Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dawn of the Dinkins: RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE (2013), BLANK CITY (2010)

I came late to the party in Manhattan, but in 1992, moving in gradually via couch osmosis, it was still, at least, a party. The white boy funk thing was big -- Spin Doctors, Blues Traveller --my band, the Mud, 2 Skinny Js.... we danced like maniacs at Wetlands, New Music Cafe, Tramp's, Nightingale's-- most now long closed or sold, rebranded. But back then there was no 'cabaret law' (it's still illegal to dance in NYC). Back then you could drink on the street (if you wrapped it in a brown paper bag - known as the "bag law") And you could smoke. It's all gone...  but at least in the early 90s the party was still raging. Disney hadn't commandeered the porn marquess of Times Square. You could still see hookers--gay and straight--loafing out on the dirty boulevard. 

You maybe read my 2011 piece, Manhattan Sinking Like a Rock, wherein I admonished the average New Yorker for letting all our lovely sleaze disappear. I predicted (or rather hoped for) a time when the city might be sleazy and crime-ridden once more, to allow cheap rents and flourishing arts.

Man, was I wrong. NYC will never slide again or rage again, There's too much $$ invested in its real estate for the 1% to let the rents drop. No one is taking the accursed city down into the artistic abyss anymore, not without a grant, (you know, to cover the insurance).

Godard homage indicated by pose and striped shirt

Brit filmmaker Ashley Cahill feels as I do about NYC. He too remembers the brown bags and dancing wherever the fuck days of old- and he's done something about it. And that something is serial murder. Looking like some weird cross between Seth Meyers and Beck, Cahill puts himself in the center a fauxcumentary where he kills random citizenry in order to set the fuse on what he hopes will be a rent-lowering, Summer of Sam-style fear-upping art-blooming crime wave. 

God (or rather godlessness) bless his tousled little head. He's doing this for you, for me, for US, for posterity.

The film's had more than a few titles before settling on RANDOM ACTS. It was CHARM, for example, which is moronically vague, but on Netflix Streaming, with one of those ubiquitous torture porn-looking covers, it has finally landed before me as RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE. I don't know how it made it past my usual ignoring of such things (for I dread torture porn as it leaves me dispirited for years, even decades). But I am glad I did. 

If you share my mistrust of all the nanny state health that NYC is touting these days, this is your movie!

Celebrity friends should always be displayed proudly.
Godard and Truffaut T-shirts

It's one of those first-person meta-documentary violence deconstructions ala MAN BITES DOG, with Cahill as a slightly more homicidal version of, presumably, himself, since both he and his character are Godard-hip and so able to use the low budget and stolen shot approach as contextual meta-commentary beyond just the subject (the film is dedicated to Sam Fuller!). And though he never says so outright, he clearly shares my dislike of the second-guessing anxiety that sabotages so many homicidal comedies, i.e. the need to have Winona Ryder feel remorseful and turn on Slater in HEATHERS, or to only put her disappointing dates into comas they can one day recover from (in SEX AND DEATH 101 -see "Why Can't We All Just Morally Compromise?), or to have Dexter only kill other serial killers, or Edward the TWILIGHT vampire be a 'vegetarian.'

In other words, so many films or shows that want to be naughty are afraid to get all Alex and his Droogs-level challenging to our limits of audience identification. They want to be Scorsese but are afraid of telling Tommy DeVito to get his shine box. Not our boy Ashley. Once he does his first random stabbing in RANDOM, man, you know this Tommy be shine box splintered. Cahill is no kibbitzer!

After a lengthy opening monologue, Malcolm stops addressing the camera on the greatness of pre-Giuliani NYC (when it beat out Detroit as "the murder capital of the world"), and we're off the known grid of the normal disaffected poseur: Someone answers an anonymous door he's been knocking on, and we're expecting some kind of standard pre-arranged greeting scene (wherein a camera is already inside waiting for him as per so many reality shows). Instead, he grabs the unlucky inhabitant, throws her onto her couch and stabs her repeatedly and rapidly, without any drama or Bernard Hermann scissor music to let us prep for the discomfort and shock. He's suddenly moved faster than the cameraman and become a real threat. We're just not expecting it and its genuinely shocking - way beyond the usual tacky violence of Hollywood. Even though we know it's not 'real' per se, it's hard not to shiver, almost painfully. So many fauxquementaries have tried to get to this same spot, only to pull back like little pussies. Cahill dives in, and ignores our ashen complexions.

Your reaction will probably be centered around your own neighborhood: if you live in the suburbs, even our contemporary Disney-sanitized NYC might seem scary just for being unknown, but to me the suburbs are far scarier. When I'm visiting friends there, I'm awake all night, freaking out over the quietude and feeling of vulnerability. There's usually at least three doors and dozens of ground floor single pane windows that even a child could break into, so how can I fall asleep? Don't they have bars on windows and deadbolts? And it's so dead quiet after, say, midnight. Not a creature is stirring. Like Roderick Usher one better, I can hear the mice in the neighbor's walls. In NYC we have deadbolts on thick metal doors, and only one possible entry window (the one above the fire escape) and neighbors on every side who can hear any cry for help. But if your buzzer goes off or there's a knock on the door while you're watching RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE, I imagine it could be quite scary. And when Malcolm garrotes a guy for texting in what looks like the Anthology Film Archives' downstairs screening room it's fun to imagine seeing the film there and realizing you forgot your turn your phone off, afraid to even move to find it in your bag lest this guy be sitting behind you.

So even if --or because--it's a bit unnerving, one must applaud the filmmaker's full commitment to the tenets of starting a crime wave. And if he eventually turns on his own crew, and finally even his own French girlfriend, well that's to be expected. What's not expected is the deader-than-deadpan approach that never trivializes the violence Malcolm commits while never judging it either, so we end up in a very unique zone that's the opposite of HEATHERS' hypocritical inference that we're all so impressionable we need a pretty girl's buzzkill morals to remind us killing our high school enemies isn't "cool."

That's Jamie Frey (of the Brooklyn What?) at left-a buddy of mine who showed up in a random
RANDOM tracking shot, a
comforting indication that the raw edge of NYC ain't totally dead

But even if our sense of identification is pushed to HENRY,  CLOCKWORK or RICHARD III extremes, we trust Cahill because he is so openly homicidal he shatters our conception of safety, of distance from the screen, in ways we rarely see; he evinces a thorough knowledge of the movies. The phrasing he incorporates into his speech conveys among other things a deep absorption of GODFATHER 2 ("You gonna help me with these things I gotta do, or what?"), TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS, and BREATHLESS. And I applaud how much this approach ties into true film fans' collective rejection of banal reality and his Don Quixote-esque quest to exhume the twitchy corpse of New York's grimy past. Like all great quests it's doomed to backfire, but then again NYC hasn't ever been the same, not ever. Even one day to the next, it's never the same. It's like a mutating geographical variation of THE THING. Any chance to shape its mutant growth to our liking has long since gone before we even got there. Yer we already did shape it, sometime or other, and never for the better or the worse.. Always, always both.

Vince Gallo!

BLANK CITY (2010) is a real documentary about the time and place Cahill longs to return to, specifically NYC's underground 70s film scene. It's full of exquisite glimpses into the early 8mm and 16mm clips of the artsy downtown druggie enclaves centered around CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, Tompkins Square Park (when it was a homeless encampment) and the Alphabet City shooting galleries. The age of Youtube, Final Cut, and digital video put an end to the uniqueness of the scene. But I too remember how we used to project 8mm and 16mm films on white walls or sheets for gathered friends and/or family members. Each showing was a one-time event, special in the way no amount of today's Skyy Vodka sponsorship, rooftop screening fests, and swag can equal. And the kids then had more drugs--they could afford them living in $10 a month loft apartments with ten other people. So with ample footage from the original films (by people like Amos Poe and Richard Kern) and talking heads like Lydia Lunch, Steve Buscemi, Thurston Moore, John Waters, Deborah Harry, and various members of various punk bands, it's better than being there, I'm sure - at least smell-wise, and--I'm fairly sure--way better than having to see the entirety of each film.

With its good sense of humor about the poverty-enforced ingenuity of these early filmmakers, it's possible to long to return to BLANK CITY's innocence and imagine how great it would be to see the whole films, even while knowing in reality they would be excruciating for more than a few minutes, and the lack of air conditioning or clean underwear would eventually wear us down. In that sense, BLANK CITY is better than being there, while making you long to return anyway. I especially loved the snippets of ROME 78 - a re-enactment of the fall of an empire as filmed on the sly around the City's more Roman-esque landmarks, so while a kid in a toga dies in the Central Park fountain, 70s tourists walk by; a coliseum scene occurs in front of the Bronx Zoo lion cage, etc. It's the kind of gutsy shot stealing that makes New York City great!

ROME 78 - John Lurie (bottom)

And it's in that sense that the documentary's poverty-is-the-mother-of-invention reverie is so invaluable, and the scene's inclusiveness so impressive. The proletarian mix of thick New York accents, kids kicked out of their working class Bronx neighborhoods for being gay or fleeing their midwestern nowheresville hometowns like MIDNIGHT COWBOY makes for a cohesive unit of subculture that was too out there to become mainstream, but did anyway. There's also a coordinated effort merged the downtown punks with the uptown African-American WILD STYLE graffiti artists, dancers and street poets. All of it goes to prove that if you're literate, young, bisexual, and hot you can never be considered homeless in a neighborhood/time where everyone takes care of everyone else and the class system is part of what's being rebelled against... until of course the money starts rolling in...

And it's that money and the eighties that leads to skyrocketing rents, which means big real estate investments, which means the end of the squats and slums of the Village, which means the need to protect those investments, which means Republican mayors. So gradually, especially with the incursion of Giuliani in 1994, the herald of zero tolerance public smoking, the abolition of the 'brown bag' drink, and the Cabaret Law that Kevin Bacon fought successfully in FOOTLOOSE in the 80s but we lost in the 'real life' of the New York streets in the 90s, the crackdowns on the drugs at Limelight, the rise of swing dancing, the rise of video, DVD, FCP, AIDS, the WWW, and 9/11 and my own near death over and over from alcoholism... we lost it all. I blame Giuliani for all of it. We could use a man like Ed Koch or Dinkins again.

Lydia Lunch

Shooting your own shit is so easy now it's hard to warrant a film festival at all, hard to motivate people to go find some shady address from a hand-drawn flyer and sit on the concrete floor for three hours when the movie you're showing them is a mere click away on the home screen. Back then if you had a projector and a camera you could make a movie on Monday and get it back from Kodak by the weekend and screen it promptly for a 100 rowdy urchins. And since everyone knew everyone else and half the people were squatters and no one had TVs to compete with, and half the people were in the movie anyway. So huge crowds packed into lofts and garages and wherever and legends were born, and today these squalid art films are shown in university classes. But that will soon change as more and more class moves to the web and more and more public screenings are too unreliable. In other words, there's no word of mouth anymore because word of mouth itself has proliferated to infinity, and posting invites to Facebook is so easy that there are now so many options none of them end up being anything worth doing. If you went outside, well, you couldn't smoke there anyway, might not know anyone, just pay $14 for a mixed drink. Man, I remember when shit was still immediate, urgent, vital, cheap...

You know, like with Friendster. 

Basquiat (I left the red loading circle in, for art's sake)

There's this other documentary on Netflix, WE CAUSE SCENES: THE RISE OF IMPROV EVERYWHERE (2013), about a group of NYC hipsters who do big flash mob-ish pranks and I'm a little jealous of their huge turnouts, which would seem to contradict all I've said here. But on the other hand, I've never been good at highly organized 'spontaneity.' It's fine for some people but the New Yorker embodied by Cahill in RANDOM ACTS or the filmmakers in BLANK CITY might point out as I do that it's just conformity in a new package.

Safe for mainstream consumption

I can respect the original gaggle of dudes involved in the 'sudden improv' concept, but the idea that whole masses of people want to join up and be led into safe, happy flash mob antics makes me realize that cigarettes are essential to true revolution (and I say this as part of Shelley Jackson's SKIN project) It lacks the 'everyone's in charge' freedom of similar movements (as in the Merry Pranksters or the Cockettes or Diggers) that relied on chaos for true freedom of the sort impossible without very strong psychedelics and tobacco. The idea that sober people eagerly participate in chances to get told what to do in order to 'break away' from lockstep drone reality makes no sense. This is how ideas like the Diggers morphed into cults like the Mansons, and how the Rolling Stone mossed, and how Times Square became 'family-friendly.'

Thank god there's one artist who will never break that seal. His name? Abel Ferrara. At least he understood how NYC --and therefore the world--would end in 4:44: LAST DAYS ON EARTH, not with a bang but with NY1's Pat Kiernan delivering a quietly dignified sign off.

All else is just Sony... selling itself copies of its older self... through the TV mirror.

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