By Chuck Stephens

Structurally ambiguous and romantically rancid, Peter Emanuel Goldman’s 1965 Pestilent City is a 15-minute, high-contrast black-and-white New York City scherzo of sleaze, dereliction, working stiffs, stumblebums, loitering, malingering, playing, and passing out, filmed in Times Square and along the Deuce during the area’s deleterious decline, halfway between Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Taxi Driver (1976). It sticks in your head and beads on your skin the way Sleazoid Express did the first time you read it. It’s like the omnipresent smell of piss in the New York City of the ’70s. Foul and beautiful and bare. 

Lauded by Susan Sontag and Jean-Luc Godard while he was still carving a small niche in the independent/experimental New York film scene of the late ’60s, Goldman went on to various other careers (political activist, diplomat, documentarian, memoirist) after his filmmaking moment faded. His work has received overdue attention of late, including two Re:Voir DVD releases of his features, Echoes of Silence (1965) and Wheel of Ashes (1968). Though both lensed in impromptu and street-real ways of their own, the features stand apart from Pestilent City, which seems to proceed on some stoned, headlong lurch known only to itself. Vacillating between negative and positive printing, and interpolating swathes of photojournalistic art-stills and throat-grabbing headlines (“Woman, 81, Raped in Bronx”), Goldman’s short has been rightly recognized (by Max Goldberg and others) as an uncanny precursor to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: not just in its lumpen, bottle-in-a-brown-bag milieu, but particularly in the way its often aleatory soundtrack is underscored by bowed, lugubrious strings heard at half-speed—precisely the effect that Bernard Hermann’s 1976 theme so hauntingly attains.

Anyway, Pestilent City. It’s on Vimeo, it rocks, check it out. Use this as a cheat sheet before you go:a list of film titles glimpsed on movie-theatre marquees in Pestilent City: Girls on the Loose (Paul Henreid, 1958), Girls of the Night (Maurice Clochet, 1958), Slave Trade in the World Today (Maleno Malenotti, Roberto Malenotti, Folco Quilici, 1964), From Hell to Texas (Henry Hathaway, 1958), Hollywood’s World of Flesh (Lee Frost, 1963), Ordered to Love (Werner Klinger, 1961), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (José Quintero, 1961), Rome Adventure (Delmer Daves, 1963), Father Goose (Ralph Nelson, 1964), Guns at Batasi (John Guillermin, 1964), My Blood Runs Cold (William Conrad, 1965), Devil Doll (Lindsay Shonteff, 1963), Olga’s White Slaves (a.k.a. White Slaves of Chinatown, Joseph P. Mawra, 1964), Body of a Female (John Amero, Michael Findlay, 1964), Witchcraft (Don Sharp, 1964), The Man Who Walked through the Wall (Ladislao Vajda, 1959). Additional, currently untraceable titles seen in Pestilent City: Trigger Happy Gang Girls, Killer Cory, White Slavery, Girls Incorporated, Where Love Goes Skin Deep. Sadly, Broadway smash I Had a Ball starring Buddy Hackett was never made into a film. (PS: Fuck lists.)

Finally, let us turn to French cinephile and author Philippe Azoury, who has published a rapturous essay on Goldman (at play-doc.com) in which, upon recognizing Pestilent City as a “cry of rage tossed at the throat of New York, shot as an inhumane city, in slow motion and in the negative,” he admits that “Goldman appeared to me as a loony Murnau coming from the night of time, bringing again to the ’60s—with the violence of youth culture and the brutality of underground—the great debates between silent cinema, the cinema of the force of the face, and photography, the power of still images.” Cool. Never mind Nosferatu (1922) though, as, better still, Azoury then appends this lovely linguistic anecdote: “Goldman married a young Danish woman, Birgit Nielsen, who had a role in Wheel of Ashes, his third feature film, which he shot in Paris in 1967-68 thanks to a grant he received through Jean-Luc Godard. The film, shot in seven weeks with Pierre Clémenti in the main role, reflects a mystic crisis. Pierre Clémenti, who, just as so many French people at that time, did not speak English, understood the title in a totally different way: ‘We Love Hashish.’”

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Issue 87: Table of contents

    Alexandre Koberidze, Dasha Nekrasova,Radu Jude, Amalia Ulman, Monte Hellman, TV or not TV, Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, Azor, New Order, Siberia More →

  • Remembering Women: Claudia von Alemann’s Blind Spot

    Cherchez la femme, they say. It sounds nice, but what this expression actually means is that woman is the root of all (male) problems, always to blame. Claudia von Alemann’s extraordinary Blind Spot (Die Reise nach Lyon, 1980), recently restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek in cooperation with the Institut Lumière, is a rare film that puts the pursuit of a woman at its heart—not so that she can be punished, not so that a man’s troubles can be explained, but so that her achievements might be rescued from oblivion and might, in the process, change another woman’s life. More →

  • Common Sense Connoisseur: The Critical Legacy of Bertrand Tavernier

    The two most cherished film books in the pile on my bedside table are in a language my command of which is rudimentary at best. But since both Jacques Lourcelles’ Dictionnaire du Cinéma – Les Films as well as Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s 50 ans de cinéma américain have never been translated from French into either English or German, I gladly make do, filling the gaps with a mixture of autodidactic guesswork and occasional dictionary consultation, which for all its drawbacks has proved to be a viable method. More →

  • “I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction:” On Radu Jude

    In the name of the popular, delighting in reduction and obviousness, a boring assertion: the common ground of every film movement christened a “new wave” over the last 70 years has tended toward revision, a self-conscious desire to provide a true image of the people in opposition to the distorted picture given by whatever relevant iterations of official culture. The banality of this claim can be measured by the volume of cant and platitude produced in support of it, often by the artists themselves. There is, I hope, little need to rehearse these arguments regarding realism, myth, and so on. Who today can help but squirm when faced with the phrase “true image of the people?” More →

  • Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Mexico/Greece/UK)

    Abel Ferrara is a changed man. While the evidence suggests that this is very good news for Ferrara himself and his immediate family, it could result in a minor schism in the manner in which his films are received. For most of his career Ferrara has been the subject of a Romantic cult that glorified his legendarily self-destructive behaviour, and often read this (literal) lawlessness as an integral part of his renegade creative vision. More →