our time was still far ahead though now it seems so long ago: beth b, scott b, amos, jarmusch, maxs, cbgbs, neon leon, miguels short eyes, michael carmines, the entermedia, the film forum, 8st playhouse, st marks, john lurie, johnny thunder, deedee shooting his bb gun out the window of the chelsea but always back to the les.
—Abel Ferrara, Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side
Street-poet Abel Ferrara waxes romantically about a not-so-far-away time in “les,” in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The filmmaker’s stream of consciousness prose emulates the cross-pollination of arts in 1970s and ‘80s New York. Collaboration among artists of various fields was a key characteristic in this period. One nexus for such interdisciplinary activities was that two-pronged movement — if you can call it that — No Wave Music and Cinema, both branches of which drew from performance art and post-punk music.
The lesser known of the movement’s halves, No Wave Cinema, lasted about a decade, from the late ‘70s to the mid ‘80s. As Matthew Yokosbosky notes in his article, “No Wave Cinema, 1978–87 – Not a Part of Any Wave: No Wave,” artists flocked to Lower Manhattan because of the low-rent apartments and the vibrant club scene (Club 57, the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, etc.). John Lurie, Amos Poe, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver, and more emerged from No Wave. Filmmaker Eric Mitchell, a French-born US transplant, was there at the beginning of the Wave. He was a leader at the time and is little known now. Officially a Colab (Collaborative Projects, Inc.) project, Mitchell, along with James Nares and Becky Johnston, formed the New Cinema, an alternative screening space at 12 St. Mark’s Place. Although it lasted about a year, New Cinema gave No Wave filmmakers the opportunity to show their work to an actual audience. This is where Nares’ Rome ’78 (1978), Lurie’s Men in Orbit (1978), Vivienne Dick’s She Had Her Gun Already (1978), and Mitchell’s first film, Kidnapped (1978), premiered.
Mitchell once described Kidnapped as “a 1960s underground movie happening today.” It’s a loving pastiche of Andy Warhol’s films, especially Spaced (1965) and Vinyl (1965), spliced with Mitchell’s and, to a greater degree, No Wave’s themes of alienation, detachment, and role-playing. It’s a hangout movie with Mitchell, actress and No Wave fixture Patti Astor, Mudd Club co-founder and James Chance (of The Contortions) manager Anya Phillips, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks bass player Gordon Stevenson, and the mysterious Duncan Smith. The camera aimlessly pans, caring little if it focuses on them or not as they pose against paint-chipped white walls and lounge about in a shabby, bare apartment.
Kidnapped, like many No Wave films, was shot on Super-8mm. Microphones can be seen in shots picking up direct sound from a radio and portable turntable that blasts DEVO, Ramones, and Teenage Jesus. Mitchell shouts action and at another time, someone tells him that the camera’s rolling. The actors read their lines off of pages pasted onto the walls. Scenes last for an entire un-edited reel, which are in turn spliced together. Between cuts, Mitchell even leaves in the white leader — those pieces of extra film at the end of reels used to protect film stock from damage.
Mitchell’s filmmaking is a kind of refined sloppiness. His camera pans disinterestedly, scanning the room, paying no attention to re-framing figures in a shot, cutting off foreheads and feet. His tight, unyielding compositions, his freaky framings, shot mostly at chest-level, show characters conversing, mixing come-ons with insults. Compliments swiftly change to trash talk. In one instance, Mitchell gushes over Astor, heaping praise on her. Without a pause, he tells her, “Every inch of your body stinks of celluloid … you got a cheap image.” In another moment, Phillips tells Mitchell she’s sick of him spouting his leftist talk, his “reactionary crap,” and that, “People like you should be shot dead.” In turn, Mitchell calls her out on her put-on radical politics. “I think you are a big phony,” he tells her. “Make a move, you know … I want to see you do something.”
Phoniness, the inability to maintain your image, is a cardinal sin in the Warholian universe. In Chelsea Girls (1966), Pope Ondine slaps Ronna Page for calling him a phony. After being lightly backhanded by Louis Waldon, Viva tensely says the P-word while horsewhipping him in Lonesome Cowboys (1968). By calling Phillips a phony, Mitchell’s saying she’s not a real revolutionary, just another boho poseur. But then the kidnapped person (Steve Mass, the second of the three Mudd Club co-founders) appears, and the torture proceeds in the next reel, the one in which Mitchell’s Vinyl homage is most readily apparent.
The scene begins with an extreme close-up of Mass’s face. The camera slowly zooms out as the group gags and blindfolds him. He’s playing a capitalist in a business suit. Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” plays in the background as they tear off his clothes and burn holes through them with cigarettes. Positioned in the same way Edie Sedgwick sat in Vinyl, Astor sits near the lower right-hand side of the frame. Mitchell brandishes a Luger pistol, jabbing Mass in the stomach with it. “Come on, do the pig,” he commands, snorting swinishly. Phillips takes the gun and shoots Mass in the head. “Now what do we do?,” the party seems to wonder through their shuffling postures before leaving the frame. The reel ends and so does the film. She made a move.