Rome ’78. 1978. USA. Directed by James Nares. With David McDermott, Eric Mitchell, Lydia Lunch, Kristian Hoffman, Bradley Field, John Lurie, Anya Phillips, James Chance, Patti Astor, Pat Place. Digital video from Super8mm. 90 min.
Experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad pointed out in 1980 that a number of the most important Lower East Side filmmakers were European—French (Eric Mitchell), Swedish (Anders Grafstrom), British (James Nares), etc. By then, less than two years into the small-gauge film revolution, Nares’s Rome ’78, a travesty of the sword-and-sandal genre, shot in Central Park and other NYC locations passing for ancient Rome, was already acknowledged as a masterpiece of the movement. Intentionally co-opting the amateurism and instant accessibility of the Super8 format, its clumsy, anachronistic production values comically reflected on the phony, staged theatrics of mainstream films. David McDermott’s hedonistic rants on city life as the egomaniacal Caligula, Eric Mitchell’s chain-smoking punk centurion, Lydia Lunch’s emasculating odalisque, and the cast’s do-it-yourself drag costuming all derived from the gender-questioning Downtown scene. Although an unimpressed critic for the Los Angeles Reader at the time described No Wave filmmaking as “home movies” for the “talk-y, pose-y punk elite of New York [to] crack private jokes with each other,” the bloodletting and sense of doom that characterizes much of the work, and Rome ’78 in particular, gives it weight and resonance that has stood the test of time. Restoration premiere. Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art.