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Retro Review: ALPHABET CITY (1984)

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ALPHABET CITY
(US - 1984)

Directed by Amos Poe. Written by Gregory K. Heller, Amos Poe and Robert Seidman. Cast: Vincent Spano, Michael Winslow, Kate Vernon, Jami Gertz, Zohra Lampert, Ray Serra, Kenny Marino, Daniel Jordano, Tom Mardirosian, Tom Wright, Clifton Powell, Martine Malle, Harry Madsen, Alex Stevens, Christina Marie Denihan. (R, 85 mins)

One of the more mainstream offerings in the short-lived "No Wave Cinema" movement that began in the Lower East Side and the East Village in the late '70s, ALPHABET CITY didn't really make a dent outside of NYC when Atlantic released it in theaters over the spring and summer of 1984, but its location shooting in parts of the city that no longer exist make it a vital snapshot of a bygone era. That's the primary reason for its current rebirth as a cult movie, and its standing as the inaugural Blu-ray release of the new Vinegar Syndrome offshoot Fun City Editions, because physical media is dead. Having first received attention in the scene with the 1976 punk chronicle THE BLANK GENERATION, ALPHABET CITY director/co-writer Amos Poe was one of the key figures in No Wave, along with Beth B (VORTEX), Susan Seidelman (SMITHEREENS), Lizzie Borden (BORN IN FLAMES), Eric Mitchell (UNDERGROUND U.S.A.), and Kathryn Bigelow (THE LOVELESS). Seidelman and Bigelow went on to successful mainstream careers, while filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo and actors such as Willem Dafoe, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Vincent Gallo also had connections to No Wave in their early days.






The most famous film associated with the No Wave Cinema is arguably Slava Tsukerman's 1983 cult classic LIQUID SKY, but by the time ALPHABET CITY came out, the movement was winding down and its major players were either gravitating toward art and music or, in the case of Seidelman with DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, opting to play the Hollywood game. With ALPHABET CITY, Poe has one foot in the mainstream and the other in the East Village, and the end result has the gritty immediacy of early Abel Ferrara while perhaps somewhat lacking when it comes to a momentum-driven narrative, which is at odds with the urgency of its antihero's predicament. On the cusp of becoming a Next Big Thing after RUMBLE FISH and BABY, IT'S YOU, Vincent Spano stars as Johnny, a successful young drug dealer given control of his Alphabet City neighborhood by powerful crime boss Gino (Ray Serra). Only just out of his teens but wielding much respect and power, Johnny has it made, driving a flashy Firebird (personalized license plate: "CHUNGA"), and living in a spacious loft with his artist fiancee Angie (Kate Vernon) and their infant daughter. But he's secretly been plotting a way out, and that time comes when Gino orders him to torch a dilapidated tenement to clear the way for some lucrative real-estate deals. It happens to be the tenement where he grew up and where his mother (Zohra Lampert) and would-be high-class call girl sister Sophia (Jami Gertz) still live. He can't talk them into leaving, so he spends the night cruising around the neighborhood tying up all loose business ends before taking his cash, his car, and Angie and the baby and disappearing. But Gino has eyes and ears all over the East Village and making a clean getaway won't be easy.


Essentially a "survive the night" scenario, ALPHABET CITY is curiously meandering once the plot is set in motion. Poe doesn't really establish much in the way of suspense, but where the film excels in the way it nails the sights and sounds of the East Village in 1984. It's a highly-stylized look with an unmistakable music video aesthetic--one almost has to think that the GOOD TIME and UNCUT GEMS directing team of the Safdie Brothers are fans--with rain-slicked streets, neon, garish lighting and colorgasms out of a Mario Bava film, shadows, tunnels, and Dutch angles inspired by THE THIRD MAN, and much of the action taking place in some dangerously seedy parts of Alphabet City. One standout is a long sequence in a vacant, bombed-out tenement that's been turned into a drug den overseen by Johnny and his right-hand man Lippy (POLICE ACADEMY's Michael Winslow) who, unlike the all-business Johnny, has spent too much time getting high on their own supply. Poe shot the film with a small crew over 24 nights (Spano is interviewed on the Blu-ray, and mentions lunch was at 2:00 am), and it vividly captures the time and the place, whether it's the fashions, the soundtrack by Nile Rodgers, some guys breakdancing outside of a nightclub, or even a Menudo bumper sticker plastered on a wall (Paul Morrissey's 1985 film MIXED BLOOD, another crime thriller set and shot in and around Alphabet City, would prominently feature a bloody shootout in Menuditis, the official Menudo store).


Poe also captures the mood of the period in real time, showing how the writing was already on the wall with gentrification, or the way that AIDS--not mentioned by name--was wreaking havoc, with Johnny admonishing Sophia to find another line of work because "too many girls are getting sick." Never mind that his own shooting gallery is filled with hopeless addicts and shared needles, with one well-dressed guy forced to show his track marks at the entrance to prove he isn't a narc. To that end, ALPHABET CITY, for all its narrative wishy-washiness and genre cliches (of course, his embittered mother knows what he does for a living and refuses any of his "dirty money"), remains a fascinating time capsule. Poe went on to a brief career directing music videos, most notably Animotion's "Obsession," Run-D.M.C.'s "You Talk Too Much," and Anthrax's "Madhouse." An odd outlier in his filmography came when he scripted the 1988 family drama ROCKET GIBRALTAR, starring Burt Lancaster in one of his last films and Macaulay Culkin in his first. Poe also gave Philip Seymour Hoffman his first movie role in his 1992 indie TRIPLE BOGEY ON A PAR FIVE HOLE. Other mainstream efforts include the 1995 Showtime sci-fi thriller DEAD WEEKEND and 1998's FROGS FOR SNAKES, but the now-71-year-old Poe's post-No Wave work has largely concentrated on documentaries and short films.



ALPHABET CITY opening in Toledo, OH on a busy 6/22/1984





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