July 9th, 2020
Nan Goldin’s Profound Influence on Film and Television
With its vivid color, indelible characters, and documentation of a pre-gentrified New York City, Goldin’s photography is a readymade mood board.
By Rebecca Bengal
The year is 1977 tucked into 2018, and Times Square is playing its grittier, garish, four-decades younger self. Cigarette smoke floats above the gloam of the Hi-Hat bar, dark and loud and disco, the setting of an exhibition opening for Viv (played by Adelind Horan). She darts around the room snapping pictures of her friends dancing and flirts dangerously with the bartender as patrons inspect her photographs, pinned to the red-painted brick walls. Not everyone is a fan. A red-haired woman peers at an image of a red-haired woman who looks a lot like she does, sitting in a bar that looks a lot like this one.
“I coulda done that,” she scoffs to the guy next to her, whose good-natured smirk shows behind his mustache. “Eh, I kinda like it,” he says, taking a drag. This is Vincent, played by James Franco in The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos’s HBO series about the 1970s and 1980s porn industry in New York. The actress is Nan Goldin, the woman in the photograph is Nan Goldin, the photograph (Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours, New York City ) was made by Nan Goldin, and all of this, really, is Nan Goldin, regarding yet another reflection of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1983–2008) and its enduring, flexible influence on film and television. Claire Denis dedicated her 2002 film Vendredi soir (Friday Night), a largely wordless film about two strangers who meet at night amid a Paris transit workers’ strike, to Goldin. The saturated color of The Ballad is soaked into the palettes of the films of Wong Kar-wai and of Alejandro González Iñárritu in his 2000 crime and comic film Amores Perros, set in Mexico. In an effort to duplicate the hypervivid tones of Goldin’s pictures, Iñárritu opted for a processing method that risks ruining the film itself; the film critic Karen Redrobe writes that, at times, his interiors feel so close to The Ballad, they produce an “uncanny effect, as though Goldin’s photographs had been strangely transformed into tableaux vivants.” The subcultural worlds of Iñárritu’s film and Goldin’s project, however, remain vastly distinct.
The Deuce is another story. When Simon was casting about for the second season of the series, he phoned Goldin. His homage was sincere and immersive—after her episode aired, he wrote online that he’d “injected the raw DNA” of The Ballad into the sets, wardrobes, and also “the story and themes” of the series. “The character Viv is a composite of a Nan Goldin,” the executive producer Pelecanos has said (the emerald tone of the character’s tank top echoes the shade of Goldin’s Vivienne in the green dress ). On the day Goldin visited the set and filmed her cameo, she also made several stills—morning-after, tangled bodies in a barely furnished bedroom; a red blur of a dress in a pale-pink tiled bathroom; the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal in a plunging neckline. Again, essentially images of images of her own images.
“This is my form of making movies,” Goldin told me in 2015 when I asked her about those days, when The Ballad was constantly evolving. She recalled how, in the early ’80s, the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch told her the slideshow reminded him of Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, which is also composed of stills. There were distinct differences, Goldin noted, such as Marker’s use of recurring images. “I mean, I would love to make something like La Jetée, but it’s a lot more complex in the way that it uses the still.”
Film, she said, was her life’s dream—fed by a teenage habit of going to the movies three times a week with David Armstrong, who would remain her beloved, longtime friend as they both became photographers. By age fifteen, she had constructed a foundation that included Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jacques Rivette; she had seen all the heroines her future drag-queen subjects would emulate—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck—and the drag queens themselves in John Waters’s films. She had seen the classic photographers’ films, “all of Antonioni,” a crucial influence. Andy Warhol’s 1966 Chelsea Girls, she once remarked, was the kind of film she wanted to make, and one that unconsciously prepared her for the cinematic feel of The Ballad.
By the early ’80s, Goldin was screening soundtracked slideshows of The Ballad at such venues as the former screening room Rafik and the Mudd Club and tending bar at Tin Pan Alley in Times Square. “That bar really toughened me up,” Goldin recalled. (She eventually quit the day a drunk urinated on her camera: “I screamed like an opera diva—you could hear me all over Manhattan.”) It became one of the central locations for Bette Gordon’s 1983 film noir influenced Variety, named for a former vaudeville house transformed into a porn theater, and spun straight out of the world of The Ballad and the seedy atmosphere of Times Square before its Rudy Giuliani–era Disneyfication. The film’s spirit of downtown artistic collaboration was itself like a mirror of the people Goldin photographed in The Ballad, her family. “They were all bartenders, friends, strippers, workers from the neighborhood. At the time, Kiki Smith was cooking in the kitchen, John Ahearn’s sculptures of people from the Bronx were on the wall,” Gordon once recalled. “They were a mixed group of artists, local sex workers, pimps, street people from Times Square, and film industry people. The woman who owned the bar helped facilitate the shoot, and the location was perfect.” Gordon worked on her treatment with Spalding Gray; his then partner Renée Shafransky was a producer; Kathy Acker wrote the script; and John Lurie created the score. Goldin photographed stills for the film, as she did for Sleepwalk, Sara Driver’s downtown-set film of the same era. In Variety, alongside her good friend Cookie Mueller, Goldin also had an acting role, playing a character who shares her own first name.
In one of the first scenes, Goldin’s character and Christine, an out-of-work writer played by Sandy McLeod, are seen in the mirrors of a swimming pool locker room, which reflects images of them as they get dressed, put on lipstick, commiserate about predatory would-be employers and sad-sack bar clientele. Goldin’s character has been working in the same bar for three years. “I mean I’m not selling my photographs,” she says. “At this rate I’m going to be a fifty-year-old barmaid.”
But she knows of a ticket-taker job at the Variety peep show down the street from her bar in Times Square, if Christine is willing to give it a shot. As the film unfolds, the lurid reds and the neon glow of the New York City theaters, and the bars, and the grimy cabs, and the clubs, and the motel rooms, and the cheap apartments littered with friends’ art and rumpled bedsheets—and even the Asbury Park boardwalk—all echo The Ballad settings. It’s the locker-room and barroom encounters though—the intimate, impromptu gatherings of the women of the film—that evoke the feeling of The Ballad most, its sense of sexual liberation and camaraderie, as its mood swings between desire and violence and tenderness and solidarity. Artists and service-industry workers and nightclub dancers cluster at Nan’s bar—drinks on the house—sharing hard-luck stories of loser men and worse. Cookie Mueller’s character refuses to chase after a man. A topless dancer recounts a night spent in jail after undercover cops framed her as a prostitute. Nan lights their cigarettes, and counsels Christine, who has hinted at a strange encounter at the Variety.
At work, Christine is caged in a street-facing ticket booth where she is as much on display as the porn stars of the Variety’s screenings. But she takes her breaks inside the theater: Christine wants to watch too. She’s the lone woman among men at the newsstand, flipping through the skin mags alongside them, refusing their advances. Eventually her desire and voyeurism become a kind of spying. In the tradition of voyeuristic cinema (Blow-Up, Rear Window), Gordon makes her the artist-writer figure obsessed with a mystery unfolding in her midst—but a woman, not a man. In the tradition of The Ballad, Christine is at her core an artist obsessed with gazing into all the lurid corners of her world.
For other films, Goldin’s influence plays out explicitly. In the 1998 film High Art, Ally Sheedy plays Lucy Berliner, an elusive, renowned photographer living with a heroin-addicted girlfriend and a druggy cast of hangers-on; her pictures, photographed for the film by JoJo Whilden, are based on Goldin’s. In some films that share a commonality with The Ballad, there exists an inherent swapping of influence. In the 1970s, Larry Clark’s transgressive, diaristic Tulsa images had a deep impact on Goldin, and Clark’s 1995 Kids, though a narrative film scripted by Harmony Korine and set in a downtown New York 1990s teenage skater milieu, felt kindred to The Ballad. Like The Ballad, Kids bears the illusion of verité and the sensation of insiderness, of being a voyeur on the fringes of a forbidden world. John Waters’s Pecker (1998) is in essence a joyous, playful take on The Ballad. The incessantly photographing central character, Pecker, gets famous by taking pictures of his friends, but shucks off the Whitney Museum and New York accolades. Instead, the elite, buttoned-up art world comes by the busload to Baltimore, for a raucous opening with drag queens and local eccentrics, a place where the family of The Ballad would have felt equally at home.
In its earliest slideshow iterations, The Ballad was never static, never the same—it grew shorter or longer, pictures were added and subtracted, the music was changed, true to the nature of the form. Traditionally, ballads are passed down orally, adapted over time, reinterpreted by later generations, but sung to the same melody. As much as they owe to Goldin, the cinematic and television heirs affirm the spirit of The Ballad as a living, changing piece, existing on a continuum. The films unspool in its wake like a series of reflections, charged with Goldin-esque electric color, as artists after attempt to find their own ways into the secret worlds of her bedrooms and bars and streets. The lines begin to beautifully blur.
Rebecca Bengal is a writer based in New York. Her story “The Jeremys” is included in Justine Kurland’s book Girl Pictures (Aperture, 2020).