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Movie Review: TV Party: The Sublimely Intolerable Show

TV Party: The Sublimely Intolerable Show

TV Party was a Manhattan public access show produced by music journalist Glenn O’Brien. It ran from 1978 to 1982 and, today, BrinkDVD is putting out select episodes. Each disc contains one full episode, plus excerpts from other episodes. The one entitled “The Sublimely Intolerable Show” ran on January 8, 1979.

O’Brien hosted the show and liked to use the tagline: “TV Party is a cocktail party that could be a political party.” For most of its run, it aired in B&W and the program is like an old-time ’50s talk and variety show, but fueled by ’70s downtown NYC underground art hipsterdom. O’Brien appears to be trying to channel equal parts Jack Parr, Hugh Hefner and Andy Warhol while wafting through a cloud of marijuana. As he tokes up on camera, part of the fun is watching O’Brien slowly lose focus on what he’s doing. Halfway through and after a noxiously serious discussion on the glory of reggae music, he can barely concentrate on using a phone for the call-in session with guest stars Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie.

The TV Party DVD releases are mostly going to appeal to music enthusiasts who are into the era the show originally appeared. This particular episode starts off with several songs by Compton Maddux, a musician whom I’ve never heard of before, but he does a quirky, humorous set that I really dug. Then, space-age soprano Klaus Nomi performs one of his typically bizarro arias. (For more info on Klaus, check out the excellent posthumous documentary The Nomi Song.) Finally, Adny Shernoff of The Dictators performs a Beach Boys song, backed by a cute cheerleading routine by Snooky and Tish, who run and still operate the legendary St. Marks fashion store and empire Manic Panic.

But, particularly on this DVD, there’s also interest for the underground film enthusiast. In the late ’70s, the punk and the no wave movements ran rampant across all the arts, so it’s not surprising to see representatives from the music, film and fashion worlds collide on one television program like they do here.

In the “Sublimely Intolerable” episode proper, there’s a brief segment with French expatriate filmmaker Eric Mitchell who is on primarily to promote his about-to-open New Cinema Theater. This was a storefront theater with approximately 50 or so seats with a big video projection screen. The space was started by Mitchell along with his Collaborative Projectscohorts James Nares and Becky Johnston and screened fellow No Wave filmmaking friends’ projects. The one thing I’m unable to get specifics on is how long the theater actually operated, although I don’t think it was for very long. Mitchell also shows a clip from a film he’s working on, although it’s not clear what the film is and the clip is just a brief dance sequence where hipsters do the twist to DEVO’s cover of “Satisfaction.”

Also, every episode of TV Party was directed by filmmaker Amos Poe and “Sublimely Intolerable” is no exception. The show has an extremely raw look with in a washed-out B&W video. This particular episode is marred by five minutes of sound problems during O’Brien’s opening monologue. However, he has no idea the sound’s off, so he rambles on blissfully until it comes back up just in time for Maddux’s tunes. The camera framing is self-consciously off-center and the best parts are when Poe has the cameras focus on people’s feet during the musical numbers. There’s a real feel of trying to make the crappy video equipment to produce images that are even crappier than they’re capable of.

In the DVD’s bonus section, there’s an excerpt from another episode (date unknown), in which director Poe sits down for his own interview session. He and Glenn discuss a remake of Godard’s Alphaville that they’re trying to put together, but it’s not a project that ever came to fruition. Poe then shows an excerpt from his feature film Unmade Beds, which stars Duncan Hannah as a sleazy photographer and a young, pre-famous Debbie Harry as his lingerie clad model. She taunts Hannah by calling him “Little” Rico then croons a beautiful tune while straddling a chair.

Brink is doing a great service putting these DVDs out, since the show is a nice snapshot of the resurgent NYC downtown arts scene of the late ’70s. And thank goodness O’Brien had the foresight to pay for tapes of each broadcast. (According to the history of the show, tapes ran an extra twenty bucks per episode.) The products of that scene — music albums, films, etc. — of course still exist, but it’s interesting to watch the people who were doing all that creative work having a fun time interacting with each other.

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