New York City has cleaned up nicely. Gone are the days of a filthy Times Square and squalid 42nd street. Now we have the M&M store, giant neon storefronts, and family friendly chain restaurants. Though the city is now far beyond its dingy history, the cinematic history of trashy films is still a strong memory for New York.
BAG BOY LOVER BOY is a fresh, disturbing film, which aims to expose the next wave of New York’s exploitative underbelly. It does so with a distinct idea of New York’s penchant for destroying the pure and uncorrupted.
The film focuses its gaze on Albert (Jon Wachter), a New York hot dog vendor with no ambition or drive to chase the greater American Dream. He seems fairly content selling hot dogs, suggesting to the audience that this is not a bad thing. He is clearly not very bright, and while I hesitate to make any sort of psychological diagnosis, is it safe to say that he may be missing some major steps in his intellectual development. Less politically correct generations would have euphemistically referred to a man like Albert as “simple.” But Albert generally shows up to work on time and support himself on his earnings, which makes his existence a pleasantly content one. However, when a regular customer catches his eye and flirts with him for free food he begins to realize that there may be things he wants for himself beyond the walls of his hot dog truck.
Coincidently, at the time that Albert begins to want a little more out of life, he meets Ivan (Theodore Bouloukos). Ivan is a successful photographer who is taken by Albert’s unique look. Ivan hires Albert to model for him, but with a bartered agreement. Albert does not seem to be especially impressed by Ivan’s money, so instead he insists that Ivan teach him photography. He knows that a new skill will impress his crush more than a little extra money. When Ivan’s photoshoot turns out to be both a violent and sexual staging, Albert’s lack of social understanding comes to a head and the film’s plot begins to spiral out of control.
Ivan’s clear and unapologetic exploitation of Albert’s naiveté is a biting criticism of the current state of art in New York. Ivan is proud of finding an odd-looking outsider to put into his art, and accordingly, treats Albert like a well-scouted piece of furniture. His assistants are slightly kinder when working with “the talent” on-set, but still rush Albert through his paperwork and get him in front of the camera with little explanation.
Were Ivan less successful professionally, the film might be read as critical of his treatment of Albert, but Ivan is quite a successful artist. He has a giant studio, doting staff, and can fly to Milan for a shoot at a moment’s notice. Though Ivan is awful, he is not the overlying issue here: it is New York’s art scene. The community buying Ivan’s art, validating his every professional whim, or even aspiring to be him shows the greater cultural issue with exploitation. Celebrating odd people, such as Albert, but without treating them like humans with agency and emotions is the real problem with Ivan’s version of exploitation art.
BAG BOY LOVER BOY’s sharp criticism of the current art scene in New York is done with an awareness of the city’s ingrained history of exploitation cinema. From countless films that played in 70’s grindhouses, to higher-art films like TAXI DRIVER, New York’s cinema was known for showing the worst in people. The contrast in BAG BOY LOVER BOY is the impoverished underclass is not generating the exploitation. It is the culturally powerful and wealthy artists exploiting the hot dog vendors and prostitutes of the city—and being celebrated for it. Rather than violence and injustice within a class, the destruction of Albert comes from the top down.
Another stark contrast between BAG BOY LOVER BOY and classic exploitation cinema is the quality of the film. BAG BOY LOVER BOY is a visually stunning film, due in part to the practicality of the filmmaker’s access to greatly improved and less expensive cameras, and to showing Ivan’s high art photography throughout the film. Barbara De Biasi’s score brings to mind a carnival ride. Much like Curb Your Enthusiasm, this circus music gives a surreal quality to the grim nature of the events. It makes you wonder if this is some sort of bad dream, rather than a crushing reality.
BAG BOY LOVER BOY is a difficult film to watch, even beyond what I have described here. The nature of power, consent, exploitation, and victimization are all explored and ultimately left up to the viewer’s interpretation. You may never walk casually past an art gallery in the same way after experiencing this film, and perhaps this is a good thing.