Apr 9, 2013

Underground U.S.A.

If American ‘No Wave’ actor-writer-director Eric Mitchell (The Way It is) is remembered for anything, it is probably his role as the lead pseudo-blond European secret agent Max Menace in Amos Poe’s excruciating exercise in punk rock puffery The Foreigner (1978) – a film that has aged about as gracefully as Lady Gaga’s latest pair of underwear, as a cinematic work that aspired to be on a level with the best of European arthouse but ultimately has as much artistic merit as a kosher kraut slapstick flick like The Roaring Fifties (1983) aka Die wilden Fünfziger directed by Peter Zadek. Admittedly, Mitchell’s own films (or at least one of them) are slightly more interesting than anything Poe has ever done with his satire of the posh and prissy NYC art scene, Underground U.S.A. (1980), being what some believe is his 'unsung masterpiece,' even if the film owes its entire aesthetic package to Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey yet makes a feeble attempt to lampoon the Factory films it owes its rather lethargic proto-hipster lifeblood to. As Mitchell stated in an interview for the book Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2010), “I came into the scene through Amos Poe. I was acting in his movies, and also going to acting school at the Lee Strasberg Institute. After I was in Unmade Beds and The Foreigner, I felt like I could make my own movie.” And, indeed, Mr. Mitchell made his first movie, Kidnapped (1978) – an equally unwatchable, innately incoherent, and blatantly unedited Super-8 remake of Andy Warhol’s Vinyl (1965), an aggressively apathetic adaptation of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange (1962) that Stanley Kubrick would later adapt into a masterpiece, thus proving the incompetency of the rotten Big Apple's 'arthouse' auteur filmmakers. Like with Vinyl, I had the rare and less than delightful opportunity to view Kidnapped and, indeed, if anything is good about the film, it is its title as the relentlessly redundant work made me feel sadistically shanghaied for the 62 minutes or so that I subjected myself to such masochistic movie viewing. Luckily, with his second film, Mitchell ambitiously (relatively speaking, of course) decided to make a film with more than a handful of long and aimless indoor shots and thus it would be a slightly more enthralling film, although it took me no less than 3 or 4 times to get through Underground U.S.A. – a sleep-inducing spoof about the pretentious poof-infested NYC art scene of the late-1970s/early-1980s starring the seemingly damaged director himself as the bisexual hustler anti-hero Victor in a film that probably is the cinematic equivalent of what it felt like to die from AIDS while surrounded by a bunch of positively pompous fashion victims during the early epidemic that inspired kraut queer auteur Rosa von Praunheim to make a documentary in the city in the late-1980s. Undoubtedly, the essence of Underground U.S.A. can be summed up with a cold cock of a character’s line from the film: “I hate emotion.” If you ever felt like senselessly suffering the shallow and soulless insincerity of New York’s finest art fags, fag hags, and hysterical homos in drag in a would-be-wild-and-wanton world of aesthetic and emotional sterility, Underground U.S.A. is most certainly the film for you. 

 At least as far as Underground U.S.A. protagonist Victor – an ill-fated foreigner (indeed, it seems that Eric Mitchell loves playing Europeans) who rather reluctantly came to America long ago, only to sell his cock on the city block – is concerned, the life of a sexually-flexible NYC hustler is not life at all, but he is more than willing to 'upgrade' his sad situation, even if it means sleeping with rather repellant and, in some cases, borderline brain-dead people. After dancing like a restless retard in what seems to be a homo hoedown with some random shit-stabber in a gutter, Victor is confronted by a woman who screams, “If only I’d known you were a fag like the rest of them. God, what a waste.” When Victor comes home, he suffers similar verbal abuse from his ex-drag-queen, flamer of a roommate (played by Warhol tranny Jackie Curtis, star of Paul Morrissey's Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971)), an intrinsically insufferable queen-like queer who styles himself like James Dean’s Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and even has a portrait of the too-young-to-die Hollywood rebel icon on his apartment wall. Needless to say, Vic’s (no)dick of a roommate kicks him out after he tells the miserable man-woman that he was “more fun” when he was “a drag queen” and the hustler hits the streets and looks for someone else to hustle, eventually meeting a beauteous and flirtatious philistine broad with bleach blonde hair and a New Romanticist-like fashion sense named Vickie (‘no wave’ diva Patti Astor, star of various Amos Poe films and The Long Island Four (1980) starring Klaus Nomi), who used to be a popular movie star, but is now only left with a hungry sense of narcissism that is poorly fed, thus the down-and-out dick-peddler makes for a temporary fix. While Victor assumes Vickie is rich and his ticket to a free lunch and luxury, she is merely a fallen art princess who pops pills at the bequest of her creepy and conspiring cocksucker friends, including a new wave queer named Kenneth (portrayed by real-life art critic René Ricard, the man who helped Jean-Michel Basquiat gain fame), who finds the hustler's motives quite dubious, especially when he is forced to allow the dirty boy to borrow his expensive cock-sucker clothing. After suffering a number of grueling encounters with exceedingly abhorrent and obnoxious art fags who freely admit that “even bad art makes good money” and speak callous gossip amongst one another, especially about pathological pill-popper Vickie, Victor finally loses his cool and admits to himself regarding his current arrangement with the fallen actress, “And now I was stuck with her. I thought she was loaded, but then I find out she has no money. That woman is completely insane. To tell the truth, I’d like to get out of here as soon as possible. This scene is pretty boring and getting older all the time. I wonder what she is going to do next. I am really stuck between Kenneth, the chauffer, and her. This whole setup is a mess.” In the end, the leading lady takes one too many pills and Victor rather impotently admits to a barmaid (played by John Water Superstar Cookie Mueller) as to why he is no fun to be around, “I don’t know…I never have any fun in the sun,” in what is indubitably the truest line in the seemingly endless entirety that is Underground U.S.A. – a completely cynical yet hyper hypocritical and futile attempt at satirizing a scene that the film itself seems to be a virtual broken mirror of. 

 While, not unlike Paul Morrissey’s Heat (1972), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss (1982), and Hustler White (1996) directed by Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro, Underground U.S.A. was an attempt to create a sardonic parody and radical update of the film noir classic Sunset Boulevard (1950) directed by Billy Wilder, albeit mixed with artless pretensions of mundane minimalism that put the Mumblecore movement to shame, with director Eric Mitchell proving yet again one more reason as to why New York City has yet to produce a single film movement that is worthy of being named in the same sentence with its European counterparts. While Mitchell admitted the following in an interview regarding Underground U.S.A. that, “it was like a ricochet, a bounced comment on the Warhol scene and the No Wave scene. We thought we were the coolest people in the world, and we took it upon ourselves to behave the way we thought Nico or whoever would,” the filmmaker seems to have missed the quite blatant and incendiary irony of Paul Morrissey's anti-liberal comedies that more than aptly tore apart the gaping asshole of the asinine ‘art scene’ they were shat out of. What made Morrissey’s films infinitely more humorous and culturally relevant in comparison to, say Underground U.S.A., and the rest of the nauseating ‘no wave’ films is that the Factory auteur was a true ‘counter-revolutionary’ as a self-described "right-winger" who cinematically spit and pissed on the so-called sexual revolution and the culturally vacant counter-culture movements it sired, with Mitchell's subculture being the most superficial extreme of such 'no culture' insipidity. Indeed, when your only frame of reference is the very dead-end pseudo-subculture you hope to spoof as was Eric Mitchell's, it can only have self-incriminating and unintentionally self-mocking consequences as is the case with Underground U.S.A. – a film made with the intent of being legendary and a piece of ‘cult’ cinema as a sort of NYC equivalent to the early films of Jean-Luc Godard or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but it was ultimately, quite rightfully, condemned to the celluloid garbage heap of history. Indeed, if you’re looking for the film Underground U.S.A. strived to be, but is that and much more, Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) has both the fashion sense and attitude, but also space aliens fiending for heroin and jaded Jewesses lusting after Aryan UFO hunters, which is more than any cinephile could ever ask for, especially considering the curious context.  Indeed, Underground U.S.A. ain't associated with the 'Blank Generation' for nothing.

-Ty E

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