Written by: Media Maiden, Special to CC2K
For those of us that lived and worked around Manhattan in the early 1980s, who could forget the East Village: a thriving, dirty, underdeveloped area that bordered Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park and Canal Street. It was an area that had no appeal whatsoever, unless you had a penchant for trash sprawled on asphalt, and block after endless block of used clothing and record stores, small seedy bars, and bodegas.
As a neighborhood that changed from one avenue to the next, day-by-day and through the years, the East Village is a tempting spot for filmmakers to try to recapture the essence of a cultural phenomenon. Directors who had vision and creativity like Susan Seidelman were successful in bringing to light the mood and depth that was inherent in the area, apparent in both her first feature Smithereens and her later groundbreaking Desperately Seeking Susan.
One recent film which tried to revive 80s East Village cinema is 200 Cigarettes, a small gem of a film with a good cast, made in 1999 by Risa Bramon Garcia and written by Shana Larsen. Though a first-time director, Garcia was no newcomer to the film industry, having been a casting director for many years, coincidentally landing Madonna her first film role with Desperately Seeking Susan.
At the heart of 200 Cigarettes is Monica, a wacky, lovable hostess played fabulously by Martha Plimpton. Monica lives in a large cavernous apartment in the East Village in 1981, and on the night in question, throws a New Year’s Eve party for all her friends. Through the course of the film, these friends experience minor to major conflicts they attempt to resolve as they work their way from early evening (when the movie begins), to their arrival at the party.
Courtney Love and Paul Rudd are engaging – and at times painful – to watch as best friends killing time in a diner and a bar until the party starts. He is your typical handsome but confused and angst-ridden guy still hung up on his ex (Janeane Garofalo), while she spars/ pushes /pulls away because she is afraid of getting hurt – and for good reason. The two engage in heavy-handed dialogue that at times borders on the ridiculous – and yet, there is something in the cold New Year’s Eve air pushing these two together that makes it all believable.
Val and Stephie, played by Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffman, are the most amusing and hysterical, if not authentic, set of characters in the film. Val is Monica’s heavily-accented gum chewing teenage cousin from Ronkonkoma, Long Island, determined at all costs to go to this party with her best friend Stephie to meet older guys and have a real Manhattan adventure away from the eyes of their parents. Smart-mouthed, brassy and fearless, she pretends not to have the time or know when the last train home leaves Penn Station, placing them both in the perilous position of spending the night in the big, bad city. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that Val has misplaced the piece of paper with Monica’s address, making it next to impossible for them to find the party, or a place to spend the night.
Along the way, as they walk in the East Village, they befriend two teen boys deftly played by Casey Affleck and Guillermo Diaz. The foursome engage in some very funny conversation, most notably by Hoffman’s Stephie as she tries to navigate her way through slam-dancing punk rock speak while maintaining whatever is left of her sanity.
Then there is the uninteresting, narcissist Jay Mohr and the temporarily pristine and beautiful Kate Hudson. It seems that she has inexplicably chosen this man to pop her cherry, and he is fascinated with understanding why. She is nervous at the start of the night, and over the course of arguably her worst-ever New Year’s, she grows increasingly less enchanted with Prince Charmless. The more he talks, the less she likes what she sees, and so do we.
Meanwhile, we also enjoy the antics of two women, Bridget and Kaitlin, who arrive early in the film with the help of what I can only refer to as enlightened disco cabbie Dave Chappelle, who smokes and dispels advice as he tokes. Bridget, we discover, would rather go out with the bartender (drolly played by Ben Affleck) than her current boyfriend Eric, so she tells Eric that she is dumping him. Bereft and hysterical at getting dumped on New Year’s, Eric goes over to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment for comfort. Want to guess who the ex-girlfriend is? You guess it – Monica.
The last thing Monica wants to contend with is an ex-boyfriend who was apparently the worst sex partner in history. He is an artist, has a great accent and is cute in a nerdy, self-deprecating way. But he talks non-stop (something like a Scottish Woody Allen in an alternate universe), and by the time he reaches her apartment she is half-drunk because it is almost nine o’clock and nobody has shown up for the party. But of course, who would show up for a New Year’s Eve Party at nine o’clock in the East Village? Answer– nobody.
He begins talking and complaining, and asks her what about him is so bad that women are driven away. As she gets progressively drunker, she debates whether or not to tell him how terrible he is in the sack. Without giving anything away, let’s just say the results are very funny.
A word about structure. Nothing gets resolved until the very end of the movie. The director chooses to cut and splice her way from one group of characters to the next, weaving the story so that we see the connections, for example, between Kaitlin and Monica, who share the same ex-boyfriend. As the story unfolds, we watch one set of characters after another, forward and back again until the end when, everybody successfully makes it to the party. I don’t want to spoil your fun, so I won’t reveal anything else, but the ultimate end to their journey is hilarious and ingenious, not to mention creatively brilliant.
However, as much as I enjoyed this movie, there were parts that made me cringe. For starters, I did not care for the Bridget/ Kaitlin/ Ben Affleck triangle, or the Hudson/ Mohr set at all. Hudson/Mohr especially could have been eliminated altogether and the film would have worked just as well. Nor did I see the point in the petty arguing Bridget and Kaitlin engaged in over guys, which annoyed me to no end. But when I look at the big picture and the way the film made me feel (not to mention the big goofy smile I am sure it put on my face), I am willing to overlook all this. What can I say – I am a sucker for 80s cinema, particularly 80s Manhattan cinema, and as such I loved this movie.
Some could argue that this film could just as easily have been made in another big city in 1981 and you would never have known the difference. So…another big city, say Boston in 1981…nope…. It wasn’t the same, guys. There’s no place like New York City. Click your heels three times and say, “There’s no place like New York City.”
Unfortunately there is nothing the director can do to bring back the storefronts of yesteryear, because the East Village of 1981 is gone. That is why there were so few live-action store and street shots in 200 Cigarettes. Short of commanding the sort of large budget that movies like this typically can’t summon, the director made do with what she had by focusing on the characters and indoor shots, to compensate for what’s just not there anymore. Even the script addressed this; the piece has a definite indoor milieu, so it feels more like an intimate play than it does a movie that requires exterior shots for authenticity.
Nonetheless, insofar as I am concerned, this is a great film with a great message -the 80s aren’t gone or forgotten anywhere. They still live on inside us, and despite all the crises we had back then (and there were a lot!!) we managed to survive– see – we’re here to attest to that.
Thank you, Ms. Garcia, for this wonderful film. I am a big fan.