July 2001: Dafne called me up and told me there was a new movie I was going to die for. This wasn’t a line we said lightly – Dafne and I had just spent the better part of two years dancing and lip-synching in front of a movie screen on Second Avenue, in a cinema that was once a Yiddish playhouse back when the East Village was full of them. Dafne pranced in her best Tim Curry drag while I was well-secluded in a curly red wig, maid’s uniform, and six-inch heels. "What’s the movie?" I asked her excitedly. "It’s a story for all the dreamers, it’s everything we came to New York for. When can you go?" Soon we headed to the funky, 99-seat Two Boots Pioneer Theater on Avenue A, where Downtown 81 was exclusively engaged. .
I must have glanced at one of the lackluster reviews before I went to the theater, because I knew going into it that a young Jean Michel Basquiat was the star of Downtown 81. I was just as excited to see this movie as I had been to see Basquiat when it came out in 1996. I was in art school in New York then, and couldn’t wait to watch a big screen view of the brilliant painter, set in the wild downtown landscape of 1980s New York. But Basquiat was a bomb for me. I didn’t know anything about the New York ’80s first hand, but I was sure that the movie got it all wrong. The artist’s trajectory I wanted to see just wasn’t there – this Basquiat was bloated with egos and art stars and no one who seemed human or likeable. Underscoring this point was a phone call from a friend of mine who’d just finished art school: He told me after he saw the movie, "If I’m not an Art Star in a year, I’ve decided I’m going to give it up." This was the cold sentiment that Schnabel’s Basquiat seemed to bring out: Make it big or you’re nothing.
Thankfully, Downtown 81 was everything that I had wanted Basquiat to be. Instead of scenes fetishizing The Serious Artist in his studio working the canvas (cringe factor), Downtown 81 was a fable of The Artist which followed his hopes and dreams, hassles and despairs. In contrast to the megabucks SoHo oil-paint artist he would become in Basquiat, in Downtown 81, Basquiat plays himself as a musician and "poet of the streets" as often as he plays a painter. In this movie (as in his 1981 life), Basquiat, a.k.a. SAMO (SAY-mo, for "same old, same old"), is still throwing cryptic word-plays in spray paint onto the crumbling architecture of Lower East Side buildings, making biting and playful critiques of society in an ephemeral medium. The movie carries Basquiat’s joie de vivre, an infectious idealism that made Dafne want to share it with me, and then made me want to share it with more friends: I went to see the movie five more times in the theater after my first viewing.
The reviews complained of Downtown 81’s thin plot but said it was worth overlooking this defect to see the brilliant music performances. And in one sense, they were right – the performances by the No Wave bands were full of electric energy and hit their mark dead-on. But I insisted on defending the plot, because it succeeded in accomplishing something so cool: It took the material the filmmakers had at hand – not just their friends willing to play-act for free, but a whole scene they were excited by – and created a heightened world, making beautifully-odd celluloid creatures out of 1980s art punks playing themselves.
I couldn’t help but compare the plot structure to The Wizard of Oz or Alice’s Adventures Underground, where the main character moves forward in a sort of dazed, wide-eyed nonchalance while oddities, unusual creatures, and larger-than-life monsters rise from the side of the road. The movie begins with Basquiat’s character getting released from a long hospital stay in uptown Manhattan. His journey is downtown-ward – the New York sidewalks are his Diamond Brick Road and the downtown scene is his underground. Starting out on foot (as many journey stories do), he soon meets a gorgeous and successful European model who offers to drive him in a vintage convertible another forty or so blocks (since the best journey stories in film are road movies). The model drops him off near his apartment, but she’s already made him a fairy tale offer to let him end his artist’s struggle forever: "Won’t you let me take care of you for the rest of your life?" In the ensuing 73-minutes before they meet again, Basquiat runs into scary monsters appearing in the form of his crazy Russian landlord (who wants the overdue rent) and a mysterious thief of band equipment; good fairies in the form of Tish and Snooki (of Manic Panic fame), a rich and seductive Italian woman who buys a painting, a fashion designer friend who listens sympathetically to Jean’s woes, wish-granter Debbie Harry; and strange creatures in the form of the highly-stylized, costumed, and dynamic No Wave bands that emerge from every corner of the movie: Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, the Walter Steding Band, the Plastics, DNA, and more.
Dafne was a friend I’d met through one of my photo-school pals, Francesca; they waitressed together at an old Italian café where they served cappuccinos and pastries to Patti Smith, Mafiosos, tourists, and other Greenwich Village regulars. Dafne was from Rome and Francesca was half Italian, half Israeli and had grown up outside Zurich; I came from Virginia, and we’d all bonded as transplants who had bee-lined to New York to try to make it as artists. Dafne and Francesca had each studied acting; Dafne was now working on tile mosaics and Francesca was concentrating on installation art but still did some photography and writing. I was a photographer-turned-novelist. The three of us were often together dreaming of artistic fame, myth-making about New York, or lamenting city struggles: our constant search for the next job, the next roommate, the next lover, our big break.
The myth of New York in the ’70s and ’80s (punk rock, performance art, loft-squatting, chaos, cheap rent, and anything-goes Bohemia) was so much of why we had come to the city. And the mantra that New York was wildest just before we got here was a constant. For some reason, it was a myth we were invested in upholding, like always having some out-of-reach greatness to pursue. But Downtown 81 offered more of a glimpse of those wild years, with more specifics to fuel our imagination than I’d ever seen before all in one place – from images of the bombed-out Lower East Side, to Basquiat’s easy-going bohemian vibe, to a day-in-the-life filming of the louche downtown art scene, to the sound and look of these amazing bands. The movie itself had a great production story, which only added to its impact on us: The reels had been lost for almost 20 years and then found in Europe. So, after being shot in New York in December 1980 and January 1981, the movie (whose original title was New York Beat) didn’t see a screen until the 2000 Cannes Festival, followed by a New York release in 2001. Some of the sound reels had been lost forever, and Basquiat’s lines had to be re-dubbed by Saul Williams, spoken word dynamo and star of indie flick, Slam (1998).
Downtown 81 re-energized us, because Downtown 81 understood us. The movie agreed with our experience that the most powerful people made life hard for artists, the most beautiful people were the artists, and the happy ending was a fairytale worth waiting for. We were working hard at our day jobs, we were making art in obscurity, but we couldn’t see how to do it any other way. Unless, of course, someone wanted to offer us that dream contract tomorrow.
Downtown 81 poked fun at all of this. One of our favorite sequences was the one where Walter Steding (playing Walter Steding) outlines what it’s like to chase success: "...and you keep practicing and practicing...and a few smart people notice...and make you an offer...not a great offer, but an offer..." As Steding drones on in an exhausted voice with thick Pennsylvania drawl, the visual scene is that of a crooked, cigar-smoking, record-industry hack offering him a "standahd contract," or of Steding dragging his heavy music equipment to the curb only to have the cab he’s just hailed drive away as he turns his back. We knew the feeling.
Living as an artist in New York meant always having the proverbial carrot in our vision, beckoning us to endure or ignore any number of pitfalls to get there: the media, the venues, and fame itself were always there at arm’s length. The big break was always around the next corner, and those who’d already been visited by fame were only one or two degrees of separation away – the lives of the famous were entwined with the lives of the hungry and ambitious. Francesca had a crush on the flirtatious John Lurie, who often bought cigarettes at the same bodega where she bought hers and was a sometimes customer at the café. Dafne was pursuing the only straight actor who played Hedwig in the Jane Street Theater production, and for a brief time I carried a torch for Arto Lindsay. I didn’t know he was a musician until I saw him in Downtown 81; he was a bright-eyed customer in the bookstore I’d been working in for some years before his performance in the DNA sequences in the movie practically threw me out of my seat. His animalistic singing voice shot down my spine every time I heard it and was much of the reason for my repeat viewings of the movie (although I finally audio-taped the DNA scenes with a mini-cassette recorder so I could replay them obsessively at home). Another regular customer at the bookstore around this time was Tony Shafrazi, one of Basquiat’s art dealers in SoHo. He was a real pain in the ass, always stacking a huge pile of books at the back desk, but then around quarter to midnight asking to leave them there so he could call the store owners the next day and try to haggle them into a "volume discount." Always the enfant terrible, before he’d been a famous art dealer his claim-to-fame was getting caught for grafitti-ing Picasso’s Guernica at the MoMA.
By the time I saw Downtown 81 with my friend Noel it was also playing at the Screening Room, farther downtown in Tribeca. The Screening Room (bought by Robert DeNiro in 2003 and renamed Tribeca Cinemas) was a theater that really made you feel like you were someplace else: It was polished grey like a new print of Metropolis, and there was something stark and moneyed, futuristic and elegant about it. Noel was a theater director, video artist, and film enthusiast from Los Angeles. We shared a love of Kathy Acker, Rocky Horror, and campy ’80s music videos. He’d introduced me to the cinema of Jacques Tournier and the plays of Richard Foreman, the costumes of Bertolt Brecht and the theater antics of the Wooster Group; he’d coached me on my performance style for recent readings of my self-published novel. Not only was I excited to be inducting Noel into the cult of Downtown 81 fans, but we also got to see scriptwriter Glenn O’Brien and producer Maripol introduce it. O’Brien had been a player on the scene for a while before Downtown 81 was filmed: notably as a rock critic for Interview Magazine, and as the host and creator of the punk-chaotic talk show TV Party, which aired (live) from 1978-1982, in the heyday of Manhattan Cable public access, the DIY of television. Many of Downtown 81’s stars and bands had been guests on TV Party – including a very young Basquiat, as well as Debbie Harry, Tuxedo Moon, Fab Five Freddy, David McDermott, James Chance, and Walter Steding. (You can check out more via the documentary TV Party from 2005.) Producer Maripol had been in the fashion world, most famously as stylist to Madonna and Blondie.
New York Beat was filmed a little more than a year before Basquiat began to break big in the gallery scene. In 1980, he was still living from hand to mouth and from bed to bed; so that the filmmakers could keep track of him, they let him sleep in the production offices on Great Jones Street for the duration of the shoot. His lover at the time was Eszter Balint, a 14-year-old Mudd Club scenester who appears briefly in the catwalk scene in Downtown 81 and would later star in Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Basquiat was 19-turning-20 on the movie set; the film crew would often wake the two up sleeping on a mattress under Basquiat’s latest drawings on the wall.
High stakes in New York played both ways. Hassles were constant, and setbacks could be huge. I had once gotten scammed out of a few hundred bucks by a supposed casting agent who turned out to be wanted for several rapes (of ambitious young actresses). Francesca’s good friend and roommate, Geneviève, had been deported a few years before this for doing the same thing Francesca was: living on an expired tourist visa in New York. For that matter, Francesca had tried a different way to get some kind of long-term visa about every six months since I’d known her: classes she didn’t have time to take, legit jobs that never materialized, sponsors that fell through, and even a green-card marriage that turned into love and then turned sour, all while the crooked immigration lawyer was taking her money and neglecting her paperwork completely.
Francesca finally saw Downtown 81 with me months after Dafne and I were first raving about it. We adjourned to a second-floor bar afterwards to marvel, talk, obsess, laugh, cry, and regroup. It was like the movie brought back the idealism we had forgotten we were doing all this for. Having gotten bogged down in our defeats – the heartbreaks, the water main breaks, the muggings, the landlords, the hours lost to our jobs and the dollars lost to our security deposits – we’d forgotten what it felt like to be high on the hopes that’d brought us to the big city years before.
That was the fifth time I saw Downtown 81. Francesca and I parted late at night with a tight embrace near the Astor Place 6 station, full of warmth and smiles and declarations to make good on our promises to ourselves, each other, and our artwork. It was September 10, 2001. The next day (my usual day off from the bookstore) was spent in a stupor of disbelief watching a different downtown scene on a fuzzy, street-salvaged television my temporary Israeli and Spanish roommates had picked up; frantically trying to get through tied-up phone lines to Dafne, Francesca, Noel, and my family; and walking around north Brooklyn trying to give blood that wasn’t needed.
The last time I saw Downtown 81 in the theater (late September 2001), it was the first time I’d seen the Twin Towers in a film since, and I gasped like unexpectedly seeing the face of a deceased friend in the background of a crowded photograph. They appear approximately twice in the movie, once when Arto Lindsay is speeding east across the Manhattan Bridge on the back of someone’s motorcycle, and again at the end of the film as Basquiat is driving up West Street in his El Dorado. I rang up Arto at the bookstore register around that same date, in the window of time when strangers in New York were being unusually open-hearted and vocal, and we asked each other, "Where were you?" and "Are you okay?"
It’s possible that my New York art dreams never quite reached the same heights of optimism again.