Gentrification panic, boho narcissism, and aging anxiety have always seemed like suspiciously confluent mental conditions, and the revival of Philip Hartman’s 1987 Alphabet City grime opera No Picnic illustrates that this peculiar urban syndrome existed long before the arrival of Barnes & Noble, Kmart, or even delicious, convenient Starbucks. Macabee Cohen (David Brisbin), a thirtysomething jukebox technician with a terminal case of interior monologue, navigates a rapidly upscaling East Village of run-down walk-ups, guest-listed punk clubs, and endless stretches of dirty-blanket sidewalk sales. “In our neck of the woods, the more things change, the more things change,” he narrates, over shots of shuttered storefronts clad in real estate signs. To Cohen, his ‘hood isn’t the no-wave playground of cool-kid legend; it’s a cramped hipster gulag wherein he continuously bumps into reminders of his long-gone salad days: a woman he thinks he knocked up, the guy from high school who married the girl Cohen wanted, someone who remembers him from his long-defunct band Three Legged Dog.
Well shot in fat-grained monochrome 16mm (by experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton, who typically turns his lens toward expansive landscapes), No Picnic partakes of the shabby-chic downtown aesthetic that was once a New York cinematic mainstay, from Robert Frank and Al Leslie’s upbeat Beat-era Pull My Daisy to the depress-o-vision nasties of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd to the crossover indies of Matthew Harrison, Jim Jarmusch, and numerous others. In this case, the recipe gets a neo-noir twist, complete with a tough-talking prostitute and Cohen’s ceaseless voice-over narration, a deadbeat drone of corny bitterisms.
Though surely crafted in the seedy mold of its day, No Picnic
doesn’t transcend the era as some of its contemporaries do, working mostly as a museum specimen of bygone sensibilities. The film’s grim view of East Village life makes it an almost ironic choice to topline the film portion of this year’s Howl Festival (which was founded and run by Hartman, with screenings at his Pioneer Theater). While Howl exists to celebrate the vibrant artistic output of decades past, No Picnic provides a decidedly uncelebratory vision of old bohemia. Even so, the blinkered self-absorption of Macabee Cohen may be closer to the inner experience of some downtown denizens, though separating historical reality from scene-mythologizing cliché remains challenging.
Another aspect of the countercultural vision—social commentary served with inspired lunacy—may be found in Robert Downey Sr.’s 1970 rarity Pound, which gets a Howl-affiliated run at Anthology in a new director’s cut. In this follow-up to Downey’s 1969 race satire Putney Swope, Pound’s ensemble cast play a cageful of wayward dogs awaiting execution at the city animal shelter, including a punch-drunk boxer (Stan Gottlieb, complete with robe and gloves), an aged, snooty Pekingese (Lucille Rogers), a bald, crazy Mexican hairless (Lawrence Wolf)—and a cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as a lost puppy. Part wacky comedy (with plenty of jailhouse humping), part existential allegory, Pound betrays its stage-play roots with too much actorly grandstanding but is peppered with ecstatic funk-powered freak-outs. (Downey kicks off Howl in person with Greaser’s Palace, his 1972 psychedelic Christ-parable cowboy flick.)
Still evolving at press time, Howl’s lineup includes the premieres of local features and tributes to East Village personages like ’80s club proprietor Gary Ray and actor Luis Guzm (who appears in No Picnic). Ephemeral-film collector Dennis Nyback’s show “The Open Road” presents vintage car-culture shorts, including the driver’s-ed legend Mechanized Death and the alluringly titled Hitchhiking—The Road to Rape, while a screening and exhibit devoted to ’60s Lower East Side expanded-cinema artist Aldo Tambellini seems right on time for the contemporary multimedia art moment.