Home to abandoned buildings, litter-strewn streets, squats, and the most dangerous public transport system in the world, New York in the late 1970s and ’80s only narrowly escaped bankruptcy.
Capturing this brief period of change, contradictions and creative energy (and to tie in with the current Basquiat exhibition), London’s Barbican is running a short season of films. Some document the city’s grit and moral degradation, others present an intoxicating picture of unparalleled freedom and undeniable glamour.
Highlights include, Jim Jarmusch’s ’s first feature Permanent Vacation which time-capsules the blasted physical landscapes of the Lower East Side circa 1980, encapsulating its style, mood and attitude. Bronx-born master of neo-noir Abel Ferrara chronicles the seamy underbelly of New York in vengeance thriller Ms. 45. East Village-based director Bette Gordon collaborates with celebrated experimental writer Kathy Acker on Variety, a feminist erotic fantasy that sees a Midwest girl takes a job at the ticket booth of a porn cinema. And Chilean-French filmmaker Raul Ruiz’s The Golden Boat is an absurdist film noir/Mexican telenovela mash-up.
For the curators, the season is intended as a cultural record. “New York in these years was dangerous, decaying, and AIDS-hit; when we look back, it is also with a sense of loss,” says Barbican Cinema curator Tamara Anderson. “Now, New York is a more gentrified place that is less affordable to artists. Arguably, there’s an added relevancy for Londoners, as these films are prized artefacts of a cultural ferment made possible, largely, by cheap rents.”
The Grime and the Glamour also features documentaries that capture the era’s underground and emerging movements. Wild Styles is a unique record of the earliest days of graffiti, breakdancing, MC-ing and turntablism. Tally Brown takes us of a tour of cabaret and bygone gay Manhattan hangouts, with the Juilliard-trained eponymous blues singer. Remembering CBGBs takes the legendary post-punk club as its subject, featuring interviews with Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, Television and the New York Dolls. While Los Sures and Living Los Sures: Toñita’s explores the hidden past of Brooklyn’s former Puerto Rican enclave, South Williamsburg.
The season’s films frequently intersect with the life of Basquiat, a huge and enigmatic figure of the New York ’80s arts scene, until his death in 1988, and the subject of the Barbican’s major retrospective. The artist’s presence haunts several films. His former-paramour Madonna takes an iconic turn as Susan in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan; Basquiat used the film set of Permanent Vacation as a makeshift crash pad; and Basquiat’s personal friends and collaborators Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee people the classic hip hop doc Wild Style.