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Kill City

“There are those who kill violently!” the tagline to Abel Ferrara’s 1979 grindhouse flick proclaims, as though we were expecting something called The Driller Killer to portray a kinder, gentler breed of psychopath. The director starred in this gory New York classic set amid counter-cultural enclaves in a pre-yuppie-grocery-store–dominated Union Square. So what finally sets off the power-tool–toting maniac in question? Oh, you know, rent hikes, noisy neighbors, roommate troubles—the usual stuff. Ferrara, as a Travis Bickle-esque moral renegade always harping on about the “derelicts,” captures the Big Apple at its most rotten, but also at its most deliciously seedy. He appears in person for a Q&A after this special screening with trivia, prizes, drink specials, and music by DJ Bones.

Thu., Oct. 10, 9:30 p.m., 2013

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Bringing Out the Dead: Scorsese’s Sordid Everyman Returns

What can be newly said about this savage, many-headed dragon of the American new wave, a luridly realistic movie about a quiet New York psychopath that became one of the most revered movies of the entire pre-Skywalker century? You either love it or you love it; in any case, Martin Scorsese’s history-making scald is truly a phenomenon from another day and age. Which is to say, imagine a like-minded film of this decade killing at the box office and getting nommed for Best Picture.

A retrospective touchstone of the 1970s “cinema of loneliness” enjoying an impromptu re-release (Raging Bull‘s 25th anniversary fete having been scotched at Film Forum due to the impending DVD reissue), Taxi Driver is a study in contrasts: new wave grit versus Bernard Herrmann-scored melodramatic ambience, submergent ur-Method acting entwined within Corman-style plot elements, blood-freezing outsider portraiture mated with an ironically heroic denouement. The resulting fugue had an unmistakably apocalyptic ring to it, even in 1976. Scorsese’s infernal visuals were infinitely more articulate about New York than Travis Bickle could ever be, but Robert De Niro’s Bickle (by way of screenwriting novice Paul Schrader) is no stranger to us—it may be the movie’s secret triumph that our intimacy with its underground man was achieved between the lines, with silences and dead stares and abrupt seizures of impulsive destruction.

Or, it was Scorsese’s post-Peckinpah insistence on saying, no, real non-movie violence doesn’t ker-blam tastefully and in slow motion, it thwacks, punctures, and bleeds like this. Can any of the decade’s many social stripteases compare to this lean machine, evoking as it does post-Nixon jaundice in its campaign year distrust and havoc, a post-Vietnam disaffection on an unimaginable scale, and a post-’60s sense of runaway urban pestilence and knotted moral outrage? (In certain ways, The Assassination of Richard Nixon seems like a docudrama remake, just as Bickle seems to echo the real Sam Byck in name and pathology—except that Schrader claims to have written the screenplay two years before Byck’s rendezvous with history.) Bickle remains an authentic everyman, a walking dumb-as-shit smashup of conservative responses, but also a disenfranchised victim of the corporate-imperial combine, an ex-soldier used to meaningless death, lost in the streets of his own empty freedom. There may not be a more essentially American figure haunting the national cinema.

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Travis in Vain

Tim Armstrong is a cornball. He croaks with the desperate gregariousness of a guy who’s seen the scruffy B-movie urchin lurking within every spare-changing teenpunk, every runaway trick-turning single mom, every scrap of junkie refuse washed up in the gutters of urban America—a guy driven to give each last lost kid a hug, a cigarette, and a not wholly accurate critique of the mechanics of global capitalism. Were his ideals just slightly warped he could use his Strummerly indifference toward consonants to commit crimes of sincerity as heinous as those of George W. Bush or even Chris E. Carrabba. And that’s why “Travis Bickle” gives me the icy shudders.

Nothing wrong with a bit of the ultraviolence—”Dave Courtney” is a high-stepping descent into the Brit underworld that has me licking fresh blood off my lips. And I’m not asking for political insight at the level of Chomsky or even NOFX—the clichéd anti-consumerism of “Born Frustrated” (“Is this human freedom/Hedonistic excess”) is just the ticket for those weekday nights when you got nothing better to do than harangue that cute cashier at Hot Topic. But “Travis Bickle” lacks even the ambivalence of the Clash’s own iffy descent into Taxi Driver paranoia, “Red Angel Dragnet.” It isn’t just the apparent unselfconsciousness with which Armstrong slides into Bickle’s skin that’s unsettling; it’s how little he has to alter his persona to pull it off. The righteous champion of degraded purity is the embodiment of Rancid’s sentimental worldview carried to its bitter, lunatic extreme.

So, yeah, maybe after a decade, a little more political insight—or just evident forethought—wouldn’t hurt Rancid none. True, some topics are best approached without ideological baggage—three years ago “Rwanda” was such a rousing anthem because, faced with a situation that all but baffled analysis, the band simply declared their common humanity with the victims. Rancid head back to Africa on Indestructible, but “Ivory Coast,” a confused tale of a New Year’s Eve suspension of curfew during civil war isn’t much more than a post-colonial “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” The lyric booklet confirms my suspicions regarding their fuzzy theoretical underpinnings, with explanatory intros such as “Freedom of speech is a luxury that everyone should be given no matter the circumstances.” “Luxury”? “Given”? We’re not talking midnight basketball here, guys. Know your rights—or at least know “Know Your Rights.”

Then again, Mistuh Strummuh, he dead. The sixth Rancid album is where those tiresome Clash comparisons finally start getting instructive, because Clash #6, a/k/a Cut the Crap, while hardly crap, didn’t quite cut it—hard to maintain the illusion of camaraderie when you’re outsourcing your guitar parts. In its finest moments, a band isn’t just a bunch of guys starting and stopping together in roughly the same key, but an image of “solidarity on the razor’s edge,” to cop a phrase from Indestructible‘s “Start Now”—one that offers us the hope (maybe the illusion) that we’re not doomed to strive in perpetual isolation from each other. And with a half-dozen records down, Rancid are nothing if not in this together.

“And I kno-o-o-w”—in the title (and opening) track, Armstrong’s warble valiantly shades microtonal deviations around his intended note to compose a shaky vocal silhouette as guitar chords doggedly descend, leaving him suspended like Wile E. Coyote over a canyon. Then his mates’ voices buoy him with their collective voice—”I’m indestructible”—transforming an individual protestation into an anthem of community. After the omnivorous Life Won’t Wait, which set out to re-cover all the ground punk had previously explored, and Rancid, which mashed that variety into a full-speed blare, Indestructible is a sort of plateau—maybe even poppier than . . . And Out Come the Wolves, it cruises briskly rather than racing forward, the work of a band that’s in this for the long haul.

Or at least that’s the impression Rancid seem to want to make. Nothing speeds a fella back to his boys like the indifference of a good woman, and you don’t need to know that Armstrong’s wife, Brody from the Distillers, left him this year to sense that somebody didn’t stand by him, no way. Though its chorus is general enough, the jaunty “Fall Back Down” is about getting dumped and relying on your buddies to catch you. Armstrong puts his trust in the surge of the music, segueing from the regretful “There’s a ghost band girl playing our song” into the defiant “If you lose me, girl, you lose a good thing” less with bitterness than with a need to reassert his self-worth. If he seems to testify a bit too loudly, too insistently, we can only hope he’s more disturbed by his attraction to Taxi Driver‘s cartoon of extreme alienation than he otherwise lets on.

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Up and Down

Two shows. Two Douglas Gordons. One good, one bad. One in Soho, one in Chelsea. Together they provide a chance to get a fuller view of this up and down artist, and to see which is the real Douglas Gordon.

Gordon manipulates snippets from iconic films, or bits of anonymous documentary, medical, or military footage; he creates text pieces as well. His best-known work is 24 Hour Psycho (1993), in which he slowed down Hitchcock’s thriller and projected it at two frames per second so that it lasts an entire day. It’s like imposing Warhol’s Empire on a Hollywood feature film. Nothing since has quite measured up.

In contrast to Warhol, whose films had to be seen to be believed, Gordon’s ideas are often more interesting to hear than to see. In 5 Year Drive-By (1995) he slowed down John Ford’s The Searchers so that it lasts five years— the time John Wayne searches for a missing child in the film. For the mathematically inclined, that’s six hours of projected time for every second of the movie (if it started in 1995, you could still catch the end).

Gordon is part of a whole set of artists, schooled in the 1980s, who are taking the strategies of that decade’s photo-based work into moving pictures. Only, Gordon often gets caught in some theoretical eddy between other artists. In Black and White (Babylon) (1996), he looks like Richard Prince practicing without a license. He takes a seedy 1950s stag film and slows it down (‘natch), projecting one image right side up and another upside down. Where Prince’s appropriations feel authentic, Gordon’s feel gratuitous, as if he wanted to throw in some t&a. Gordon’s supporters write that the split screens are “radically subversive,” but they’re not; they’re derivative.

Now 33, Gordon is big on the international show circuit; he has already had several solo museum exhibitions in Europe, and is planning one for the Guggenheim in 2001. In the last three years, he hit the art world equivalent of the trifecta by winning the Turner Prize, the Primo 2000 (at the 1997 Venice Biennale), and the Hugo Boss award. But is he as good as the curators say?

The good Gordon is on view at Gagosian, where this gallery has finally gotten “on base” with a young British artist— and wouldn’t you know he’d be Scottish. Gordon’s show follows three over-the-top, anemic extravaganzas from Damien Hirst, Dinos & Jake Chapman, and Marc Quinn. In contrast to their completely excessive production values, Gordon presents a stripped-down “dematerialized” video projection.

In a ballsy move, Gordon has appropriated one of the most memorable scenes in movies: Robert De Niro’s
71-second monologue from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the footage that gave us the line “Are you talking to me?” A readymade in itself, this clip is the Zapruder film of American cinema. It shows a young, beautiful De Niro as the paranoid, paramilitary Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet turned cabbie, practicing his draw while challenging an imaginary protagonist.

Bickle is filled with Biblical fury. Alone in his apartment, he begins to speak. Some of what he says is barely audible: “Yeah. Huh? Huh? Faster than you. Fuckass. Saw you coming. Fucker. Shitheel.” He picks up speed: “I’m standing here. You make your move. It’s your move.” Then the lines “You talking to me? You talking to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to? . . . You talking to me?” At the same time he whips a .22 pistol from a contraption up his sleeve, and points it at the camera.

At Gagosian, Gordon projects this scene twice— huge— on opposite walls of the gallery; each image fills the wall. The two pictures are like a Richard Serra sculpture, without edges or surface, two massive slabs of imposing light. Titled through a looking glass (1999), the footage has been doctored slightly so that it gradually goes in and out of sync. Now De Niro really is having a conversation with himself. Everything he says begins to double and echo in this eerie call-and-response Möbius strip. Gordon’s feedback loop supplies an aural, visual, physiological counterpart to the schizophrenia surfacing in the character. The two walls of the gallery are like the surface of a drum; everything gets amplified, while you are caught in the middle. It makes this footage scarier and stranger than ever.

Roland Barthes wrote about the punctum— a fancy Latin word describing a detail that electrifies the whole. Gordon has taken a detail from a film, but the details within this detail are what make Scorsese’s footage— and Gordon’s piece— so powerful.

Bickle’s barren apartment is amazing; there are newspaper clippings, notes about increased Secret Service, a sketch of the Plaza Hotel, and traveling schedules for a political candidate taped to the walls. You can make out a bottle of pills, some Wonder Bread, a box of cereal, and a can of Campbell’s Soup on the shelves over the stove. Neighborhood sounds, and the fabulous drone of an airplane, creep in with the summer heat. A portrait of an assassin forms. In addition to De Niro’s eyes, and the sound, the punctum, for me, is Bickle’s outfit: he wears two cowboy shirts under an army jacket in order to cover his guns. Travis Bickle is a picture of American masculinity spinning out of control. Gordon must have sensed that Scorsese and De Niro had created a moving Andy Warhol painting.

Bickle is Elvis with a gun, doubled, and multiplied. He is the cowboy John Wayne, the martyr James Dean, the rebel Brando. He is every American hero run amok, and the most ironic image of America since Jasper Johns painted the American flag, symbol of inclusiveness. This Vietnam vet, put on film in that bicentennial year, is the blown-out image of Johns’s 1954 painting.

Credit Gordon for selecting this footage and making it work. But every semester I ask my graduate students to bring in a three-to-five-minute movie clip, and inevitably two things turn up: this sequence from Taxi Driver, and something from Psycho. Gordon plays to our taste, one is tempted to say panders to it, by picking things we already love; essentially he’s an editor. This raises the possibility that Gordon is only as good as his source material, which is confirmed at Dia, where he uses film that lacks iconic wattage.

Here, Gordon uses the entirety of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), a film most people will be unfamiliar with. As usual he splits the screen, and mirrors the images. He has also removed every other frame of the original, so that the whole 40-foot-longprojection functions like a strobe. Occasionally the split image produces some nice Rorschach-like kaleidoscopic effects, but mostly this is a dated, superficial exercise in structural filmmaking. It is formulaic, arch, and inert. Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right, as it is called, is as boring and as mild as its title. Digestible Bruce Nauman, it erodes the weighty impression of the Gagosian work and makes you think that the up-and-down Gordon is the real one, after all.