Deadly Art of Survival
My introduction to New York’s underground film scene came in the form of the “cinema of transgression,” as movement figurehead (eh, more or less) Nick Zedd dubbed it. Specifically, it came in the form of Richard Kern, whose crude, short films and videos were widely circulated on VHS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the work of Kern and Zedd that almost entirely formed my opinion of the movement, because that was basically all you could get. Film Threat magazine had taken an interest in Kern and released a number of his films on VHS. And so when it came to New York’s underground cinema, I knew what he and Zedd had done, which was sloppy, nihilistic, destructive, ridiculous, angry, and absurd. It wasn’t until I moved to New York some years later that I discovered the depth of my ignorance, that Kern, Zedd, and the Cinema of Transgression were the second wave of the New York film underground, that they had grown from a whole group of films and filmmakers who have preceded them in the late 1970s.
Dubbed “no-wave” cinema, as a filmic complement to the no-wave/artpunk music scene, the movies were much more difficult to find than the works of Kern and Zedd, which had been fawned over by people with the ability to actually release them on home video. It wasn’t until recently that people started salvaging the no-wave films from obscurity. I expected something very similar to what I got from the Cinema of Transgression. What I found, however, was a remarkably diverse body of work that looked something more like “actual” cinema than the usually plotless and abstract experimental nature of the Transgressives. Not better, not more mainstream; just different. And I was surprised to find out how many accomplished names cut their teeth in the scene: Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beth B, even Vincent Gallo all pop up in one place or another. They thrived (relatively speaking) by showing their movies at clubs, concerts and at newly established arthouse cinemas like the Film Forum in Soho.
To understand no-wave cinema, you have to understand a little bit about New York and the East Village in the 1970s. Luckily, I don’t think the decayed state of the city in that era is some obscure historical tidbit. Everyone knows the city was a disaster area, overrun by drugs and crime, with whole city blocks demolished or crumbling, abandoned or on fire. Unsurprisingly, this urban desolation generated a music and art scene that reflected the dismal, depressing surroundings. But rather than being dismal or depressed about it, these broke young artists were fueled by it, used it to give birth to things like The Ramones, the scenes at places like The Roxy, Max’s Kansas City, Mudd Club, and of course, CBGBs. This was the early birth of punk, not quite the outrageous leather jackets and liberty spikes performance it would become once Malcom McClaren got ahold of it. Rawer, less codified, with more big Jewfros and leather neckties. Because it was being made up as everyone went, there was a tremendous “big tent” aspect to it, a scene that could spawn the angry shrieking of Richard Hell and the Voivods or the falsetto operatics of Klaus Nomi, or where two bands — Blondie and The Ramones — could form with the same 60s girl group influences and interpret it in such different ways.
And where punk music goes, punk cinema is sure to spring up. It’s perfectly understandable to me that someone with creative drive living in the shell-shocked New York of the 1970s would want to document what they saw around them. While Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese were bringing the gritty streets of the city to the mainstream, a shadow “industry” sprung up in the background, made up of artists and freaks and weirdos who really wanted to make movies in and about New York, even if the people involved had absolutely no money, no experience, no equipment, and very little skill. Luckily, the 1970s in the city being what they were, it was possible for these artists to form a little collective, or a community, and trade, borrow, or barter for equipment, lab time, and screens on which to show their finished products.
At the same time this was happening downtown, uptown was giving birth to the hip hop scene, with guys like Grandmaster Flash and B-Boy groups like the Rock Steady Crew blazing a path as new, raw, and exciting as what was happening with the punks downtown. Although they shared a similar spirit, and even similar origins (if you haven’t dug into it before, you’d be surprised how many pioneering rap artists count Kraftwerk among their biggest influences, and how many breakdancers were inspired by mime and European street theater), the unique geography of New York — which can render a mere city block as a seemingly insurmountable border — and, even more so, the racial divide between the almost entirely white downtown scene and the predominantly black and Latino uptown scene kept the two movements from blending the way they should have. But there was some blending. Downtown artists like Debbie Harry and Dee Dee Ramone were crazy about rap, and uptown artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash performed at and saw new wave and punk bands at downtown haunts like the Mudd Club. Hell, Bambaataa even formed a one-off group with former Sex Pistols frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon. Each group counted a lot from the other as influences. After all, the East Village and Lower East Side were not the racially homogeneous neighborhoods they’ve since become (Avenue D seems the last holdout of the old, integrated East Village).
However, we’d be fooling ourselves if we claimed there was a 1-to-1 correlation between what these two sets of underground counter-cultures got from one another. Even in the 1970s, some claimed, probably not without justification, that white artists pillaged black culture, and that when black culture came downtown, it wasn’t a symbol of integration and shared artistic passion but was just white people putting black people on display for white amusement — that it was cultural appropriation rather than cross-pollination, the same way white audiences and musicians raided Jazz Age Harlem. I don’t take nearly so cynical a few of this cross-cultural trade, though I also wouldn’t deny that even a bunch of white punk weirdos still had far greater privilege and freedom of expression than their black counterparts in the hip hop scene. Nor would I argue with someone who regarded it as an uneven pilfering of black culture for white people to use so that they might be more diverse in their influences. It’s a difficult and uncomfortable subject and not one for which I can make any sort of definitive proclamation. All I can do assert my belief that the mixing of cultures and styles and influences benefits us all, and the compartmentalization of the same hurts us as artists, as creatives, and as people. In the end, I will leave it up to the men and women who were part of one or both scenes. Afrika Bambaataa is a much more eloquent speaker on such things.
However, while racial inequality meant that the white downtown scene operated from a more privileged place than the black and hispanic uptowners, which could result more in pilfering than trading sometimes, I have to say that Afrika Bambaataa’s borrowing of John Lydon for Timezone bore substantially more enjoyable fruit than Blondie’s “car eating martian” rap or Dee Dee Ramone’s earnest but poorly executed passion for hip hop.
It was while prowling around the lower portion of Manhattan than no-wave filmmaker Charlie Ahearn was approached by a group of young black kids curious about what he was doing with a movie camera. The idea that just some dude could borrow a camera and decide to make a movie without the apparatus or blessing of mainstream movie making was wild, and the kids thought it was awesome. They also thought he should make a movie about them and the kungfu school they attended, called Deadly Art of Survival. Just as punk and hip hop had a cultural exchange going early in their respective lifecycles, there had been, in the 1970s, an explosion of interest in Asian culture in the urban black community. Specifically, in kungfu films and the martial arts. Just as its easy to see what drew punk and hip hop together, so too is it pretty easy to understand what it was about kungfu films that young black men (mostly men) found exciting and empowering. After decades of minorities being portrayed as villains, butlers, and comic relief sidekicks, this was a minority audience’s first chance to see a non-white face on a big screen, kicking ass and being in charge. It didn’t matter that it was a Chinese face rather than a black one. All that mattered was it wasn’t a white face.
With the exception of a few token movies thrown the way of black audiences by the big studios (which is not to denigrate films like Carmen Jones, which I think are both historically important and quite entertaining), there had not been anything that could be called “black cinema” since the Poverty Row days when cheap studios would pump out even cheaper black cast movies, and there hadn’t been black filmmakers really since the silent film era, when Oscar Micheaux decided, like the no wave filmmakers decades later, he wanted to make his own movies and so headed out onto the streets of New York City to single-handedly create black cinema, where there were black faces in front of and behind the cameras. After the ensuing years of white stars and black lackeys, the audiences of the 1970s who filed into that 42nd Street theater to witness for the first time a film like Five Fingers of Death or Chinese Boxer rediscovered how energizing it can be to see someone else taking command. Sure, the Chinese aren’t a minority in China, but they’d spent a goodly portion of the 19th and 20th century under the thumbs of European countries, who might not exactly have invaded but certainly maneuvered their way into the position of rulers. To see a guy like Lo Lieh bringing the “angry young man” energy to the Asian masses was as liberating to Asians as it was to black American audiences.
The popularity of kungfu films skyrocketed, and along with it, and thanks to the improbable, even impossible, success of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, film studios finally understood that black or white could still translate into green. And so in rapid succession, established studios and independent upstarts alike started scrambling to cash in on the fact that black people were excited about, you know, seeing other black people in movies. A Shaft and a Superfly later, the “black cinema” era had begun. Behind the scenes, it wasn’t quite what guys like Melvin Van Peebles might have wanted, though. With a few exceptions, the films were still written by, directed by, produced by — made by — white people. The NAACP considered it nothing more than white studios parading black faces in front of a camera in shoddy movies that exploited the black hunger for something, anything to call their own. Junius Griffin, then NAACP head and a former film publicist, coined the term “blaxploitation” in disgust at what he considered a shameful, white-orchestrated minstrel show of pimps, killers, drug addicts, and rapists that crassly exploited black suffering and black desperation.
But his was just one opinion, and many of the stars and fans of the movies challenged Griffin’s assertion. Black cinema stars like Fred Williamson asked, “Who’s being exploited? I’m up there on the screen, kicking ass and getting paid.” And he was right. While there were plenty of pimps and players, there were also guys like Jim Kelly, Fred Williamson, and Jim Brown, who played black heroes. Not cops, sometimes private eyes, but just guys from that nebulous action film world where anyone from a bonded courier to a music producer was allowed to step out onto the street and beat the shit out of drug dealers and neo-Nazis. And fans, rather than seeing the plight of black Americans exploited, saw the plight of black Americans depicted. And usually, the best of the films were keen to point out that although the characters may be pimps and prostitutes, gangsters and killers, they’d arrived at this violent station in life because the white majority and the mainstream had stacked the deck against them and made it almost impossible to be anything other than a subservient, minimum wage slave (provided you could even find a job) unless you went outside the law — in much the same way Van Peebles had to go outside the studio system to get his movie made.
As is always the case, both sides were correct. Many of the films were exploitative, and many of them were empowering. Many of them were sleazy trash, and many of them were exceptional action or drama films. Griffin’s dismissal of the movies is often these days dismissed itself, which is unfortunate. But it’s also unfortunate that the term blaxploitation took a huge, diverse body of cinematic work and reduced it to a single, monolithic entity. I recently read an article by Questlove about how all modern black music has become classified as rap, even when it isn’t. In his opinion, which I agree with entirely, not only does this dismiss the ability of black artists to be anything but this one thing, it makes the entirety of black music easy to dismiss. Because you only have to dismiss one thing: rap. Janelle Monae is not rap. Andre 3000 is not rap. Beyonce, as much as her style of music might bore me, is not rap, though all three of them may incorporate aspects of rap into their music. But so did Blondie, so did The Clash, so do lots of white bands, and no one classifies them as rap. When all black performers get lumped into a single “this is where we put black people” genre, art suffers, and culture suffers, and lord knows people suffer. Anyway, the same thing happens when hundreds of films from the 1970s get lumped under the undiscerning and un-nuanced umbrella of “blaxploitation.” Vicious garbage and daring risks, soulless crap and ambitious art, all get placed at the same level, and everything becomes as dismissible and risible at the lowest example of the uber-genre.
New York is an odd town in that it manages to be both segregated and integrated. There are black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, Latino and Chinese neighborhoods. And within each of those overbroad racial categories, there is endless nuance. A Dominican block or an Irish block or a Fujianese block. At the same time, because we are eight million people crammed into a very small space, and because we are a city defined by its mass transit (despite the best efforts of Robert Moses to marginalize minorities by way of urban planning), everyone still has to deal with everyone else. Unless you are among the very rich or in a remote neighborhood, on any given day you have to deal with faces of every color, dozens of cultures, all on the same street, the same subway, all more or less living side by side every day and getting along, or at least tolerating one another. Which is how a young East Village Jew like Charlie Ahearn can randomly meet a group of young black men and decide that they’re going to make a kungfu film together. It’s typically New York that the divisions of race and culture should be so blended — that a white Jewish guy would make a movie about black guys who love a Chinese martial art.
The kungfu school these kids attended, Deadly Art of Survival, served as equal parts martial arts academy and community center (and you thought those things only existed in Jim Kelly movies). They would not just hold classes but would also travel around the city’s black communities, putting on demos and skits. So while no one who ended up involved with the movie had any acting skill, they were not without performing experience and thought their skits would make a pretty good basis for a movie. Ahearn whipped up a pretty simple, rudimentary story about a martial arts student (Nathan Ingram) who is jumped by the members of a rival school, led by the weed-dealing con artist Handsome Harry, who scams little kids out of their money for bogus kungfu lessons. Obviously, Nathan wants revenge, and so is established a DIY version of that most venerable of kungfu film plots: the rival schools.
So here’s the thing. You have to deal with a film like this on its own terms. Charlie Ahearn was an enthusiastic amateur with old, loaner film equipment (the proliferation of which was thanks largely to New York’s role during the silent era as the birthplace of cinema; there’s a massive soundstage in Queens that has been around since the days of DeMille and is still used regularly). He was an inexperienced writer, director, cameraman, and sound man. And his actors weren’t actors at all, They were kids he met on the street outside of a kungfu school. This lack of experience shows. The sound recording is awful, as it usually is in even the more accomplished no-wave films. The acting is usually flat, and much of the dialogue is improvised by people who don’t actually know how to improvise dialogue or have anything to say. The writing lacks any sense of pace or focus. Long stretches of time are spent with the camera staring dully at things that have no business in the movie or things that should have been edited (Handsome Harry relaxing in the tub while his girlfriend walks in and out of the bathroom goes on forever). By the standards even of low-budget DIY filmmaking, The Deadly Art of Survival is a somewhat shoddy affair.
But it’s not one without value, both historically and as a piece of entertainment. For starters, the guerrilla filmmaking on the streets of New York City provides a fascinating visual time capsule of what the city and its people looked like. There’s no glamming it up for a big movie, but neither is there a grimming it up to conform to the image of New York as an inescapable hellhole that crushes all spirits. Because yeah, New York in the 1970s was a disaster, but it was also full of regular people just living their lives. Shit was messed up, but they had adapted, and the mundane day-to-day of eating, drinking, hanging out in the park, going to see a band — these things all marched on. And in many ways, The Deadly Art of Survival plays like a home movie of this particular time and place with a kungfu film subplot grafted onto it. If you come in expecting even a bad kungfu movie, you will be frustrated by what Charlie Ahearn gives you. But if you go in understanding who made this, and why, and with what, then you can shift your expectations.
This is not to say that “because they loved what they were doing” justifies a bad movie; it doesn’t, and I hate when a review of a terrible movie justifies it by saying, “but it looks like everyone making it had fun and loved what they were doing.” It’s a movie, and I’m the audience member. I’m supposed to have fun, too. No, what I mean is that, in the specific case of a film like The Deadly Art of Survival, there are things that are interesting about it despite itself. It’s curious place in the history of cinema, for instance, as this weird amalgamation of no wave, black cinema, and martial arts cinema. Or the way it is ingrained into the fabric of New York City — Nathan Ingram is a real guy, after all, and he ran and still runs a kungfu school in Chinatown (one of the first and only black-run schools in Chinatown). He got a medal from Ed Koch for using his martial arts prowess to foil a robbery. With few opportunities as a young man, he fell in with street thugs and even ran with Nicky Louie and the infamous Chinatown gang the Ghost Shadows before he got his life together and decided to pay his karmic debts by teaching others to avoid the mistakes he made. You can walk down to 225 Park Row, and there is his school and there are his students, and there he is.
And that’s part of the value of a film like Deadly Art of Survival, even when it fails as cinema. It is a door into the real world, and there is much more to its story than just its story, if you are willing to use the movie as a jumping off point. You don’t have to. Some movies you really have to work with and dig around in to find their value, either because that was the intention or simply because a bad film accidentally stumbles into value; and if you don’t want to play that game, that’s fine. That type of movie isn’t for you, and I would never be one of those assholes who berates you for “wanting the movie to do all the work” or “just not getting it.” Those are cheap and meaningless counters to the fact that everyone gets something different from a work of art, and some people get nothing. That’s why we have variety. But for me, a movie like Deadly Art of Survival happens to intersect so many of my personal interests and obsessions that it becomes a mission to dig past the film into the soil from which it grew.
Plus, I don’t find the film totally without merit as a film. The acting is usually stiff, but the guy who places the slimy Handsome Harry is actually pretty entertaining. He’s one of the few who has some sense of timing and knows how to deliver a line. The subplot with the ninjas is so weird that it grabs the attention. Harry and local drug dealer Frankie (who originally hired Harry’s school to put the hurt on Nathan, who Frankie wrongly thinks knocked up his girlfriend) call in a team of ninjas to kill Nathan, but all the ninjas ever do is sort of passive-aggressively annoy him with ninja skills like “letting the air out of his tires.” I can’t really tell if it’s intentionally or unintentionally absurd, but either way it made me smile. And then the final showdown between Harry and Nathan is actually better than most martial arts throwdowns you’d find in American films from the same time. With all the hijinks stripped away (along with their shirts), we get to watch two pretty good martial artists fight with one another. The fact that the poor actor playing Harry (man, I wish I knew his name) is willing to get kicked off a pier and into the East River — into the 1970s East River — shows that, experience or not, the dude was a stone cold pro willing to do anything for this crudely made, crazy little film. When I saw that (and the film’s mimicking of the way kungfu films often end the instant someone lands a killing blow on the villain), I really, earnestly wanted to stand up in my apartment and give Charlie Ahearn, Nathan Ingram, and the whole Deadly Art of Survival crew the slow clap that gradually gets more enthusiastic.
Ahearn went on to make Wild Style, a seminal documentation of the downtown punk and uptown hip hop cultures that featured Fab 5 Freddy, Patti Astor, and ‘Lee’ George Quinones. As far as film goes, it’s a much improved effort over Deadly Art of Survival. And coming out in 1983, it’s an odd ode to the cultural bridge between punk and hip hop at a time when that bridge was crumbling and the two scenes were going their own separate, segregated ways.But it’s Deadly Art of Survival that etched out a special place in my heart. It’s such an interesting amalgamation of DIY aesthetic and the interests of black, urban youths (and by 1979, the black cinema trend had pretty much run its course, and we were entering the decade where the only black man allowed to kick ass on screen was Carl Weathers, and then only rarely). I admire the overall ambition of this film, and of many of the other no wave films. I admire the diversity in the cast. Where the Cinema of Transgression was often content with shorts and abstract slices of life, no wave directors and writers really wanted to make full feature films.
And they did. Maybe crudely, maybe poorly, but they did, and in doing so created an invaluable repository and historical documentation of one of the world’s biggest and most diverse cities in one of its most difficult yet creative periods. To have lost these films would be the same as if we had lost the works of the Beat writers or the East Village musicians of the 1960s. What they did may not be your bag, but their contribution to both the American avant-garde and the mainstream is important. Enjoying Deadly Art of Survival requires you to give the film a lot of leeway and come into predisposed to being interested in a number of things beyond the film itself. But if soldier through, it’s a pretty rich experience wrapped in an admittedly bad movie.