A Tompkins Square Talk With Amos Poe
A founding father of No Wave Cinema, American independent filmmaker Amos Poe captured the explosion of artistic creativity that characterized New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 70s and early 80s. Working alongside artists Jim Jarmusch, Nick Jedd, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Debbie Harry and Lydia Lynch, Poe contributed to the legacy of low-budget, Super8 filmmaking, marked by transgressive cinematic technique, uncensored humor and outspoken creative defiance.
This interview took place on a sunlit bench in Tompkins Square Park in October 2015. Poe arrived wearing a grey barrette and holding a large coffee. He quietly surveyed the park as he sat down next to me, exuding an air of unflinching confidence. I wondered if he felt at all nostalgic.
How did you fall into the now-iconic CBGBs crowd of artists and musicians?
One part of it was just living in this neighborhood. Also, I gravitated toward the people who thought like me, who had the same ideas and held the same beliefs. The music brought people together in the 70s. The thing about CBGBs was that there was also something visually interesting about the performances. The punk fashion aesthetic became very important in music, just like it did in film too. When I made my first film Unmade Beds, I didn’t even have to get costumes. The actors had their own fashion sense and I picked them because they had that sensibility. The hairstyles were also very important to the overall mise-en-scene. Dialogue spoken by an actor with a black mohawk might be perceived totally differently than dialogue spoken by an actor with a purple one. So, all of that was happening in the neighborhood.
The Lower East Side has changed dramatically since the 70s. What is the most profound change? What do you miss?
New York City in general has changed immensely. The neighborhood is totally gentrified. There are no burnt down buildings or drug dealers on every corner. The feeling has changed, but I’m not really sure I miss the old days. The East Village was a reference point, in terms of creative work. It was where artists came to talk about movies and music. Now, it just doesn’t feel the same.
Your film The Blank Generation (1976) exemplifies the punkish, experimental attitude toward film structure. Can you describe your method?
There wasn’t really a method. The method was to just go out and shoot stuff. I was using a silent camera to shoot, and I would sync the sound later. I would shoot these bands and people would come up to me and say, “Man what are you doing with a silent camera? What about the sound?” and I would say, “eh, I’ll get it later.” Of course, the image and the sound were never perfectly in sync, but I liked that and I thought it was important. Audiences were not always receptive to the disparity, but fortunately for the film The Blank Generation, it worked because it was about punk. At the time, I wasn’t a known filmmaker, so it worked. Also, the film is more of an experimental art film than a documentary, so the technique fit the genre.
You have referred to your most recent film A Walk in The Park which opened the Rome International Film Festival in 2012, as the most personal of all of your films. How so?
A Walk In The Park is a really strange film, but I also think it is on some level my most personal, deepest, maybe best film. It explores what is inside the mind of a very sick person, and how that sickness creates a language that makes recovery impossible. The main character talks about his family history, his depression and addiction to pills, his fear of being in the world. It’s a really hard film to watch and it’s not like any other film I have ever seen. I never watch my films after I finish them, but I did watch this one at the Rome Film Festival.
If you had to characterize your film style or aesthetic over the arch of your career, what would you say?
If there is one thing that prevails from the very beginning to now, it is that that there is a sort of intuitiveness to it. I can always only learn from the previous film. As much as I teach film and learn from teaching, it’s really by making the films that you learn. Stylistically, I don’t think there is much similarity between any of my films. An artist I read recently said, “If I have a style, it’s no style,” and I love that. No Wave or not, I would say the genre is experimental. I look for the experiment in the film and I think that some of the best films are experiments, whether it’s experiments in technology, or experiments in narrative structures. The difference maybe is in budgets, or how grand the vision is.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about you?
I haven’t always read me right, so how can anyone else read me right? As a filmmaker, there is always a film going on in your head. There’s the film that you put up on the screen, the one that people watch, and then there’s the one going on in your head. The filmmaker is always making that film. That’s the hardest part as a filmmaker: to be in the film that you’re making, but also be in reality.
What film are you most proud of?
I’m not sure if I am even proud of any film. I could either say I am proud of all of them or I’m proud of none of them. To me it’s about the process. It’s the relationship you have with your own fantasy, your own imagination. Then putting it in the world and making it real, to then let it go – that’s the hardest part.
What inspired your recent transition from film to painting?
I have always made paintings in moments of transition, or moments when I am writing a lot. I always need like a visual release. I really got into the Robots series and I painted something like 170 robots. I like some of the robot paintings a lot. Every few years, I will do a limited series, a limited number. But when I’m writing, I love to paint.