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|The Roving Eye
by Anthony Haden Guest
A peculiar mystique attaches to lost evidence -- photographs, audiotape, film, documents -- of the lives of the famous. This is true whether the artifact exists only in rumor (as with the photograph purportedly showing George W. Bush dancing naked on a bar) or whether it once existed for certain but may not have survived intact.
Such was the case with New York Beat, a movie starring a 19-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat and featuring a whole galerie of the New York New Wave, which was completed in 1981, a time when this energetic movement was at its zenith. Surprisingly, the movie has now popped up in good shape. It begins its swing around the festival circuit early next year.
The origins, first. The seed was planted by Maripol, a French-born designer who had arrived in New York in 1976 along with her Swiss beau, the filmmaker Edo Bertoglio. Maripol became art director of Fiorucci, the fashion store on 59th, which was at the time a style locomotive (both Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf had their first shows there). Maripol and Edo also became involved with the "New Cinema," a lively movement involving directors like Eric Mitchell, Becky Johnson, James Nares and Amos Poe, whose movies were shot in super-8 and cast mostly from their own milieu.
"It all happened in my loft one night," Maripol says. Those present included Edo and her boss, Elio Fiorucci. Maripol was holding forth about the New Music, the New Art. The New Everything. "We really should make a film about it," she announced. Fiorucci agreed that this was a fine idea. Maripol wrote a synopsis. For the script she turned to a close friend, Glenn O'Brien, who wrote a music column for Andy Warhol's Interview." I wrote a script in about a week," O'Brien says.
The story starts with Basquiat waking up in a hospital and being released. It covers a day-in-the-life during which he is locked out of his East Village apartment, meets an elusive beauty and finally drives off into the night with her in a Cadillac. Fiorucci liked the script and secured financing from the Rizzoli publishing house. Their budget was $250,000, which by local standards was like spoonfuls of caviar for breakfast.
The director was Edo Bertoglio, the shoot began before Christmas 1980 and ran into the New Year, and it lasted about five weeks. Locations included the Peppermint Lounge, the Mudd Club and a fashion show of Maripol's designs. Parts were cast according to prevailing New Cinema methodology. The nasty landlord, for instance, was played by Giorgio Gomelski, a burly Russian who had once managed the Rolling Stones. A thief is played by Marshall Chess, who had run Rolling Stones Records, and Debbie Harry played three roles -- herself, a bag lady and a fairy.
As for the protagonist, Jean-Michel Basquiat had not been the first choice. "Edo wanted to use Danny Rosen," O'Brien says. "Danny was a very handsome kid whose sister Lisa was a big runway model at the time. I said, no. Jean-Michel is more interesting." So Basquiat it was. "Jean-Michel lived in our production office," O'Brien adds. "It's the first time he ever had a place to live in Manhattan. And I think that's when he really began painting a lot. Because he had a place to work and we bought him art supplies. That was on Great Jones Street. Directly across the street from where he later lived."
Shooting was completed but post-production was barely under way when the sky fell in as the theater of Italian corruption scandals -- Propaganda Due, the Banco Ambrosiano and the rest of it -- got underway. Rizzoli was a player and lost any interest in New York Beat. "We were just a drop of water," Maripol says. "I thought it was not meant to be."
It was meant to be for Jean-Michel Basquiat, of course. It was in Maripol's loft that the critic Rene Ricard first saw a drawing by Basquiat, and energetically begun promoting the young artist's career. O'Brien first tried to retrieve the movie in 1984. "I interested Bob Krasnow, the chairman of Electra, in it," he says. "Jean-Michel was becoming a little bit famous. And Blondie and these bands were pretty hot." This effort fizzled. "It went on the back-burner for a long while," O'Brien says. Then he learned of an Italian law whereby the rights to any unreleased artistic work revert, after a specific length of time, to its creator. Rizzoli put up no struggle. "The film was still in the lab here. We just went and picked it up," he says.
This was 1996, and the film was still in negative, which is to say it had not yet been seen. Maripol met with Julian Schnabel, who was preparing his own movie, Basquiat. "He said it was really important that he should see the footage. He wanted to pick up some and put it in his movie" Maripol says. They dickered about the costs of developing the film -- $10,000 -- but nothing came of it. "I said, 'Look, you've got your movie. Let my movie alone'," Maripol says.
The money was raised. That summer, Maripol saw some cranes in SoHo and walked over. "It was the set of Basquiat," she says. An exuberant Schnabel introduced her to Jeffrey Wright, the actor who was playing the artist. "He goes, oh, you're Maripol!" she remembers. "We're shooting your scene. This is supposed to be your building. I was cracking up. That was the day that I had put all the negatives into print." She and O'Brien had just seen their movie for the first time. She says, "So even in the grave I think that Jean-Michel was competitive with Julian."
Just what the audience of New York Beat will see 20 years later is something else. It is, for one thing, a paradigmatic example of the New Cinema, which is to say it is fluid, trippy and intimate, and it has arresting live footage by Kid Creole and the Coconuts and the poutily great James Chance.
New York Beat also has Jean-Michel Basquiat, who throws off an alternating current of inwardness and joie-de-vivre. Indeed, the movie functions most tellingly as a time capsule. It is not precisely necessary to know that many of the faces in the movie -- the doorman Haoui Montaug, for instance, or the frenetic heroin dealer who talks with Basquiat in the Mudd Club -- are gone, as is the store Fiorucci. Nor is it necessary to recognize the stars who have faded. Debbie Harry gave a recent, tremendous concert, though. Basquiat's former band, Gray, is on the verge of signing a deal to cut its slightly belated first album. And this Thursday Glenn O'Brien and Gina Nanni are getting married. James Chance will be playing at the party. So the beat goes on, but it is always different.
9/22/99ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).