Sunday, August 10, 2008

A gritty casualty of the development boom

I got up this morning to write a review of Gus, a documentary Daniel Bowers made just before making his majestic mockumentary A: Anonymous (which is, for my money, the best independent film ever made in St. Louis).

I was happy to have been sought out by Daniel Bowers (whom I don't know) and hand-delivered a copy of his earlier film by George Malich, whom I do know and like, and who was one of the co-stars in A, playing what has become his alter ego of Gavin Tartowski.

Actually, George hand-delivered the DVD to a barmaid at The Royale, who hand-delivered it to me. Steve Fitzpatrick Steve is kind enough to use his public house to retail copies of A and 52nd City and to enable hand-offs of other important local cultural artifacts. We like Steve.

Daniel Bowers thought his film appropriate for review in The St. Louis American, since it centers around Gus' Fashion, a legendary (now gone) downtown shop that appealed to the hip-hop set. The cranky and benevolent owner, Gus Torregrossa, became intimates with various hip-hop celebrities and beloved to local kids by hosting open-mic ciphers in the store.

Gus was a confluence kind of guy, and I am personally grateful for that: St. Louis always needs more crossing over, especially crossing over what we call "racial barriers," though really they are illusions that we allow (or enforce) to become barriers. That sounds soft-headed, but I'm standing by it as true.

I'm also grateful when non-black friends seek out me (the white guy at the black paper) when they are a part of something they think will appeal to the (mostly but not only) black readership of the American. As I often say (for laughs) at the paper, some of my best friends are white people - and some of them work closely with black people and do important things that benefit or would interest black folks. Our publisher is deeply and passionately supportive of this sort of thing.

All that said, and as much as I adore A: Anonymous (which features Gus Torregrossa in a small, hilarious role), I have quite a few objections to Gus. It's a huge story, and I just don't think Daniel Bowers got enough of it. By all means, go down to Mad Art Gallery on Friday night (August 15th) for the DVD release party to judge for yourself.

But, before you go, I would read Wm. Stage's 2001 profile of Jimmy Vitale in The Riverfront Times. Jimmy is Gus' more or less adopted son and was his sidekick in the store. I think Stage did a masterful job in evoking Jimmy's complex humanity, where in Daniel Bowers' documentary, he is allowed to come off as the butt of jokes.

Consider what Jimmy has to say to Stage about Gus' shop becoming a haven for the hip-hop glitterati: "I'm not into any of that at all. That's new-school stuff, music to commit suicide by, as far as I'm concerned. I shook hands with them; that doesn't mean I have to like them."

Stage proves over and over again that, if you make Jimmy feel comfortable, he is a miraculous quote. The camera aimed at him in Gus evidently made him feel awkward and exposed, and we miss a large part of the story.

It's worth noting that Stage was at the RFT when I was there in the Ray Hartmann days (well, Stage was there long before and long after I was there ...), but I never knew him. Stage conducted his phone interviews in this oddly booming voice that drove me out of the office as fast as I could leave. And he and I both spent more time on the streets than we did in the office.

Trying to figure out what came of him, I see Stage has a new book of portraits that includes a revealing doozy of Clarence Thomas. As for the hip-hop tag for Gus' fashions, I got that from a local Flickr site.

As a last nod to all the Googling that went into the research for my review, I leave you with a genuine heartbreaker: the corporate video for the development group that turned Gus' Fashions into luxury lofts. Daniel Bowers should screen this before or after his film on Friday night!


King_Torch said...

Sunday morning talk of Gus....this brings back one (of many) memories of the colorful man. 'Grandma meets Gus.' I like to witness the bizarre interactions of chance encounters (a new series of paintings I'm working on investigates this further, like what happens when/if a penguin meets a goat)I took my Aunt and Grandmother to Chris' Pancakes on the Hill for a late lunch, holding court in the sun room was Gus with some family and an entourage of wonderful Hill-folk, the kind that make St. Louis a special place to live. After 15 minutes of Gus running around talking to everyone left in the sunroom, stories start to role, one visitor to the pancake house that day was a former minor league ball player and had apparently attended school on the Hill, a quick run-down of everyone that might have lived on the Hill during this 10 year time span commenced, it was like a bombastic oral history tradition that you would have loved Chris. Grandma, near 90, a product of the Depression and South City (not the Hill) was amused at Gus, the voice, the charm, the total memory recall of a thousand faces and places...I just watched her face for 10 minutes straight, then she says in a rather loud voice,'who the hell is that man?!' That is Gus. And Gus being Gus came over and introduced himself to her.........Sunday morning musings....

Confluence City said...

Pleas share the painting(s) with me! I'll relish the chance to write about it (them) and the Torch!