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An Underground Scene Celebrates Aboveground

The New York Sun on August 25, 2005

On Monday at Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum on Essex Street, the trio of Clayton Patterson, Paul Bartlett, and Urania Mylonas greeted a crowd who came to celebrate the launch of their book “Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side” (Seven Stories, 586 pages, $26.95).

“We threw out a big net,” said Mr. Bartlett, describing the black-covered, mammoth-size anthology about underground cinema, which is bursting with pages from more than 100 contributors. Initially about 50 writers were asked to contribute in the hopes of getting 40 to complete their essays, he said. But only three or four made the first publishing deadline: “All of them were out of town,” such as Peter Semple from Germany and DeeDee Halleck from the Catskills. So, he said, they asked more contributors, and eventually a flood of articles poured in.

This source book follows the independent and experimental film and video scene on the Lower East Side from its beginnings in the 1950s through succeeding decades, as filmmakers continued to settle in the neighborhood. Cameras in hand, they expressed themselves freely, all the while remaining firmly outside the strictures of any Hollywood machinery. “Film and video mix all the arts,” said Mr. Bartlett, describing the Lower East Side as a place where artists and writers tend to produce for each other and not the market.

Along with covering such wellknown people as Andy Warhol, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, and Luis Guzmán, the anthology consciously sets out to recover many lesserknown figures. As Mr. Patterson writes in the foreword: “This history includes those who are usually missing in action of the final ‘grand’ stories. People who were in everything and are remembered in nothing. The backbones and pillars.”

Drawing a parallel, Mr. Bartlett said histories of the Beat Generation tend to focus on the “same five or six Beats,” usually those associated with Columbia University, like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Many of those in the book owe more to city streets than to any academy, as exemplified in an exchange recounted in Penny Arcade’s essay on filmmaker Jack Smith, director of “Flaming Creatures.” After one of Smith’s performances in 1985, a young man ran up and asked, “Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith, I’m a big fan of yours. I go to the School of Visual Arts and I just need to know, what art school did you go to?” Smith replied, “Art school? Art School? I didn’t have the luxury of going to art school.”

The book contains numerous amusing anecdotes, like the one relating to documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s fascination with guns. De Antonio, the story goes, once knocked out the lights in his house “by hitting the power lines with his shotgun.”

Some of the book’s essays are about individual films, like the influential Beat movie “Pull My Daisy” (1959), in which, as Jessica Loos writes, “the directors let things happen.” Others profile individual artists like the writer, actor, and Warhol star Taylor Mead, who was in attendance Monday evening; movements such as No Wave Cinema; or organizations like the Millennium Film Workshop and Anthology Film Archives.

A number of contributors to the volume were present at the party, including Lee Williams, whose piece is about the East Village denizen Michael Morra, known as Rockets Redglare; poet Erik La Prade, who wrote about “A Bowl of Cherries,” a film that satirizes artists; and impresario Aaron Beall, who wrote about the history of the storefront theater Todo con Nada.

Other contributors to the volume present included Michael Carter, who said he recently wrote a poem about journalist Steven Vincent; Nick Zedd, whose cable show is a superhero comedy called “The Adventures of Electra Elf”; and art critic Valery Oisteanu, whose poetry was blacklisted during the Soviet era in Romania. Mr. Oisteanu was wearing a wristwatch with the image of Man Ray’s work “Le Violon d’Ingres” on it

Other people attending included a Skidmore professor of English, Terence Diggory, who co-edited “The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets”; New Jersey-based writer Marvin Greisman; a candidate in medieval history at Fordham, Ken Mondschein, who has written “A History of Single Life”; artist David Katz; and poet Mark Furstenberg, who writes travel guides.

In an introductory note, the editors compare the book’s inclusion of so many artists and contributors to Akira Kurasawa’s film “Rashomon” because it demonstrates “how invaluable it is to include many viewpoints.” Simply thumbing through the copious 18-page index conveys the casts-of-thousands feel of this book. It’s as though Cecil B. DeMille were filling Tompkins Square Park for a closing theatrical show-stopping number.

Although he wished the book were better organized, poet and anthologist Richard Kostelanetz praised the volume as “extraordinary and invaluable at evoking forgotten arts history.”

A feeling of having come too late pervades Mr. Patterson’s lament of changes in the landscape such as gentrification: “Creative anarchy is gone and the dust has settled,” he writes, “Not to say no more art will be made, but the beautiful chaos has ended.The LES is now definable and contained.”

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