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Book Review By JIM KNIPFEL
in: The New York Press, August 18, 2005, Vol. 18, Issue 31
Filmmakers have been shooting films in and around the East Village and the LES since, well, the earliest days of cinema. But in the late 1950s, a new community and a new kind of filmmaking began to emerge. With the appearance of the Beats and their freewheeling experimental take on life as well as art, there was a growing dissatisfaction among the young with the staid, sterile world and neat, happy stories represented in so much of what Hollywood was producing.
People began to realize that more interesting things could be done with movie cameras, and more realistic aspects of life—especially in places like the Lower East Side—could be captured on film. What's more, these things could be done independently. They didn't need studios, backers, professional actors, elaborate set design—or big audiences, for that matter. They could scrounge for the money they needed to buy a camera and enough film (or hell, just steal them), and the sets and the actors were already right there waiting. The most important thing, they didn't have dreams of Hollywood. They were making these films for themselves and their friends, and if anyone else cared to take a look, that was swell.
In a way, the massive new anthology Captured is reminiscent of the Lower East Side itself—or at least of what the Lower East Side once represented. The hundreds of voices contained here range from the cultured intellectual to the foulmouthed junkie hipster to the sincere True Believer in the Transcendent Power of Art. In that it can at times be contradictory, frustrating—even annoying. But it can also be inspiring, lively, funny and full of unexpected little touches and absolutely unique New York characters, like Taylor Mead, M. M. Serra and the late Rockets Redglare.
What the book tries to do is trace out a bumpy, convoluted oral history of indie/underground filmmaking in the East Village and the Lower East Side from those earliest days to the present—from Pull My Daisy and Warhol to Nick Zedd, Jim Jarmusch and the new crop of young filmmakers setting up shop every year. What at first seems like connect-the-dots soon turns out to be a tangled web of influences and relationships.
Like Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me, the story running through Captured is told as often as possible by the players themselves. More than just interviews, however, Captured includes short Infoirs, personal profiles and straightforward cultural history written by people who are in one way or another involved in the filmmaking scene. And the "scene" includes everything from experimental film to arty porn to documentary, as well as distributors, writers, actors, producers and fans.
In many ways, the cast of characters—from Ginsberg to Steve Buscemi—reads like a who's-who of Village hipsterdom over the past half-century. Contributors and subjects include Jack Smith, Harry Smith, Casandra Stark, Richard Kern, Penny Arcade, Jim Jarmusch, Jonas Mekas, Clayton Patterson, Paul Morrissey, Laki Vazakas—and dozens of people I'd never heard of, but probably should have—all of them utterly devoted, in one way or another, to movies. (Noticeably absent, it should probably be noted, is Martin Scorsese, who rates only an occasional passing nod, even though he began his career making arty student films on the LES. I have to wonder if his success excluded him from the "indie/underground" club.)
A lot of the people included here aren't writers, and that's pretty obvious. But that's not the point. It's primarily an oral history after all, and these people are just telling their stories (though with all the names flying around, I was thinking at times, "Whoa, back up a second—who are you talking about again?").
Still, if you're involved even tangentially with the EV/LES art scene, there will be plenty of names here you'll recognize, plenty of stories you've heard already. At the same time, even if you're deeply involved in film and video, there'll be things here you've never heard of before. The more I think about it, the more Please Kill Me is an apt comparison. What that book did, not only for punks, but for struggling local musicians in general, Captured does for any would-be indie filmmaker—it provides a sense of the possibilities and the spirit that make doing what you want to do possible. If these losers could do it, why not you?