By Sarah Swinwood
Award-winning painter, performer and director Ari Roussimoff premiered his first and only fictionalized feature film, Shadows in the City, at limited screenings around New York’s creative hotspots in 1992. Becoming famous as the last major work of the “No wave” movement, the movie featured a notable array of New York avant-garde icons, including actor Bruce Byron, Warhol Factory favorite Taylor Mead, erotic film star Annie Sprinkle, Cinema of Transgression filmmakers Nick Zedd and Kembra Pfahler, and the final appearances of documentarian Emile de Antonio and underground cinema pioneer Jack Smith. Over the past week, the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) revival screenings of this underappreciated classic remind us why “outsider cinema” remains more relevant today than ever.
Ari Roussimoff's Shadows in the City
A once attractive man, face hard worn before his years due to booze and lack of sleep, traipses across a deserted, rainy Coney Island, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his trenchcoat. Spirits of both life and death linger near. Later, bumbling through a bustling and dry Times Square, we are given a glimpse into his poetically despondent thoughts. Craig Smith plays the desperate lead character Paul Mills with an existential yearning that jumps through the screen.
Ari Rousimioff’s deeply striking No wave film Shadows in the City (1991) is filled with images of a New York City that no longer exists, leaving the viewer with a sense of thrill that these scenes were captured for us to witness today. There is a feeling of being privy to something we weren’t supposed to see, a trip into an extinct space. Even with sound quality at times lacking, audiences are instantly fixated and enthralled with the universal themes of life and death ever mingling. Shot in black and white, mostly on 16mm, the gloomy, haunting shots pull us into realms of cheap pleasure, suffering and morbid curiosity offered up by the human condition.
Shadows in the City And The Impact Of No wave Cinema
No wave cinema (marked by the work of filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, John Waters) has had an undeniable impact on the world of underground film. Shadows did a limited run at New York’s underground theaters in 1992 before drifting into obscurity. On October 5th, it screened at the MoMa for the first time in over 30 years. Filmmaker Ari Roussimoff was present to discuss the correlation between his paintings and filmmaking, as he sees the latter as being an extension of the former. Roussimoff shared slides of the spectacular painting that inspired Shadows, describing the deep symbolism of how death is always hunting life and yet life is present within itself offering hope. Faceless shadows roam, searching for meaning much like the actors in the film.
Tormented by memories of his pill-riddled, alcoholic mother and never faithful ex-girlfriend, Mills picks up a prostitute in Times Square who casually pops her gum, stripping for him while making small talk. She leaves him to weep on the floor beside his sheetless single bed. Headlines about John Lennon’s death and Mike Tyson’s alleged attempted suicide plaster the walls.
Another scene takes place in an underground biker bar; a beautiful blonde woman strips on a pool table as multiple hands grope and squeeze her skin to her great delight. One is left with the idea that the scenes that make us cringe the most could be emblematic of the pieces of lost souls that exist within every human being. Later, depictions of the afterlife offer an idea that perhaps there could be more action and excitement in the land of the dead than the living.
Art Director Clayton Patterson: The Hidden Hero Of Shadows in the City
The film’s art director, Clayton Patterson, was also present at the screening in conjunction with the publication of Patterson’s book In the Shadows: The People’s History of New York City Underground Tattooing. Patterson was instrumental in bringing together much of the cast and Lower East Side legends who acted as extras. Patterson was well acquainted with these shadowed luminaries through the forming New York’s Underground Tattoo Society.
Patterson’s role must be highlighted because of his staggering No!ART West video archive and documentation of New York’s underground subcultures, such as his coverage of the 1988 Tompkins Square riots. Ever champion of the underdog and voice for those less fortunate, much of his work can be accessed through his numerous books, namely The Front Door Book and The Street Gangs of The Lower East Side. He is one of the last living historians to carry and maintain an archive that places like the MoMa are leading the charge by highlighting the need to preserve.
The images in this film are a prime example of what we will lose if we do not make a greater effort to preserve the archives of these historians. More funding is needed, as is a greater spotlight shone upon people like Clayton Patterson. A small retrospective of his work is currently on display at Essx NYC, 140 Essex Street, where one can acquire one of his coveted hats for a limited time, as well as a chance to glimpse some of his photos of the vibrant people who were growing up on the Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s.
SHADOWS IN THE CITY is currently screening one last time on October 11th at 6:30PM EST before the process of digital restoration begins. Visit MoMA's event page for more information.
Sarah Swinwood is a writer and literary translator from Montreal, Canada currently based in Brooklyn. She teaches songwriting to at-risk youth, creative nonfiction and poetry. She is committed to the path of assisting her Elders to preserve their archives. Follow @sarahtonein on Instagram for more information.
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Featured image: Still from SHADOWS IN THE CITY (C) Ari Roussimoff / MoMA