“Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side” is a massive, mind-boggling compendium of interviews, personal recollections, stories, gossip, anecdotes, Inforabilia and other documentation on the history of underground film- and video-making in the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the last half of the 20th century and onwards into the opening edge of the 21st. Edited by photographer, artist, historian, video outlaw and community activist Clayton Patterson, with Urania Mylonas and Paul Bartlett, this densely packed, encyclopedic history of cinematic art, Downtown culture, social mayhem and underground dreams is told by the people who made it happen; creating, over the course of five decades, some of the wildest, most influential and avant-garde scenes in art history. Actually, this 586-page oral history chronicles a series of movements, trends and happenings, some simultaneous, some overlapping, all rooted in the chaos of creativity, a heady flux fueled at times by sex, drugs and booze and music, but more importantly, fueled by the incandescent creativity of an extraordinary roll call of talent and genius.
“The Lower East Side of New York has always been a state of mind as well as a physical location,” writes filmmaker Jud Yalkut, who came to New York in 1960, moved into a rent-controlled fifth-floor railroad flat between Avenues C and D, at $50 a month, “upped from 33 from the previous tenant to compensate for an extra radiator and a new tiny toilet which replaced the shared facility in the hallway….” Truly, we are talking another era, one when Yalkut and other aspiring artists, writers, poets and filmmakers could move with relative ease from neighborhood to neighborhood, find space to work and live in for a reasonable rate (even adjusting for inflation), and get gigs like “painting the interior of The Ps” jazz club on Sheridan Square…“while Charlie Mingus and his Pithecanthropus Erectus band, with Jackie McLean and J.R. Montrose, rehearsed endlessly and marvelously as we, in our coveralls, applied our rollers to the walls.”
Possessing a healthy disgust for the postwar conventionalities of American life, the repressive politics of the Cold War and vapid tidiness of Hollywood’s cinema, L.E.S. filmmakers, and later, videoegraphers, virtually invented independent filmmaking, creating new cinematic sensibilities and vocabularies. They broadened the scope of moviemaking to include, as Sandra Koponen catalogs it in her excellent overview of the underground film explosion of the ’60s, “documentaries, film diaries, beat films, experimental films, expanded cinema, gay/camp films, psychedelic films, erotic films, structuralist films, animation and satirical comedy.” These artists, many of them coming to filmmaking with no formal training of expertise, rejected big production values, classical narratives and all forms of Hollywood professionalism, in favor of simplicity, spontaneity and a get-it-done, do-it-yourself ethos that continued to influence independent filmmakers into the ’80s and ’90s, and created their own venues for presenting their work, in 8 millimeter or 16 millimeter film and other, more esoteric formats, in bars, lofts, storefronts and clubs, with likeminded visionaries and nonconformists.
Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s legendary Beat homage “Pull My Daisy,” John Cassevettes’s “Shadows,” and Shirley Clark’s dark and prophetic look at the emerging heroin culture, “The Connection,” inspired a generation of directors, actors, writers and cinematic poets, like Robert Downey, the irrepressible Taylor Mead, Ron Rice, Ken Jacobs, Aldo Tambellini and many, many others, inspiring the next generation of filmmakers, the especially fertile punk and No Wave underground film scene of the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, which is covered in two excellent essays, one by Harris Smith, which traces the origin of the boom in do-it yourself productions to a load of Super 8 sound cameras that “fell off a truck” into the hands of a notorious dealer in “gray market” goods on E. Houston St., and from there into the hands of emerging filmmakers like Scott and Beth B, Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell Charlie Ahearn, Vivienne Dick, Bette Gordon and Lizzie Borden to name but a few.
While covering major and fairly well-known figures such as Harry Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Emile de Antonio, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Luis Guzman, Richard Kern, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Emile De Antonio, Paul Morrissey and many others, the beauty of the book “Captured” is to be found in the care that Patterson has taken to include interviews with, and material on less celebrated, but certainly no less significant contributors to the history and culture of the independent cinema on the L.E.S./E.V: people like media activist and founder of Paper Tiger Television DeeDee Halleck, who taught Puerto Rican kids filmmaking at the Henry Street Settlement in the ’60s; the legendary Rafic, whose film and video supply store on 814 Broadway, along with the notorious OP Screening Room, became a focal point for No Wave figures of the mid-’70s and ’80s, such as Vivienne Dick, Scott and Beth B, Nan Goldin, James Nares, Nick Zedd, Amos Poe and Bradley Eros; animator Henry Jones, who works tirelessly to keep the spirit of Harry Smith alive with screenings and performances as well as in his own incredible works of 3-D animation; documentarians of riots and rowdiness, like Rik Little and Elsa Rensaa; and of course, the never-to-be-forgotten spirit of decadent L.E.S. comedy and chaos, the immortal Rockets Redglare.
Patterson, whose gallery on Essex St., voluminous video and photographic archives of the Downtown scene and generous and unceasing efforts to save and protect all that is unique and counterculturally significant about the Lower East Side, has packed so much information, so many Inforable scenes and so many great stories into “Captured,” it’s hard to wrap your mind around this big and important book, much less tote its 586 pages around. More than the indispensable reference and definitive work it is sure to become, this massive labor of love is also an elegy for a Lower East Side and an East Village that is fast disappearing in the early years of the 21st century, a victim of its own success, consumed by mindless gentrification and Disneyization; swamped by the relentless commercialization of cool, and the hucksterization of hip.