It is almost impossible to look at filmmaker Jimmy Bolton's latest film, The Graffiti Artist, and not experience a rush of feeling-not the least of which is a twinge of jealousy. That Bolton could, with his second feature film, create something of such intense poetic beauty and deep emotional resonance seems almost unfair. Other filmmakers go their entire careers without directing something as nuanced and intimate as The Graffiti Artist. Bolton, who divides his time between Portland and New York, makes it look like it's all in a day's work.
Set in Portland and Seattle, The Graffiti Artist paints a finely detailed portrait of an urban loner. The sleepy-eyed Ruben Bansie-Snellman stars as Nick, an enigmatic graffiti artist. An unorthodox twist on the silent, rebel stranger, Nick is like a cross between River Phoenix's character in My Own Private Idaho and Clint Eastwood's in High Plains Drifter. He wanders the trainyards and back alleys like a masterless samurai, looking to leave as fleeting proof of his existence spray-painted walls and train cars. By chance he meets Jesse (Pepper Fajans), a fellow skateboarding graffiti artist whom Nick senses to be a kindred spirit. And if he is not a kindred spirit, then Jesse is at least another soul that serves to validate Nick's existence. When the two young men share an intimate moment, it seems Nick may no longer be destined to go through his life on a lonesome journey.
Drawing inspiration from the works of directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Gus Van Sant, Bolton has wonderfully blurred the lines between genres. In much the same way Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog emerged as an arthouse interpretation of the urban gangster film, so, too, does The Graffiti Artist reinvent a 1980s disenfranchised-urban-artist subgenre that included classics like Wild Style and Beat Street. These films portrayed graffiti artists as true artists existing on the outermost fringes of society. Like Lee Quinones in Wild Style, Nick's muse is an oppressive world that has no place for him, his medium is spray paint, and his canvas is the world around him that he has shunned.
Bolton's assured direction and writing display the maturity and confidence of a filmmaker not afraid to let his film be what it needs to be-a moody, often silent journey through life in isolation. Bolton allows subtle glances and body movement, rather than trite dialogue, to convey thought and emotion. It isn't until 23 minutes into the film that Nick even speaks his first, monosyllabic line.
Bolton's work as writer and director is part of intricate puzzle that includes Bansie-Snellman's incredible performance, Sarah Levy's beautiful cinematography, and the hypnotic score of Kid Loco. Recently released on DVD, with a simultaneous limited theatrical release, The Graffiti Artist is a wonderful examination of a lonely life on the outside.
Q&A: Ruben Bansie-Snellman
The young actor, who grew up in Northeast Portland and now lives in Los Angeles, has auditioned for Steven Spielberg, appeared in Gus Van Sant's Elephant and done The Graffiti Artist, all before turning 18. We caught up with him in Los Angeles.
How did you become an actor?
Gus Van Sant's an old family friend. My Own Private Idaho had a huge impact on me [because] I grew up with the characters Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix [were based on]. They lived with me, kind of like my older brothers. Every character in the movie is based on someone who is a family friend, or my godfather, something like that.
How did Jimmy find you?
I was at a party at Gus' house, it was kind of just a family-and-friends party. He said, "Hey, I want you to read for this part." I think just from talking to me he could sense that I was at this time in my life where I wanted to pick up pieces of myself and do something.
Have you gone Hollywood?
Oregonians can't go Hollywood.
I was drawn to this role because the character is so unique and he challenges society in so many ways. I didn't look at it as a gay film at all. He's a person questioning everything he's been taught, in regards to capitalism and commerce and freedom and liberty and sexuality, and everything in the societal norm. -Byron Beck
The Graffiti Artist is available on DVD through thegraffitiartist.com