There are not enough films about homeless people. When Orwell wrote Down And Out In London And Paris in 1933, he opened a door to a world that’s never really been properly explored. In the post-scarcity society of the industrial West what better way is there to examine the structure, the success and failings of our civilisation than through the eyes of the homeless? There is no greater irony than homelessness in the West -- nothing more fundamentally inappropriate than the presence of large numbers of homeless people in all the major cities of this so called "advanced world." Halfway through What About Me?, we’re presented with real news footage of the infamous Tompkins Square Park Riot that ensued when the police attempted to evict an illegal settlement in the park and ended with them violently assaulting a large number of homeless people and activists. The violence, most of which was caught on camera, never led to any police being charged, and the only people who make an effort to remember the event are the punks who throw a yearly memorial festival.
The major theme of the film is homelessness, a problem which had grown to an unprecedented level by the end of the 80’s. In its very structure the film evokes the unrelenting routine and anecdotal struggle that is the experience of being homeless. The narrative grants an insight into a lifestyle reliant on the whims of strangers and the friction of institutions. This story will strike a familiar chord with anyone who’s ever spent any time without a regular income and place to sleep. I found myself smiling in sly recognition as the two characters wander the streets of the Lower East Side looking for bottles. They discuss what they’ll spend their haul on, filling the time with dreams and plans, smothering the inevitable in the impossible. It invoked in me a deep felt recognition from my own minor flirtation with homelessness - a month spent living from the bottles discarded on Berlin’s Frankfurter Allee, lusting after the 2 euro slices of pizza, and eating the abandoned fries in a nearby Burger King. The verisimilitude of boredom is one of the film’s greatest successes and offers a poinant discourse that matches Orwell’s humanism and empathy.
If the major theme is homelessness, the technique -- the manner in which this film is realised -- is Punk. Punk is idealistic and naive, young and precocious; at its best Punk is the greatest reaction we’ve yet developed to the sleek inhuman efficiency of increasing industrialisation. In music, art or film Punk is the voice of the outsider and, at least in the age before the dogma of hardcore, Punk offered the freedom to be idealistic and have grand aims; professionalism and technique be damned! The film is a who’s-who of the pre-hardcore NYC punk scene, with some mostly underwhelming cameos from the likes of Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan and Dee Dee Ramone (Dee Dee King to you cod rap fans). Performances aside, getting this lot in a film together is an achievement in itself as any connoisseur of the scene will tell you. Richard, Johnny, Dee Dee and Jerry have had their fair share of scrapes, and unfortunately Hell is the last one still breathing. On that note alone, the film is a must see for early NYC Punk fans.
Often b&w screams sub-Godard pretension, but I think the choice serves a very real function here. For one thing, it helps the film escape the fate of colour celluloid which dates quickly and becomes tied to a particular decade, losing some of its potential to carry a portrait or discourse beyond the constraints of period. The lack of colour also endows the characters with a photogenic quality that makes them easy to empathise with, in a similar manner to how b&w is used in La Haine to create empathy with people often pre-judged by society at large.
Similarly, the structure is in many ways anti-dramatic and although it does manage to build empathy with the lead, it doesn’t entirely capitalise on this. The first few scenes contain an uneven proportion of traditionally dramatic events, but this is well managed to realistically reflect the directionless, unending routine of homelessness. Like Scorsese’s underrated gem Bringing Out The Dead (which also makes use of Thunders' singing guitar on the soundtrack) the film is roughly divided into three sections, each one with a different partner for our helpless lead. Circling Tompkins Square Park, these three characters all have a grey morality and their personal aims are obscured. In particular, Nick (Richard Edson) convincingly switches between sympathetic and caring and uncompromisingly selfish, a pendulum of a personality that rings as true as anything ever captured on celluloid. In this film's unique shape, nothing really climaxes and no-one fully realises their intentions, all helping to create a vivid portrait, not only of personal down-and-outery, but of the city and time that spawned such characters.
Amodeo has created a strange beast, and some of the very elements that make the film real and believable also make it less engrossing on a purely dramatic level than most indie films. The characters don’t change, they are stubborn and static -- long ago resigned to their lot in life. The protagonist played by Amodeo herself is frustratingly trusting and apathetic -- perhaps even dim. She’s reluctant to ask for help from the one person who has a reason to offer it without strings, her brother Vito (tenderly portrayed by Thunders who twisted off this mortal coil before the film was finished, which perhaps is why he himself never makes an appearance in NYC). Conversely, she willingly accepts the help of strangers and follows them blindly into situations that more often than not don’t go her way. However, when they do go her way, they do, and the saving moral grace of the film is Hell’s character, who on the surface seems no more trustworthy than the others, but he is. This is for me an important element of the story and the real message of the film: in certain situations when control is taken from you, you have to have faith. However many times it burns you, you have to keep hoping. If you don't, you have no hope at all.