Museum of Modern Art salutes the outrageous programming of New York City’s Club 57

ScreenerBlog

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, New York City's Club 57—a multipurpose venue housed in the basement of Holy Cross Polish National Church at 57 St. Mark's Place on the Lower East Side—was the center of a thriving community of young musicians, painters, filmmakers, writers, scene-makers and sundry wannabes lured by dirt-cheap rents and happy to live cheek-by-jowl with old European immigrants whose own children had fled to the suburbs if it meant they weren't hamstrung by the cost of keeping a roof over their heads.

The club hosted performance artists and musicians, exhibited works on paper and canvas and showed movies—a lot of movies; in fact, the current Museum of Modern Art celebration of Club 57—which runs through April 2018—was actually first conceived as a film series before its parameters were expanded to include other materials, including a collection of band flyers, a form of micro-budget advertising that often produced striking pieces of purpose-driven Xerox art.

I hesitate to use the word "curated" to describe the heady mix of movies shown at Club 57 under what many film purists would have considered thoroughly unacceptable circumstances, including mandatory breaks to change reels…not change over…change, because there was only one projector. But the roster was diverse and frequently whacked out; many of them were the kinds of movies that fueled the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” phenomenon, minus the scripted commentary: ultra-low-budget horror and science-fiction pictures like The Astro Zombies (1968; punk band The Misfits later named a song after this one), She Demons (1958, a Joe Dante favorite) and the legendary—or perhaps notorious—Horror of Party Beach (1964), a picture so shabby that its down-market monster (the product of radioactive waste) appeared to have a mouthful of hot dogs rather than teeth. I remember discovering the bizarre Mexican opus The Brainiac/El Baron del Terror (1962), in which a man killed in 1661 for being a sorcerer returns 300 years later to kill the descendents of those who condemned him…it's nutty, but the image of the baron daintily eating human brains from a dish was a keeper.

Club 57 also showed movies by the filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, whose work is part of the canon of American underground filmmaking of the 1960s, and erotic auteur Radley Metzger, whose sensibility combined sex, surrealism and subtle politics into a series of visually sumptuous films that challenged the notion that sex films were inherently sleazy trash. Not that Club 57 had anything against trash—one art exhibit featured literal garbage rescued from the streets. 

I think it's safe to say that the thrift-shop glam worlds of Club 57's early denizens would have been rocked by the idea that one day MoMA would mount an exhibition dedicated to their work. And not just the work of art-world stars like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, but also that of Lisa Baumgardner, whose Bikini Girl magazine—slyly named after the fictional men's magazine referenced in the 1965 sci-fi obscurity Night Caller from Outer Space, about an alien from a dying world luring va-va-va-voom women to serve as interstellar breeding stock—took a jaundiced look forward to today's "We own it" feminism.

The event's film series includes the camp—Jack Arnold's 1958 High School Confidential, with pneumatic blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren—and the outrageously political, notably Italian filmmaker Elio Petri's 1965 The Tenth Victim, in which the TV-viewing world is transfixed by a reality show in which hunters track and kill their human victims in prime time (sponsored by Ming Tea—ring any bells, Austin Powers fans)?

The films of pioneering '70s sh(l)ockmeister  Herschell Gordon Lewis (The Gore Gore Girls, The Wizard of Gore) get their due, as do those of Italian low-budget artist Mario Bava (1965's Planet of the Vampires, a seminal influence on Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien). Busty-babe connoisseur Russ Meyer rubs shoulders with Luis Buñuel, U.K. political provocateur Peter Watkins (The War Game, 1965), Andy Warhol (Vinyl, a 1965 spin on Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange) and American independent gadfly Larry Cohen (God Told Me To, 1976).

In all, the retrospective's film series is a heady selection of boundary-busting movies that represents decades of filmmaking on the fringes, pictures that were later embraced by artists for whom an appreciation of camp and B-movie appeal were no scarlet mark of shame but rather a badge of having seen how we got here from there.