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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view

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Posted by Ian Carsia at 11:06PM   |  2 comments
Ian Carsia, FLEFF Intern and Blogger

Blog posting written by Ian Carsia, Cinema & Photography '14, FLEFF Intern, Hamilton, NJ

Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style is one of the coolest movies ever made. It's small. It's simple. And yet within its lines is a vibrant aesthetic urgency that mirrors the graffiti art that plasters the walls and train cars of its '80s South Bronx setting.

Many hip-hop scholars will note the film's significance within the culture and genre's formative years. But, as Jesse Stewart argues in "Real to Reel: Filmic Constructions of Hip Hop Cultures and Hip Hop Identities"[1], what Ahearn's film also did was pull together the disparate elements of South Bronx urban culture (the rappers, the DJs, the b-boys and b-girls, and the street artists) and cast them as a fully articulated whole.

The truth of Stewart's reading even challenges the notion of calling Wild Style "Ahearn's film." With a cast of non-professionals, mostly South Bronx-residents and many deeply entrenched in the emerging hip-hop community, the true author of the movie becomes the South Bronx itself, a multi-faced auteur who doubles as the star.

The definitive moment of the film comes at the end: a huge party at the Amphitheatre. Kids pack the open-air space, dancing to the beat, engaging in call-and-response with the rappers. The Amphitheatre itself is plastered with a huge mural depicting large, dark hands apparently trying to crush the spirit of the performers and the audience, but to no avail.

A quote often attributed to Emma Golden, really more of a summary of an idea she expressed in 1931's Living My Life, goes by some variation of this: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution."

I see no clearer expression of this sentiment than the ending of Wild Style. However temporary and microcosmic, the Amphitheatre party is wrapped in so much of the South Bronx's own social, political, economic, and environmental allegory that it begs to be seen as a profound utopian moment even as the hands of a classist, white supremacist society clasp around it.

Like many seeking to define the concept of a 'microtopia', I turned to Google.

But my first discovery surprised me.

FIGMENT NYC 2011's own dabbling in the idea of the microtopia - in this case, collaborating with kids, environmentalists, and street artists to construct a temporary utopia of free expression - is illustrative of how the concept predates its categorization and definition.

A microtopia does not only find its expression in a hip-hop party. It can be in a mosh pit, or an open art installation.

A microtopia is a space where the humanity and self-expression of all individuals is emphasized and legitimized.

A microtopia has its own distinct wildness; it must have style, for without style it forsakes life.

Anybody else have some ideas on where and when microtopias come about? How they define themselves? What forms they take?

[1] For Stewart's article, just look up Volume 26, Issue 2 (Fall 2009) of Interdisciplinary Humanities. The particular volume is called Music in Context.

Also, a shout out to Professor Sean Eversley Bradwell for hooking me up with the Stewart article last semester. Great source. Great movie. Great class. If it wasn't worth five mics, it was damn close.


This is a great posting Ian. I haven't seen the film, but you make a compelling case that Wild Style represents a microtopia, and, in fact, in discussing it, you reveal a very sophisticated understanding of what the term can mean. I'm reminded of the film, Dog Town and Z Boys, about surfboard/skater culture in Southern California in the 1970s and 80s, another microtopic project that remapped urban spaces and had a huge impact on the wider culture. We're showing a set of short films from California, on campus, during the festival, that express some similarities. Keep your eyes open for California is a Place.

Thank you so much Professor Shevory for your input AND for tipping me off to "California is a Place."

I, unfortunately, have not seen "Dog Town and Z Boys", but from what I gather about it, I have no doubt that your assessment of SoCal skater culture as being microtopic is correct. The '70s and '80s were a great formative period for microtopias, it would seem, especially as it pertains to youth and music culture. What's even more interesting is how, in the '90s, skater and hip-hop culture kind of coalesced into this 'new youth' movement, with "Jackass" being a perfect example of that in terms of documentarian representation.

More on "California is a Place", however, it occurs to me that there's more ways to view a microtopia than just youth movements ("Aquadettes"). Not only that, it seems that, even at this time of recession and economic/political tension, the ability of regular people to document microtopic moments and events is completely unprecedented. It may take a lot of money to buy a high definition digital camera but, ultimately, the ability to create documentary is becoming an increasingly democratic process. What this means is that, in defining what constitutes a microtopia, we must transcend the idea of it merely being a concept. A microtopia, like California, is not simply an idea to be depicted or rendered, but a physical place that can be gone to and participated in.

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