“New Yawk New Wave” at Film Forum

Revisit the Golden Age of NYC DIY filmmaking with this extraordinary three-week series.
Hallelujah the Hills
Hallelujah the Hills
By David Fear |

Studios may have moved the locus of American film production from New York to sunny SoCal during the medium’s infancy, but far from the maddening executives ensconced on Los Angeles lots, disparate NYC filmmakers were still doing their own off-the-grid thing. You wouldn’t necessarily think of the odds-and-sods groups that made independent films here from the ’50s through the early ’70s as being part of a collective movement. But that’s exactly the thesis behind Film Forum’s “New Yawk New Wave,” which groups together John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol, Direct Cinema and the New American Cinema, underground filmmakers and future big-time movie brats under one catch-all umbrella. What emerges from cumulatively viewing the program’s 35 features and dozen shorts suggests these satellite factions were, in fact, all inadvertently contributing to a Gothamized cinematic counterculture equivalent to the upheavals happening elsewhere.

“It started with a conversation about the French New Wave, actually,” says J. Hoberman, the former Village Voice film critic who helped shape the idea for the series. “I was talking to Bruce Goldstein [Film Forum’s director of repertory programming] about the fact that Francois Truffaut credited Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive (1953) for inspiring the nouvelle vague. Then it occurred to me: If you view Fugitive as a founding work and Mean Streets (1973; screening Jan 30–31) as the culmination of a certain ethos, you can trace a line through 20 years of New York independent filmmaking created in opposition to a certain tendency of Hollywood slickness. That was our new wave, and we never realized it!”

Between the twin poles of Engel’s Coney Island travelogue, which will get a weeklong revival following the series, and Scorsese’s tribute to Little Italy thug life, NYNW covers a wide expanse of celluloid waterfront ranging from socially conscious to outright silly. The usual suspects put in appearances—avant-garde classics like “Scorpio Rising” (Jan 25) and the ode to beatnik life “Pull My Daisy” (Sat 12) are accounted for, and where would Amerindies, much less NYC filmmaking, be without Cassavetes's 1959 shot across the bow, Shadows (Sat 12)?

But it’s some of the lesser-known entries here that help connect the dots between DIY New Yawk and the nouvelle vague. You don’t get a more blatant example of cross-cultural foreign exchange than Hallelujah the Hills (Jan 24), Adolfas Mekas’s 1963 answer to Franco anarchy that combines silent-comedy slapstick, bizarre love triangles, a dance-off on a cliff and a clip from Griffith’s Way Down East into one nutso absurdist tangent. The influence of late Godard shows up in many of the leftist-radicalist run-and-gun productions here (see Robert Kramer’s paranoid android of an Alphaville riff, Ice, screening Jan 24–25). Only Mekas’s comedy, however, captures the early free-form spirit of the New Waver and namechecks Breathless to boot.

The sunglassed messiah himself shows up in 1PM (Jan 22), enlisting D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock to help him chronicle a who’s who of political firebrands circa 1969. The project ultimately fell apart; what the two documentarians concocted out of the abandoned footage and behind-the-scenes snippets, however, is far more fascinating than a talking-heads survey. Long-winded tirades from Tom Hayden and Eldridge Cleaver share screen time with series MVP Rip Torn staging a performance-art reading in an Indian headdress, while Godard seems to be drowning under the weight of his own half-formed notions of revolution. It’s a glorious time capsule—of late ’60s you-are-there filmmaking, of a politically fraught moment, and of an era’s iconoclastic hero losing the thread and his marbles.

One could say the heroines of Women in Revolt (Jan 26) are courting mental breakdowns as well, but for its trio of legendary female impersonators, calamities are simply par for the course. Arguably the best of the Warhol–Paul Morrissey collaborations, and undoubtedly the funniest (“I hate your genitals!” “Why? You don’t know them!”), this 1971 showcase for Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis starts as a parody of feminist righteousness and ends up as a Factory-fueled total freak-out. The pond scum on the city’s soon-to-be-cresting creative wave, this cocktail of downtown deadpan and drag-queen histrionics proves that the movement’s subversive fronts were just as vital as its more composed brethren. It screens on a double bill with Trash; you have been duly warned, New Yawkers.

“New Yawk New Wave” starts Fri 11 and runs through Jan 31.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear