Jan 5, 2014

Vortex (1982)

Compared to the great European films movements of the same era like German New Cinema, the NYC-based ‘No Wave’ cinema movement seems like a totally forgettable and mostly irrelevant footnote from America’s rather barren avant-garde cinema history. In fact, I cannot think of a single No Wave film that could be described as even remotely resembling a ‘masterpiece,’ but then again, I hate jazz, fat chicks with stupid haircuts, and Hebraic ‘punk’ rockers, so I might be a tad bit prejudiced when it comes to assessing such works. Regardless, I decided to view what is oftentimes regarded as the last No Wave film ever made, Vortex (1982) directed by Beth B and Scott B, as it seemed to have more ‘meat’ than the average piece of absurdly amateurish art-school-project-gone-awry celluloid puffery typical of the mostly mundane movement. Shot on 16mm film stock (as opposed to Super-8mm as was typical of most No Wave films) with a budget of around $70,000 given by the National Endowment for the Arts grant through Colab, Vortex is a sort of nihilistic neo-noir flick with a tinge of camp and a tidalwave of static phantasmagoria. Starring avant-garde artist/actor William "Bill" Rice (Decoder, Coffee and Cigarettes), movie Mafioso wop bad boy James Russo (Donnie Brasco, Django Unchained), loudmouthed lardo Lydia Lunch (Mondo New York, Kiss Napoleon Goodbye), and performance artist turned mainstream actress Ann Magnuson (Desperately Seeking Susan, Tank Girl), Vortex was a crossover work of sorts for most of those individuals involved as it proved that artists involved in the No Wave scene were capable of more professional and accessible works and, indeed, many of those involved with the film went on to more illustrious careers. A sort of hokey pseudo-Lynchian celluloid hallucination featuring mischievous midgets, fat and frigid femme fatales of the emotionally dead yet bitchy sort, and a quirky corporate/political conspiracy that is bound to tickle the toes of the average half-educated art school dropout, Vortex is a cool film made for the cool people that ultimately no long seems cool. The last film that the directors made together before both their romantic and artistic relationship dissolved into oblivion, Vortex certainly has a foreboding lovelorn feel that reminds viewers why hipsters make rather banal lovers.

 At the beginning of Vortex, a portly politician named Congressman White (David Kennedy) is electrocuted to death with a state-of-the-art taser-like weapon by a menacing midget bartender named Peter (played by Brent Collins, a dwarf who suffered from Marfan syndrome and who died of a heart attack as a result of the disorder in 1988) who moonlights as a corporate hit man. Little Peter was sent by his secret employer Frederick Fields—the crippled and equally deranged CEO of the weapon-manufacturing Fields Corporation—to kill Congressman White because he made the fatal mistake of talking to rival weapon manufacturer NAVCO. A cryptic cripple who lives a pathetic, if not pernicious, existence that seems to fall somewhere in between that of Howard Hughes and William S. Burroughs, Fields now relies on his hotheaded Guido ex-limo driver Tony Demmer (James Russo) to carry out his day-to-day affairs, which include murder, terrorism, and espionage. Indeed, a brutish proletarian turned elite corporate servant, Tony takes his job as Fields' right-hand man very seriously, so when a would-be-wanton woman gets in the way, things get rather ugly for everyone involved. While Tony is a charismatic master of romantic manipulation who is able to treat much classier woman, like Fields employee Pamela Flemming (Ann Magnuson), like total shit and get away with it, he ultimately finds himself no match for a rather rotund private investigator named Angel Powers (Lydia Lunch). When not taking self-flattering masturbatory bubble baths while doing dubious investigative research, pussy power Powers is verbally assaulting her wop junky ex-boyfriend for asking for dope money.

 One day, Angel gets a knock at the door from some strange fellow who wants to hire her to investigate the mysterious murder of Congressman White. Angel also learns about the billion dollar beef between FieldsCo and NAVCO and how both companies are competing to create a super weapon called the ‘BFW’ for the United States government. Eventually, Angel makes her way to the FieldsCo company bar and intentionally bumps into Tony Demmer, who she pseudo-seductively asks, “So, you wanna fuck or not?” as if she is god's gift to man (which she most certainly is not!). Of course, Tony wants to fuck, but his cockblocking cripple boss Field makes that impossible because every time the crude chauffeur goes in for the fuck, his boss calls and asks him to do something for him. A marvelously misogynistic man with a high strung heart of garlicky coal, Tony strangely begins to fall for fatso femme fatale Angel and even shows her his beloved pet Boa constrictor. Needless to say, being a virile Italian-American conman with the self-control of a rabid pit-bull, Tony eventually loses his cool, wastes his cockblocking cripple boss, and blows up the NAVCO company building with a super laser. Of course, Angel tries to stop him and when Tony yells to her, “Your brains are up your ass…you don't even know how to use that gun,” she eloquently responds by yelling back, “I'll blow your fucking head off.” After Angel loses control of her gun, Tony shows her his genetic talent as a born wifebeater and gives her a couple punches to the face. With his boss dead, Tony also manages to slip his prick into Angel via forced entry while the poor gal is semi-unconscious, but she inevitably awakes from her slumber and the goombah corporate gangster eventually loses his life after his true love electrocutes him and knocks him off a very high building.

As co-director Beth B stated in the somewhat recent documentary Blank City (2010) directed by Celine Danhier regarding the troubled production of Vortex, “That was the last film Scott and I made together and I think that it suffered because our collaboration was really not working, although it got a lot of attention.” Personally, I think Vortex is the best film Beth B and Scott B ever made together and that their deteriorating romantic relationship only added to the starkly stylized pessimism and misanthropy of the film. After Vortex, Beth B would go on to make what is arguably her ‘masterpiece,’ Salvation!: Have You Said Your Prayers Today? (1987) starring a relatively unknown Viggo Mortensen and his future wife/ex-wife Exene Cervenka of the Los Angeles punk rock band X.  A highly sardonic satire of televangelism featuring an excellent soundtrack by New Order and Cabaret Voltaire, Salvation! is no less ‘punk’ in spirit to the films of the No Wave and, unlike most of the dimestore cinematic works of the NYC-based art movement, actually manages to rise above the level of totally tasteless pseudo-subversive juvenile celluloid swill. Indeed, while I do not regret watching Vortex, I have seen similar films (i.e. postmodern neo-noir punk work), like Betaville (1986) directed by Alyce Wittenstein, which manage to do much more in much less time. Indeed, ultimately, Vortex, not unlike Beth B’s subsequent features Salvation! and Two Small Bodies (1993), seems like a short film stretched out to an ungodly length. That being said, I must give Vortex some credit for being the only film I have seen featuring Lydia Lunch that did not inspire me to fantasize about herding corpulent feminist cunts into cattle cars and dropping them off in crack and AIDS-ridden black ghettos, which is certainly no small achievement!

-Ty E

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