Aug 10, 2015
While I am not a big fan of their music, I have always had a special place in my heart for the hardcore punk band Fear because they not only enjoy pissing off moronic leftist pussies by using fascistic imagery, but also because they wrote songs with excellent titles like “New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones,” which they performed on Saturday Night Live on Halloween in 1981 in an infamous event where they incited a group of slam-dancing NYC-hating punks to hilariously cause $20,000 worth of damage to the studio. Of course, the song, which has great lyrics like “New York's alright, If you like art and jazz…New York's alright, If you're a homosexual,” is clearly in reference to the too-cool-for-school ‘avant-garde’ No Wave scene, which was comprised of negrophiliac individuals who seemed incapable of directing a single film or composing a single song without including some pretentious saxophonist playing obnoxious discordant noise (apparently, certain half-crazed crippled NYC Hebrews are less tolerant of trumpets). Incidentally, the same year that Fear trashed the Saturday Night Live studio, NYC auteur Amos Poe (Unmade Beds, Alphabet City)—a French New Wave fanboy who has probably done more than any American filmmaker to influence the dreaded Mumblecore movement—released a film that epitomizes more than any other No Wave flick the racially and culturally nihilistic ‘white negro’ obsession with degenerate jazz. Indeed, Poe’s Subway Riders (1981) is a sort of unintended film-within-a-film about a hipster serial killer who lures in his victims with his saxophone playing when he is not penning a cryptically autobiographical screenplay about the same thing. A sort of more nihilistic and cynical NYC underground equivalent to the classic slasher flick Maniac (1980) starring Joe Spinell, this now obscenely outmoded NOIR-ish ’hipster horror’ flick is quite arguably Poe’s most ambitious and aesthetically accomplished work to date, as a rare No Wave flick with a sometimes entrancing mise-en-scène, somewhat nuanced storyline, and fairly idiosyncratic characters who do not seem like neo-bohemian bums simply portraying themselves. Starring a number of prominent actors, including John Lurie (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law), Susan Tyrrell (Fat City, Forbidden Zone), tragic Warhol superstar/dope-dealer Cookie Mueller (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living), avant-garde artist William ‘Bill’ Rice (Manhattan Love Suicides, Coffee and Cigarettes, and even Hollywood star Robbie Coltrane (GoldenEye, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) as a resentful cop with the cinephiliac name Fritz Langley, Subway Riders is like Fritz Lang’s M (1931) meets Warhol and Morrissey’s Chelsea Girls (1966) meets an adamantly anti-cop The French Connection (1971) meets a more metaphysically sick Taxi Driver (in fact, Paul Schrader is even referenced at the beginning of the film), albeit nowhere as amazing as it sounds. Featuring both auteur Poe and Lurie portraying the exact same role because the latter had the audacity to quit the film in the middle of production to work on his degenerate jazz music, the film indubitably features one of the most nightmarishly visceral and gorgeously gritty portrayals of early 1980s NYC as a work that makes Martin Scorsese’s coke-fueled flick After Hours (1985) seem like an unpleasantly polished Spielberg flick, as a strangely melodically melancholic midnight movie that is indeed best suited for watching at midnight.
Described by Poe himself as belonging to “a genre unto itself,” Subway Riders certainly features a hodgepodge of various different (sub)genres but it is ultimately a pathologically moody mood piece that attempts to pierce the heart of its decidedly despairing zeitgeist of cultural, moral, and romantic nihilism where corrupt cops are married to mudhshark junky whores, melancholic saxophonists kill random strangers because their hooker flatmates are mean to them, and young lovelorn single mothers stalk serial killers, among other things. A phantasmagoric and oneiric film with a strangely comforting yet foreboding narcotizing tone that makes early 1980s NYC seen like some sort of post-punk existentialist pandemonium that is closer to hell than heaven, Poe’s work actually manages to do the seemingly impossible by making the rotten Big Apple seem somewhat cool. Featuring an unconventionally sympathetic serial killer whose sax seems like a sorry masturbatory outlet for his sexual repression, Subway Riders ultimately reminds the viewer why, “New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones.” Promoted with the line, “I think we are in rats' alley where the dead men lost their bones,” from T.S. Eliot's masterful poem The Waste Land (1922), Poe's film was notably only ever released in Germany on VHS and is all but totally forgotten today, yet it ultimately acts as one of the most aesthetically potent and darkly humorous indictments of the nihilistic necropolis that was early 1980s NYC, where everyone seemed more or less metaphysically dead and a serial killer could arguably act as a sort of dark savior and humanist hero who provided the forsaken living dead with a final resting place and, in turn, perennial peace and quiet.
Pathologically posturing and particularly mentally perturbed protagonist Anthony Zindo (Amos Poe) is an Italian-American avant-garde jazz player who has not been happy since the day he and his family arrived via boat in NYC from Italy when he was a young kid, thus demonstrating that the city at least played some role in molding him into the mumbling misanthropic murderer he is today. At the beginning of the film, Anthony meets with a sleazy Hebraic Hollywood producer named Mr. Leo Gallstone (Bill Rice) who he is attempting to sell his crypto-autobiographical screenplay about a saxophonist that moonlights as a serial killer, but when the morally bankrupt movie man discusses Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty playing the lead, Diane Keaton playing a “mind-reading woman,” Jane Fonda playing a junky, and Marlon Brando playing a cop, the protagonist seems to be much less interested. Of course, all the characters that Gallstone mentions from Anthony’s screenplays are also featured in Subway Riders, though they are not played by glamorous Hollywood stars like Nicholson and Brando. Gallstone loves working in Hollywood because it is a business that, unlike a clothing store, the customer enters the building but leaves with nothing, or as the seemingly pernicious producer states, “That’s what this business is about: It’s about money and nothing.” When Gallstone promises getting Paul Schrader or some other screenwriter to take over his script, Anthony decides to leave abruptly and seems to give up his dubious dream of working in Hollywood. Just before the film’s credit sequence rolls, Anthony allegorically states regarding NYC, “Home is where the heart is…The Deskman is dressed in black.” Of course, Anthony not only dresses in black, but is also a sort of self-appointed ghetto Grim Reaper who lures people in with his degenerate jazz playing and then wastes them with his snub-nosed revolver.
According to a nameless hobo street poet (played by AIDS victim Emilio Cubeiro, who is probably best known for the Lydia Lunch produced album ‘Death of an Asshole’) regarding the people of NYC, “No life left anywhere…Only zombies.” Indeed, if any of the characters in the film have anything in common, it is that they are spiritually comatose and merely drift through life like superlatively sullen somnambulists who can only find solace in vice. Antihero Anthony lives in the same apartment building as a Sapphic statuesque streetwalker who sometimes stars in exploitation films named Penelope Trasher (Cookie Mueller) who is nothing if not a brazen bitch that enjoys gnawing on female naughty bits. When Gallstone ‘buys’ Penelope, he brazenly lets her know that if his daughter was in the same trade as her he would be shattered, stating, “I don’t know if I would shoot her or hang myself.” While Penelope is not too offended by Gallstone’s rather unflattering comment, she is exceedingly annoyed with Anthony's sax playing, describing it as a “bang-at-the-moon” and “disco music” and then recommends that he sell his “tuba” so that he can get a heater because, “It might even sound better.” As the viewer eventually learns, Penelope’s resentment towards him is one of the things that has provoked Anthony to kill. Indeed, not long after his argument with Penelope, Anthony murders a man that attempts to rob him with a machete. Of course, the police are looking for Anthony and it is only a matter of time before they catch up with him.
Aside from dedicating most of his time to hunting the “psycho killer” (as Anthony is described by the media) that is ravaging NYC, Detective Fritz Langley (Robbie Coltrane) has to deal with the pathological degeneracy of his junky wife Eleanor (Susan Tyrrell) who hangs out with “junky niggers” and pimps with goofy names like Pinky Marbles. Fritz is offended by the fact that his wifey hangs out with junky jigabbos and complains to her, “You’ve got to see the light of it, Eleanor. I’m a cop. What do you think it does to me when I hear you’re running around with a guy whose a killer […] you’re a thoroughbred, Eleanor…What are you running around with these mutts for?” but Eleanor is a loony libertine who respects her negro pimp pal Pinky Marbles and replies to her hubby by self-righteously stating, “What are you, life’s big winner?! You’re no different than he is. You’re a white rat and he’s a black rat. You’re both caught in the same trap. I don’t give a rat’s ass.” In fact, Eleanor has such little respect for a hubby that she pulls his service revolver on him when he is showering and states, “You should never take a shower without your gun. Even cops die.” Naturally, Fritz will eventually realize that his wanton wife’s words ring true.
Upon murdering a complete stranger and subsequently hearing police sirens, Anthony opts to enter the passenger seat of a car that has stopped at a crosswalk and soon discovers that it is driven by a strange bleached blonde babe named Claire Smith (Charlene Kaleina) who does not seem particularly alarmed by the fact that a seemingly dangerous stranger has entered her automobile without asking. As Anthony says to Claire, “Downtown lady. Don’t be scared, my name’s Anthony. Just give me a ride back, alright,” but she does become somewhat alarmed when she notices that the antihero has a revolver that he has named ‘Beatrice.’ Ultimately, Claire gives Anthony a ride back to his apartment and the protagonist rewards her by informing her that she can drop by his place anytime she wants. Before parting ways, Anthony asks Claire where she was originally driving to and she replies in a somewhat existentialistic manner, “I don’t know where I was going.” Indeed, as a lovelorn single mother who has not gotten over her great love ‘Bobby’ and who had to quit her dream of becoming a doctor to take care of her young daughter, Claire no longer has any plans and merely floats through life without a purpose as a sort of living ghost that forgot to die and still has a human body. A somewhat phantom-like lady who seems to be able to appear and disappear from places without warning, Claire more or less instantly realizes that Anthony is the “psycho killer,” yet she opts to begin stalking him and entering his home without warning via windows. Notably, while sneaking into Anthony’s apartment, Claire cries to herself regarding her ‘great love,’ “Bobby…Oh, Bobby, what did you do to my life? I was so alone. Talk to me Bobby.” One almost suspects that Claire wants Anthony to put her out of her misery, but fate has different plans.
When Claire randomly shows up at Anthony’s apartment the first time, the two have a sort of somewhat metaphysical philosophical conversation about NYC, with the former stating to the latter, “I know that the only people that are not afraid in this town are the innocent and guilty. Take you: You jump in my car…I look at you and you’re nervous but not afraid. And take me: I’m not afraid…but then I’m naive. Take you: You are not naive…You’re guilty.” Suspecting that she might know that he is the killer, Anthony frankly states to Claire, “Lady, I don’t know if it is the beer or cold, but you’re off your rocker,” and she somewhat esoterically replies, “Me…You…All of us. Everybody riding subways…waiting for stations…when do you get off?” Anthony’s curious conversation ultimately inspires him to get pathetically drunk and imagine that he is John Lurie (who is his sort of literary alter-ego). Meanwhile, junky cop’s wife Eleanor injects a mixture of heroin and a cocktail drink into her tongue and complains regarding his hubby Fritz, “Funny, he used to be a human being…warm and funny. He actually used to have a sense of humor but it has all turned to ugliness and cynicism. He’s grotesque, stupid, ugly. Blind and arrogant [..] I’m sick of his sadism. I'm sick of tough guys who are uncharitable and unfair.” Indeed, Eleanor is so fed up with her tough guy spouse that she even fantasizes about him dying, thinking to herself, “He’s not my problem anymore. Yeah, sure, I’ll go to the funeral…when they tell me his brain has been blown into some gutter or corner of this town. Sure, I’ll be the cop’s widow dressed in black. I’ll play the role in that charade but I ain’t holding tears that have been shed a longtime ago.”
With carpet-munching hooker Penelope continuing to rebuff his rather retarded romantic advances, Anthony naturally continues to drink and kill. Somewhat ironically, Penelope actually secretly likes Anthony and his music and describes her antagonistic behavior towards him as a mere “game” to her lesbo girlfriend, even justifying her behavior by arguing, “In this city, you can’t give inch. You go into a restaurant and you order tea and waiter brings you coffee, you just have to make a fuss. You can’t EVER let yourself be easy.” Somewhat humorously, Penelope’s ladylove is so offended by her attitude that she not only bitchily retorts, “There’s a subtle difference between being hard and being a bitch,” but also dumps her and resentfully states to her while walking out her front door for good, “So long, Trash. When the door closes behind you, remember I loved you…But you love yourself even more and I’m the jealous type.” Meanwhile, old school cop Detective Fritz becomes exceedingly annoyed with having to use modern crime technology to track down the killer and complains to his boss about the fact that the mayor’s nephew works for IBM and that he hates using a computer, bitching, “You tell me to go and get this guy. What have I got. I got a computer…vomiting out all of this garbage all day. Profiles, data, information, nothing.” Using his seemingly ‘immaculately flawed’ cop intuition, Fritz eventually comes to the conclusion that “The Saxophonist” (which was notably the original name of Poe’s film) has to be the killer. With his wife leaving him by writing a simple note reading, “Fritz…There’s Nothing Left Anymore,” the rather rotund detective is all the more determined to take out his rage on the psycho killer. Of course, it is only a matter of time before there is a final showdown between Fritz and Anthony.
In their final quasi-philosophical meeting at the antihero’s apartment, Claire states to Anthony after revealing her story about how she had to quit her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse after she got knocked up and her deadbeat beau Bobby screwed her over, “The funny thing is when you lose interest in dreams, you kind of lose interest in everything. Sometimes, kids really understand the essence of everything.” Indeed, the NYC depicted in the film is a place of dead dreams and real-life nightmares, yet Claire and Anthony’s ‘non-romance’ seems to be an example of fate, at least at first. Claire attempts to reason with Anthony about his unspeakable crimes by warning him regarding his questionable fate, “…When they catch you…and they will…you’re gonna suffer…and you’re really gonna suffer.” When Claire asks why he committed the killings, Anthony complains about how Penelope has treated him and how she reminds him of his mother, complaining, “I just really wanna play my sax. She won’t let me. My mother was just like that.” While not exactly the same type of serial killer, it seems that Anthony suffers from mommy problems just like Norman Bates and Ed Gein. When Anthony makes the mistake of deciding to go out to waste another innocent victim, he is ultimately chased down and severely wounded by Detective Fritz during a somewhat spastic and incoherent shootout. Luckily, Claire seems to have a sort of sixth sense and waits for him inside her car outside a movie theater playing Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and a fictional sexploitation film entitled “A Bitch In Heat” starring streetwalker Penelope Trash. Indeed, Claire manages to help seemingly mortally wounded Anthony into a car and drive him to safety. The next morning, Claire inexplicably attempts to save the serial killer Anthony by setting him up with a helicopter out of NYC, but somewhat unfortunately the protagonist succumbs to his wounds only seconds after flying over the city, mumbling before he dies, “Too many things. Just too many things.”
Undoubtedly, Subway Riders owes most of its aesthetic potency to the neon-lit cinematography of the film’s Austrian co-producer/editor Johanna Heer, who notably worked as an assistant director, editor, and associate director of photography on Poe’s The Foreigner (1978), but even more notably later shot shot Hungarian auteur Gábor Bódy’s epic punk swan song Kutya éji dala (1983) aka The Dog's Night Song, as well as the underrated Teutonic cyberpunk flick Decoder (1984) directed by Muscha. Aside from Heer acting as the DP on the kraut cult flick, which bares striking aesthetic similarities to Poe’s ‘kaleidoscopic noir’ film despite being set in Berlin instead of NYC, Decoder also stars Subway Riders star Will Rice in one of the lead roles. Surely, without Heer’s talent for shooting reds and pinks that practically bleed through the screen despite being set in shadowy rooms, the film would be lacking aesthetically, which is somewhat ironic considering Poe hated her, or as he was quoted on the book Trashfilm Roadshows (2002) by Johannes Schönherr, “She is the worst person in the world.” To Poe’s credit, Heer was apparently rather vocal about her personal belief that her cinematography is more important than the filmmaker’s direction, or so stated Schönherr in his book. Still, as a rather psychotic, schizoid, paranoid, and perverted film about a psychotic, schizoid, paranoid, and perverted sort of ‘folk antihero’ that was unequivocally dreamed up by seemingly paranoiac hipster pervert Poe, one should certainly credit the director for his role in this rare melodic yet malefic nihilist melodrama, which is indubitably one of the most idiosyncratic serial killer flicks ever made.
While describing the original script as “a kind of demonic action urban picture” with “a very straight narrative,” Poe began using a lot of improvisation while directing Subway Riders, stating of the film’s narrative in a January 1981 interview with BOMB magazine, “…though at first I hoped to make it like Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso and like that, in terms of literature, it was well…poetically, mythologically bent.” Poe followed up the film by attempting to enter the mainstream with the stylish yet ultimately all-too-superficial feature Alphabet City (1984) starring Vincent Spano, which originally featured a much more brutal and nihilistic ending but the director copped out at the request of the producers (who wanted him to make a “urban teen flick”). Of course, as a conspicuously culturally pessimistic and spiritually apocalyptic work with a a ridiculously darkly (anti)romantic spirit and almost tragic, cynical ending, Subway Riders is not only Poe’s most iconoclastic, misanthropic, and aesthetically ambitious work, but also a film that makes for a great antidote to the neurotic Jewish intellectual rom-coms by Woody Allen and the shallow ‘cocaine cowboy’ pieces by Martin Scorsese that were being made in NYC around the same time. Indeed, for better or worse, Poe’s slow-burning serial killer picture probably better personifies its particular zeitgeist than any other film of that time, so it is almost fitting that the auteur subsequently bought into his own version of Reaganism and unsuccessfully attempted to sellout (though, to the director’s credit, he freely admitted to work in Hollywood, stating “Yeah. That would be ideal,” when asked if he wanted financing from Hollywood during his interview with BOMB magazine). While I would not exactly call Subway Riders a masterpiece, it is certainly the closest thing that an American filmmaker has come to creating a pure and unadulterated arthouse work of its time, as a sort of NYC equivalent to what the filmmakers of New German Cinema were doing back then (in that regard, it is fitting that the film features a movie theater marquee advertising Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, which probably influenced Poe at that time). To quote the Fear song again, Poe’s flick thankfully, grisly depicts the sentiment, “New York's alright, If you wanna get mugged or murdered…New York's alright, If you like saxophones.” Somewhat inexplicably, despite being someone that loathes both NYC and saxophones (though murder is not always bad), I surprisingly enjoyed wallowing in the the slime, sin, and jazzy serial-killing of Subway Riders. Indeed, maybe if more white saxophonists were philosophizing serial killers instead of culturally cuckolded hipster dorks, the sax would not be such a hopelessly lame instrument, but of course that is probably about as likely as NYC producing an important underground film movement sometime soon.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:51 AM
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