Q&A with Joan Hawkins from Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001

Intellect caught up with the author of Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins to find out more about the book and what drew to write it.

Could you describe this book in a few words?

Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001 brings together essays by film-makers, exhibitors, cultural critics, and scholars from multiple generations of the New York Downtown scene to illuminate individual films and film-makers and explore the creation of a Downtown Canon, the impact of AIDS on younger film-makers, community access to cable television broadcasts, and the impact of the historic downtown scene on contemporary experimental culture. The book includes J. Hoberman’s essay ‘No Wavelength: The Parapunk Underground,’ as well as historical essays by Tony Conrad and Lynne Tillman, interviews with film-makers Bette Gordon and Beth B, and essays by Ivan Kral and Nick Zedd.

How do you think the creation of a Downtown canon has influenced contemporary Film and TV Culture?

In many ways the American Independent film explosion of the 1990s (Killer Films etc) grew directly out of the downtown scene.  Many of the filmmakers who later became indie auteurs (Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Bette Gordon etc) started in the Downtown Cinema.  And the themes that became associated with what B. Ruby Rich has called “new queer cinema” emerged directly from the downtown cinema—not that the queer community wasn’t directly responsible for the themes of “new queer cinema” but Downtown practice provided a film vocabulary and helped to prime the social pump.

Finally, in the U.S. – what has come to be known as “quality cable tv”  has been largely pioneered by people originally active in the downtown scene, and –again- the downtown’s production helped to open a pocket in the cultural imaginary for edgier Entertainment.

What are some of your favourite Downtown films?

Bette Gordon’s Variety, Beth B’s Empty Suitcases,  Vivienne Dick’s She Had Her Gun All Ready, Todd Haynes’ Poison and Superstar, Anders Grafstrom, Long Island Four, Amos Poe, The Foreigner.

Were there any challenges you faced whilst doing an edited collection?

It’s hard because you’re dealing with so many different demanding lives and careers.  I think easily half of the authors represented in the book went through major life transitions and conflicts during the time we were working on the anthology—deaths in the immediate family, job loss and transition, moving across country, completing independent projects and fulfilling other commitments, cancer—you name it.  And  all these external factors affected how easy or hard it was for the authors to finish (or revise) their essays for the anthology.

That said, I am grateful for the way people pulled together and for everyone’s patience.

I really wanted this book to contain many different voices, since giving a voice to the voiceless was so much a part of what downtown was about.  And I think the book does that—give something of a sense of what a vibrant community it has traditionally been.

Where does your own personal research and academic interests lie?

I work on taste politics—the ways in which “taste” is actually culturally constructed and class-inflected.  I’m particularly interested in the ways in which low body genres like horror and avant-garde/experimental/ independent and art cinema collide and create new forms.  My first book, Cutting Edge deals with art-horror and the horrific avant-garde.   My attraction to the Downtown scene grows out of punk and no-wave music, but also the way in which downtown film and tv really plays with taste politics—mixing the vocabulary of Antonioni with the graphic sensibility of porn and horror and transgression.  

Do you have any future research projects or plans?

Right now, I’m working on another anthology—on the lingering influence of William S. Burroughs.

Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001 is available to buy now. Please follow the link

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