Rhythm Thief: Matthew Harrison’s Guerrilla Filmmaking

Matthew Harrison’s Rhythm Thief represents urban guerrilla filmmaking at its best, with raw black-and-white cinematography and rigorous minimalism in every respect.

Shot on a minuscule budget of $11,000 in 11 days, it’s a triumph of economy, cutting through all the glamour surrounding no-budget filmmaking. The film blends a bleak, gritty backdrop with strong characters. Though funny in its sense of absurdity, it’s a tale of a life lived on the edge. Harrison portrays with a fresh, clear vision the dubious, dreary lives a bunch of ne’er-do-wells.

Set in the mean streets of the Lower East Side, it revolves around Simon (Jason Andrews), a poor white man who sells bootlegged music tapes on the streets. His meager income barely covers the costs of cheap liquor and kitty litter, the staples of his marginal existence. Simon spends his evenings drinking alone, sifting the cat’s litter box, listening to his neighbors’ arguments through his apartment’s thin walls. Monotony is broken by Cyd (Kimberly Flynn), Simon’s casual girlfriend, who drops by for “sex and nothing else.” When he insists that they live up to the terms she has set, Cyd gets hysterical.

Survival depends upon Simon’s living strictly by his own code, which means detachment. His only confidante is a philosophical neighbor (Mark Alfred), who respects his integrity but wishes he would do more with his life. His simple life is also challenged by Fuller (Kevin Corrigan), a tagalong who pesters Simon to teach him the bootlegging game. Simon exudes the kind of inner resilience and cool discipline that makes him attractive to Fuller, who wants to be his pal and partner.

Simon is willing to do anything to keep his routine intact, but when he is accused of stealing a TV set, and the band whose music he has bootlegged beats him up, his ordered world begins to unravel. A waiflike woman from his past, Marty (Eddie Daniels) suddenly turns up to tell him that his mother, a mental patient, has died. Things go awry, and Simon finds himself on the run–almost reluctantly, he realizes that he needs Marty and Fuller to help him get his revenge on the band. A series of events propel Simon to Far Rockaway Beach, where he finally reveals his vulnerability and capacity for feeling.

Rhythm Thief combines comic sensibility with existential angst and a tongue-in-cheek approach to the conventions of Lower East Side-low budget filmmaking.