Review: Clay Patterson’s Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.

Clayton Patterson, ed.
Captured: a film/video history of the lower east side
( New York: Seven Stories, 2005 )

Captured is a humongous undertaking, 586 pages in a telephone-book size compilation of 112 articles, whose ambition is even greater than its girth. The goal is to recreate an historical palette: a picture of the crackling, fissured, disrespectful film/video arts community existent on New York City's Lower East Side where thrived from the 1960s till quite recently.

The editor, Clayton Patterson, takes in all sides and side lights, running from the artists who emerged to near-acceptance by the establishment (such as Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi and, perhaps, Rockets Redglare) to those who are only known in the mainstream for their notoriety if they are known at all (including Nick Zedd, Aldo Tambellini, and Arleen Schloss) but who the volume proves did outstanding work. Moreover, the vision of the editor is generous and compendious enough to not only profile filmmakers but to examine influential film festivals, equipment rental stores (such as the seminal one run by Rafic Azzouni, a proprietor who also ran a film series and aided and loaned equipment to a generation of avant-gardists), and individualist theaters. Indeed, some of the more provocative ventures have been the last. One example of this was the short-lived Invisible Cinema, in which, according to Peter Kubelka:

Special seats were designed which shielded sight to both sides and made it impossible to see one's neighbors. ... A wooden structure rose above the heads of the people of the row in front [of each row] and bent forward so as to hide the head.

As notable were the free-form evenings at the Robert Beck Memorial Theater, where, as one of the programmers, Bradley Eros, describes, they approached each screening imaginatively. "This one [the programmers agreed on one occasion] would be really good if there was actually a flavor ... because it was about carnivorous plants, so we had the idea of people holding something in their mouths while they watched it."

The Beck series epitomizes the unbraked creativity that arise, as Captured documents again and again, not simply because of inspired programmers, but due to the existence of a community vitally engaged in testing new directions. The Beck could only have existed, Eros states, by being hosted by the radically open arts space, Collective: Unconscious, which has been "this amazingly generous risky place ... and the people who run it have just trusted us carte blanche." And it also depended on a receptive community. Eros continues, "For the artists were talking about [whose films showed at the Beck] the context of the community and the context of that dialogue with an audience .. is a stronger compulsion" than fame or fortune. What unites them is a "passionate environment."

This, then, was the playing field of the Lower East Side: institutions, audience, film/video creators, all melodiously interlaced since their bottom line is not cash but recognition by peers and the building of an interactive community.

Of course, there are more people in the LES than aspiring filmmakers, so I have to add one last, essential point. Carl Watson, in describing the Naked Eye Cinema at ABC No Rio, writes, "Here is where ABC No Rio showed its progressive heart. While the galleries north of Houston often had little interest in neighborhood politics, many No Rio shows focused directly on community themes."

Amidst the wealth of material in Captured, which testify to the vitality and multidimensionality of the scene, these themes emerge repeatedly, perhaps most poignantly in the reflections of Rik Little, filmmaker and housing activist, who describes the community's negative reaction to the making of a Hollywood film in the area, starring the right winger, Bruce Willis. The people on the LES "weren't giving into the pigs and like me, they found a way to make it tolerable and often fun to defy the bastards. It was creative fun, loud visual fun." The type of disruptive fun enjoyed by the book's editor, no less, who, when faced with a court case involving footage he shot of outrageously misbehaving cops, filed court papers that were illustrated with original works of art, which would become part of the justice system's records.

Sadly, the book flies, like Minerva's owl, at sunset, coming out just as the Lower East Side arts community dissipates under an onslaught of perverse yuppies.

Jim C. dates the downtrend back to "the Tompkins Square Park riot and the subsequent closing of the park [which] coincided with the dissolution of the East Village art scene." This was a time of growing commodification. As Mary Bellis (as retold by Calmx), states, "The eighties were ... the height of the commercialization of performance art and what the Pyramid Club and ABC No Rio started, Area bottled and sold it to celebrities and rich people."

Yet, given that predatory realtors and their government bed fellows have systematically undermined and gutted the East Village since the riot and that the world Patterson charts is finally winking out, in no sense is Captured a dirge. Although the book would have been helped (although it might not have been financially feasible) by a DVD that gave a direct look at some of the cinema offerings described, even without that inclusion, it fleshes out a variegated, stormy, indelible portraits of a neighborhood that through its cornucopic artistic production stands in the throes of spontaneous beauty.