There’s a piece of New York that at first glance seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs and Hai Karate aftershave. The cheap, wild, weird, metropolis where the misfits of the USA (and beyond) congregated to make art and films and live their lives on their own terms. Heroes of camp and the avant-garde grabbed the city by it’s starched lapel and gave it a big wet kiss during the 50s and 60s, ushering in an age of shoestring masterpieces that bucked the idea that it took anything but a camera, an idiosyncratic vision, and, if one were so inclined, people, to make a movie. If this appears a romantic vision of a bygone era, it is. But the power of this romantic cinema of fantasy and thrift store production values is still an intoxicating and instructive one. If you look close enough you might still see (or smell) it. Look close and you’ll see Todd Verow and his long-time muse, Philly Abe.
Tonight Anthology Film Archives pays tribute to Philly with the program Queen of the Lower East Side: A Tribute to Philly Abe. Together Abe and Verow have made a number of ramshackle films that harken to a time of trashy treasures that helped define the high period of NYC camp. The duo’s work however, takes the camp ethos and applies them to their own moment. Once and Future Queen (2000) folds in punk rock and the wasted 24 hour party of the LES into its story of a struggling punk singer/pariah (Abe) who careens from one desperate situation to another. Abe is the embodied essence of the Lower East Side—a manic, wandering, striving, violently sincere soul in search of pleasure, danger, artistic catharsis, and ideally, a mingling of all three. In This Side of Heaven (2016), a tale of gentrification and marginalization, Abe plays a trans woman struggling to keep her rent controlled apartment—the performer becomes the fading spirit of a New York that is more and more threatened.
Like Taylor Mead and other emblematic counter culture stars who came before her, Abe is fascinating and unpredictable—a valuably original performer who more than anything else is her own work of art. Verow’s lens observes her with patience and reverent love. To see the pair together, off screen, is a beautifully tender scene—two friends and passionate artists who understand the importance of making it happen, of trust, and, most importantly, the power of fun.