Henry Hills

Experimental Filmmaker

Henry Hills

My Underground New York

by Henry Hills

Standing at the corner of Ludlow and Houston today, the gateway to a haven of Hollywoody hipsterdom — (“Live like a Rockefeller, Party like a Rock Star — The Ludlow”), it’s not so easy to imagine the repulsion and pity felt by my relatives when they visited me at my apartment here in the 80’s. The front door was never locked, so all the drunks came inside to pee behind the stairwell and more than once I stumbled in on a hooker giving some guy a blow-job; there was a shooting gallery just at the top of the stairs on the second floor landing run by Steve, a former lover of the landlord who supported his own habit by charging $5 to a steady flow of workers bringing their own works to get high and listen to Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday with him; my next door neighbor Eddie, a retired fireman with a much younger dissatisfied but enduring mail-order Trinidadian bride-with-child, would go on his monthly benders, totally jolly at first, some days later unshaven lying on the sidewalk indistinguishable from any Bowery bum, always finally calling the cops to haul him away to the tank to dry up — once, after a loud banging, I opened my door to find two police with pistols drawn pointed at me asking what was the problem & somehow amazingly calmly I replied that they must want the gentleman next door. The summers stank as Katz’s Deli brewed their 50 gallon barrels of sauerkraut on the sidewalk under my window and refrigerator semis sat all night with their diesel engines fuming . The neighborhood was a mostly amiable mixture of poor people — primarily blacks who all seemed to be related to each other, the patriarchs, who held court during the day on the stoops, having moved downtown from Harlem after WW2, and, I think, Dominicans — and white artists, including Kiki Smith & all of the CoLab people, as well as an unusually large number of filmmakers, including Coleen Fitzgibbon, Peter Hutton, Jon Rubin, Aline Mayer, Bradley Eros, Jeff Preiss, Abby Child, & myself. The omnipresent heroin retail business was much more subtle here than in the burned-out shells north in Alphabet City. Whenever fatigue overcame me working late in the evening, a visit to Sal’s Pizzeria was like snorting speed: Sal and Sal Jr, forever grilling sizzling greasy sausages, the radio blasting, the TV blasting also, the crazy guy always sitting at one of the two bar chairs having an ongoing shouting conversation between his selves and the TV, the always flickering fluorescent bulbs, and the two ancient beeping video games in the back that the neighborhood kids were constantly banging around. My rent was very cheap. I could make it working one week a month labor for an all-artist construction company, partly hired from small real estate guilt to renovate lofts as other artists were displaced in Soho and Tribeca.

The most happening place for film at that time was the greatly missed Collective for Living Cinema down in Tribeca. Originally founded in protest to the formation of the Essential Cinema canon of Anthology Film Archives (which collection ended in the early 70s, seemingly denying the possibility for future generations of experimental filmmakers owing to the pernicious emergence of experimental film as an academic discipline, which incidentally provided employment to the majority of living artists in the Essential Cinema collection). Fall though Spring, the Collective screened experimental films every Friday and Sunday evening to a generally large and often contentious crowd (and oddball narrative films on Saturdays, to not collide with the in-person filmmaker series at the more moldy but enduring Millennium Film Workshop, the chosen venue for the annual visits of Stan Brakhage and George Kuchar, and a paying gig for those of us who happily frequented any theater which screened our type of work). There were also numerous pop-up showcases; you had to check the “Other Films” section in the VOICE every week. Anthology itself, the wonderful 80 Wooster theater of which was intermittently closed during the decade for fire violations and finally shuttered & sold in preparation for the move to it’s present 2nd Ave & 2nd St courthouse location, had the best projectionist in town at the time, Rick Stansberry; it was totally mind-altering to watch, for instance, their pristine 35mm Vertov prints - a serious viewing location indeed. MOMA had their own Monday night in-person Cineprobe series as well, it seems like it was monthly, and even the Whitney had regular screenings. But the Collective was the cutting edge, the feminists versus the formalists, with ardent, high-pitched, often quite contentious & stressful, discussions; the godheads being Ken Jacobs and Yvonne Rainer. But the No Wave scene totally dominated media attention — cheaply-transferred super-8 projected on such video beamers as existed at the time, on St Marks Place. We thought it was nothing at the time. There was an impressive flyer-posting blitz throughout the E. Village & environs by Scott & Beth B which almost matched the obsessive inflating omnipresence of Basquiat’s SAMO© graffiti campaign in Soho a couple of years earlier. Their films seemed more than vapid enough, though, until the long-winded narcissistic Nick Zedd came along. When I arrived, I got the impression that everyone in my peer group was trying to make their Ernie Gehr film. Obviously not so easy as it might appear, but I wanted to do something different, something new & never before done.

I had been composing silent single-frame totally text-free 16mm films in dreamy San Francisco. Even though maybe 100 people ever saw this work, I relished what I thought to be the international and direct quality of the communication. I have unfortunately never been much of a careerist. As noise is an obviously present quality in New York, always fascinating just as the visuals are even to this day always fascinating walking the streets, I imagined methods to adapt sound film to my crazily radical aspirations. It took me a bitter while to get access to the equipment to do so. I had been equipment-loan manager at Film/Video Arts (I only lasted a couple of months) and, while I loaned out sync-sound rigs to other filmmakers, I was not able myself to borrow them because a $2000 security deposit was required on the insurance policy. My first “sync” sound film was shot on a wind-up Bolex with audio recorded on a Sony Walkman cassette recorder. Fortunately, as the local TV stations switched their news equipment to video, Rafik acquired several Frezzolini single-system 16mm cameras. Rafik, a true film angel, was a Palestinian living underground without a visa, who had stayed on in NY against his parents’ wishes after he graduated from Pratt and had founded a cooperative film production fantasy which had evolved into an out-dated film-stocks and short-ends mail order operation (the context I had been introduced to him by Nick Dorsky) and went on to become a post-production facility and the only downtown film supplies headquarters and further evolved into an inexpensive low-end but problematic video transfer facility. He gave an annual Thanksgiving party that was the only place (except maybe in the elevators and hallways of the various labs) where members of all the different low-budget film communities ever crossed paths: Jack Smith, Jim Jarmusch, Robert Frank, experimental, documentary, indy narrative, & punk filmmakers. These Frezzolini’s he had bought (and rented out at something like $125/week) recorded sound directly onto a magnetic stripe on one side of a reversal film strip; it was possible to be a one-person crew. Babette VanLoo, a Dutch filmmaker (we had studied together with George Kuchar at the Art Institute), hired me to shoot the historic Joseph Beuys lecture at the Great Hall at Cooper Union; this gave me a chance to learn how to use these cameras; unfortunately I didn’t figure out how to focus the image until halfway through the first 12 minute reel (out of two). When we viewed the rushes, she was incensed, but I was ecstatic because I at that moment discovered the answer to a mystery that had entranced me since I saw my first experimental films, BIKE BOY and NUDE RESTAURANT, at the Central Theater in Atlanta in 1967. Since in such a single-system camera (like also Warhol’s Auricon) the sound is recorded directly onto the film, there is a brief swooping whistle alongside a flash frame whenever the camera is turned on while the motor comes up to speed (24fps). This lasts way less than a second but can be very distinctive if the shots are short. Warhol used this accidental effect increasingly in his sound films; often, when he seems bored with the ceaseless chatter of his superstars, turning the camera off and on until the flashing and whooping becomes incredibly manic. This technique fit perfectly with my intention to fragment language in order to focus on movement & gesture and, especially, rhythm. I flipped the switch on these cameras off and on so many times that I totally destroyed at least one of them. My idea of content was to use other radical artists as my stars and subject matter, presenting them and their work as the raw material for creating my own, mostly outside on the lively streets of downtown on sunny days. My thought: use the experts — poets for language, musicians for sound, & dancers for movement, & natural lighting.

If any artists can be more pure and free from fashion & market influences than experimental filmmakers, that would be poets, I always thought. Which could possibly be translated as poor & ignored. I had met Ron Silliman and many of the “West Coast” language poets before I left San Francisco, but L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine was reaching out to other artists in New York, and Charles Bernstein & Ted Greenwald had started this amazing Saturday afternoon reading series at the Ear Inn, where totally wild poets like Hannah Weiner, Peter Seaton, Jackson Mac Low, Tom Rayworth, Diane Ward & Bruce Andrews were regularly reading. For several years a lot of these readings were big events (you can listen to most of them streaming on PennSound); the bar scenes afterwards were also pretty wild. The younger poets around St Marks Poetry Project seemed to have an aesthetic of fucking-up their lives with weird sex, alcohol, drugs & general low life in order to have something to write about in their repetitive autobiographical focus. The language gang, though, with their formally and politically radical focus, were reaching out (both directions) to other artists, whatever media. Most scenes are so xenophobic, so this outreach attitude drew a lot of us with similar aesthetics in. The pleasures of streams of words flowing over you! Is real life a thing of the past? It got harder for me to keep up as their books got longer. What was great at this time was a kind of sense of communal experimentation and a receptiveness to wilder and crazier is better.

Somehow a lot of musicians moved (or moved back) to New York in the late 70’s and something that was not quite free jazz was beginning. Bruce Andrews and I had organized a series called Last Tuesday which combined 3 mini poetry readings, 3 short experimental 16mm films, and one jazz set, to be held the last Tuesday of each month at the Millennium. For the second (&, as it turned out, final) event, we invited John Zorn to play. Larry Ochs had told me this was someone on my wavelength that I should check out. We had a particularly large crowd that evening, and, as soon as he rolled up his pants leg and stuffed a tennis ball into his sax & started squawking (to the accompaniment of Polly Bradfield playing electric violin with a toothbrush), people started leaving, gradually and then in large groups until there was no one left but me & Bruce & our girlfriends. That was the beginning of a great friendship. Going record shopping with Zorn was an education in itself. The new “downtown improv scene” had a rehearsal/performance space called, oddly enough, Studio Henry, in the basement of a pet store at 1 Morton St, which had been started by Wayne Horvitz & Robin Holcomb and was later run by Mark E. Miller of the Toy Killers. It felt like there was some sort of improv gig going on there every night and it must have been free or donation-only because I went all the time; I could take a break from my own work, bike over and listen to a set of fresh exploratory improvisation and then go home all revved up with ideas. I remember a performance of Zorn’s JAI ALAI where there were more people on stage than in the audience. The musicians came from a wide range of backgrounds—all varieties of jazz, folk, rock, funk, minimalism, & electronic music, many classically trained, some artists not really musicians in any formal sense—but all were committed to making something new & unpredictable and they fearlessly banged their heads together in public. Fred Frith was almost a rock star when he left England for this downtown scene. Zorn, whose performances on duck calls were absolutely breathtaking, began composing his game pieces to give some kind of order to all of this energy. It was a recruiting station for Bill Laswell’s various studio productions. There were other spaces—Inroads, King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, the Saint; Roulette on West Broadway was the center for many years, the Knitting Factory when it was on Houston St. & later Tonic down on Suffolk. And after Bruce got together with Sally Silvers, she educated us in what was going on in tandem with post-Judson dance.

In this environment of parallel aesthetics across a range of fields and media, I made three historical films beginning with the still-radical RADIO ADIOS. I mean they’re all pretty whacked, but, in some ways MONEY often looks like my sell-out commercial film by comparison. (I had made an earlier exploration, PLAGIARISM, which has a fantastic soundtrack, but I was not happy with the visuals, especially compared to the dazzle of my previous silent films; all those protagonists re-appear in subsequent works). With RADIO ADIOS (which is forthcoming on the National Preservation Foundation DVD box TREASURES 6: NEXT WAVE AVANT-GARDE), the first rough-cut was composed from a transcription of the intentionally very fragmented sync rushes to be a wild avant-garde poem (the actual text was published as one in the magazine O.ARS); after I had finished cutting the sync version on the flatbed editing machine, I put the rolls up on rewinds and, wherever the strip itself was not visually interesting enough to the naked eye, I intercut other footage (for instance, my first rolls of Sally Silvers’ dance moves, which were often absurdly criticized at the time as having awkward transitions, but, when montaged, no transitions were necessary) to jazz it up. This film included, in addition to my repertory cast, Jackson Mac Low performing from THE ASYMMETRIES and Hannah Weiner reading from the notebooks that became LITTLE BOOKS/INDIANS, George Kuchar playing a Maoist revolutionary, Jemeel Moondoc with Ensemble Muntu (Roy Campbell, William Parker, & Rashid Bakr) & Rashid Ali, & performance artist Aline Mayer talking about sex. This film (up until the release print) was somehow entirely self-financed; with it’s out-dated filmstock, it has a kind of endearing poverty look. As I was finishing it I wrote a half-drunken application to the NEA to make a 12-part film based on Frederic Jameson’s MARXISM AND FORM and miraculously got the grant. $25,000 seemed like an immense fortune at the time but I ran through it fast enough (I paid my lab bill, bought a new Bolex, bought a new projector, bought a tape recorder) before I was barely half-way through my project, the difficulties of finishing which (& otherwise I would have had to pay back the funding — as if…) led to it’s title, MONEY. It was the Reagan era and we were resisting (and having fun). Is this even possible now? It stars Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Jack Collum (who was Brakhage’s brother-in-law and lived down the block from me on Ludlow), Alan Davies, Susie Timmons,, James Sherry (my boss when I gave up construction work and became the mail order clerk-and later the president-of the Segue Foundation, as “Mr. Money,” because at the time we thought him corrupt since he took a job with IBM), and the goddess Diane Ward — as my poets. Zorn and Tom Cora, my main musician stars besides David Moss, helped facilitate my music shoots. I began with Toy Killers at Studio Henry. I shot tons of horribly underexposed footage there when I first got my grant, film-stocks just weren’t fast enough at the time to shoot in such a low light situation. I hadn’t realized how low the light was because the music was loud and the performances so visual. So I returned to my Bolex and sunlight to shoot dance improv in order to systematically replace these bad visuals (and sync them up to the best music bits) and began, for instance, filming Pooh Kaye improvising movement as well as Sally. I think I provoked a lot of future collaborations between artists of like aesthetics who were not previously aware of each others’ work. Yoshiko Chuma gave an amazing sync sound performance of a high energy improv dance in the middle of Avenue A & 7th St speaking Japanese the entire time. I intercut this with David Moss singing and playing a sheet of tin on a Sunday on Orchard Street, the most congested situation you could imagine in all of Manhattan but a somehow always mellow friendly environment. Orchard Street on Sundays was truly amazing; it was like Democracy at it’s most ideal, Coney Island around the block. It had been that way for a century and then suddenly it was gone. I gradually figured out the possibilities of performance space exposure and had well-lit shoots of what was Zorn’s probably even-to-this-day largest cast piece, CROQUET, at Verna Gillis’ legendary club, Soundscape, which included rare footage of Bill Laswell, Eugene Chadbourne, and Bob Ostertag, among others; of his TRACK & FIELD at Roulette, featuring Christian Marclay, Jim Staley, & Butch Morris, with Ikue Mori on drums; of Arto Lindsay at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Zu House; and of various other improv gigs with Frith, Derek Bailey, and others. I shot Zorn outside on his block of 7th St. until a drug kingpin chased us off and then inside at his blackboard, and filmed Tom Cora playing his cello with the huge rubber band on the Brooklyn Bridge. Tom was particularly supportive not only during production but later as I was trying to get this film out into the world. It opened many doors for me. Afterwards I made a book to go with it: MAKING MONEY and then started renovating a building near Tompkins Square Park where I would eventually move. During this process of creating beauty (and a home) out of rubble, I made SSS. SSS is a dance film, with a soundtrack improvised before most of the shooting was done by a trio of Tom Cora, Christian Marclay, and Zeena Parkins, with the understanding that I could cut it up and reassemble it into my own composition. I started shooting with Sally and Pooh & continued over almost three years, using mostly various dancers who performed with them: Harry Shepperd, Kusil-ja (then known as Kumiko Kimoto), David Zambrano, Mark Dendy, Lee Katz, Ginger Gillespie, & numerous others. When it was a sunny day and I was free, I would call around and get dancers to come over to Avenues B & C and improvise movement for me on my Bolex. Barbara Kopple was making her film American Dream about a Hormel meatpackers strike that unexpectedly dragged on & on and which was thus years in postproduction and generously rented her editing suite at Cabin Creek Films in the evenings for very cheap to poor independent filmmakers, and so I went there after work several nights a week and ran the music and the work-print of the movement footage together randomly over & over and pulled out whatever sections “hit” sync. It took quite some time to reassemble these fragments into something coherent. By the time the film was done, the world had moved on. When it was released, except for showings at Sally’s & Pooh’s performances, it was a huge flop; everyone thought it was just MONEY without the poets and musicians. But maybe 5 years later the world moved on again and it gradually became, and still remains, my most popular work (it’s also on YouTube & linked to numerous blogs), maybe partially because of nostalgia for 80’s fashions and the pre-gentrified East Village. By the early 90’s these scenes as scenes largely disappeared. The ever increasing rents drove out the small performance spaces and forced most people to get full-time jobs or become famous. Somehow, though, New York is still an incredibly energizing place live. I feel like I’m still Underground.