When the Quad reopened on April 14, it semi-scandalously kicked off its repertory programming with the films of Lina Wertmüller, who indisputably ranks in the top tier of directors least deserving of revivals. But on that same day, the cinema also launched a tribute to a much worthier recipient: itself. The ongoing series “Quadrophilia” brings together a motley group of movies that have in common only the fact that they played, often for months-long runs, at the West 13th Street theater, which first opened its doors in 1972. Only one other aspect, a personal one, unites two “Quadrophilia” titles that screen this month, Alan Rudolph’s slinky roundelay Choose Me (1984) and John Palmer and David Weisman’s underground-superstar death trip Ciao, Manhattan! (1972): They are both films that I’ve wanted to see for decades.
Choose Me, which the Quad will present on 35mm, never fails to live up to the carnal need — and menace — promised in its title. (This was the era of sexy imperatives in popular culture: Prince’s “Do Me, Baby,” was released two years before Rudolph’s film.) The opening credit sequence emits its own pheromones, its come-on irresistible: A foxy, impeccably dressed black couple swivels out of an L.A. nightclub, transforming the street, bathed in pink and blue neon, into the dancefloor they’ve just departed. The man soon twirls off with another woman, but his lady won’t be abandoned for long. Other pairings — of different races and genders, and some formed with the small circle of sex workers who function as a kind of mute Greek chorus throughout Choose Me — come together and just as fluidly break apart. However fleeting these couplings, they all suggest an infinity of erotic possibilities, the concupiscence multiplied by Teddy Pendergrass’s bedroom baritone as he sings lyrics like these, from “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)”: “Choose her/Beg her/What’s your pleasure, girl?”
That sultry ballad is one of three slow jams we hear by the premier r&b Romeo, and, as Rudolph explained in a 1993 interview with Artforum, it served as a crucial starting point for the movie (“I…knew I had to use the song by Teddy Pendergrass”), the script for which he wrote in a week. “[T]he first elements I developed were the tone, emotions, and mood. The details didn’t matter. The actors became the experts on their roles,” the filmmaker noted, referring to the central trio around which Choose Me‘s ensemble cast revolves. Lesley Ann Warren plays Eve, the proprietor and namesake of the cocktail lounge seen in the opening credits; she’s a frequent caller to a radio advice show hosted by Dr. Nancy Love (Geneviève Bujold), confessing her romantic entanglements in between cigarette puffs in her art-chic bungalow. (Eve’s walls are festooned with neo-expressionist canvases; Rudolph’s scrupulous attention to décor is further evinced in the home of another woman with a complicated love life, her rooms crowded with framed movie posters, mostly golden-era noirs and melodramas that Choose Me indirectly salutes.) Both women use aliases and are unaware of the other’s identity when Nancy moves into Eve’s place. And both will be seduced by the impetuous Mickey (Keith Carradine), a recent mental-asylum escapee who may or may not be a pathological liar.
One thing is certain about Mickey, though: He is the film’s most nakedly vulnerable character and its most desperate, proposing to Eve before they’ve even touched and to Nancy after they’ve slept together once. “I only kiss women I’d marry. And once I’m married to them, I never cheat. My wives own me,” he tells the AM-radio sexpert, his body tense with need. In Choose Me, Carradine — the actor most closely associated with Rudolph in the first half of the filmmaker’s career (which began with 1972’s Premonition; he’s reteamed with Carradine for his latest, now in postproduction) — suggests the postscript to Tom, the womanizing folkie heartthrob he played in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), for which Rudolph served as assistant director. The roles showcase Carradine’s softly vulpine charisma from two different positions of amatory power: the one who is pursued in Altman’s movie and the one who pursues in Rudolph’s. Mickey may get what he wants by the end of Choose Me, but, as with everything else in this intoxicating movie, all arrangements are provisional.
Although there’s something provisional, too, about Ciao, Manhattan!, a film that underwent a few iterations — shooting began in 1967, ceased for a few years, and resumed in late 1970 — it concludes with the most irreducible finality: the death of its lead actress and subject. A queasy hybrid of sprawling avant-garde biopic and proleptic snuff film, Palmer and Weisman’s movie stars Edie Sedgwick, the most famous of the Warhol Factory habitués in the mid-Sixties, here playing herself at a slight remove as the character Susan Superstar. When the films opens, Susan is living at the bottom of an empty SoCal pool, recapitulating the specifics of her childhood misery and debauchery to Butch (Wesley Hayes), a hayseed newly arrived from Texas. (The incidents would be recounted again — by Sedgwick, via transcriptions of her audio recordings used in Ciao, Manhattan!, and by scores of others — in Jean Stein’s excellent oral history, Edie: An American Biography, from 1982.)
Much of the film is told in flashback as Susan recalls her New York days, a structuring device that allowed the directors to salvage the black-and-white footage (the California segments are in color) of Sedgwick and other Andy regulars (Viva, Brigid Berlin, Paul America) that was shot in ’67, before the project had to be abandoned — owing, in part, to the star’s erratic, drug-addled behavior. Sedgwick died, at age 28 in November 1971, three months after Ciao, Manhattan! wrapped — a fact announced up front in the film, which is dedicated to “her memory.” Still, the makers of Ciao, Manhattan! seem morbidly eager to say goodbye to Edie, as if waiting for her to expire onscreen.
Written and directed by Alan Rudolph
Quad Cinema, May 5 and 17
Directed by John Palmer and David Weisman
Quad Cinema, May 5, 16, and 18