Beautiful Freaks

by Michael Buening

10 October 2006

Frequently presenting people living cruel and impossible lives, Lech Kowalski's films observe in detail how they navigate their existence, successfully or not.
Lech Kowalski 

BAMcinématek Presents: The Fabulous Art of Surviving: Lech Kowalski
(12-26 September 2006)

Lech Kowalski is best known as the director of the punk documentary D.O.A., which followed the Sex Pistols on their infamous United States tour. A mini-retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music showcased the work this multi-faceted chronicler of societal outcasts and the politics of the downtrodden.

The series consisted of five movies from the past 25 years. From the start, Kowalski aligned with the punk movement in the New York’s East Village and later Britain and his native Poland. This influence shows up more in the subject matter than visual style, which leans towards that of a cool sociologist. (The Boot Factory played at the Magaret Mead Film Festival.) His perspective is informed by his post-World War II upbringing. Kowalski is wary of easy ideological thrusts, whether from capitalists or communists, Johnny Rotten or the Queen of England. His films portray subsets of society while generating a working model for the future, however dismal the results. In a recent trilogy—Hitler’s Highway, The Boot Factory, and East of Paradise—Kowalski explores his punk and Polish roots in what was easily the highlight of the series.

Hitler’s Highway is shot entirely from Kowalski’s point of view as he drives along the “oldest highway in Poland.” Built to ferry Nazi supplies to the Soviet Union, it replaced a path used by invading armies throughout history. The people Kowalski interviews—produce sellers, gypsies, drunken manual workers, and prostitutes—have always littered the European roads of conquest. Occasionally the camera is a new form of exploitation. When Kowalski wakes up a homeless drunk sleeping in the weeds, a roadside worker tries to calm the startled man down by laughing, “It’s just a camera.” “No, that’s a gun,” he shouts. Even when they speak, the subjects’ words are drowned out by the roar of diesel trucks. The film ends looking out on a new stretch of the road, suggesting this pattern will continue. Kowalski finds some comfort in the effects of time: gazing at a crumbling highway overpass, he muses, “There’s something calming. What man has built can be destroyed.”

For the young, such sentiments are hardly soothing. The hardcore punks who operate the boot factory in the second film live in the industrial dead zone of Silesia, Poland. Germany lost the territory to the Communists, and both their legacies are visible in the local punk rock scene, where left and right meet in anti-capitalist clannishness.
“Punks and skins united win,” a group of kids chant at a party.

Lukasz, Wojtek, and Piotr started the Cockney Underground Boot Factory out of a bedroom. They are still poor and punks, though the first part of the film, shot in grainy black and white, reveals the hardships they endure and inflict. Wojtek tells a horrible story about beating someone who didn’t want to contribute to a community alcohol fund, while Lukasz embraces the opportunities presented by their business.

As the camera follows him through his day-to-day operations, buying materials and serving customers, we can’t help but admire his hard work. In the film’s second, full-color portion, Piotr and Mojtek deal with heroin addiction and Lukasz becomes more aggressive in his business dealings, much to the annoyance of his friends. By the end, there are no ideal options, but the film indicates that capitalism is the most practical.

Lurking beneath the surface of all of Kowalski’s films is an acute awareness of human limitations. This reaches a nadir in Gringo. The opening credits announce it as a Troma production titled “Story of a Junkie,” such that the film appears to be the most sordid of exploitation “documentaries.” Filmed in a blur of saturated colors and the pitch dark of slums, it grafts a pulp narrative over a barely concealed reality of addict stasis. Kowalski’s camera follows East Village junkie John Spacely (“Gringo”) as he chases down his next fix in the early ‘80s. Stiffly staged sequences of deals and shootings are mixed with unbearably drawn out displays of kids shooting up, throwing up, and repeatedly stabbing themselves trying to find a good vein in tenement apartments, bathrooms, and stairwells. Addicts make predictable statements about their love affair with the “cruel mistress” heroin and describe cocaine as a beautiful drug everyone should use.

The epic denial in this tough talk is alternately humorous, depressing, and exasperating. The coda, the most bitterly ironic by a director who is notoriously fond of them, shows Spacely clean, skateboarding through the streets of Lower Manhattan to the doo-wop lilt of “Since I Don’t Have You.” It feels wonderfully refreshing, but suspiciously false, given what we’ve seen. The redemptive moment Kowalski gives his protagonist is fleeting. Spacely would die from AIDS complications not long after shooting ended.

Heroin addiction figures into D.O.A. too, as the prototypical dead end to punk’s self-destructive impulses. In the introduction, a baby is christened in a Catholic church while a blood red fingernailed hand picks out a record: Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” plays as a roving camera searches the faces of young punks and freaks hanging around a concert venue. Something is being born, but it’s not all purity and innocence. This first sequence is more coolly stylized than anything else in Kowalski’s documentaries, but what follows reveals again his sociological impulses. The film shows the punks’ energetic drive to create something “positive” out of their miserable existence in UK housing projects and backwater towns in Texas. They are surrounded by disapproving parents and record executives smelling money, but the primary threat comes from other kids. Some are attracted to the music (as one girl says, “I’m here to make the scene”), while others pursue a nihilism marked by violence.

The film culminates in a sequence that cuts between inside and outside the Sex Pistols’ final concert, which erupts into violence brought on by authorities and spectators alike. (One fan goes into a spitting rage when Kowalski asks him what he thinks about the band’s lyrics, which the fan doesn’t know.) This footage is juxtaposed with an extended interview with a smacked-out Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, a scene as degrading as those in Gringo. A third scene intercut into this sequence is Kowalski’s final interview with Terry, the brilliantly spoken leader of Terry and the Idiots, a terrible band that plays at their local pub to almost complete indifference from the patrons. Terry’s intellectualism tempers his anger, frustration, and boredom. Offering a vigorous criticism of punk rock, D.O.A. is as energetic as the movement ever imagined itself.

Kowalski admires the resilience and independence of these beautiful freaks’ resilience. Frequently presenting people living cruel and impossible lives, his films observe in detail how they navigate their existence, successfully or not.

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