Strangers in a Strange Land
Published on February 2nd, 2012 | by L. Caldoran0
“4 by Amos Poe” runs from February 3-9 at Anthology Film Archives.
Simplified labels tend to be slapped onto current youth generations by their bewildered, vaguely derisive elders. (Consider Generation X and the tentative revival of “The Lost Generation.”) Thus, Richard Hell’s mid-’70s anthem of DIY and self-definition, “Blank Generation,” was commonly misinterpreted as an expression of nihilism—including by other members of the counterculture, e.g., its inspiration for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” “Blank,” in fact, was meant more in the sense of “fill in the…”, reflecting the alienation felt by post-Vietnam city-dwelling youth who yearned to construct their own values and aesthetics. In that vein, No Wave pioneer Amos Poe’s 1970s work, being screened February 3-5 at Anthology Film Archives, includes both fiction and nonfiction takes on young upstarts and outcasts in ‘70s-era Manhattan.
Poe’s music docs, “Night Lunch” (1975) and “The Blank Generation” (1976), serve as a pair of cinematic mix tapes for bands that performed in New York at the time: lyrical sentiments about the city range from David Bowie’s “New York’s a go-go and everything tastes nice” to Tuff Darts’ “If I didn’t love it, I swear I’d burn it to the ground.” The former film consists largely of big-name acts like Queen, Steely Dan, and Aerosmith, delving more into New York’s nascent punk scene at the tail end. Throughout, it cuts between concert footage with unsynced sound, to out-the-window shots of pre-Giuliani neon theater marquees, as if tuning a radio in the car; acts range from stripped-down setups at CBGB to an over-the-top giant-puppet-filled Sgt. Pepper “Rock Spectacle.” “Night Lunch” ends with the Patti Smith Group, which is also where “Blank Generation” begins, weaving their performance with backstage footage of Smith in a leather jacket looking appropriately badass.
Unlike most of “Night Lunch,” “Blank Generation” actually provides full songs—a couple of them per band—and in the cramped venues, Poe is able to get physically closer to the performers, many of them now iconic: one sees a tight close-up of Tom Verlaine’s face, for instance, and a shot of Joey Ramone’s filthy white Keds. Performance styles vary from the wry, restrained quirk of the Talking Heads to the aggressive camp of Wayne (now Jayne) County. The closing credits, appropriately if a little cutely, are spelled out on leather jackets wielding guitars.
Poe’s early narrative films, “The Foreigner” (1978) and “Unmade Beds” (1976), owe a heavy debt to Jean-Luc Godard. Characterized by rough, abrupt cuts and amateur actors, with much of the films set in bedrooms and on sidewalks, both center on young urbanites drifting, meeting, mating within the tropes and framework of film noir: the secret agent, the smooth criminal, the femme fatale. Both feature a protagonist who is somehow an outsider in New York, either by choice or circumstance: Rico (Duncan Hannah), a hip young Francophile photographer who fancies himself an outlaw, and Max Menace (Eric Mitchell), a European “terrorist” stranded in Manhattan. In each case, the antihero’s private existential monologue expresses a profound disconnect from his surroundings: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, but I can’t even remember one of ‘em,” and “Everybody wants to know where I come from, but nobody wants to know who I am.” (Both “The Foreigner” and “Unmade Beds” also feature a cameo from NYC punk godmother Debbie Harry, singing a little cabaret number before coolly disappearing from the rest of the film.)
“Unmade Beds,” Poe’s love letter to French cinema, even directly references Godard at the beginning via narration (in French!) that openly declares it to be “a French film set in New York,” in the vein of Nouvelle Vague directors appropriating Hollywood aesthetics: from New Wave to No Wave. It’s pretentious in the most literal sense: the characters obviously live in Manhattan, but are collectively pretending to be Parisian; Rico obsessively emulates Jean-Paul Belmondo, just as Belmondo’s character in “Breathless” idolized Bogart. (Rico’s macho posturing doesn’t suit him: often shirtless, with a boyish prettiness, he’s more a heterosexual twink than a realistic gangster or jaded showbiz womanizer, yet—as often happens—he’s the only one who can’t see it.)
Accordingly, much of the film consists of fashionable twentysomethings lounging around smoking during navel-gazing conversations, their interactions simultaneously casual and stylized. This approach could easily become insufferable if not for the film’s periodic cheeky touches: for instance, while one of Rico’s model-lovers launches into a monologue about her father’s skiing career in “the South of France” (in a flatly American accent), backed by a tender piano score, Rico, further off in the frame, gets bored and picks up Sartre’s “Nausea.” One of the final scenes openly breaks the fourth wall: shot from one fire escape to another, the cameraman (presumably Poe himself) directly asks Rico’s friend Paul (Eric Mitchell) whom he’d like to fashion himself after: he duly rattles off a list of names, ending with Poe’s and the actor’s own. Filling in the blanks yet again.
“The Foreigner” has a more developed plotline, if often a messy, disjointed one: it’s a conspiracy noir anchored in contemporary New York (the fall of ’77, to be precise). Generically Euro mystery man Max Menace, like Rico, spends a lot of time lying in bed looking cool. (In one notable extended shot, Menace relaxes in his hotel room while watching a news report on British punk, nodding his head to the music: “They have rejected all values,” says the anchorman. “They are anti-everything.”) In this case, though, it’s because Menace is waiting to receive an assignment that never comes: he even resorts to trolling the UN in search of a new contact, tailed every step of the way by a vampy female spy.
It all goes wrong from there: a woman who picks him up abruptly morphs into a shrill, nagging harpy after allowing him to hide at her apartment; after escaping, he’s ambushed in the men’s room at CBGB, where a gang of punks beat the shit out of him for no discernible reason. Backed by the strum, pulse, and rattle of Ivan Kral’s score, he ends up chased by government agents all the way to the southernmost tip of Manhattan. His ill-fated journey ends within view of the Statue of Liberty.
The “foreigner” is explicitly seen as an unwanted intruder to the city, harassed and abused until he must leave (but to where? and with what money?) or die. Perhaps this is a direct reference to the plight of the artistically inclined who migrate to New York in the hope of making it big, only to end up toiling in obscurity or moving away in frustration. Considering older, native New Yorkers’ frequent disdain for young transplants from Middle America—derided, as a whole, as gentrifying hipsters despite whatever legitimate cultural injections may be provided by individual members of that demographic—it’s still a valid message.