I’m off to be the wizard

The movie starts with opening credits over scenes of sky and clouds, and a Debbie Harry voice-over. Then, a charming 19-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat is in the hospital; he is released, the swooning nurses wave and giggle. Basquiat walks downtown, past the Guggenheim, through Times Square (of 1981), past the Empire State Building, into the Lower East Side (of 1981). He gets kicked out of his apartment, falls in love with a model driving a convertible, he says “I’m off to BE the wizard”, he walks into an underground club where— mid-morning— a rapper and DJ are kicking out out the beats to ten or so dancing patrons, he buys and smokes a joint, jokes around with Fab 5 Freddie, he says “in this town you have to think big just to survive”, he walks past several instances of his own grafitti, he tries to sell a painting, he sees all his band’s gear stolen, he tags some buildings, he talks his way into a limo, into several clubs, he kisses Debbie Harry, finds a fortune, buys a car, and drives until dawn. Interspersed are performances from various post-punk bands of the day: Tuxedomoon, DNA, The Plastics, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks.

It’s Downtown 81, a movie originally called “New York Beat Movie”, shot in 1981, thought lost, but rediscovered and released in 2000. The soundtrack was sort of destroyed, so all vocals were re-dubbed (Basquiat’s lines spoken by someone else, naturally; when we were watching, props to Terri for noticing how weird the voice sync was, and wondering if it had all been overdubbed, Fellini-style— she turned out to be correct). I went to see it at the Brattle with Matt Shaw back in the day, and recently, with Terri’s new interest in Tuxedomoon (my God, is “Luther Blissett” a great song, ) ordered it from Netflix. The plot is super hokey (I’ve got to find the girl/sell my painting to pay my landlord/recover the gear stolen by a rival band!), and much of the dialogue is atrocious. But it’s such a great slice of NYC in 1981, Basquiat is so smooth, and New York looks so totally beat, it makes you want to cry for a time when every square centimeter of Manhattan wasn’t overrun by hedge fund managers and their ilk (though perhaps that may be changing in a hurry, if last week turns out to be a harbinger of a sudden change in the economics of NYC and consequently its real estate).

We originally had tix to see Tilly and the Wall at the Middle East tonight, but decided not to go. Instead, we followed up Downtown 81 with The Wizard of Oz on TCM. How interesting to watch it as an adult. It’s so iconic; there is hours of entertainment in just trying to separate the icon from what’s actually there, whatever being actually there menas.

The Brattle used to have a contest where the winner got to pick out a double feature. Terri and I have batted about the merits of various pairings, and one that we keep coming back to (and props to Terri for originally thinking of it originally, I think) is a pairing of The Great Ziegfeld and The Wizard of Oz. Several cast members of the Wizard of Oz are Ziegfeld Follies alumni, namely Ray Bolger and Billie Burke (a.k.a. Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld). Frank Morgan (a.k.a. the man behind the curtain) is in both films. And both have ridiculously over the top production numbers, sets, and cinematography. The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t have any flying monkeys, but then again, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Yet another perceptive note on Terri’s part (Terri, if I trusted you to blog every brilliant thing you said, I would just be letting you blog this yourself!): the black and white bit of the Wizard of Oz? If you look closely, it’s actually not really black and white. It’s sepia-toned. Some hardcore technically-oriented film geek probably knows the answer to this, but I wonder if it always this way, or if it has something to do with its conversion for color TV or if it was converted to all color film at some point after color was more common. Regardless of why, the effect is that the scenes in Kansas seem more bland than the sharp, classic look of true black and white; it seems more like nostalgia, like an idealized memory of farming America, or an idealized memory of home.

There has also been a WONDERFUL promo of John Waters running on TCM lately, talking about why Dorothy is insane for wanting to get back to Kansas. It’s not on YouTube, but there is a slightly longer version available on the TCM website that is well worth the minute or two of your life it takes to watch it! Go now! I don’t care if you’re at work! Money quote:

I’m the only child in the audience who wondered why she ever wanted to go back to Kansas. Why would she want to go back to Kansas in the this dreary black and white farm with this aunt who dressed badly and seemed mean to me, when she could live with magic shoes, winged monkeys, and gay lions?? I never understood it.

And for some bonus random connections, Waters talks much about Margaret Hamilton, whom Warhol did several portraits of in the 80′s, around the time he was collaborating with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Debbie Harry was in John Water’s Hairspray.