Before I met my Wife, and before I learned to earn some money in the German music business, I was, briefly, a script doctor, hired by a production company to fix a poorly-written script about an East German cultural hero. I tore the script down and re-wrote it, from the ground up, and ended up selling an option, on my now original script, to the production company for (for them) a record-breaking amount.
Soon after that sale, at an Art Opening, I met a video Artist who’d had his heyday in the 1960s. He was in a corner of the gallery telling corny jokes to a mutual friend. The video Artist was not, himself, quite famous in the world of Video Art but he’d mentored some big names in the field. More interestingly, as it turned out, he had hours and hours of b&w, and color, 16mm footage from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, including quite a few known figures of the day. He had footage of psychedelic boutique openings and Hippie be-ins and of Patti D’Arbanville naked in a rustic tub. I viewed the footage in the Video Artist’s cramped, dark apartment and began helping him catalogue it.
Somehow, along the way, I ended up helping him do his laundry every Thursday, too… he was too cheap to buy his own washing machine… so there I was, lugging a very heavy duffel bag of this c. 70-year-old’s sheets, pillow cases, towels and underwear, six blocks to the laundromat and six blocks back, weekly. It was the only scheduled responsibility I had back then (c. 2003-2005) and I was doing it both as a Good Samaritan and as a Creative lusting after the Video Artist’s footage. So much could be done with it.
I pitched the idea to the Video Artist that we combine his lush vintage footage with contemporary HD video and make a film. I developed an idea for the script. He agreed to the extent that we continued to meet weekly, catalogue the footage and get his laundry done. He said that quite a few of the beauties in his vintage footage were still friends of his and that one (who we started referring to as Kiki) was still beautiful: perfect. This c. 55-year-old beauty would be the star of the film. The Video Artist was sure that “Kiki” would be into it. Being able to cut from contemporary footage of Kiki (my conceit was that all the contemporary HD video should be in B&W, all the vintage film in its lovely delicate color: “Over time, the cyan, magenta and yellow dyes that form the image in color 16 mm film inevitably fade”) to vintage stuff, of her in ’68, and back again. An unusual opportunity. Also: I’ve always found older (post-40-year-old) beauties fascinating. Anyone can be beautiful at 19. To be beautiful at 50 is something else, as absurd and random as our notions of Beauty are. Other ideas are involved, too, which I explored in the script.
The film, I was thinking, should be about 40 minutes long… a long short. An Art Film (the Video Artist’s connections were in Video Art and deep while my connections in the E.U. film business were fledgling and tenuous). I had no interest in making something corny and obvious. I had a small, intelligent, bored-with-the-same-old-Arty-videos audience in mind. My Aesthetic has always been the sneaky combining of Mainstream and Avant in such a way that each, as a cozy bundle of received moods and gestures, is subverted by the other. A devotee of the Avant since my teens (I was a fan of Luigi Nono during the golden age of The Bee Gees), I had become as bored with its expected (largely atmospheric) tropes as I was with Hollywood’s.
The Video Artist was a cranky old guy who was a child of the upper middle classes; his entree into both the Art World, and to the mid-20th century world of youthful hip, was down to the fact that he was one of the few guys around who could afford the 16mm camera, the stock and its processing. He captured haunting footage of Woodstock, Altamont, the ’68 Democratic Convention, Joplin, Jimi, the Doors, and so forth… the only drawback being that the footage was almost always without sound; quite a drawback, as it turns out, when it comes to footage of Jimi. The Video Artist’s camera technique and eye were both just mediocre at best but he was there to record it. He co-founded various experimental film collectives but had no particular talent as a filmmaker or as a writer of manifestos. Still, he (lecherously, longingly, voyeuristically) captured playful and/ or stoned Hippie beauties, naked in blazing sunlight and he captured men and women wearing Nehru jackets and flashing peace-signs, striking poses on street corners and in boutiques and the footage was wonderful, even the slightly-blurry stuff. But the Video Artist himself could be a self-obsessed old pain in the ass.
The laundromat we first used was a quaint old Soviet-era space of chrome and orange, with vintage instructional pictograms on the walls, and it could be fairly embarrassing, when other customers entered the joint, as the little round white-haired Video Artist and I were folding his sheets: I looked like a low-rent colonial catamite. After six months we shifted to a new (even more of a trudge away) laundromat that was also a cafe, not far from Kollwitzplatz. This laundry-cafe had the advantage of featuring very pretty waitresses in the classic (dour) Berlin mode. One of the waitresses was almost, sometimes, roughly flirtatious (again: this was a year before meeting my Wife) and this gave me something to look forward to, every week, to balance the boredom and exertion of that long march, in all kinds of weather, with the Video Artist’s miraculous volume of dirty laundry on my back.
One Thursday afternoon I noticed that my favorite surly waitress had installed a discreet little stainless steel S&M stud over the left corner of her curling lip. The Video Artist was seated outside, waiting for his order (croissant, large orange juice) while I placed mine. The Video Artist came in from the patio to add something to his order and noticed, for the first time, with his dodgy eyesight, the waitress’ stud. He misinterpreted what he saw and said, loud enough for everyone in the cafe to hear, in his heavily accented New-York-Jewish- German,
“Wait a minute, you’ve got herpes, you can’t handle my food…!”
The surly waitress did not react calmly.
For two years I was the long-suffering Sancho to this obstreperous Don of penny-pinching Bohemian Berlin.
I visited the Video Artist a few months ago, early 2018, after having had no contact for at least ten years. He was thinner, beard longer, drastically stooped, but still as sharp and prickly, in his early 80s. He’d moved to a new, smaller, cramped place. Yellowing posters and curling photographs all over the walls and dusty videocassettes and obsolete equipment in heaps and stacks, on almost every horizontal surface, except the little table on which he served me a suspect-looking slice of apple pie I managed to avoid touching. We faced a large screen to the left of the drawn curtains of his front window and he was showing me clips I hadn’t seen before (lots of water; he always loved filming lakes, swimming pools and rivers). One clip was heavily treated with SFX and looked uncannily like the abstract fireworks of the Winamp Visualizer c. 2009 but he was excited about it. Then he showed me a video of himself near a lake.
He said, “I’ve got this one clip you’ve got to see; I got it while making this…” he gestured at the screen, which showed him performing an auto-interview, two of him seated on two separate roofed wicker beach chairs, a “special effect” they would have loved in 1965, filmed all by himself a few years ago. He tore the place apart looking for the CD, or memory stick, containing this special clip that he wanted to show me. “I look at this every day,” said, “How could I misplace it?” Finally, after at least another thirty minutes (as my visit was drawing to a close) he found it. This is what had happened…
He’d finished filming himself for the “interview,” and was about to pack up his equipment, when two visitors came down the road to the secluded part of the beach at which he’d chosen to film. This was deep in the East at what is called Hiddensee. The Video Artist grabbed his camera off its tripod and hid himself in some bushes and commenced capturing the moment again with his zoom.
A mother and daughter had undressed and waded into the water. The Video Artist is, assuredly, for all his flaws and delusions, no pedo, and the camera does not linger on the daughter (c. 10) as it pans across to the mother, head bobbing as she jokes, smiling and splashing water at her daughter. We see this mother’s sleek bronze hair and rawly sun-browned, beautiful face, in jittery close-up, for at least five minutes. Then the camera pans back and the mother emerges, from the sparkling blue, tall, tan-lined, wide-hipped, lived-in looking breasts shedding the lake water in little torrents: gorgeous. Somewhere between forty and fifty in age. We watched the voyeur-footage in silence until the Video Artist hit the pause button and said the most poignant, poetic and terrifyingly honest thing that I knew, immediately, was no exaggeration:
“This is what keeps me going.”
When I met Wife, and we got her nice and pregnant, in 2005, that was my excuse to discontinue participating in Thursday’s laundry ritual, after nearly two years (is that possible? Maybe it was 18 months, though even that seems too much) of a thankless responsibility to a near-stranger. In the end, the Video Artist held on to his precious footage (his reputation, such as it is, is wrapped in these silent films of the greatest music of the era) and no Art Film was made. Had he ever really seriously considered making the film with me? Or was he like the woman who had an “in” with Coffee House Press, and who cleverly got me to paint her kitchen, before arranging a half-assed, pointless meeting with Allan, the then-publisher, and his chipmunk-faced minion, Fischbach, back in ’95? Probably.
What I got out of the escapade was one funny story, one poignant story, and the script, called Kiki ’68.