A documentary double bill brings distinctively European sensibilities to New York’s worlds of high finance and fashion. Wall Street provides an accessible look inside the New York Stock Exchange during the run-up to and early stages of the war in Iraq, with interview subjects ranging from since departed CEO Richard Grasso to lower-level staffers. Attempting to tackle too many Big Topics in only 50 minutes—financial markets, war, terrorism, immigration, class—Swiss filmmaker Andreas Hoessli does best with the last item. Bronx teenagers speaking perceptively about the vast differences between Lower Manhattan and their own neighborhood are juxtaposed with an upwardly mobile bond trader who sees class stratification as a relic of old Europe, irrelevant to American life. Such ironies notwithstanding, Wall Street is surprisingly lacking in depth and overall political perspective. The film never explores the material consequences of the decisions these men make (only one woman figures prominently); Hoessli seems more interested in how world events affect the markets than on how the markets impact the world. And then there is the psychology of Wall Street workers: Explaining the appeal of his job beyond the obvious monetary rewards, one bond trader compares the brokers on the exchange floor to rats in a Skinner box, adding the puzzling comment “That’s what really attracted me.”
Venturing further up the island, Knock Off begins on Canal Street and winds up in Harlem. The ostensible subject is the sale of designer knockoffs, a growing segment of New York’s underground economy that the filmmakers sympathetically position within the history of Asian American immigrant labor (one activist even argues for piracy as a crucial means of empowerment for immigrant communities). As the film moves uptown, it expands into a broader examination of shopping culture in late capitalist America, with electronic sounds and multilingual titles creating an air of Kraftwerkian detachment, and recurring themes emerging from the episodic structure. The Soho segment not only nails the essential creepiness of the huge billboards that dominate Houston Street but introduces the notion of shopping as performance, a view taken up by activist-comedian Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping, seen here against the backdrop of that “theater of branding” known as Times Square. Knock Off never quite manages to account for the mysterious appeal of designer labels, but it does embrace the relevant if unoriginal idea that the knockoff is often even better than the real thing.