Monday, May 17, 2010

Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, 1981)

Simply stick your photographic device out the window of a slow moving automobile, instruct artist Jean Michel Basquiat to walk down the street like he would normally do (spray painting verbose doodles on the wall every other block), add a mildly profound narration (the voice of Saul Williams stands in as Basquiat's subconscious), and presto change-o, you've got yourself a movie. Of course, it helps greatly that the streets being wandered are located in New York City. I mean, who would want to watch a guy in a trench-coat walk around, oh, let's say, Burlington, Ontario for eighty-something minutes? Sure, it's a nice jaunt and all, but it doesn't have the same energy, the same vitality of a New York street circa 1981. Cobbled together with half-realized fragments, misshapen ideas and found footage, Downtown 81 (a.k.a. Glenn O'Brien's New York Beat Movie) is a gritty portrait of what life must have been like during the hectic club and art scenes of New York City's much ballyhooed Lower East Side.

Recently discharged from the hospital after a lengthy stay (his affliction is kept from us), the film is about artist Jean Michel Basquiat and his attempt to reestablish himself in the cities erratic art scene. Broke, and a tad disoriented, the nomadic painter-musician (he fronts a band called "Gray") seems lost at first. However, the deeper he gets into the city, the clearer it becomes that he is quite the mover and shaker.

Attractive models just back from Milano offer him rides in their fancy convertibles, all the drug pushers are on familiar terms, the prostitutes, while aggressive, appear to respect his space, and the his fellow graffiti artists are pleased to see him. In other words, things aren't as bleak as they seem.

Put in touch with a rich art connoisseur by a friend (Claudia Summers, sporting super-terrific hair) he meets in the park, Basquiat sells a painting he was able to snag just as he was being thrown out of his apartment. The sale seems to cheer the artist up, as there seems to be a spring in his step. The pep, however, dissipates somewhat when he notices that his band's gear is being ripped off.

While it may sound like a mindless journey through the self-indulgent morass of an offbeat wall scribbler, in actuality, it's an excellent showcase for the music and fashion that was peculating in the city at the time. We're talking hip hop, new wave, post-punk and no wave.

The first thing that struck me about the hip hop scene were the tight-fitting designer jeans of the rappers. The second was the use of the term "Sucka MC's." I had previously thought that expression was coined around 1986. Learning is fun.

Another in a long line bands I mistook for being an industrial group from Belgium, Tuxedomoon were definitely one the highlights as far as sounding all weird and sinister go. Their performance of "Desire" accompanies Basquiat as he tags a wall with a nonsensical verse in white spray paint.

Making an unstructured racket, DNA, lead by Arto Lindsay, show up next. While I've heard a shitload of disorderly bands in my day, there was something uneasy and beautifully unpleasant about their particular type of noise.

The inclusion of Japanese new wavers The Plastics was a wonderful surprise. In that, I thought all the bands were going to be from New York, or at least American. Anyway, giving an interview ("How do you say 'New Wave' in Japanese?") and performing "Copy," the band, best known in North America as "that group who appeared on SCTV that one time," delight us with their robotic dance moves and bubbly brand of pop.

Keep an eye out for Cookie Mueller as "2nd Go-Go Dancer" (Catherine Rebennack plays "First Go-Go Dancer") during a brief aside at a strip club. Which reminds me, keeping track of everyone who makes an appearance in Downtown 81 is almost impossible. I was only able to spot Cookie because I'm quite familiar with her work thanks to Female Trouble ("Just 'cause we're pretty everybody's jealous!") and Desperate Living ("You lazy bitch! I'm out working my tail off all day, and you're in there fucking Midgets!").

The enthusiasm of Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Coati Mundi (Who's That Girl) was downright infectious. Now, I normally shy away from bands that are named after tropical food and feature back up singers in leopard print outfits (just kidding, I love leopard print), yet there was something enticing about their funky groove. This is especially true when Coati hits the stage of the Rock Lounge (not to be confused with Jimbo's Rock Lounge); the guy's a maniac. (Kid Creole and the Coconuts' "Stool Pigeon" was a staple of Deadly Hedley's Saturday night radio show on Toronto's CFNY-FM back in the late '80s. Ha-cha-cha-cha.)

You'll also notice that the luminescent Lori Eastside (Get Crazy) is on the other side of the stage putting on a new wave clinic as a guest Coconut.

After the Rock Lounge, Basquiat, who is, by the way, searching for the attractive woman in the convertible, heads over to the Peppermint Lounge. There he witnesses the no wave jazz of James White and the Blacks. Again, like Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the band wow audience (which includes Debi Mazar) with their sheer exuberance.

Call me completely unaware of one's surroundings, but the erotic nature of the new wave fashion segment had me fumbling for my non-existent inhaler. Erotic, in that, I got to see a pre-Liquid Sky Anne Carlisle (credited as Anne Carlyle) posing and preening as a new wave fashion model.

Up until then, the Glenn O'Brien (the host of TV Party) penned, Edo Bertoglio directed film had very little go for it in terms of visual flair (New York City pretty much does all the heavy lifting when it comes to style and substance). Yet, they seem to have made an exception when it came time to shoot the fashion model sequence, as it is teaming with peachy colours and creative camera work.

The moment when Basquiat is sold drugs caused me to get a tad misty-eyed. Seriously, the fact that I'm never asked to purchase illegal drugs anymore when I walk down the streets is a sad state of affairs. It's true, in some circles this lack of hashish solicitation is seen as an improvement. Though, I must say, I do miss the unsavoury attention. They (the pushers) kept me on my toes. Unlike today, where I basically wander around in a crack-pipe-less funk, desperately hoping that the next person about to pass me on the street wants to alter my state of consciousness.

Exploring the city, drifting aimlessly, call it what you will, it's no secret that hitting the pavement of my city's streets is one of my favourite pastimes. And I think that's what lead me to being so tolerant of the directionless temperament of this film. His approach to city and its streets was very much like my own. The way Basquiat seemed to penetrate the sidewalk, instead of merely walking on it, was an eye-opening experience.

Oh, and meeting up with Deborah Harry in the dark alleyway behind the Mudd Club and hurdling through the night air to the eerie strains of Suicide's "Cheree" ("My black leather lady / I love you") was an almost too perfect way to end this wonderfully off-the-wall movie.

video uploaded by Recall Records


  1. "Verbose doodles." Hee hee. I'm only familiar with Basquiat through the biopic with Jeffrey Wright and his appearance in some Blondie video.

    This film sounds fascinating in a time-capsule sort of way. I like films that are socio-cultural-historical documents.

    I was trying to figure out how the nine-year-old Saul Williams narrated this film, but Wiki cleared that confusion up.

  2. Tamara Davis' next film is a doc about Basquiat called The Radiant Child.

    It's totally historical a socio-cultural point-of-view. Watching him walk through neighbourhoods that don't exist anymore was my favourite aspect of the film.

    Crap. Why did you clear it up yourself? I had an answer ready to go. :D

  3. Dude, those were some Karim Amir-friendly Jeopardy! categories last night. And I knew Final Jeopardy! (Libreville! Libreville!)
    I'm sad Terry didn't make it to the final three.

  4. Libreville? Damn! You go, girl!

    I'm sure the fact that none of the contestants got it right made your Central West African geography dominance all the more sweet.

    At first I was like, "Who the fuck is Terry?!?" And then, after a simple Google search, I was all, "Duh! I love that guy!"

  5. Okay...okay...okay, I admit it. I'm obsessed with NYC; especially from the VU period through New Wave. I own this and relish watching it. My soul is re-energized by authentic footage from that period, so consequently I own most of the films of Amos Poe and a number of other films; if nothing else, than because they feature the city as a major character. This is a great peek into the music, art and street culture of that time. YumYum does it again!
    (BTW: DNA are an excellent No Wave band to get into if you haven't already, and the fantastic Plastics spent a bunch of time in NYC around 1980 trying break into the US market. Kinda like seeing Flat Duo Jets in the film ATHENS GA, INSIDE OUT and knowing that they're from Chapel Hill, NC.)