Last week, I made time to see not one but two NYC-oriented films, each offering unique portraits of the city, and unique storytelling that left me struggling to think of comparables. For that reason alone — I always give points to the nonformulaic —you should try to see Cubby, the debut feature by Mark Blane, and Downtown 81, a fairy-tale-like feature shot in 1980-1981 and recently restored for release by Metrograph Pictures.
My association with Blane goes back to his 2012 Kickstarter for The Rock & the Ripe, a play and book about bullying in America. I donated to that, and was happy to be in Chicago when the play was staged. For the past several years, he's been toiling on Cubby, a film I contributed to back when its indefatigable filmmaker was hosting BBQ parties to raise cash.
In its long-awaited finished form, the gritty Cubby was the New York Centerpiece of this year's NewFest, and deservedly so. The film offers an unusual take in queer cinema, focusing on the emotionally stunted, social awkward 26-year-old Mark (played by Blane himself), who is two things lead characters rarely are — uncool and poor. Dumped in Brooklyn after a who-knows-how-long drive from Indiana with his sweetly overbearing mom (Patricia Richardson, giving major Mink Stole vibes) in order to start working at an art gallery, Mark is revealed to have lied — he has no job, no prospects, not even an apartment.
From there, Cubby might have taken a Dear Evan Hansen twist, but instead is steeped much more in Mark's inability to connect with other adults, a flaw he hides by babysitting a little boy (Joseph Seuffert). Their bond is pure and magical, as is his other bond — with hardcore porn, especially as embodied by a fantasy stud, Leather-Man (played by Dom-in-real-life Christian Patrick). Mark retreats into an emotional cubby when cornered, and his explicit illustrations, while deeply therapeutic and not without artistic value, will eventually conflict with his role as a caregiver.
It's a surprising film throughout with an appealingly retro look (shot on 16mm), and I would love to hear from any of you who sees it!
Check out most of the Cubby Q&A at NewFest below:
More out-there than simply surprising, Downtown 81, written by the late Glenn O'Brien (who died just before its restoration was complete) and directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio, is a sort of fever dream of the downtown scene, one with incredible authenticity. It stars Jean-Michel Basquiat, who turned 20 during filming, as a struggling artist released from a hospital after a long convalescence only to find he's facing eviction for nonpayment of rent. A chance encounter makes him believe he could be in love with a supermodel who romantically promises to support him, so he wanders Manhattan in search of her, and in search of a buyer for his art. At times flirting with being nonnarrative, this strange sort of visual poem contains beautifully preserved performances by DNA, James White and the Blacks, the Plastics, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts that retain their original sound, even though — sadly — the audio of the rest of the film was lost and had to be restored. This means putting up with someone else's speaking voice coming out of Basquiat's mouth.
The most arresting thing about the film to me — along with the jaw-dropping images of how bombed-out the Lower East Side once looked! — was watching Basquiat tagging buildings and doodling over found images, a rare chance to see a long-dead artist at work right before his breakthrough. It's eerie seeing him play a destitute artist lugging around a painting he hopes to sell, and realizing it was actually the first painting he ever made! There is also a sequence in which Basquiat's character literally finds stacks of money. That, coupled with his character's irresistible line "if you want to see somebody, just think hard — you'll run into them," really lends the film an air of both magical realism and manifest destiny.
Producer Maripol has made this film a decades-long labor of love. It survives thanks to her persistence, and thanks to Metrograph, which is releasing it as a finished product (it enjoyed a brief release in a less polished form in 2000) almost 40 years after it was shot, and over 30 years after Basquiat died at 27.
Downtown 81 is playing at Metrograph through November 7.