Film Review: The Lost VillageScattershot documentary about the corporate homogenization of Greenwich Village.
It would pain anyone with any empathy to dismiss a heartfelt documentary that takes the side of small-business owners, cultural history, starving students and landmark (if not landmarked) buildings. Yet that is wrenchingly the case with this strident advocacy tract that not only pinballs across and into a myriad of topics that each could be the subject of a documentary, but on a technical level is often poorly shot and edited. I wish I could say that gave it a raw power, but it doesn't. It's just distracting.
Roger Paradiso—who has worked as a producer or director on studio films including The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) as well as on nonfiction features about Kennedy's Camelot and seminal rappers The Sugarhill Gang—rightly bemoans the fading uniqueness of Greenwich Village, a change largely due to New York University's bigfoot imprint as a monolithic developer/landlord. Tuition at the school has far outstripped inflation, going from $1,800 a year in the early 1960s to more than $50,000 now, while teaching assistants go begging for whiteboard markers and a significant number of students—as a 2016 Village Voice report, among others, has documented—take sex-worker jobs as the only kind with wages enough to pay the bills. Others interviewed here include a homeless Ph.D. candidate and a student limited to $2 to $3 a day for food, and who often finds his schoolwork concentration compromised by hunger. Complicating matters, they say, is that surprisingly few NYU credits are transferrable to other, less expensive colleges. Meanwhile, administrators earn one-percenter salaries and perks.
That alone could fill a documentary, but Paradiso overreaches to targets including banks that have replaced bookstores—part of a much larger online-shopping trend not specific to the Village—and the plight of small retailers who speak of rent and tax spikes. The former owner of one restaurant tells a rambling story whose point I could not fathom that seems to involve having to install a window and not being able to after spending $200,000 on lawyers and I'm not sure what else. There has to be more to that story, but the documentary doesn't investigate it objectively. We also take a detour into the rising costs of pharmaceuticals and health care. There's something for everybody in The Lost Village, but it's like a beef-casserole milkshake.
Paradiso interviews economists and others who point out how, as one puts it, America has gone "from chattel slavery to wage slavery to debt slavery," with some corporations paying no taxes and some executives paying less than their rank-and-file employees do. Yet while the excesses of corporate oligarchy is a legitimate and powerful topic, the film's digression into it is far afield from the specifics of Greenwich Village. Rather than being one among the background bullet-points of causes for the historic neighborhood's woes, it becomes so front-and-center that interviewees make frequent comparisons to America today and the fall of the Roman Empire—an entire documentary in itself and one not directly connected to NYU tromping all over everyone and everything.
The film eventually circles back to that university, with two doctoral candidates saying the school's board of directors is mysterious, with unannounced meetings that students and faculty can't attend, creating questions of conflict of interest and self-enrichment. There is such a multitude in that alone to explore that it makes me grieve for the missed opportunities that an experienced film editor or consulting journalist could have grasped simply by helping narrow the focus.