Back to the Future: Downtown 81 and Cunningham

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Last week, the New York City police union tweeted out a video of a subway train rolling through a station covered entirely in graffiti. Along with it, this message: “The 70s & 80s, now in living color on a subway platform near you. A true sign of decay, one that we worked so hard to eradicate decades ago. The taggers had plenty of time to cover this entire train, because they know there are no more consequences. #backtothefuture.” 

What a weird sort of nostalgia for law and order to try and put forth, I thought. New York City cops, who have far less “policing” to do these days because the quasi-fascist, three-decade-long okey-doke between developers and the cops and politicians waging the war on drugs has shuffled all of the city’s suffering far, far away, now yearn to bring the hammer down on one of the few elements of their crime fight left: property damage. Meanwhile, many who saw this video were delighted rather than disgusted by the image of a subway car that had been, as street artist parlance goes, “bombed.” It takes them back to the future too: To the much more interesting and communal and, yes, dangerous New York City of the early ’80s seen in movies such as Wild Style or Style Wars and documented in Downtown 81 (screening at the Charles on Feb. 1, Feb. 3, and Feb. 6). 

Debbie Harry and Jean-Michael Basquiat in Downtown 81

Downtown 81, a somewhat fictional, hang-out movie starring Jean-Michel Basquiat (filmed in the winter of 1980-1981, eventually completed in 1999) spends the day with Basquiat (voiced by poet and actor Saul Williams because all of the original dialogue had been lost), getting out of the hospital and gallivanting around the Lower East Side in New York. He tries to sell a painting, shoots the shit with friends and associates, and takes in an evening of performances from the city’s myriad music scene where punk, noise, rap, funk, and disco all seemed to collapse into one.

It is loose, barely a movie and all the better for it. The best moments are the least important ones such as watching Basquiat spray paint the phrase “Origin Of Cotton” onto a wall in real-time or when someone else briefly steals the movie away (for example, beloved Baltimorean Cookie Mueller as a go-go dancer dancing to James White and the Blacks’ “Contort Yourself”). And in general, there’s the way it portrays an artist’s askew hustle so well: You sort of wait and walk around until something happens and wow, by the end of the day that can feel like a whole lot, man. “People throw you out of your home, rip you off, what are you gonna do?” Basquiat narrates as he spray paints a face on a white wall and the mean bassline of Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” bumps on the soundtrack. “You gotta be positive. You can do some good. Make some public art.”

A scene from CUNNINGHAM, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Martin Miseré. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Alla Kovgan’s assiduous documentary, Cunningham (screening at the Senator Theatre), about Merce Cunningham, the choreographer whose modern dance innovations embraced both rigorousness and randomness, seems so intent on not looking like every other documentary that, at times, it forgets to be a documentary all together. Most of what you see here—and what you will likely wish you could watch for another hour and a half—is a series of contemporary performances of Cunningham’s work where the camera glides, tracks and pans (choreography to capture the choreography) making these already kinetic performances moreso: Dancers bending, floating, and vibrating in the subway, in the forest, on a roof while music, equally stern and playful, from composers such as John Cage and Morton Feldman offers only counterpoint.

Oh and Cunningham is in 3D, so the on-stage layering of Cunningham’s work, which incorporated sculpture and painting, into spare sets among the dancers or on the dancers sometimes—famously, one dance involved a chair strapped to Cunningham’s back—is present in a way it wouldn’t be even if you saw one of these performances IRL. Early on, a dance on top of a building is captured by drone—a clever use of a documentary cliché which helps show Cunningham’s work as we couldn’t see it otherwise and invokes his thoroughly postmodern paranoia—and another, of “Winterbranch” (“about violence,” we hear Cunningham explain) shows dancers in all-black on the top of a building, the camera right there with them, lights like helicopter searchlights shaking and illuminating them for a few seconds at a time.

It all has a certain Julie Taymor-esque quality to it too though—an obsequious sort of provocation. Kovgan’s form-futzing, unlike Cunningham’s own, is reactionary. Whenever we’re not seeing these 3D dances, Kovgan moves through Cunningham’s most well-known period (the ‘50s to the ‘70s) with archival photos and footage popping up in the frame which is treated more like a digital surface—a liminal space where images or video can be stacked or doubled or written on, which again, does look cool in 3D and doesn’t make this like all the docs popping up on streaming services. Audio from Cunningham and others talking about the work back when they were doing the work provides some background.

Kovgan goes about documentary all wrong and different. She seems painfully aware of the documentary bubble and all the tropes it has enabled and forgoes talking heads, “Ken Burns effect” zooms, explainer narration, and easy answers, sacrificing context for spectacle. Cunningham is stunning, 3D shtick you should not miss.


A scene from CUNNINGHAM, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Mko Malkshasyan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Movie Listings


2020 Oscar Shorts Animated. Fri: 1:00, 5:15, 9:30; Sat: 11:30 a.m., 7:10; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 5:15; Tues: 4:00, 9:35; Wed: 1:00, 5:15, 9:30; Thurs: 3:05, 7:05

2020 Oscar Shorts Live Action. Fri: 3:00, 7:15; Sat: 1:30, 4:50, 9:20; Sun: 3:00, 7:15; Mon: 3:00, 7:05; Tues: 1:00, 7:00; Wed: 3:00, 7:15; Thurs: 12:50, 4:55, 9:35

Dosed (Tyler Chandler, Canada, 2019). Tues: 6:40

Revival: Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, US, 2000) Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00.

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30 Sat: 1:15, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Tues: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Wed-Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50, 9:35; Sat: 3:45, 6:50, 9:35;

Sun: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50; Mon: 12:45, 3:45; Tues: 12:45, 3:45, 9:30; Wed: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50, 9:30; Thurs: 12:45, 3:45, 6:50

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30

Metropolitan Opera: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Sat: 12:55

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:55, 3:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35


Baltimore Filmmakers’ Lounge. Wed: 7:00. This event, which happens the first Wednesday of each month allows local filmmakers to screen new work and works-in-progress and get feedback. Among the works screening this month: Portions of Rob Parrish’s Horse Head: Season Zero, which is “an art film masquerading as a science fiction narrative web series with a bit of flamboyant/queer/burlesque excess thrown in for good measure,” according to director Parrish. “The Horse Head character is a body/gender-fluid, super-intelligent, hedonist who always wears a latex Horse Head mask. The narrative features two queer couples getting their lives turned upside-down by the arrival of Horse Head as they explore trans-human lifestyles.”


Always In Season (Jacqueline Olive, US, 2019). Thurs: 5:30, Clifton Branch

Fences (Denzel Washington, US, 2016). Sat: 2:00 with screenings at Herring Run Branch and Southeast Anchor Library

Good Boys (Gene Stupnitsky, US, 2019). Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

Glory Road (James Gartner, US, 2006). Thurs: 6:00, Reisterstown Road Branch

The Lion King (Jon Favreau, US, 2019). Sat: 11:00 a.m., Canton Branch

Love Jones (Theodore Witcher, US, 1997). Wed: 5:30, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

The Princess and The Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, US, 2009). Tues: 3:30, Orleans Street Branch

Queen Of Katwe (Mira Nair,US ,2016). Wed: 12:30, Roland Park Branch

Soul Food Junkies (Byron Hurt, US, 2012). Mon: 6:00, Washington Village Branch


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 4:15, 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 12:45, 4:15, 6:45; Mon: 6:45, 9:30; Tues: 9:30; Wed-Thurs: 6:45, 9:30

2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts. Fri: 3:30, 6:45; Sat-Sun: 3:30; Mon-Thurs: 6:45.

Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:15, 4:00, 7:00, 9:15; Sun: 4:00, 7:00; Mon: 7:00, 9:15; Tues: 7:00, 9:30; Wed: 9:30; Thurs: 7:00, 9:30

The Edge Of Democracy (Petra Costa, Brazil, 2019). Fri: 12:45; Sat: 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 6:45

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Fri: 10:00; Sat-Sun: 1:00; Mon-Thurs: 10:00

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, US, 1993). Sun: 1:00

I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin, France, 2019). Wed: 7:30


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45. Sun: 9:45 a.m., 12:50, 4:30, 7:20; Mon: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45

Revival: Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis, US, 1985). Sun: 10:00 a.m.; Mon: 1:00

Birds Of Prey (Cathy Yan, US, 2020). Thurs: 7:00

Color Out Of Space (Richard Stanley, US, 2020): Fri-Sat: 9:40; Sun: 9:50 a.m.; Tues-Wed: 9:40

Cunningham (Alla Kovgan, US, 2019). Fri-Thurs: 1:05, 7:05

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:40, 3:40, 6:40; Sun: 9:40 a.m., 12:40, 3:40, 6:40; Mon-Thurs: 12:40, 3:40, 6:40

Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019). Fri-Sat: 9:35; Tues-Wed: 9:35

Revival: Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948). Wed: 7:30

The Song Of Names (François Girard, Canada/ Germany/ Hungary/U.K., 2019). Fri-Thurs: 4:00

Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35, 9:35; Sun: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Mon: 3:35, 6:35; Tues: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35, 9:35; Wed-Thurs: 12:35, 3:35

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