Deep into Lech Kowalski’s canonical punk rock mid-mortem document D.O.A. (1980), the director sets his 16mm sights backstage on Nancy Spungen, whose nasal accent slurs partway from upper eastern seaboard to London’s East End, and Sid Vicious, nodding off in sunglasses and swastika T-shirt. “Will you try to fucking wake up please?” Nancy nags as Sid murmurs incomprehensibly. “We wanna give him a good interview.” The drawn-out moment pushes past the calculated finger-flipping transgressions of the Sex Pistols fan base chronicled earlier in the film: Spungen and Vicious aren’t just anti-cool; they’re painfully pathetic.
Other directors might have moved on to bigger concert pics after D.O.A. (which includes stunning live sets by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, and others, many filmed on the sly), but Kowalski’s Gringo (1987) expands this uncomfortable essence of drugged-up wretchedness into a semi-fictionalized picaresque of heroin addicts in an apocalyptic Alphabet City. Shot on real streets with non- actors but nonetheless looking like something out of The Warriors, Gringo contains vérité scenes nearly too gruesome to suffer an audience: needles stuck repeatedly into scrawny limbs, cascades of vomit hurling into a toilet, shithole apartments filled with grubby punks groping toward their next fix. Despite the stiffly hip synth soundtrack, this Jacob Riis–like peep into an East Village past is enough to deglamorize the ’80s forever.
But Kowalski’s not after cheap thrills; his films probe earnestly, as if by measuring the extremes of human misery, he could understand its shape. This project becomes apparent in his more recent video work. Boot Factory (2002) visits a commune of Polish skinheads who run a collective shoemaking enterprise. Though punk has by now morphed from mere musical fad to sustainable subculture, some of the factory crew are just as persistently hooked on junk, trapped in their little world. On Hitler’s Highway (2002) travels down a road built by the Nazis to link Germany to Poland via Auschwitz; local lore relates that Poles were buried beneath the asphalt as they died from the forced labor. East of Paradise (2005) provocatively pairs Kowalski’s mother’s Soviet gulag reminiscences with the director’s experiences among the wastoids of the Lower East Side, dipping back into bits from D.O.A. and Gringo. The comparison at first seems crude, but footage of Gringo‘s star expiring from AIDS suggests otherwise; in retrospect, Kowalski narrates, he was searching “for ways to express something that would not leave me alone.”