Prodigal Son

Domenick Ammirati on Cheryl Dunn’s Moments Like These Never Last (2021)

Cheryl Dunn, Moments Like These Never Last, 2021, DCP, color, 96 minutes. Dash Snow.

FOR THE UNINITIATED: Dash Snow was a New York City street kid, graffiti writer, and artist who died at in 2009 age twenty-seven of a heroin overdose, leaving behind an infant daughter, a partner, and many grieving friends. These are facts. He left behind little in the way of art-historical significance. This is an opinion, though one with which most presumptive experts agree. I mention this only to clarify the stakes of a new documentary about Snow. Moments Like These Never Last is a movie about a debatably compelling personality whose arc pierced an art world enthralled by youth, glamour, and dissipation. How do you memorialize a casualty of the romantic-artist stereotype without perpetuating it?

Moments Like These Never Last is a sad and well-crafted film by Cheryl Dunn, a loving tribute to and game apologia for its oft-maligned subject. She was a friend of his, for a long time, and between her material and his—Snow liked to shoot home movies on Super 8—there is enough footage to keep him frequently present onscreen or heard in voiceover. They chat during tagging sessions or just hang out. Later on, after he’s attracted some media attention, he can be defensive, but while recounting his running away from home, his juvenile detention, and so on, he is charming, friendly, sweet—not a bad boy but a nice guy. More than anything, he seems young. When you consider that his entrée into the Manhattan art world occurred when he was barely more than a teen, it’s easier to understand why his sense of what was good, cool, or self-expressive was so limited.

Snow does not seem to have been very good at graffiti in the technical sense—the tags we see are no feats of wildstyle or wit—but he rated high for bravado. His crowning achievement was to have been only the second person to tag the pylons of the Brooklyn Bridge, his crudely stylized SACE appearing alongside a commendable “Fuck Giuliani.” He was not a fan of authority figures. We hear him declare, “We’re like the ultimate cop, the United States. I hate that so much. I really hate it. Eventually something fucked up is going to happen.” The summary transition to 9/11 gives his closing declaration a little more prescience than it deserves, in one of the film’s occasional driftings into Saint-Dash-of-Avenue-C territory.

Ergo propter hoc, the towers’ fall is used to account for the cruddy negativity of Snow’s art. On this point, Moments Like This Never Last draws much of its persuasive power from exceptional images of that day and its aftermath. Dunn’s studio was near Ground Zero, close enough such that at one point, she aims her camera out her window and captures people literally running for their lives down the street, seconds before a cloud of ash obliterates the scene. It’s terrifying. She talks with dazed office workers staring up in bafflement as it dawns on them that this is not your everyday disaster. We see Dunn’s own unsteady flight through the haze. Perhaps the film’s most unforgettable moment is a jarring sequence in which a woman writhes in the gray ash on a rooftop shot from a still-higher vantage above. Dressed for just another day at the office, she crawls and balances, coating herself in bone dust and asbestos. We never see her face. Performance or nervous breakdown? Either way, the scene makes a strong case that everyone in the city was a little cracked for a while. The woman, it turns out, was Dunn, though she doesn’t credit herself in the film.

Then again, the idea that 9/11 changed everything is a little 9/11 changed everything. In that a lot of things didn’t change at all, Snow’s own aesthetics included. They were always that of your average squat resident—collages and sculptures made from garbage with gleeful nihilism. And before the airliner strikes and the idiot wars, the behavior of his crew—now including artists—was hardly restrained. Leo Fitzpatrick: “Nobody wants to photograph a bunch of guys smoking weed; that’s boring. So let’s give Dan Colen some dust and see what happens.” “We always lived in a space that felt disastrous,” says Snow’s friend Nico Dios. “Like we were living at the end of the world.”

Cheryl Dunn, Moments Like These Never Last, 2021, DCP, color, 96 minutes. Dash Snow.

It was in the metastatic years after 9/11 that Snow got involved with the art world, as a way to earn some licit cash for a change. A small gallery show on the Lower East Side jump-started his brief career; a hatchet-job cover story in New York magazine that revealed he was the grandson of Christophe de Menil probably only helped it. As the film has it, the transition to art fueled his self-destructive impulses, easy to act on in an industry abundant with casual drug use, vampiric publicity, and steady pressure to produce. Graffiti world? Colt 45, cheap cocaine, street fights: “normal and fun,” as Kunle Martins puts it. Art world? Money, jet planes, heroin. Unquestionably, many in the art world put Snow on display to satisfy their bohemian fantasies—including, of course, the artist himself, in thousands of party Polaroids that chronicle late-night narcotic and erotic exploits. Everyone seems pretty self-aware about the exploitation, after the fact. In the film, Neville Wakefield explicitly indicts curators such as himself; Jeffrey Deitch, with a bit of handwashing, collectors.

But the deadliest aspect of the move into art seems to have been that it brought Snow, the disowned de Menil, into the family business. You get the sense that the psychic strain was too much. Toward the end of things, his dad shows up. I’m sure he’s someone’s victim too, but he does not seem like a good influence. He moves in with Snow and they shoot junk together. The film strongly implies that Snow fathering a child, with the model Jade Berreau, triggered a terror in him of repeating his whole fucked-up familial cycle like a Greek tragedy. His last words to his partner seem to have been, “See you in another life.”

Fifteen years on, it seems clear that we were measuring Snow with the wrong yardstick. His real genre was not what we think of as contemporary art, but that loose category of image creation and circulation, often centered around fashion, that exists to mine cool and package it for broader appeal. The mid-2000s were a banner time for proto-hypebeasts. The dominant aesthetics were sleaze and partytime. Dov Charney was the era’s Elon Musk, sort of. Terry Richardson started his porno mag. High times for Vice (its film division produced Dunn’s documentary). A lot was being repressed, or repressively desublimated. Today, the gray zone that was Snow’s native habitat is highly articulated and monetizable, a place where an independent operator can annunciate an identity and commodify it instead of having to do anything, in the vocational sense. The snobs have, for the most part, fucked off.

In a way, it feels silly to be talking about Snow at all in 2021. His entire story is straight off the rack, down to his own disquiet at being trapped by the cliché he lived out. The world does not need more doomed romantic artists, for their sake more than ours. But it does obviously want them. Moments Like These Never Last will earn a cult audience, one that does not include elites like myself who sneered at his art.

On that vexed and ultimate subject, the film itself is cagey. Dunn does, however, load the dice by opening with this declaration by Deitch: “He was the most charismatic artist I’d met since Jean-Michel Basquiat.” (Wakefield laughably follows up with “He had this Situationist idea of psychogeography.”) But what else is the filmmaker to do? Any documentary about someone must answer a simple question: What makes this person special? How else to answer but to place Snow in the mythic company of Basquiat and Rimbaud—but for his charisma rather than his art? “People like to hear stories instead of looking at shit,” Snow says at one point. “You know what I mean?” He was grousing about rumors, but he could have been talking about his own legacy. In the end, this movie is probably the best art Dash Snow ever made.

Moments Like These Never Last is currently playing in US theaters and streaming online.