Channel 4 Television did commision this documentary about Nelson Sullivan, but the proposal was pitched to the BBC first.
A PORTRAIT OF DOWNTOWN
Nelson knew, because he was witness to it, that Downtown was a new society being born. Downtown is where it all began - 'It' being the idea of everyone being famous for fifteen minutes. He saw in Warhol's Factory with its freaks, parasites, and their limitless capacity both for self-invention and self-destruction, the beginnings of Downtown. It wasn't just another Bohemia, but a post-pop society driven and unified by the desire for fame. In documenting this birth he created a video equivalent of Vasari's 'Lives of the Artists', especially valuable given the ephemeral nature of the crucible in which these events took place, club culture.
It was a renaissance time. Studio 54 was the laboratory inferno of Studio 54 where disco was forged. Punk was created at CBGBs by the Ramones and New Wave fashioned by Blondie and Talking Heads at the Mudd Club. Madonna first performed at Danceteria, the club opened by Rudolf, a former German laundromat manager from Rio. There was an art boom, with east village art galleries mushrooming and showing Graffiti, Neo-Geo, Keith Haring and self-proclaimed con artists like Mark Kostabi. Over at the Pyramid drag queens and performance artists alike were garnering international recognition. At 8BC in alphabet city limousines from Conde Nast lined up to see Karen Finley smear herself in excrement and chant obscenities, as others passed round real bloody Mary's - vodka mixed with blood drawn from their veins. Led by Tama Janowitz's 'Slaves Of New York' and Jay McInerney's 'Bright Lights Big City', there was a new downtown literary genre, and Downtown evolved its own media (Interview, Soho News, Details, Paper, DV8) to celebrate the glut of new celebrities spawning its own stars like Michael Musto and Stephen Saban.
Although Nelson captured much of this, his work is less valuable as a historical catalogue than it is as the portrait and analysis of this new society. Because we have been conditioned by the glut of media coverage that skates over the surface to think of Manhattan as a trendy 'off-shore boutique' (as Tom Wolfe described it), rather than as a place where real people actually live their lives, we in fact know about as much about Downtown as we do about a tribe that has lived undisturbed deep in the Amazon jungle.
Within this context Nelson's work is an anthropological documentary that takes us beneath the fashionable surface and shows us the reality.
The reality is that Downtown is a tribe, a loose-knit collection of cultural refugees socially bonded by their rather anti-social ambition to make it. Although not an apple-pie Main Street nuclear family, it is an extended family much like a chorus line. Indeed Nelson's work shows us, in addition to the glorious highs when the show goes on, the individual lows when its all over, the lonely moments of vulnerability. He was able to do this because most of those he filmed were his friends who trusted him, and who - given that Nelson's camera went wherever he went and was for at least ten years as natural an extension of his body as his arms or legs - simply forgot that the camera was there.
And so the most captivating and poignant part of Nelson's work is not the famous who have emerged from Downtown, but the people who are left behind and who strive in vain for the limelight. One of them himself, Nelson filmed the wannabees, the never-will-bees and the has-beens. While he captured the glorious orgy of self-invention of those seeking fame and fortune, he also captured the price it often exacted, the despair and self-destruction that followed repeated frustration and failure. Christina, for example, was a drag queen and one of Nelson's favorite subjects. He found her dead of an overdose in her room at the Chelsea Hotel just weeks before his own death. For many - if not for most - Downtown is a place of unrecognized talent and unfulfilled dreams. With its fashion designers, musicians, models, writers, and drag queens Downtown is a madcap school of performing arts - 'Kids From Fame' on a bad acid trip.
Nelson's epic canvas of Downtown was also a self-portrait, since he himself was also one of its unknowns. Even though he had set aside his own dreams and ambitions to document Downtown, his work was largely unrecognized even among his peers who were never too shy to call him up for free dubs of themselves at parties. Nelson would often complain about this at length to his camera.
However, as this film will show, the truth of the matter is that Nelson was a revolutionary film-maker. He bought his musical skills to his work, and created a new cinematography. He would carry the camera at arms length moving through the crowd in graceful curves. He never edited his tapes later, but would edit in-camera as he went along. He would accompany his filming with commentary, and was never too self-conscious to turn the camera on himself.
The result of this combination of crew, cameraman, director, presenter and editor in a one-man band was carried off with such skill, that his footage flowed like music and was orchestrated like a concert, drawing you in and making you feel as if you really were there. The fly-on-the wall techniques of most cinema verite are distancing in comparison.
Although his death cut-short his work, it is nevertheless a complete autobiography, since months before his death Nelson turned the camera on himself, making himself and his ideas - eloquently expressed in articulate and witty monologues - the focus of his work.
NELSON'S DEATH & THE DEATH OF DOWNTOWN
When Nelson was alive he captured Downtown at a crucial time, and his death represents Downtown's own demise from the ravages of AIDS and the onward march of gentrification.
AIDS is decimating the community on a scale unrivalled in San Francisco or London. Aside from the sudden deaths of Andy Warhol and painter Jean Michel Basquait, AIDS has recently claimed playwright Charles Ludlam, photographer Robert Mapplethope, nightclub owner Steve Rubell, singer Klaus Nomi, artist Keith Haring and many more, a full role call of whom would number thousands.
At the,same time Downtown has become an absurdly unstable society: attracted to the 'arty community' and cheap prices, yuppies have precipitated a property boom, resulting on East 9th Street alone in a pricey nouvelle cuisine restaurant competing with crack dealers for clientele, and luxury condo dwellers looking down on Tompkins Square Park, a shantytown of homeless. Two years ago Nelson filmed a full-scale anti- gentrification riot (only quelled by helicopters and mounted police) that took place in the park and was as unexpected and unprecedented as the recent poll tax riot in central London.
In drawing extensively upon Nelson's tapes, the film will be an introduction to his work. Through this footage we will experience the gritty reality of life Downtown - as opposed to the glossy myth - as seen by someone who lived it.
While the sheer spectacle and outrageousness of this material alone would make a remarkable and engaging film, it will be the goal of this film, through a dual focus on his life and his work, to reveal the dynamics and special relevance of Downtown that both fascinated and compelled him.
To this end we will show how Downtown, far from being a self- contained camp compote is as American as apple pie. For here under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, society's misfits have gathered to create something rich and strange from almost nothing and against all odds - which is the essence of the American dream.
This mainstream relevance will be further reinforced by showing how Downtown, as an extension of the Factory and a Pop community where celebrity is both the medium and the message, is proving increasingly to be the model of our own society; a recent survey of English schoolchildren revealed that over 50% when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up simply answered 'Famous'.