Underground U.S.A., Permanent Vacation, The Way It Is
Patti Astor, Rene Ricard, John Lurie, Cookie Mueller, Tom DiCillo
Eric Mitchell is a French born writer, director and actor who moved to New York City in the early 1970s. He has acted in films such Permanent Vacation (1980) by Jim Jarmusch, but he is best known for his writing and directing his own films: Kidnapped, Red Italy, Underground U.S.A. and The Way It Is or Eurydice in the Avenues, starring Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Mark Boone Junior and Rockets Redglare.
Life and work
During the late 1970s to early 1980s, Eric Mitchell was among the most significant proponents of the punk bohemia, No Wave Cinema, no-budget style of underground punk filmmaking that was concerned with issues of simulation typical of postmodernism. He worked out of New York City's East Village area in conjunction with Colab and other performance artists and noise musicians and created a series of scruffy, deeply personal short Super 8mm and 16mm films in which he combined darkly sinister images to explore the manner in which the individual is constrained by society. Rising from the ashes of a bankrupt and destitute 1970’s Manhattan, and reacting to the modernist aesthetic of 1960’s avant-garde film, No Wave filmmakers like Eric Mitchell threw out the rules and embraced their own brand of vanguard moviemaking. Inspired by the films of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, John Waters and The French New Wave, Mitchell's films combined elements of documentary and loose narrative structure, somewhat like Jean-Luc Godard, with stark, at times confrontational imagery. Much like the No Wave music of the period from which the movement garnered its label, Mitchell pillaged the nascent East Village arts scene for co-conspirators in the likes of Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Vincent Gallo, Steve Buscemi, Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller and many others. Mitchell shared the common mindset of fast and cheap, and was catalyzed by collaboration. This No Wave style rose from the ashes of such gloom, when even nihilism had expired. Its influence remains, but the movement was little more than a cultural blip in New York City history: the brief harmony of music, visual art and film in downtown Manhattan, showcased nightly at New Cinema on Astor Place and at small punk rock venues like CBGB and Tier 3 and at punk art clubs like the Mudd Club.
Kidnapped (1978), his first feature, took on political terrorism, recasting it in the form of a group improvisation for jaded, aimless bohemian types who dabble in it like the latest fashion craze. The deadpan acting style the actors indulge in owes much to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andy Warhol. Indeed, Kidnapped was inspired by Vinyl (1965), a black-and-white experimental film directed by Warhol at The Factory starring Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgwick and Ondine - an early adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange. In Kidnapped, Mitchell, Anya Phillips and Gordon Stevenson hang around a cramped lower east side apartment. Coolly, they talk with each other (often reading directly off the script that has been taped to the wall) and dance and fight with each other as the no wave music of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks plays on the stereo within the movie set. Like in a Warhol film, oftentimes nothing much happens in the plot, until towards the end the players go and kidnap Mudd Club owner Steve Mass and abuse him.
Jaded political satire also figured in Mitchell’s next feature, Red Italy (1979). Here the actor-director recreated a parody of the style of Italian films of the ’60s, shooting a story of a young disillusioned worker living a bohemian life (played by Mitchell himself) and his glamour-ridden starlet girlfriend (Jennifer Miro). The film is set within ’’Italian movie”-type locations in NYC like espresso bars, Italian restaurants, vacant lots, etc. Mitchell has called the movie "a portrait of a bored, disenchanted woman in post-war Italy." Indeed, boredom becomes one of Mitchell's major themes in Red Italy, an emotional stance that he maintains throughout his films.
In 1980, Eric Mitchell directed, wrote and starred in one of the most ambitious films of the No Wave movement, Underground U.S.A. (16mm, 85 min). Made for $25,000 (considered by no-wave standards a big budget), written in two days and created in three weeks,
Underground U.S.A. featured Patti Astor as Vicky, an aging actress who still thinks of herself as young and attractive and, in her vulnerability, falls for a hustler named Victor (played by Mitchell). Even with cinematography by Tom DiCillo, sound by Jim Jarmusch, editing by J.P. Roland-Levy and the authentic locations of the Lower East Side art scene, the film was not a huge commercial success, but did succeed in bringing in a whole new audience to No Wave Cinema. It challenged both commercial movie making and the avant-garde with a style that combined amateur enthusiasm with sophisticated visual know-how and a sharp sense of social and political observation diametrically opposite of the staid formalism of the ’’experimental’’ film establishment. But while paying generous tribute to the Warhol era (the cast is filled with Warhol veterans like Jackie Curtis and Taylor Mead) Mitchell’s approach is never nostalgic. “No More ’60s, No More ’70s” reads the actor-director’s press release for the film.
When the 16mm film was first released in 1980, it ran for six months at Colab sponsored St Mark's Cinema and since has received a Cineprobe screening at MoMA, was broadcast on Independent Focus, Channel 13 and aired on BBC's Channel 4. Soon after, MoMA acquired a brand new print for its collection which was screened in the series "Looking at Music" that was curated by Barbara London. Underground U.S.A. has cameo performances by Cookie Mueller, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, Steve Mass, John Lurie and Duncan Smith.
The Way It Is or Eurydice in the Avenues (1985) stars Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Rockets Redglare and Mark Boone Junior. In this 80 minute film, a group of actors have been rehearsing Jean Cocteau's Orpheus in the East Village. On a warm summer day, the body of Eurydice, the lead actress, is found dead in Tompkins Square Park. At her funeral, the actors, each a suspect, examine their relationships with her in order to unravel the mystery of her demise. The actors' memories, the underworld of Cocteau's play, and the East Village milieu become inextricably linked. The tragedy of Eurydice plays against the end of an era: scorched tenements, the Mudd Club, and punk rock.
Mitchell acted in Permanent Vacation (1980) by Jim Jarmusch and in Amos Poe's no wave classics Unmade Beds (1976) and The Foreigner (1978), where he plays a young Frenchman in New York that is hotly pursued up and down the busy streets of New York City by thugs. Along the way he encounters a couple of bizarre young women (a new wave songstress delivering a rendition of Bertolt Brecht's Bilbao Song and a sadist). Mitchell also performs in the films J'ai vu tuer Ben Barka (2005) by Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi, Minus Zero (1979) by Michael Oblowitz, Men in Orbit (1979) by John Lurie, The Scenic Route (1978) by Mark Rappaport, Candy Mountain (1988) by Robert Frank and in James Nares's no wave film Rome 78 (1978), among others.
Mitchell came of age in the art world as his father was the longtime companion of painter Françoise Gilot between her marriage to Picasso and her subsequent marriage to Jonas Salk. Mitchell himself began to work as a teenager as an assistant photographer on the French magazine Lui, shooting with leading glamour models of the day. As a performer he mounted several multi-media events at The Kitchen in New York, as documented by Jimmy DeSana, and with fellow artist Martin Kippenberger put out the punk single Luxus in 1979 according to Roberta Smith of the New York Times. As a lifelong painter, draughtsman and illustrator Mitchell held a retrospective exhibition Call It Nothing (2006) at Mitchell Algus Gallery in Chelsea, New York and has had his work regularly featured in The New Yorker and Bergdorf Goodman Magazine.