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Filmfest München

Sparkling and Wild: ’80s New York in Film

Filmstill mit zwei Personen in glitzerndem Disco Outfit aus dem Film Wigstock: The Movie, 1987

This fifth cooperation between Museum Brandhorst and the Munich International Film Festival celebrates the underground artists and filmmakers of 1980s New York. A curated program of films and works on video in the museum’s media room and the cinemas of the film festival showcase an unusual side of the Big Apple, introducing us to a wide variety of scenes and communities — from nightclubs to the art world — from various points of view.

Uptown, Midtown, Downtown

The films screening at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN take us to Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown New York. WILD STYLE (1982), universally considered the preeminent hip-hop movie, showcases the world of graffiti, breakdancing, rap, and turntablism, while VARIETY (1983) concerns itself with female voyeurism amid peep shows and adult movie theaters on Manhattan’s Times Square. DOWNTOWN 81 (1981/2000) follows the renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, still unknown at the time, around the pre-gentrified Lower East Side with all its unique characters and locations.



New Yorks '80s film to video scenes

by Sophie Cavoulacos


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lower Manhattan was a vibrant center of underground film, although its origins do not lie solely in the cinema. Part of a now-legendary era fueled by low rents and the desire to experiment with new modes of art-making, this heterogenous scene borrowed from the artful iconoclasm of punk rock and flourished in the alternative spaces and nightclubs where filmmakers, artists, musicians, and scenesters intermixed.
The cinema of New York’s post-punk years sits between historical bookends: postindustrial fiscal crisis and gentrification; Gay Liberation and the AIDS epidemic; film history and the digital revolution. Downtown cinema was defined not by a single aesthetic but a subversion of traditional filmmaking categories and processes, using the city as a stage for their no-budget, loosely-scripted endeavors which featured the scene’s personalities and places with little exception. These works often pushed cinematic citation and genre tropes to their most stripped-down form. This dominated the subcultural zeitgeist through 42nd Street grindhouse theaters and venues like Club 57 which functioned as a one-projector revival house with monster movies, exploitation films, and high camp in frequent rotation.


Downtown’s rough-hewn takes on kung fu, sword-and-sandal epics, and even the European New Wave were largely powered by the proliferation of handheld cameras. This milieu had a special affinity for the Super 8mm camera—affordable, portable, democratic, and representative of the moment’s spirited anti-commercialism. Films on Super 8 and 16mm were presented at venues like the Collective for Living Cinema, the Millennium Film Workshop, and the Kitchen, where they mixed with more serious avant-garde cinema and experimental art. But these films also had a non-theatrical presence in nightclubs, where moving images were part of a larger experience that included bands playing, socializing, one-night art shows, or monitor video lounges. In these spaces, maker and audience, exhibition and production could bleed into each other. Clubs were used as filming locations—Edo Bertoglio’s DOWNTOWN 81 (1980/2000), which follows a day in the life of young artist Jean-Michael Basquiat, alone captures Peppermint Lounge, Rock Lounge, and the Mudd Club—and on the occasion of a new premiere, it would not be unusual to have many of the same principals in the room and on screen.

Indeed, the American director Bette Gordon recalled in a 2023 Q&A that the prevailing feeling of the late ’70s and early ’80s was that filmmakers were making work for each other, removed as they were from anything resembling a marketplace. That would also start to shift. Early No Wave films opened in theaters in New York (Eric Mitchell’s UNDERGROUND USA was a midnight fixture at the St. Mark’s Cinema for six months in 1980). Film festivals like the Berlinale were a place to occasionally meet other filmmakers, catch up on happenings in other cities, and occasionally acquire funding, notably from the West German ZDF and the then-new British Channel Four—small sums which still dwarfed support attainable in the United States, especially once Ronald Reagan came into office. Charlie Ahearn’s WILD STYLE (1983)—an iconic portrait of the South Bronx’s b-boys, DJs, and graffiti artists known as the first hip-hop film—and Bette Gordon’s VARIETY (1983)—a neo-noir set in Times Square and a classic of feminist filmmaking—both received European grants, allowing them to transition from Super 8 to 16mm. The same was true of Jim Jarmusch’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE, which would go on to win the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and the Special Jury Award at Sundance the following winter. Downtown New York was decidedly laying the groundwork for what would become the American independent film movement.


But this film scene was in fact a film-to-video scene. Handheld film cameras and comparatively mammoth Portapaks had both been in use during the punk years. But by the time the 24-hour TV networks CNN and MTV made their debut, video camcorders were becoming prevalent, notably associated with Nelson Sullivan, Courtney Harmel, and Clayton Patterson, who collectively shot hundreds of hours in the period, each with their own style and proclivities. Television was a thematic concern and a medium for artists, whether they were making video tapes like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Tom Rubnitz or airing shows on Manhattan Cable (like Andy Warhol was in the period with his TV shows FASHION and ANDY WARHOL’S TV). As part of the exhibition “Andy Warhol & Keith Haring: Party of Life”, Museum Brandhorst surveys two approaches to video in New York at the time. The video artist Courtney Harmel collaborated with artists like Keith Haring and Joey Arias to document performances and nightclub events. Her vast documentary archive is unified by an observant lens and many relationships across this milieu—in a way, a record of the scene being self-consciously created by its participants. The artist Tom Rubnitz, on the other hand, approached video as a raconteur, infusing his tapes with psychedelic color and campy humor, whether recording backstage at the Pyramid Club or directing short video pieces with East Village cohorts. His range of work at the end of the 1980s points to the forces that brought the scene to an end. Rubnitz created the first documentary on the Wigstock festival (a key antecedent for the introduction of drag performance into the mainstream) while also producing a public service announcement for the Foundation for AIDS Research which brought together The B-52’s, David Byrne, Allen Ginsburg and many others from the scene under the banner of “Art Against AIDS”—a sign of the great loss that was to come (Rubnitz himself died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992) and the activism and culture wars that would take hold in the arts.

Ein Filmstill mit Edie Sedgwick und Andy Warhol aus Courtney Hamels 'Andy & Edie' (1984)

Courtney Harmel & Tom Rubnitz

Starting from the first week of the exhibition “Andy Warhol & Keith Haring. Party of Life”, selected works by video artists Courtney Harmel and Tom Rubnitz are being presented in Museum Brandhorst’s media room. They invite visitors to immerse themselves in a decade of queer (club) culture, performance art, and friendship in New York’s East Village in the 1980s. Works on video such as Harmel’s THE ANDY AND EDIE SHOW AT LIMELIGHT (1984) and THE MEGA-STAR BOOK SIGNING AT FIORUCCI (1985) or Rubnitz’s MADE FOR TV (1984) and WIGSTOCK: THE MOVIE (1987) portray a community of creative people in the vibrant center of New York who were obsessed with television, dedicated to nightlife, and tragically affected by the severe AIDS epidemic.

Tanzendes Paar auf der Tanzfläche eines Clubs


Raymond aka Zoro, a budding graffiti artist, takes us to the South Bronx in the 1980s. In this hardscrabble world of streetball and MC battles, the Downtown art scene meets Uptown graffiti culture. This globally acclaimed hip-hop film is an iconic portrait of the era that honors hip-hop, b-boys and graffiti art. Featuring an all-star cast including Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Fab 5 Freddy, Patti Astor, Busy Bee, Grandmaster Flash, and many more.
USA 1982 Directed by: Charlie Ahearn
SUN June 30 21:30 HFF Kino 1



Christine needs money. Desperately. So she takes a job selling tickets at an adult movie theater. There she meets a regular customer named Louis and becomes practically obsessed with finding out more about him. The screenplay is by punk writer Kathy Acker, the music by John Lurie, and photographer Nan Goldin puts in a guest appearance. A feminist classic of the American underground, exploring a locus of secrecy and voyeurism.

USA 1983 Directed by: Bette Gordon
TUE July 02 21:30 HFF Kino 1

Der Künstler Jean-Michel Basquiat sprüht ein Graffiti auf eine Hauswand in New York


In this long-lost film, Basquiat, who was still an unknown figure at the time, plays himself. Filmmakers Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien follow the then 21-year-old artist around for a whole day. The artist has to come up with rent money in order to be allowed to move back into the apartment he’s been evicted from. Hoping to sell a painting, he roams the streets, clubs and ultra-hip subculture of post-punk-era Manhattan.
USA 1981/2000 Directed by: Edo Bertoglio
SAT July 06 21:30 HFF Kino 1