The late character actor Victor Argo lived in the background of movies by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara, who hired Argo because he could play a hard case without breaking a sweat. Prior to his death in April, Argo had a rare starring role in Lustre, Art Jones' surreal odyssey of nostalgia and salvation. Argo plays a New York City debt collector who worries that the city has lost its soul, and Jones treats his star like a civic landmarkat one point, people walk up to Argo and start snapping photos, like he's the Statue Of Liberty.
But Argo's mobbed-up character is iconic to a fault. Lustre was shot on digital video in 2002, and it's intended primarily as a love poem to a wounded metropolis, enhanced by location footage that only a DV camera could catch in a locked-down, post-Sept. 11 New York City. Argo's job should only be a minor piece of this Gotham mosaic, but Jones makes the racketeering scenes so familiar that they grate against the rest of the movie. The star grumbles early and often about how "the world's gone soft" and the job's not what it used to be, but most of his complaints sound non-specific and redundantthe gripes of someone who's seen a lot of movies about New York tough guys, and bought the myth.
Jones' previous film, Going Nomad, also dealt with a New York City of the mind, and between Lustre's multiple shots of wrecking balls and Argo's venom toward the new high-rises he calls "tombstones from prefab hell," it's clear that Jones thinks something essential is being drained away from his hometown. So he gets out on the streets to shoot the bridges and train stations and neighborhoods that still make New York unique. Then he blocks that scenery with Argo's face, and drowns out the sounds of the city with pretentious stream-of-consciousness narration, as Argo debates whether to quit being a thug for hire. Lustre plays at being an old-fashioned urban indie film, exploring the habitable spaces of B-movie plots, but Jones conveys no real commitment to that tradition. Like Argo, and like the rubble of old cold-water flats, gritty street-level filmmaking represents some half-remembered ideal. This New York usually comes packaged in a plastic globe full of water and fake snow.