A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
Joan Hawkins’ recent multi-authored book, Downtown Film & TV Culture 1975-2001 (Intellect), is a heteroglossic text bringing together multiple genres – historical documents, interviews, conversations, focused analysis, and even traditional academic articles – to paint a chaotically vivid picture of the New York “downtown” film and TV scene from the mid-seventies No Wave movement through the Cinema of Transgression through public access TV through the AIDS crisis and the activism that arose in reaction to it to finally ending with 9/11. As Hawkins notes in her introduction, the 9/11 terrorist attacks finished displacing the last New York independent artists who hadn’t already been displaced by AIDS, drugs, or gentrification. This attack was like a violent echo of the near-bankruptcy of New York City in 1975, the violent destruction of a terrorist act in a few moments undoing all the gentrification and investment in the twenty-six intervening years. Also, the New York avant-garde prior to ’75 (Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brackhage, Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, et al) has been written about and championed elsewhere (see, for instance, Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal” columns [1959-1971] in The Village Voice recently collected and republished by Columbia University Press). In addition, postmodern theory was just starting to make itself felt in the mid-seventies, many of the Downtown artists were reading it, and they were rejecting the high/low dichotomy that had heretofore directed most film and art movements. Hawkins divides her book into three parts: I. “Moments,” the now, the present tense of the Downtown movement; II. “Scenes,” a mishmash of essay, memoir, conversation, etc. taking us from the punk doc Blank Generation (Ivan Král, Amos Poe, 1976) to the anti-AIDS political-theater group ACT UP; and III. “Memorials” which addresses the post-Downtown world including canonization and the innovation of digital video.
The first section begins with David Sterritt’s chapter, “In the Movie-Viewing Machine: Essential Cinema and the 1970s,” which acts as a brief but solid introduction to the independent and underground films of the 1950s and ’60s in New York and particularly the archival work of Mekas and Brakhage along with filmmaker-poet James Broughton, filmmaker-curator Peter Kubelka, critic-playwright Ken Kelman, and theorist and editor P. Adams Sitney who convened over a period of six years to choose the “essential” films that would be housed at the East Village Anthology Archives (7-8). This took place between 1970 and 1976, right before No Wave cinema (and No Wave music, art, theater, etc.) emerged which, like many vibrant art movements, rebelled against the previous generation which, seen in Sterrit’s sketch, are engaged in creating canons and marking off boundaries, not the expansive, exploratory activities that young avant-garde artists are generally interested in. In the second chapter, we start to see that energy of the burgeoning No Wave movement – and this is where the book takes off – in J. Hoberman’s “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” an essay originally published in The Village Voice in May 1979 (the essay has never been anthologized prior to Downtown Film & TV Culture). As someone who only moved to New York City in 2004 – and who religiously read Hoberman’s reviews, interviews, and criticism until his firing at The Voice in 2012 – it’s pretty exciting to read this, especially because Hoberman got so much right back in ‘79. He lauds the “B movies” of Scott B and Beth B, the campy Rome ’78 (James Nares, 1978), Vivienne Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), and is one of the first mainstream writers to recognize the importance of actress/musician/performer Lydia Lunch in this downtown scene and also to recognize the scene’s vital connection to music and art (many of the actors or filmmakers were also in bands or painted or were writers).
The meat of Downtown Film & TV Culture is the second part, “Scenes.” This is where we move from a broad overview and hone in on specific scenes and artists. We start to understand how certain artists and texts fit into the historical purview and we start to see how many overlapping communities existed in this relatively limited geographical space. Some standouts: Mark Benedetti’s essay about the documentary The Blank Generation (1976) and post-punk music followed by a brief photo-essay by Ivan Král (one of the film’s directors). Jonathan Everett Haynes’ deep analysis of one of the first No Wave films, the transcontinentally inspired Unmade Beds (Amos Poe, 1976) with its connection to Godard’s Breathless (1959) which, in turn, connects back again historically and geographically across the Atlantic to the Hollywood gangster and noir films of the 1930s-1940. (I do think this is a great essay, but with one caveat: William Wellman and James Cagney didn’t make Little Caesar  as Haynes states in his essay; they made The Public Enemy [also 1931]. I think he means Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson.)
Some of the best of Downtown Film & TV Culture are the personal stories, some rendered in interview, some in memoir. Joan Hawkins gives the transcripts to interviews she did with Beth B (G-Man , Black Box , Vortex ) and Bette Gordon (Empty Suitcases , Variety ). The later, performed in front of an audience of students and faculty at University of Indiana, is lively and illuminating. Author Laurie Stone’s chapter, “The Time of His Life: Spalding Gray,” is also a compelling biography of Gray written by a friend combining analysis of his works and performance including his one novel.
Despite the prominence of the word “TV” in the book’s title, the offerings on this topic are comparatively thin compared to cinema. We have Terese Svoboda’s essay on Cast Iron TV (1979-1992) which reads more like a curriculum vita rendered into prose than anything with a thesis or plot. More engaging is Benjamin Olin’s quote-rich rendition of the apparently hilarious and provocative TV Party (1978-1982). Likewise, filmmaker and manifesto-writer Nick Zedd’s interview with David Sjöber gives us a good sketch of the TV show Electra Elf (2005) and the subversive potential of public access TV and its differences from the current age of Youtube and the internet. The downtown TV scene probably will need its own book someday.
Downtown Film & TV Culture ends with “Memorials,” and, perhaps fittingly considering that funeral label, with a whimper rather than a bang. The strengths of this section are brief and written by the people who were there – Richard Toon and Laurie Stone on archiving downtown and Chris Krauss’ two-page riff on experimental film. These two pieces, though, are overwhelmed in length by three traditional academic articles including Juan Carlos Kase’s “The Centre Cannot Hold,” a tedious bludgeoning of Blank City (2010), Celine Danhier’s documentary of No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression, even going so far as to quote negative mainstream press reviews. Kase depicts the documentary as “A nostalgic reimagining of the city’s bohemian Downtown film culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s…[that] dedicates substantially more screen time to presenting anecdotes about the social scene in which the film-makers lived than it does discussing any of the Super 8mm and 16mm film works that it fleetingly excerpts” (317). Clearly the word nostalgia is not used in a celebratory way in this quote, but I would say that Blank City is a nostalgic and a celebratory film and that its voice is the voice of these two downtown film movements, though necessarily an aging voice since all the filmmakers are at least twenty years older. The film recognizes that despite – or maybe because of – the crime, urban decay, racism, drug problems, poverty, AIDS epidemic of the time period, this geographically-situated art movement was a joyous one, that despite the anti-social aspects of their films (anti-government, anti-conformity, pro-drug, pro- (and pan-) sexuality, pro-violence, pro-revolution, etc.) the movement was also about collaboration and simply hanging out. Kase’s article – which strikes me as a pan of Danhier’s film dressed up as academic writing – seems to be criticizing Blank City for not being the kind of film he would like. Like nearly any of the film’s interview subjects – nearly all of them either filmmakers or actors from the downtown scene – would probably say: He should make his own film.
The strengths of Downtown Film & TV Culture, though, don’t lie in the traditional academic writing, some of it which is really wrongheaded (in Chris Dumas’ analysis of Todd Haynes’ undergraduate academic writing, he argues that the director was the only downtown filmmaker who “dared to make masterpieces” [his emphasis]; I’m not sure even Todd Haynes would agree with this statement, but in any case it’s the type of essentialist modernist argument completely inappropriate for its postmodern subject matter). The interviews, the manifestoes and rants, the historical documents, the memoir are wonderful, though some of the academic writing – like Jonathan Everett Haynes’ already-mentioned “Downtown Godard” or editor Joan Hawkins’ reading of Bette Gordon’s “Variety” – are very strong analyses grounded in history with compelling arguments. I suppose a case can be made for why we still need the genre of academic writing, but it would be nice to think that there are other serious ways to engage with avant-garde movements – with any art really – other than the end-noted essay with the foregrounded thesis statement.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.