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Uptown, Midtown, Downtown

Redaktion
Redaktion

This fifth cooperation between Museum Brandhorst and the Munich International Film Festival "Sparkling and Wild - ’80s New York in Film" celebrates the underground artists and filmmakers of 1980s New York. A curated program of films and works on video at Museum Brandhorst and the cinemas of the Munich International Film Festival showcase an unusual side of the Big Apple, introducing us to a wide variety of scenes and communities — from nightclubs to the art world — from various points of view. 

A text by Sophie Cavoulacos

Uptown, Midtown, Downtown

wild style
PHOTO: Martha Cooper

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lower Manhattan was a vibrant center of underground film, although its origins do not lie solely in the cinema. Part of a now-legendary era fueled by low rents and the desire to experiment with new modes of art-making, this heterogenous scene borrowed from the artful iconoclasm of punk rock and flourished in the alternative spaces and nightclubs where filmmakers, artists, musicians, and scenesters intermixed.

The cinema of New York’s post-punk years sits between historical bookends: postindustrial fiscal crisis and gentrification; Gay Liberation and the AIDS epidemic; film history and the digital revolution. Downtown cinema was defined not by a single aesthetic but a subversion of traditional filmmaking categories and processes, using the city as a stage for their no-budget, loosely-scripted endeavors which featured the scene’s personalities and places with little exception. These works often pushed cinematic citation and genre tropes to their most stripped-down form. This dominated the subcultural zeitgeist through 42nd Street grindhouse theaters and venues like Club 57 which functioned as a one-projector revival house with monster movies, exploitation films, and high camp in frequent rotation.

Downtown’s rough-hewn takes on kung fu, sword-and-sandal epics, and even the European New Wave were largely powered by the proliferation of handheld cameras. This milieu had a special affinity for the Super 8mm camera—affordable, portable, democratic, and representative of the moment’s spirited anti-commercialism. Films on Super 8 and 16mm were presented at venues like the Collective for Living Cinema, the Millennium Film Workshop, and the Kitchen, where they mixed with more serious avant-garde cinema and experimental art. But these films also had a non-theatrical presence in nightclubs, where moving images were part of a larger experience that included bands playing, socializing, one-night art shows, or monitor video lounges. In these spaces, maker and audience, exhibition and production could bleed into each other. Clubs were used as filming locations—Edo Bertoglio’s DOWNTOWN 81 (1980/2000), which follows a day in the life of young artist Jean-Michael Basquiat, alone captures Peppermint Lounge, Rock Lounge, and the Mudd Club—and on the occasion of a new premiere, it would not be unusual to have many of the same principals in the room and on screen.

Downtown 81 Online1

downtown 81

Indeed, the American director Bette Gordon recalled in a 2023 Q&A that the prevailing feeling of the late ’70s and early ’80s was that filmmakers were making work for each other, removed as they were from anything resembling a marketplace. That would also start to shift. Early No Wave films opened in theaters in New York (Eric Mitchell’s UNDERGROUND USA was a midnight fixture at the St. Mark’s Cinema for six months in 1980). Film festivals like the Berlinale were a place to occasionally meet other filmmakers, catch up on happenings in other cities, and occasionally acquire funding, notably from the West German ZDF and the then-new British Channel Four—small sums which still dwarfed support attainable in the United States, especially once Ronald Reagan came into office. Charlie Ahearn’s WILD STYLE (1983)—an iconic portrait of the South Bronx’s b-boys, DJs, and graffiti artists known as the first hip-hop film—and Bette Gordon’s VARIETY (1983)—a neo-noir set in Times Square and a classic of feminist filmmaking—both received European grants, allowing them to transition from Super 8 to 16mm. The same was true of Jim Jarmusch’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE, which would go on to win the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and the Special Jury Award at Sundance the following winter. Downtown New York was decidedly laying the groundwork for what would become the American independent film movement.

But this film scene was in fact a film-to-video scene. Handheld film cameras and comparatively mammoth Portapaks had both been in use during the punk years. But by the time the 24-hour TV networks CNN and MTV made their debut, video camcorders were becoming prevalent, notably associated with Nelson Sullivan, Courtney Harmel, and Clayton Patterson, who collectively shot hundreds of hours in the period, each with their own style and proclivities. Television was a thematic concern and a medium for artists, whether they were making video tapes like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Tom Rubnitz or airing shows on Manhattan Cable (like Andy Warhol was in the period with his TV shows FASHION and ANDY WARHOL’S TV). As part of the exhibition "Andy Warhol & Keith Haring: Party of Life", Museum Brandhorst surveys two approaches to video in New York at the time. The video artist Courtney Harmel collaborated with artists like Keith Haring and Joey Arias to document performances and nightclub events. Her vast documentary archive is unified by an observant lens and many relationships across this milieu—in a way, a record of the scene being self-consciously created by its participants. The artist Tom Rubnitz, on the other hand, approached video as a raconteur, infusing his tapes with psychedelic color and campy humor, whether recording backstage at the Pyramid Club or directing short video pieces with East Village cohorts. His range of work at the end of the 1980s points to the forces that brought the scene to an end. Rubnitz created the first documentary on the Wigstock festival (a key antecedent for the introduction of drag performance into the mainstream) while also producing a public service announcement for the Foundation for AIDS Research which brought together The B-52’s, David Byrne, Allen Ginsburg and many others from the scene under the banner of “Art Against AIDS”—a sign of the great loss that was to come (Rubnitz himself died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992) and the activism and culture wars that would take hold in the arts.

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