What Williamsburg Was: ‘Los Sures’ Reveals 1983, While the Anthology Revels in Barthes


Mayoralties have defined New York in the past four decades, as have disasters, whether natural or otherwise. But perhaps the most indelible marker of epochal change in the city’s neighborhoods is gentrification. Filmed in the summer of 1983, Diego Echeverria’s Los Sures, a spirited but clear-eyed survey of South Williamsburg, transports viewers to the area before the blight of condos and bespoke-BBQ joints. Though the documentary premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1984, Los Sures is only now receiving a proper theatrical release, at Metrograph, a theater situated in a neighborhood — the Lower East Side — that itself began aggressively pushing out longtime residents to make way for boîtes and boutiques roughly fifteen years ago.

Echeverria’s hour-long chronicle, shot on 16mm, begins with a flock of pigeons taking flight from a rooftop, soaring over crumbling tenements. An offscreen narrator speaks, only once, listing a few statistics: “Across the East River from Manhattan lies a small community of some 20,000 Hispanic people, most of them Puerto Rican. It is the poorest section of New York City.” A montage of sights and sounds unfolds: Caribbean beats, breakdance battles, two white cops driving off to the delight of onlookers, an unidentified interviewee explaining that “Los Sures” translates to “the south side.”

That table-setting — unhurried, intimate, respectful but unsentimental — sets the tone for the rest of Echeverria’s portrait, which focuses on five different residents. “I don’t feel a need to leave Williamsburg to solve my problems. Where would I go?” says Marta Aviles, a single mother of five subsisting on welfare and food stamps. Marta’s trip to Key Food with her four daughters, ranging in age from grade-schooler to teen, exemplifies Echeverria’s gift for capturing detail-dense moments in the most casual way: One of the younger kids compares the cost of brand-name versus generic canned corn; the oldest daughter, sporting a peroxided new-wave coif, glowers at having to return a beauty magazine to the rack.

More financially secure, Evelyn Borges, a college-educated employee at a social-services organization, conveys deep empathy for her clients: “I’ve been on welfare. I’m them — at another level.” Raising two cherubic tykes, ages four and five, on her own, Evelyn stands out as the most formidable figure in Los Sures. She’s tougher than even wiry, pint-size small-time criminal Tito Lopez, the first of Echeverria’s interlocutors, who insists, “You can’t trust nobody.” Recounting the decimation wrought by drugs in the neighborhood, Evelyn delivers the doc’s bleakest pronouncement: “There’s no joy anymore. There’s only a lot of pain.” Los Sures, with its interstitial moments filled with street peacocking, impromptu sidewalk concerts, and al fresco dance rehearsals, offers a gentle rejoinder to the sweep of that claim.

Another kind of celebration of the past animates “The Face of Garbo,” perhaps the most famous essay from Roland Barthes’s 1957 collection, Mythologies. The movie that occasioned the French philosopher’s lucid reflection on the Swedish legend, Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), screens at Anthology as part of its ingenious “Roland Barthes at the Movies: A Retrospective,” a program devoted to titles that the theorist collaborated on, influenced, or wrote about. In what was reportedly her favorite role, Garbo plays the real-life seventeenth-century Scandinavian regent of the title, an unconventional royal who dresses in male attire, kisses a countess on the mouth with promises of a country getaway, and makes such gender-discordant proclamations as “I shall die a bachelor!” The idiosyncratic appeal of Garbo, long a lesbian icon, thanks to Mamoulian’s film and the actress’s own offscreen romantic entanglements, was marvelously articulated by Barthes decades before queer studies became an academic discipline: “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this film… lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats, the same snowy solitary face.”

Those wishing to bask in Barthes’s visage, dominated by an aquiline nose, will want to see André Téchiné’s The Brontë Sisters (1979), in which the semiotician cameos as William Makepeace Thackeray, his sole screen appearance. Would Barthes have been offered more roles had he not died — at age 64, owing to injuries he suffered after being run over by a laundry truck in Paris — less than a year after the premiere of Téchiné’s sober, intelligent literary biopic?

Although the nonprofessional doesn’t appear until the final twelve minutes of the film, Barthes nearly overshadows the exceptionally talented actors assembled to play the famous siblings, including Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani, then in the rapidly ascending phase of their careers. But almost thirty years after his death, Barthes was vividly resurrected by a provocative name-check in Before I Forget (2007), a highly autobiographical movie (not included in the Anthology series) by Jacques Nolot, one of his former lovers: “Those are the toilets where Roland Barthes and I used to go cruising.”

Los Sures
Directed by Diego Echeverria
Union Docs
April 15-21

Queen Christina
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Anthology Film Archives
April 14

The Brontë Sisters
Directed by André Téchiné
Anthology Film Archives
April 16