subsist on a few dollars a day, drinking coffee and making art. The obverse, and what’s less frequently spoken about, was the constant danger of muggings, beatings, and drugs. Still, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to live in New York City should one not work in, say, investment banking. Michael M. Bilandic’s Happy Life (2011) traces this disappearing landscape. It’s the year 2009 and rave culture has been dead for nearly two decades. Tom McCaffery plays Keith, the schlub owner of New York Tunez, a techno record store struggling to make ends meet. In a last-ditch effort, he rallies together a rave charity event spun by the legendary DJ Liquidz (Gilles Decamps). Bilandic’s script is too cynical to ever truly believe that New York Tunez can be saved from the forces of gentrification. Happy Life isn’t without sincerity however. Keith is heckled not only for his own lackluster skills as a DJ but also for his belief in rave-culture. He is, however, given support by his Staten Island-dwelling parents, who are so far removed from his world, but still care anyway. More touching is when Keith ambles into a store and is joined by the owner in an impromptu musical session on the finger drums and flute. Keith has just been laughed out of two stores for wanting to place the flier of his charity event, but here, he finds solace if only briefly.
Hellaware (2013) is Bilandic’s appropriate follow-up to Happy Life. If Happy-Life situates itself in a pre-gentrified millennial New York City, Hellaware takes place within this millennial world—Bushwick, Brooklyn. Who better to star then than Keith Poulson, who plays Nate, a young, scrappy photographer. After stumbling onto a group of goth rappers online, Nate convinces a friend to drive him down to Delaware to photograph the young juveniles. The meeting between young and “old” is awkward, clumsy, and all the more funny for it. Bilandic whose films are on tight budgets still manages to compose impressive images by way of the great and dexterous Sean-Price Williams. But, the strength of Bilandic’s films arise from his caustic wit and the sharp delivery from his actors who seem both methodical and improvisational. Hellaware is the film Velvet Buzzsaw wished it could be. Bilandic is a director that has only now come to my attention thanks to Spectacle’s recent retrospective, but it’s no surprise that he’s part of the same circle of artists as Alex Ross Perry, Nathan Silver, and Ricky D’Ambrose. To that extent, Hellaware wryly mocks the current hipster zeitgeist strangling Brooklyn. Nate, for all his talk of authenticity, is perhaps the most inauthentic person of them all. Hellaware begins with Nate railing against a fellow artist and the audience that praises him, yet Nate’s friends rightly point out Nate hasn’t produced any work of his own. Once that threshold is crossed, however, Nate, embarrassed by the working-class aesthetic of his subjects, shuns them from the very gallery opening they helped to concoct. Righteousness follows quickly, but Bilandic withholds from any sort of finger-pointing or didactism. Instead, Happy Life revels in its chaotic finale, and a devilish punchline.