James Nares's Downtown Empire Strikes Back
Not far into Rome 78, James Nares's unlikely rendering of a sword-and-sandal costume drama on the minuscule format of Super-8 sound film, two soldiers clad in armor and togas lean against what one might generously imagine to be the walls of the Roman Senate, but is more likely a cheaply renovated East Village apartment. The pair discusses the increasingly erratic actions of Emperor Caligula without the genre's usual pseudo-Shakespearean gravitas; they sound like two deadbeat downtowners bullshitting at a bar. "If he insists on fucking his sister, what do you expect?" one asks. Well, the other says, "her ass is pretty imperial."
Rarely screened, Rome 78—part of this week's James Nares retro at Anthology Film Archives—has nevertheless built up its own aura over the years, no doubt due to its subcultural provenance. The cast includes a crowd that the British-born Nares remembers today as "all sort of downtown personalities": James Chance and Pat Place of the Contortions (for which Nares himself played guitar), fellow musicians John Lurie and Lydia Lunch, club heroine Patti Astor, television survivor Lance Loud, and filmmaker Eric Mitchell. Today, Nares is best known as a painter: His large-brush abstractions partake of a coolly controlled happenstance that one might faintly relate to Rome 78's more ragged insouciance.
Punctuated by in-camera flash-frames, off-kilter shots, and inappropriate laughter, Rome 78 (1978) embraces shabby-chic as a formal objective. Nares mocks up Ancient Rome by shooting in faux-classical sites like Grant's Tomb and Tribeca's American Thread Building, where a decrepit penthouse loft with a peeling-paint dome serves as an echoey stand-in for the imperial palace. The latter location required ingenuity: Posing as potential renters, Nares and associates asked the manager to show them the apartment, then unlocked the windows on the way out; a few hours later, they broke back into the space, full cast and crew in tow, to shoot the necessary scenes.
At every moment in the film, New York circa 1978 bleeds uncontrollably into a flimsy pretense of first-century Rome. Scheming courtiers allude to intrigues in Gaul, Brittany, and the Lower East Side; Mitchell chain-smokes while seducing a black-lingerie-clad Lunch on a zebra-skin rug; the Emperor himself—astonishingly portrayed by twitchy, gap-toothed ectomorph David McDermott—declares his own divinity at Grant's Tomb by screaming above the honks and engine rumbles of the West Side Highway.
Seen now, Rome 78 collapses three layers of dead civilization: The script conveys the waning days of the Roman imperium; the sets evoke the Empire State's 19th-century robber-baron capitalism; and the cast memorializes the last days of urban bohemia's counter-kingdom. "I don't think I was the first to draw a connection between the Roman Empire and the American empire," Nares states. "At that time, it really felt like things were falling apart. A real 'decline and fall' seemed very obvious, with the blocks of abandoned buildings and so forth. It was an easy call, really . . . .
"It's my only attempt at a narrative film with actors. It has its moments—quite funny at times, quite beautiful at times, too. But it doesn't interest me so much now." Rome 78 emerged at a time when Nares, Mitchell, and other alumni of the East Village art collective CoLab ran the 50-seat storefront New Cinema on St. Marks, a short-lived but influential attempt at creating a regular theatrical venue for micro-budget features by the likes of Vivienne Dick, Becky Johnson, and Charlie Ahearn. "We wanted to make 'real movies,' go legit or something," he remembers with only partial irony. "I think the films I was most thinking about then were the Warhol/Morrissey films—Lonesome Cowboys, Trash, that sort of thing." He appreciated the way they could "ride a line between documentary and fiction."
At Anthology, Rome 78 will screen on a new 16mm transfer, but the real revelations of this retro are a crop of films and videos that Nares produced in 1975 and 1976, almost none of which have been screened publicly before; the artist had assumed they were destroyed decades ago, but discovered them deep in storage only last year. Some of them, Nares says, he doesn't even remember shooting. Made quickly, mostly solo, and often in a single shot, these early pieces were influenced by "artists' films": minimal, action-based works of the late '60s to mid-'70s by Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and others, often combining live and sculptural elements. The moment made a strong impression on the young Nares: "Richard Serra's Hand Catching Lead was one of my favorite films ever."
Nares's mid-'70s cluster boasts a remarkable conceptual consistency and elegance in execution. The most Serra-esque films are Arm and Hammer and Steel Rod. In the former, a disembodied arm flips and catches a hammer by its handle repeatedly, evoking the workers' symbol. In Steel Rod, a shirtless Nares plays catch with an off-screen partner on a rooftop, using the eponymous object; with the frame rate slightly slowed, the viewer feels the potentially dangerous weight of the bar's impact, and, in fact, it slo-mo slams into Nares's side about halfway through the film. That sense of impending physical harm becomes even more acute in Pendulum, in which Nares secured a giant wrecking-ball-style contraption on an abandoned Tribeca street, then allowed it to swing in vast arcs precariously close to windows and fire escapes; though the sidewalks are unpopulated, one fears the arrival of passersby at each moment. For Ramp, a similar concrete ball rolls haphazardly down an asphalt-paved incline, the grating sounds of its progress suffused with the thuddy rush of cars alongside. One of his black-and-white Portapak videos of the same time, Head, shows Nares encased at the neck by a swinging wooden plank that seems to whip his unseen body over the edge of a roof. "There's something sort of menacing about them," Nares says, looking back on these near-forgotten works. "An element of danger is probably the best word for it. Something I courted. It seems to make everything more real."
After Rome 78, Nares made a political documentary—a controversial 1980 video interview with an IRA member titled No Japs at My Funeral—but turned to other forms of art for much of the remaining decade, never realizing projects like a feature script he penned with Gary Indiana. "Around '82, '83, I began to concentrate on the painting," he says. "I'd made these movies and became really disillusioned with film in the way I was trying to pursue it. I was one of those guys who always wanted to do everything—and, around that time, I realized I couldn't." And, Nares adds, the social makeup of the downtown world changed; fertile collaborations between closely knit networks of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians gave way to more fragmented and segregated scenes.
In more recent years, however, he's returned to making moving-image work, some recalling the simple structures of the first films: Paper Factory, a video made last year, uses rhythmic editing to create an audio collage from plastic tubing thrown around in his studio. The edgy threat of danger may be softened, but the direct simplicity remains. "I liked the instant results," he says of the early work. "Make something quietly by yourself, and it would be there. In a funny way, I've come back to making films in the same way that I used to."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.