Eric Mitchell (filmmaker)
Eric Mitchell is a French born writer/director/actor who moved to New York City in the early 1970s. He has acted in many No Wave films (for example in Permanent Vacation (1980) by Jim Jarmusch), but he is best known for his writing and directing his own films: Kidnapped, Red Italy, Underground USA and The Way it Is or Eurydice in the Avenues, starring Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Mark Boone Junior and Rockets Redglare.
Life and work
During the late 1970s-early 1980s, Eric Mitchell was among the most significant proponents of the punk bohemia, No Wave Cinema, no-budget style of underground punk filmmaking that was concerned with issues of simulation typical of postmodernism. He worked out of New York City's East Village area in conjunction with Colab and other performance artists and noise musicians and created a series of scruffy, deeply personal short Super 8mm and 16mm films in which he combined darkly sinister images to explore the manner in which the individual is constrained by society. Rising from the ashes of a bankrupt and destitute 1970’s Manhattan, and reacting to the modernist aesthetic of 1960’s avant-garde film, No Wave filmmakers like Eric Mitchell threw out the rules and embraced their own brand of vanguard moviemaking. Inspired by the films of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, John Waters and The French New Wave, Mitchell's films combined elements of documentary and loose narrative structure, somewhat like Jean-Luc Godard, with stark, at times confrontational imagery. Much like the No Wave music of the period from which the movement garnered its label, Mitchell pillaged the nascent East Village arts scene for co-conspirators in the likes of Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Vincent Gallo, Steve Buscemi, Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller and many others. Mitchell shared the common mindset of fast and cheap, and was catalyzed by collaboration. This No Wave style rose from the ashes of such gloom, when even nihilism had expired. Its influence remains, but the movement was little more than a cultural blip in New York City history: the brief harmony of music, visual art and film in downtown Manhattan, showcased nightly at New Cinema on Astor Place and at small punk rock venues like CBGB and Tier 3 and at punk art clubs like the Mudd Club.
Kidnapped (1978), his first feature, took on political terrorism, recasting it in the form of a group improvisation for jaded, aimless bohemian types who dabble in it like the latest fashion craze. The deadpan acting style the actors indulge in owes much to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andy Warhol. Indeed, Kidnapped was inspired by Vinyl (1965), a black-and-white experimental film directed by Warhol at The Factory starring Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgwick and Ondine - an early adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange. In Kidnapped, Mitchell, Anya Phillips and Gordon Stevenson hang around a cramped lower east side apartment. Coolly, they talk with each other (often reading directly off the script that has been taped to the wall) and dance and fight with each other as the no wave music of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks plays on the stereo within the movie set. Like in a Warhol film, oftentimes nothing much happens in the plot, until towards the end the players go and kidnap Mudd Club owner Steve Mass and abuse him.
Jaded political satire also figured in Mitchell’s next feature, Red Italy (1979). Here the actor-director recreated a parody of the style of Italian films of the ’60s, shooting a story of a young disillusioned worker living a bohemian life (played by Mitchell himself) and his glamour-ridden starlet girlfriend (Jennifer Miro). The film is set within ’’Italian movie”-type locations in NYC like espresso bars, Italian restaurants, vacant lots, etc. Mitchell has called the movie "a portrait of a bored, disenchanted woman in post-war Italy." Indeed, boredom becomes one of Mitchell's major themes in Red Italy, an emotional stance that he maintains throughout his films.
In 1980, Eric Mitchell directed, wrote and starred in one the most ambitious films of the No Wave movement, Underground U.S.A. (16mm, 85 min). Made for $25,000 (considered by no-wave standards a big budget), written in two days and created in three weeks, Underground USA is a sort of Mudd Club-retelling of Sunset Boulevard, this time starring Patti Astor as a quasi-Norma Desmond. There’s a rich, multi-layered texture at work here. Characters exist less for themselves than as iconographical anchoring devices - points of reference in a hall of mirrors crossing space and time. The time is now (1980), but it is also the then of the ’60s and the ’50s and (remembered) ’20s of the Billy Wilder melodrama. Underground U.S.A. was inspired by Andy Warhol's Heat (1972), an American film written and directed by Paul Morrissey, produced by Andy Warhol, and starring Joe Dallesandro, Sylvia Miles, and Andrea Feldman. The film was conceived by Warhol as a parody of Sunset Boulevard (1950) so Underground USA is a jaded parody of a parody and in those terms is a successful art film.
Working with the themes of alienation and displacement, and reminiscent of Warhol’s films from the 1960s Underground U.S.A. featured Patti Astor as Vicky, an aging actress who still thinks of herself as young and attractive and, in her vulnerability, falls for a hustler named Victor (played by Mitchell). Even with cinematography by Tom DiCillo, sound by Jim Jarmusch, editing by J.P. Roland-Levy and the authentic locations of the Lower East Side art scene, the film was not a huge commercial success, but did succeed in bringing in a whole new audience to No Wave Cinema. It challenged both commercial movie making and the avant-garde with a style that combined amateur enthusiasm with sophisticated visual know-how and a sharp sense of social and political observation diametricly opposite of the staid formalism of the ’’experimental’’ film establishment.
Underground USA is, on the surface, less political than Red Italy, but in moving the super-8 underground into the 16mm big time, Mitchell remained true to his outlaw punk origins while at the same time bringing the No Wave movement to the attention of a larger public than it has ever enjoyed. We eavesdrop on chic gossip about a fashion world so stagnant and corrupt that no one of taste dares be caught dead in the clothes of a successful designer. People only come to life when prodded by drugs. Money has replaced sex as the object of everyone’s desire. As these spent sophisticates move through Mitchell’s carefully designed decor trapped in their narcissistic fantasies, going through the motions of rituals that have lost all meaning for them, we may giggle but at the same time be touched by their lives of noisy desperation.
But while paying generous tribute to the Warhol era (the cast is filled with Warhol veterans like Jackie Curtis and Taylor Mead) Mitchell’s approach is never nostalgic. “No More ’60s, No More ’70s” reads the actor-director’s press release for the film.
Underground USA is in many ways a ritual purging of the past to end a decade whose main stylistic theme appeared to be a desire to escape into the world of other supposedly “better” times. What the film finds in the present is a New York too sophisticated for its own good. As the characters drift from party to party engaging in idle chitchat, we learn of an art market so controlled by capital that paintings are bought only to be stored away for profit, never to be seen again.
Underground USA was set in 1980 downtown, but just as the Sunset Boulevard film was haunted by Hollywood’s silent movie past, so Mitchell’s film uses the Warhol ’60s Pop Art scene as a point of reference. Astor's role of Vicky is clearly meant to represent Edie Sedgwick, the superstar of Warhol’s legendary cinematic psychodramas (Poor Little Rich Girl, Vinyl, Beauty No. 2). Like Norma Desmond, she lives with her butler (Rene Ricard as an effete Erich Von Stronheim) in high style, half-mad and lost in drug-induced dreams of a comeback. But instead of William Holden’s disillusioned writer-turned-gigolo, a completely spent and soulless Joe Dallesandro-styled hustler, played by Mitchell himself, is offered. The hustler (Mitchell) meets Vicki (Patti Astor), a Manhattan movie star who has fallen from fame, at New York’s legendary Mudd Club. The two entertain each other for a while, but an act of betrayal leads to a bleak ending. The chic wistfulness comes to a climax in the film’s final party scene. Told by Kenneth that ’’Andy’’ has called, and she’ll be shooting a film next week, Vicky, wearing an incredible neo-cubist black and white dress, emerges from her bedroom to face what she thinks will be a roomful of well wishers. But it’s just her butler, her chauffeur, and her hustler - the same people she’s been with throughout the film. Without losing an iota of cool she languidly approaches her chauffeur, who’s slowly opening a bottle of champagne. ’’Is everyone here?’’ she asks. ’’We only invited a very select group,’’ he replies.
When the 16mm film was first released in 1980, it ran for six months at Colab sponsered St Mark's Cinema with long lines, and since has received a Cineprobe screening at MoMA, was broadcast on Independent Focus, Channel 13 and aired on BBC's Channel 4. Soon after, MoMA acquired a brand new print for its collection which was screened in the series "Looking at Music" that was curated by Barbara London. Underground USA has cameo performances by Cookie Mueller, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, Steve Mass, John Lurie and Duncan Smith.
The Way it Is or Eurydice in the Avenues (1985) stars Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Rockets Redglare and Mark Boone Junior. In this 80 minute film, a group of actors have been rehearsing Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (film) in the East Village. On a warm summer day, the body of Eurydice, the lead actress, is found dead in Tompkins Sqare Park. At her funeral, the actors, each a suspect, examine their relationships with her in order to unravel the mystery of her demise. The actors' memories, the underworld of Cocteau's play, and the East Village milieu become inextricably linked. The tragedy of Eurydice plays against the end of an era: scorched tenements, the Mudd Club, and punk rock.
Mitchell acted in Permanent Vacation (1980) by Jim Jarmusch and in Amos Poe's no wave classics Unmade Beds (1976) and The Foreigner (1978), where he plays a young Frenchman in New York that is hotly pursued up and down the busy streets of New York City by thugs. Along the way he encounters a couple of bizarre young women (a new wave songstress delivering a rendition of Bertolt Brecht's Bilbao Song and a sadist). Mitchell also performs in the films J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka (2005) by Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi, Minus Zero (1979) by Michael Oblowitz, Men in Orbit (1979) by John Lurie, The Scenic Route (1978) by Mark Rappaport and in James Nares's no wave film Rome 78 (1978), among others.
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- Not Nothing: The Remains of No Wave, Three Decades Later
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- Eric Mitchell by David Ehrenstein BOMB 1/Spring 1981, FILM
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- Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984, foreword by Lynn Gumpert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-691-12286-5