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By David Finkelstein | October 1, 2009

“Captured,” a dynamic and captivating documentary by Ben Solomon and Dan Levin, is a dual portrait of a neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the man obsessed with documenting its history, Clayton Patterson. “You could be anyone you wanted on the Lower East Side,” explains Patterson, talking about the pull of the neighborhood in the 1980s as a place where people came to explore alternative identities: skinhead, gay, artist, junkie. Patterson, a fearless photographer and videographer, is happiest photographing in highly dangerous situations: drug deals, mosh pits, riots. “This is a revolutionary tool. Little Brother is watching Big Brother,” he says of the camcorder, referring to its usefulness as a legal and documentary tool for ordinary people.

Much of the film takes on an elegiac tone, as it emphasizes the way that relentless building of new luxury high-rise buildings is destroying the character of the neighborhood as a haven for personal experimentation. (The film was made before the current fiscal disaster called a halt to the development.) This, of course, only underscores the crucial significance of Patterson’s documentation of this remarkable time and place, a conflux of creativity perhaps only equaled in legend by the stories of Paris between the wars.

We also meet Elsa Rensaa, Patterson’s wife and artistic partner. She defines herself as the person who keeps trying to create a filing system for the immense archive of photos and videotapes. “But I keep failing.” Presumably, she fails not because of her lack of organizational skills, which are formidable, but because of the sheer scale of the material, and the lack of any funding or help.

We see Patterson’s documentations of the highly transgressive behavior which characterized the neighborhood, such as a performance art on stage, biting the head off of a live rodent and then having what looks like an epileptic fit. Patterson takes snapshots of a diverse mixture of whites, latinos, blacks, Ukrainians, and many other ethnicities, from every conceivable class and cultural background. We meet important neighborhood artists such as Jim Powers, who decorated much of the neighborhood lampposts and sidewalks with his tile mosaics.

A transplant from Western Canada, Patterson arrived in the neighborhood in 1979. (Like many of the inhabitants, he went there on an artistic and personal quest.) He ended making a living for much of the time by selling his designer baseball caps, embroidered with skulls and other whimsical, hip symbols. The baseball caps where a way of exporting and selling the culture of the neighborhood in a small, portable form, and they were amazingly successful.

Patterson extensively documented the backstage glamor of the vibrant drag performance scene of the Pyramid Club, and, even more astonishingly, the close and peaceful coexistence of the gays with the macho skinheads, who served as Security for the club. The creative visual explosion of the costumes, wigs, and makeup created by the drag performers is phenomenal to watch. We see as well Patterson’s documentation of the closing of CBGB’s with a show by the Bad Brains. He documents the deadly effects of heroin, AIDS, and poverty. He shows how the squatter movement was a serious attempt to address homelessness, as well as a playground for rebellious kids from the suburbs. He films a community board meeting where anarchists, homeless people, and the yuppies who want to gentrify the neighborhood are all literally screaming at each other and physically attacking each other. Especially impressive to me was the seething hatred of the yuppies, and their drive to completely annihilate the lives of poorer neighborhood residents.

The film’s climax is the police-instigated riot of August 6th, 1988, in which the tent city of homeless people in Tompkins Square Park was attacked. A night-long battle ensued, with the cops actually finally retreating in defeat. Rensaa plays a key support role in documenting the riot, running back and forth to their apartment with newly recharged batteries and fresh videotapes. Apparently, her quieter presence drew no attention from the cops, and she was able to keep taping while the cops argued with and arrested Patterson. The tapes provide graphic evidence of the completely out of control actions of the cops. We also see squatters, at the end of the night, triumphantly trashing the Christadora, one of the first luxury buildings to be created next to the park, and a contentious symbol of gentrification.

Patterson was famously jailed and went on a hunger strike, because of his refusal to turn his tapes over to the City. (He eventually came to an agreement with them, whereby he provided them with copies of the tapes.) His tapes resulted in numerous cops being fired and disciplined for their actions, something that almost certainly would never have occurred without the crucial evidence he had held on to. Patterson was arrested 13 times in the chaos that ensued for the rest of the summer, as the tent city was dismantled, amidst constant confrontations.

The film shows how the Giuliani administration systematically eliminated poor people and radicals, along with drug users, from the neighborhood, paving the way for the complete victory of the rich, which as we know was the fate of the Lower East Side. 9/11 is shown as a key event, transforming a city where the cops “couldn’t shut down a 10 acre park” to one where they can “shut down the entire city,” using the specter of terrorism as an excuse for the loss of civil liberties. In a typical example of Patterson’s ability to get along with absolutely every kind of person, the filmmakers bring a local cop, Patterson’s nemesis for many years, into the archive inside his home, where he shows him the huge collection of photos he has taken of him and the other cops.

In “Captured,” Ben Solomon and Dan Levin do an excellent job of blending video footage, dynamic pans of still photos, talking head interviews, and music, to create an absorbing portrait of the Lower East Side and its documenter.

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