Tuesday, April 17, 2007

MONDO NEW YORK (1988) review



What a documentary this could have been! I first saw this in 1989 on home video, right before I was off to college. At the time, it was pretty shocking to these Midwestern eyes, but then, I was 21. There are only a few reasons to watch this at all: Karen Finley, Lydia Lunch's prologue rant, nutsoid artist Joe Coleman, Annie Sprinkle naked, some good poetry, and even some interesting looks at gay culture at that time in NYC.

However, embarrassing segments like the ones with John Sex and Phoebe Legere doing some really dumbass air guitar to a tape of her godawful 80s song called "Marilyn Monroe" sink this film. I've never been to New York City, and I don't see why I should anymore. That city is gone, and those of us who never saw the place never can now. It is gone. At least director Harvey Keith was there to document some of it, he just managed to miss most of the interesting-parts. Somehow, I think that was the fault--once again--of the money people (the Executive producers). Also embarrassing in Mondo New York are the 80s styles and fashions (the haircuts being the worst). There's no real nostalgia here, except for the New York City that is no more. There is no more cultural nexus like Greenwich Village anymore, a place where artists of all mediums can germinate naturally. It's all been cleaned-up and gentrified. Soho is the same.
A friend of mine saw Allen Ginsberg's final walk through Central Park around 1994, and he also witnessed the Village die, succumbing to gentrification. It's gone. So are the scarlet streets (where the whores were), live sex shows, and the glory that was Times Square. It's now the bureaucratic hell that Herman Melville saw it becoming back in the 1850s. The job is now done, and Big business and old money can now stew in its own self-imposed Apocalypse of meaninglessness.

No more grindhouse theaters, no more venues for independent art and music, no more revival houses, nada. Zip. Just a playground for the rich. Record stores? They're almost all gone throughout the nation. Bookstores? Who reads anymore? Some of us, but not many. If there is any nostalgia to be had, it's for a NYC that was once a free-for-all cesspool that was affordable. It was oddly refreshing in its freedom. There are certainly contemporary pockets there where scenes exist, but NYC is no longer the center of American culture, especially since Giuliani and the internet. And that's why Mondo New York isn't relevant today, and merely a so-so social document of some of the weirdness that was once allowed to flourish within the city limits of NYC. That's over.

Watching this, I had to wonder: "Where's Sonic Youth? Where's the Knitting Factory scene, the Jewish jazz scene, the hip-hop, and where's Bill Laswell, John Zorn, the Swans, and the wave of postpunk artists who were doing well at that time?" Where's Keith Haring? Where's Jean Paul Basquiat?
The answer on the music-side: the morons who produced the documentary had cheese-head/coke-head Alan Douglas overseeing the music in the film. Douglas is the guy who gave Al Hendrix $30,000 for the rights to Jimi's music after 1970.
Some rumors have it that he's hopelessly-addicted to cocaine to-this-day, with one story involving a garden-hose... Also, the score is really horrible and was done by Luis Perico Ortiz and Johnny Pacheco. I think a Casio keyboard and those godawful Yamaha DX-7s (digital piano, ugh!) were used, so it sounds incredibly dated and trivializes most of what you see in the documentary. Perhaps this was "to take the edge off" for Midwestern audiences at that time, I don't know, but it's a great case of how not to score a film.

We see cock-fights, a voodoo ritual--creepin' Christ, there's a lot of dead-chickens in this one, that's for sure. We see Joey Arias do a bad impersonation of a woman singing the worst rendition of "A Hard Days Night" that you'll ever hear. We see a junkie shooting-up, possibly for real. We see a Black comedian (the late great Charlie Barnett) make racial jokes to an audience in Washington Park that wouldn't float nowadays! Ann Magnason is pretty funny with her performance art shorts. Probably the best part of this whole mess is Joe Coleman, known for his folk art/iconographic paintings of serial killers and other sundry criminals and nut-jobs. What's great is his performance-art pieces. He comes out as his persona "Professor Mombuzu," and begins a rant that makes a certain sense, and then whips-out two white-mice named "Mushmouf and Pumkin' puss."  Coleman then bites their heads off and flies into a complete rage. But he isn't done yet: once the audience are sufficiently scared and outraged, he pulls-out a fuse from his 19th century gambler's-vest and blows-himself-up! You couldn't do it today after 9/11.

Seeing shots and hearing references to the World Trade Center just makes this a really sad reminder of how things are worse than the 1980s. This is something many of us never would have imagined back then.
The 1980s sucked, and Mondo New York reminds us of this fact, but it also reminds us that things have gotten much worse since then and that a cultural American Spring is badly needed. If this was our Weimar cabaret before the fall, we really suck, folks! Trashy doesn't really do any service to most of this, and why the dopey blonde as the thread that takes us through all these locations and scenes, why the need for a narrative? If you're going to be titillating, go-for-broke. Like the 80s, it's just another half-measure, with no ejaculation at the end. The viscera needs to be serviced on occasion, and the Devil given his due.
So this is Babylon--how boring, how banal and predictable. No Nick Zedd, Bill Laswell, no hip-hop, no Nowave (NO), no Swans, no Diamanda Galas, no Marc Ribot, no Ornette Coleman, no Rockets Redglare, John Zorn, no Al Goldstein, Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Jim Jarmusch, no Quentin Crisp, no vice squads and police brutality, almost no street musicians, no Moondog, no real street crazies, no Allen Ginsberg, canned audio for the CBGB's footage, no reflections on the end of the nightclubbing scene after the death of Andy Warhol, the fallout of AIDS, and no Richard Kern. The hookers are on screen all-too-briefly. There's not much of the best of the 80s underground here, which was the real freak show! Where are the sex clubs? There was a subculture where people just went to these underground clubs and fucked each other, even after AIDs. Where are they? After the end of most of this, we got Michael Alig and the club kids. We know how that one ended.
Postscript, 02.09.2013: Appropriating the term "Mondo" couldn't save what is mostly a disastrous plunge into the inane of NYC in the 1980s. Eliot was right that the world ends with a whimper. Were it not for Joe Coleman and Karen Finley, none of this could rise to the level of Jacopeti and Prosperi's original Mondo documentaries, not even close, but it wasn't an entirely wasted effort. We at least get Lydia Lunch at the beginning, the Santeria, but a lot of this is simply embarrassingly stupid and unimportant. Interviewing bums around the Bowery would have been better--and where is the fucking Chelsea?! At least they documented aspects of the gay community, and in the arts. Heavy Metal magazine was doing a better job reporting on the underground there at the time, several years earlier. I could go on forever, and I wasn't even there at the time. Oh well. I blame John Waters.