Culture Must Deal With Us: An Interview with Revolutionary Independent Filmmaker Amos Poe

This will be the last fully transcribed interview-article for at least some time. Most interviews from here on out will be podcast format, unless of course they are e-mail interviews.

As I await my interview subject’s arrival at the Noho Star Restaurant at Bleecker and Lafayette on the first official day of winter, I scoop spoonfuls of thick, lukewarm soup into my mouth and gaze out the window to meditate on the snow and slush-covered New York of now, glittering with trendy shops, “hip” restaurants, chain stores and the like, all of which, as per standard procedure, have been spruced up with ornamental tokens of holiday season cheer. Specifically, though, in observing these things, I consider the innumerable ways New York has changed in the years since my subject made his groundbreaking do-it-yourself features in the late seventies and the early eighties. I am speaking of The Blank Generation (1976), Unmade Beds (1976), The Foreigner (1977) and Subway Riders (1981), and the director of those films, the titan of the “No Wave Cinema Movement,” Amos Poe.

As I continue just sitting there with my soup and my saudades, what comes to mind readily are the opening shots from The American Friend (1977) and Lightning Over Water (1980), both Wim Wenders films. The opening shots of both films use the same exact location, and that location is in the general vicinity of the Noho Star. The Spring Street of then was a cobblestone thoroughfare of lofts and loading docks; a tourist or out-of-towner who found himself there was most likely lost or a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed completist. That Spring Street is no more. For one thing, there’s a Gap around there now, and a Nike store. I could go on.

I know, I know…I’m making it all sound like some numinous fairy-tale kingdom when maybe it doesn’t quite fully warrant that. In the spirit of my classic m.o., I am naturally pining for something that no longer exists, like a young old man. After nearly a year of living here, though, I still cannot bring myself to stop thinking about the films shot in this town when I walk the streets or sit down to look out the window of a restaurant in any of the five boroughs. It’s a visual addiction. My eyes dart everywhere on a simple little weekend constitutional. If I’m in the presence of others, I will point out my theories (e.g. “I think a scene from Death Wish was shot here,” “I think this is where Sylvia Miles picked up Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy,” “James Garner wakes up around here in the opening scene of Mister Buddwing,” “This is where they fly the kite in You’re a Big Boy Now.”). As one who was not alive and around to take in the New York of then, I have always harbored a deep-seated, overwhelming desire to take a magical walk through the Manhattan of those lost days.

After a few moments more of waiting, Poe arrives. We begin by our meeting by making a trade-off: a DVD of his most recent film Empire II for a DVD of my film A Trip to Swadades. He orders himself a coffee, and I mentally ready myself while he fixes the coffee to his liking. My day has already worn me out, and it isn’t even half over. Nonetheless, there are many things I still wish to ask him. As something of a self-proclaimed scholar emeritus of New York on film, in both the mainstream and obscure/underground realms of cinema, I wonder what he will have to say about the city’s evolution, specifically throughout the last thirty or so years. In the post-Giuliani era alone, the old Needle Park which is now Verdi Square, the old 42nd Street of yore has given way to becoming Disneyland, many of the types of haunts that Holden Caulfield would have frequented have vanished or have gone corporatized. You could say that this is a topic with which I am obsessed. It was the subject of its own article many months ago…the one about “Lost New York on film”.

The Israel-born Poe, as a singularly New York filmmaker, has had a most fascinating career and his legacy (even though his career isn’t really even close to being over) is truly something of great value. He was basically the founder of the movement that nurtured the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick, James Nares and others. After a long run of making personal, often self-financed works (the end credits of his The Foreigner announces proudly the source of its financing for the film being a $5,000 personal loan from the Merchants Bank of New York as the film ends), he helmed his first 35mm film Alphabet City in 1984. Ultimately, he wound up writing the screenplay for the 1988 film Rocket Gibraltar, from which he was fired. In the wake of this brush with Hollywood politics, he was, and remains, unfazed, and has continued crafting small but well-regarded independent films. His most recent film, Empire II, is a three-hour self-described “sequel” to Andy Warhol’s Empire, which is known to most as the classic cinematic sleep-fest. It is fair to note, however, that Poe’s film is most certainly not that. For additional information about him, visit his website.

DK: I recently read an interview you gave for BOMB Magazine in January of 1981. In that interview, you talk about telling a linear story and how, if you are not doing that, you’re essentially not really making a film.

AP: I actually just read that interview again recently. That interview’s a funny one because, at the time, I was being interviewed by someone who was my girlfriend and someone who would eventually become my wife. In it, I was talking a lot about things I wasn’t really doing. That was written right as Subway Riders was about to be released. I had been working on editing that for a long time. What I said in that interview, a lot of it I really meant but most of it I wasn’t really doing in my own work, even though I talked about it like I was. When I made films like The Foreigner and Subway Riders and Unmade Beds, I was dealing with a really experimental approach to traditional narrative. Nowadays, I’m really working in this new form that I call “documental,” which I guess you could categorize as a kind of experimental documentary form. Empire II, to me, looking at my own work, is the purest thing I’ve made. And my next project is a treatment of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In that, I’m really working on peoples’ perception of motion. I am doing things like animating the still image, for instance, largely inspired by the photographer Eadward Muybridge, who captured movement with multiple still cameras. Also, the concept of Markov chains.

You know, cinema can always do so much. I remember I went to Madrid right around the time of the March 11 bombings in 2004. The trip would result in the strangest screening experience of my life. I actually went there to screen The Foreigner, which is of course a film I made all the way back in 1977. The film is about a terrorist hiding out in New York and it’s all framed like a potboiler espionage movie, except that it’s not. Really, it's a subversive pseudo-espionage film. At the time of this screening, the world looked pretty grim and unpredictable and I almost felt like calling off the screening. Everyone was nervous and really upset about the bombings and it just seemed like the thing to do. But I went and they screened the film and, if you’ll recall, there is a scene shot directly underneath the World Trade Center, right smack underneath the two towers. It’s a really eerie shot, and it was especially eerie seeing it that night. And this amazing thing happened. So you’ve got an audience that’s fucked up by these very real events, what they’re seeing up on the screen is fucked up, the world is very clearly fucked up with no end in sight, and what you get out of this “fucked-upness” is this amazing synergy of all this stuff.

So, the movie ended, the lights went up and the Q&A started…and it became basically like some town-hall meeting. And I thought, “Perfect!” It was perfect! What happened was this: what was happening in the audience’s head and what was happening on the screen kind of meshed to form this extraordinary, electric town-hall discussion with people expressing themselves openly about their concerns of living their life in the world today and their worries about the future and such. They weren’t even really so much talking about the actual film. It was beyond the film. They were talking about things that were very immediate and real to them. That, to me, is the magic of cinema! It was this extraordinary head-to-screen action. That is the magic of cinema, and to a certain extent that is what I am still very much trying to do in my work…to recreate that synergy. That’s still the strangest and the greatest screening experience I’ve ever had.

DK: That’s a great story! The Foreigner is actually one of my favorites of your films. It’s like a genre tone poem.

AP: That is an interesting way of putting it. They may have been what that audience was responding to. The tone, the themes, the images resulting from that…those combined with everything else happening around them at that time. Even though the film wasn’t discussed, it was perceptible to me that the movie became realer to them and more immediate than it ever was for any audience.

DK: Talking about legacy, you were identified in a film publication as being “the progenitor of punk cinema”. How does that moniker make you feel and do you think that, to any extent, is true?

AP: Yeah, I think it’s true, but it really doesn’t matter all that much. I mean, people like myself and Vivienne Dick and James Nares…we were New York filmmakers, we liked to think of ourselves as members of the New York avant-garde, and we were openly looking to reinvent cinema, to reinvent the form. If you look at our collective films, you could really call them neo-narratives, insofar as that they told stories but didn’t tell them in a way that was at all traditional. This idea of reinvention was central to what we were all collectively trying to do. And this do-it-yourself quality to these works that, I think, made my films as popular as they were among their kind, really played into my unschooling. I didn’t go to film school before I made those films. They had that purity about them. So, as opposed to just making one film, we conspired to forge a movement, one that became known as the No Wave Movement, and make far more than just one but many that functioned the same way. Speaking for myself, I was already on fire…I was unstoppably compelled to make movies. It was ingrained in me. But through the making of this movement, we were able to look at culture so we didn’t have to deal with it…so that the culture would instead effectively have to deal with us.

DK: New York has certainly changed a great deal since the time you made films like Subway Riders and The Foreigner. How does today’s New York make you feel as a filmmaker?

Essentially, what you’ve had happen is Death Row turning into the Hilton. I personally love it. It is a different place, but I really do feel that it is a better place. I mean, I remember coming down to the East Village in the 70’s to do things like score drugs and it was a much darker place than it is now. Now, you have restaurants and shops and people everywhere. It’s richer and more alive.

DK: Interesting, because I was expecting you to think the total opposite of that.

I guess it’s something that is easy to romanticize. I was there and I can tell you that I like the New York of now more than then. That said, I really cannot imagine myself living and working anywhere else. I tried the Hollywood thing and it just wasn’t for me. I can really go both ways. I love Hollywood movies just as much as I love arthouse and foreign films. In my mind, when I am in New York, I am in a place in-between Hollywood and Europe, in-between popular filmmaking and the arthouse world. I feel most comfortable in that state of in-between. If you sell yourself out to either side, I feel almost as if you’re selling yourself short and losing your individuality. New York is the perfect place for a filmmaker to be a true individual. I had my shot at Hollywood, with Rocket Gibraltar. I wrote that film, they wind up making a film out of it with Burt Lancaster and Macauley Culkin. I got taken off of it before they went into production. So I took a shot at Hollywood. I’m happier doing what I am doing here and now.

DK: I wish I could have seen that New York. It’s actually not enough for me just to see it in movies. I’m obsessed with it. So, okay, another thing that has changed is the accessibility of the technnology. When I interviewed Henry Jaglom about his change-over from flatbed editing to non-linear computer editing, he was excited by the speed, efficiency and easiness of it, but lamented that he no longer feels like the artisan and misses the feel of the actual film between his fingers. How do you feel about it?

Technology is really an Oedipal thing. We’re constantly killing off the past when it comes to technology, and there will always and forever be new ways and new methods of doing things. There are some things I miss, sure. I wouldn’t do anything differently looking back, even if I could. Regret is a silly thing when you’re talking about filmmaking. I can tell you right now that I don’t miss things like a roll of film unspooling accidentally all over the floor, and I don’t miss editing issues that are unblievably tedious to fix, and I don’t miss the countless other struggles and nuisances that come with shooting with film, but there is still nothing like light passing through celluloid. There is a price to that though. I mean that literally and figuratively.

DK: I am going to get potentially controversial here, because there is a lot of contention about what I am about to mention.

Okay, go ahead.

DK: Hipsters and hipsterism. When I was in film school, it was the height of what I like to call the hipster craze of the aughts, which many people feel is either nonexistent or imperceptible. To me, it’s very perceptible. Hipsters will deny being hipsters. Articles have been written about it and the word “hipster” is often dropped in conversation nowadays. Along with that, you basically have the birth of hipster trends in popular youth films. I remember these nerdy suburban kids injecting punk music and general punk references into their thesis films, while at least ostensibly defying totally what it means to be “punk” themselves. It’s done in an effort to make them look cooler. What do you think about the whole hipster thing, if you indeed thing such a craze exists, and what do you think about “punk” being bastardized, misused and glamorized in perhaps the wrong way?

I actually don’t see that so much, even as someone who teaches film [at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts]. One thing I believe, though, is that you have to write for eternity. That is vital. I mean, if you look at “Paradiso” in The Divine Comedy…that thing reads like a film script, and look how long ago that was written! James Cameron should be making a movie of that. The tremendous impact it must have been to read it then remains tremendous even reading it today. To make lasting works should be everyone’s objective, and it should be everyone’s goal. Jim [Jarmusch] and his films, they were made for a particular time, but they have a lasting power and they are timeless. Jim was a funny guy…one of the funniest, and his films have that humor and it clearly appealed to people. Those films are cool. No one else could have made Stranger Than Paradise. You know, if we’re talking about this whole idea of “cool,” you know, a hip guy makes a hip film, and that film is cool. But a total square can make a total square film, and that square film can be equally as cool. You need to be true to yourself in order for your work to be lasting and for it to mean something, let alone for it to be cool.

[At this point, Amos orders a desert for himself. The desert is called “Garden of the Gods” on the menu.]

DK: Well said. So, okay…money.

Money. Yes?

DK: The whole DIY thing still suits you pretty well?

I was reading recently something having to do with Fellini. It was the early 60’s, the very height of his career. He had won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, he won at Cannes, he was internationally acclaimed and loved the whole world over. I mean, when you make a film like La Strada, I mean come on! So he makes La Dolce Vita and it’s this great masterpiece. You would think the whole world would be at his feet and that he could name his next project, whatever it was, and people would be literally throwing money at him. He goes to producers to try to get funded, and he can’t…nobody’s interested. One producer tells him it’s too racy. [getting excited] Now that’s Fellini we’re talking about! If Fellini has to put up with it at the point in his career when you think he’d be at the height of his power, where do we stand? Where do anyone of us stand? You’ve just got to get off your ass and get it done, no matter what. If you care enough about a project and you want to see it through, you have to work for it and believe in it. Money should really be no obstacle. Most things of value come out of some degree of DIY.

[The waitress brings Amos’ Garden of the Gods desert. On top, there are two fortune cookies. I take one, he takes one. Amos looks at his fortune.]

This fortune, I did a double-take at first. I thought it said, “It’s up to you to make the next movie.” It says, “It’s up to you to make the next move.” He’s my dime-store philosophy of the day. The only thing standing between move and movie is I.

DK: [laughing] Author! Author!

[My fortune reads, “Nothing in this world is difficult if one sets one’s mind to it.” Both fortunes, we agree, make for good filmmaking mantras. We finish our lunch by discussing my current work.]

Amos and I end our lunch/interview together by discussing the films we feel have been the best of 2009. He mentions two films I have not heard of, both of which he saw at the Cannes Film Festival this year. We also briefly discuss Jacques Rivette, about whom I had recently written an article, then part ways at the corner of Houston and Lafayette. I couldn’t deny to myself that it had been one of my favorite interviews.

I decide to walk the area a little more before returning to the Upper East Side. I carry with me the new copy of Empire II which Poe had given to me, wondering how Poe’s New York of then differs with Poe’s New York of now, considering the feelings he had expressed to me about the evolution. After a good bit of walking, I start playing the game again, and this time it’s more immediate. “Isn’t this where Robbie Coltrane makes his first appearance in Subway Riders?” “Is this where one of the first scenes of The Driller Killer was shot?” The thing of it is…I can’t seem to tell anymore. The past is getting scrubbed away more and more strenuously. Part of me feels like Marty McFly walking through the befuddling future world of 2015. I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I have no logical reason to feel so. One thing I agree with Amos on when it comes to New York…as a filmmaker, I still couldn’t live anywhere else. It is an in-between place in more ways than one: between Hollywood and Europe, but also between sleep and awake.

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