Barbican Cinema: The Grime and the Glamour: NYC 1976-90

Barbican Cinema, Barbican Centre
The Grime and the Glamour: NYC 1976-90
29 September – 5 October
Box Office 0845 120 7527

New York in the 70s and 80s: a time of fear, poverty, uncertainty…and unparalleled artistic freedom. This autumn Barbican Cinema screens The Grime and the Glamour, a unique film season which captures a period of significant historical change and creative energy in New York. The city’s economic decline can be glimpsed through movies: in litter-strewn streets, in abandoned and decaying buildings, and in the squats of protagonists.

Barbican Cinema curator Tamara Anderson says, "Now more than ever there’s an enormous amount of nostalgia for the gritty New York City of the 1970s and ‘80s, even among those of us who never lived through it. The films screening in The Grime and the Glamour immediately conjure the streetscapes, fashions, textures of the time, but also plot an itinerary for those interested in the cinema that emerged from the extraordinary artistic culture of this period - NYC was a city known well to Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, subject of our Art Gallery retrospective, running concurrently.”

But The Big Apple was also a city on the verge of substantial gentrification, poised between desolation and rebuilding. Some movies reflect the bohemian bourgeoisie on the margins of Manhattan: the creative community of the East Village included filmmakers such as Bette Gordon, Charlie Ahearn and Jim Jarmusch, for example. Whilst on the Lower East Side, wherever artists led developers were never far behind. With the earliest film in the season dating back to 1976, a year after the city’s financial default, some films frame New York as a nexus of unhealthy perversion and moral disorder. Others show a city, though undoubtedly degraded, exciting, vibrant, and – especially when viewed in retrospect – almost impossibly glamorous.

In honour of the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibition taking place in the Barbican Art Gallery, The Grime and the Glamour also celebrates NYC as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s hometown, including screenings of Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, with Basquiat’s ex-paramour Madonna in her iconic turn as Susan; Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, which saw Basquiat himself using the film set as a makeshift crash pad; plus hip hop classic Wild Style, starring the legendary Fab 5 Freddy and Ramellzee, personal friends and musical collaborators with Basquiat.

Anderson continues, New York in these years was dangerous, decaying, and AIDS-hit – when we look back, it is also with a sense of loss. Now New York is a more gentrified place, less affordable to artists. Arguably then, there’s an added relevancy for Londoners as these films are prized artefacts of a cultural ferment made possible, largely, by cheap rents."

Remembering CBGBs – A Triple Bill (15*)
Fri 29 Sep 7pm, Cinema 1
The Blank Generation (US 1976 Dir Ivan Kral, Amos Poe 55 min Digital)
Soul City (US 1979 Dir M Henry Jones 2 min 16mm)
Punking Out (US 1978 Dir Maggi Carson, Juliusz Kossakowski, Ric Shore 25 min 16mm)
CBGB, the small East Village club that spawned and nurtured American punk and New Wave music in the mid-70s, closed in 2006. Its building, 315 Bowery, was added to the American National Register of Historic Places in 2013. For those not lucky enough to have known it in its prime, this triple bill of films provide a raw audio-visual record of the club and the burgeoning punk scene in New York. Between them, the films here capture performances and interviews with Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, Television, Wayne County, New York Dolls, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys and The Heartbreakers.

PLEASE NOTE: The Blank Generation was shot on silent 16mm film with the sound recorded separately.

Permanent Vacation (12A)
Fri 29 Sep 8.45pm, Cinema 3
US 1980 Dir Jim Jarmusch 80 min Digital presentation
Jim Jarmusch ’s first feature is a remarkable time capsule of both the blasted physical landscapes of the Lower East Side circa 1980, and its fashion, culture and attitude. No real ‘plot’ exists: the film follows lanky teenage jazz fiend Allie as he hangs out in a shabby tenement flat, drifting through a crumbling Lower East Side landscape that’s half war zone, half deserted playground. Famously, when Jarmusch was filming in a flat on East 3rd Street, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat took to using the set as a crash pad. “Every time we did a reverse angle, I’d have to drag Jean-Michel in his sleeping bag under the camera so he’d be out of the shot,” reported the director. “He’d grunt and go back to sleep.” Starring, and with music by, Jarmusch favourite John Lurie.

Wild Style (15)
Sat 30 Sep 7pm, Cinema 3
US 1983 Dir Charlie Ahearn 82 min Digital presentation
Shot over three years, primarily on location in the Bronx, as graffiti artists expanded from trains onto canvases, Wild Style is rightly celebrated today as an invaluable record of graffiti, MCing, breakdancing and turntabalism in their earliest manifestations. A trailblazing classic that first brought hip hop to the world, Wild Style is a loosely-scripted fusion of fiction and documentary, centring on graffiti artist Zoro (real-life street artist George Lee Quiñones), promoter Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) and journalist Virginia – played by underground actress Patti Astor, later a key player in the downtown art world, founder of the FUN gallery, and early supporter of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. A minimal plot provides the excuse for appearances by the likes of graffiti artist Lady Pink, rap king Busy Bee, and breakdance crews Electric Force and Rock Steady, and some vivid set-pieces – including Grandmaster Flash spinning records in his mum’s kitchen, a rap-battle between Cold Crush and the Fantastic Freaks on a South Bronx basketball court, and a rousing finale at the East River Ampitheater, where Rammellzee roams the stage with a shotgun.

Smithereens (15)
Sat 30 Sep 8.45pm, Cinema 3
US 1982 Dir Susan Seidelman 93 min Digital presentation
Before Susan, there was Wren – a teenage New Jersey punkette freshly arrived in the Big City, protagonist of this first film by Susan Seidelman, whose follow-up would be the bigger-budget Desperately Seeking Susan(also screening). Wren can’t sing, write songs or play an instrument, but is desperate to make the East Village punk scene, and will latch on opportunistically to anyone who can help her get ahead. Casting aside nice Montana boy Paul, she sets her sights instead on punk rocker Eric (former Television guitarist and Voidoids frontman Richard Hell) in a film of great jittery energy with a blistering soundtrack by The Feelies. Smithereens captures an authentic, seedy, downtown vibe, from the dingy locales right down to the charity shop fashions and the dirty Converse.

News from Home (12A*)
Sun 1 Oct 4pm, Cinema 3
US 1977 Dir Chantal Akerman 85 min Digital presentation
This hauntingly beautiful film has the distinction of bringing audiences as close to spending 85 full minutes on the streets of 70s Manhattan as it’s possible to get in 2017. Shot over the summer of 1976, the film juxtaposes transfixing, long-take shots of the city with, on the soundtrack, readings of letters from the director’s mum back in Belgium. Matching her mother’s domestic reports with images of desolate streets, dirty old diners, parking lots, and subway platforms – never houses or flats – director Chantal Akerman creates a palpable sense of alienation.
At once a powerful evocation of isolation, and a great love letter to New York, News from Home ends on an unforgettable final shot, looking back from the Staten Island Ferry…

Desperately Seeking Susan (15)
Sun 1 Oct 6pm, Cinema 3
US 1985 Dir Susan Seidelman 103 min 35mm presentation
Madonna had just scored huge hits with Like a Virginand Material Girl when she starred in this film as Susan, a Lower East Side-dwelling hipster who becomes an object of fascination to a bored New Jersey housewife (Rosanna Arquette). A case of amnesia, stolen Egyptian earrings, and mistaken identities: the plot is screwball-farcical but allows for a wild ride through some choice bygone Manhattan locations including legendary nightclub Danceteria, veteran East Village vintage clothes shop Love Saves the Day, and the Bleeker Street Cinema – where sexy love interest Aidan Quinn works as projectionist. All this, and some mighty fashion statements, alongside cameos from downtown mainstays John Turturro, Richard Hell, John Lurie and others.

Variety (18*)
Mon 2 Oct 8.45pm, Cinema 3
US 1984 Dir Bette Gordon 97 min 35mm presentation
This fearless exploration of female erotic fantasyemerged from the creative community on New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 80s. It tells the story of a Midwest girl who takes a job at the ticket booth of the Variety porn cinema off Times Square and becomes caught up in a subculture of desire – increasingly obsessed by pornography, and drawn into the life of a shady male patron of the cinema. Directed by Bette Gordon, with contributions from other downtown scenesters such as Tom di Cillo, Nan Goldin, Spalding Gray, Luis Guzman and Cookie Mueller, Variety also functions as remarkable time capsule of New York City, featuring bygone landmarks like Fulton Fish Market, Yankee Stadium, and a pre-cleaned-up Times Square.

Los Sures + Living Los Sures: Toñita’s (12A*)
Tue 3 Oct 7pm, Cinema 3
US 1984 Dir Diego Echeverria 66 min Digital presentation
This 1984 documentary recently restored, is a cinema vérité style portrait of the now uber-hip Brooklyn enclave of South Williamsburg back when it was a primarily Puerto Rican area. Once one of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, it is composed of five vignettes each telling the story of a different resident. “If it ain’t one struggle, it’s another struggle … you’re always fightin’,” says Cuso, a builder. Yes there’s crime, drugs and gangs. But there’s also community, culture and creativity. Single parent Marta considers leaving, but stays, saying “I know this neighbourhood…I know that, to an extent, I’m safe here. I can say I’m among friends.”
+ Living Los Sures: Toñita’s
Sebastian Diaz, Beyza Boyacioglu, 2014, 21 min Digital presentation
Toñita’s is a portrait of the last Puerto Rican social club in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The short documentary dives into the microcosm of Caribbean Club (also fondly labeled ‘Toñita’s’ after its owner Maria Toñita), in order to talk about urban space, displacement and identity. Toñita’s is a part of Brooklyn-based UnionDocs’ Living Los Sures project - reinvestigating the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn today through a collection of short films.

Tally Brown, New York (12A*)
Wed 4 Oct 7pm, Cinema 3
US 1979 Dir Rosa von Praunheim 93 min 16mm presentation
“This is my city… Its soul comes from the fact of its difficulty.” So proclaims the eponymous Tally Browna bohemian cabaret artiste associated with New York’s underground art scene and Warhol’s Factory – in this remarkable double portrait of a performer and her hometown.
A Julliard-trained blues singer and gifted raconteur, Brown is shown in performance – covering Kurt Weill, Johnny Mercer, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie– and in lively conversation with the director Rosa von Praunheim and assorted friends, including John Waters favourite Divine, and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn. Just as fascinating are the glimpses of various bygone gay Manhattan hangouts – the Continental Baths, and West Village cabaret-revival club Reno Sweeney – and the gritty street life around Times Square.

Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance) (18)
Wed 4 Oct 8.45pm, Cinema 3
US 1981 Dir Abel Ferrara 80 min Digital presentation
Along with Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Bronx-born Abel Ferrara is one of cinema’s master chroniclers of New York’s seamy underbelly. This grimy 1981 film is a key work in the ‘New York as cesspool’ cannon; like the better-known Taxi Driver, it figures the city as a violent labyrinth, crudely divided between predators and prey. But here’s the twist: the gun-toting urban vigilante is a she. Mute seamstress Thana (Zoe Lund) is raped once, twice – and then something snaps. Armed and dressed all in black, she walks the maze of New York streets, crossing and re-crossing the city, laying waste to a good chunk of Manhattan’s male population.
Ultra-low-budget, massively raw-edged, Ms. 45 was filmed in and around Ferrara’s Union Square loft, and features plenty of documentary-style, stolen shots of the city’s homeless and debris-strewn back alleys.

The Golden Boat (15*)
Thu 5 Oct 8.45pm, Cinema 3
US 1990 Dir Raul Ruiz 83 min Digital presentation
Chilean-French filmmaker Raul Ruiz (Time Regained) was teaching at Harvard when he completed this absurdist film noir/Mexican telenovela mash-up set on the streets of a still-seedy, early 1990s downtown Manhattan.
Seemingly the whole of indie New York was involved: various future super-producers, including Christine Vachon (Carol), and, in front of the camera, luminaries from the downtown theatre, performance and art worlds, including actors from the Wooster Group and Squat Theater, film directors Jim Jarmusch and Barbet Schroeder, artist Vito Acconci, writer Kathy Aker, and performance artist Annie Sprinkle. The soundtrack is courtesy of avant-gardist John Zorn. An unlikely jumble of sight gags, gangster movie clichés, and Waiting for Godot-style clipped crypticism and existential ponderings, it’s an oddity but one which captures the last gasp of the downtown scene before its decline into gentrification.