Left: Marie Losier, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 72 minutes. Right: Billy Corben, Limelight, 2011, color film, 92 minutes.


TRIBECA (THE NEIGHBORHOOD) has evolved so dramatically over the past fifty years—from nameless industrial district to second SoHo to celebrity nesting zone—that it was fitting, if entirely coincidental, that I chose to attend two documentaries about radical transformation in the tenth year of Tribeca (the film festival).

The first, Limelight, directed by Billy Corben, tells the tale of the rise and fall of New York’s club scene—retroactively embodied by ur–club kid/amateur murderer Michael Alig—through a pocket biography of Peter Gatien, the undisputed king of 1980s–90s Manhattan nightlife as owner-impresario of Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel. A soft-spoken, deadpan Canadian, known for wearing an eyepatch to cover the eye he lost playing hockey as a teen, Gatien bought clubs in Miami and Atlanta in the ’70s before setting his sights on New York. Correctly noting that “the chrome-and-neon thing had been taken as far as it could go,” Gatien secured an unoccupied Gothic Revival church in the no-man’s-land between Chelsea and the Flatiron district and converted it into the most decadent club of the ’80s and early ’90s—Limelight. Dividing the formerly sacred site into different rooms with disparate vibes, Gatien hired club promoters to throw theme nights in the various spaces. Alig was one of his stars, having come to Limelight after “bankrupting all the other clubs in the city” with his extravagant party concepts.

Another key figure was the young Staten Island thug who went by the name Lord Michael and almost singlehandedly imported acid house, techno, and the new designer drug ecstasy from the nascent UK rave scene. Much like LSD, E (or X as it was then known) enjoyed several years of default legality due to governmental obliviousness before being classified as Schedule 1, and during this period Limelight served as a new kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test. (Literally: Ecstasy punch was a frequently served beverage in the club at the time.) This led to clubgoers from oil-and-water demographics—Alig-like club kids, established celebs, well-dressed trannies, and, from Lord Michael’s crowd, hooligan mooks from Brooklyn and Staten Island—to melt together in a giant, nightly love-in. “It was Caligula with music,” one observer recalls in the film. Alig, interviewed from prison and surprisingly clean-cut and sweet-natured, remembers a Limelight game called What’s My Line?, where several rails of different substances were carved out on a table and snorters had to guess which drug they’d just ingested. It was “degeneracy without negative consequences,” he sighs. Not for long.

The ecstasy era was also the crack era, and the gang-related street violence of the latter trade led to the election of former US Attorney and zero-tolerance law-and-order candidate Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Abetted by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, Giuliani went on a crusade against drugs and deviance in the city, soon alighting on Gatien as the Mephistopheles of E, even though the all-business club owner rarely used substances and hardly even drank on the job. The rest of the film concerns Giuliani’s relentless pursuit of Gatien, the closing and reopening of Limelight, and an absurd trial where witnesses for the prosecution (informants, including the recently imprisoned murder suspect Alig) ended up discrediting not only the undercover cops assigned to the case but also each other. Gatien was acquitted of the drug-related charges but later pled guilty to tax evasion and ended up being deported to Canada in 2003. Corben effectively blends period club footage and news reports with talking-head interviews with Gatien, Alig, Lord Michael, and many others in a club-style “bar” illuminated by acid colors. Like Abel Ferrara’s 2008 doc Chelsea on the Rocks, about the last days of the famous bohemian hotel, Limelight is a paean to a lost New York that was sleazier and more dangerous—but also more fun. In a telling conclusion, it is revealed that the Limelight church is now a luxury minimall.

Focusing on a very different (though equally druggy) underground, French-born, New York–based Marie Losier offers the unique love story of Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV frontperson Genesis P-Orridge and his soulmate, arty former dominatrix Lady Jaye. Meeting in a New York dungeon in the early ’90s, the couple were married in 1993 and soon began to merge their identities, seeking “pandrogyny.” They dyed their hair platinum, underwent facial surgery and other operations (including getting breast implants on the same day), and blended their names and personae to the extent that Genesis speaks in what could be taken as the royal “we” (until you realize that s/he’s speaking for both of them). Shot over seven years in intimate circumstances, the film sutures together different film stocks and styles, with experimental interludes (some reminiscent of a low-budget Derek Jarman) linking the handheld 16-mm scenes.

This makes for a sweet, if bizarre, domestic tableau until, beyond tragically, Jaye dies of a seizure in 2007, about three-quarters of the way through the film. It’s a totally unexpected and uncalled-for moment, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho (1960) or the killing of the son in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). You can’t believe that anyone, not the viewers and certainly not the remaining subject, can go on. But Losier shows Genesis gamely surviving, he/r complete immersion in Jaye’s identity ironically enabling he/r to maintain a measure of positivity. Many people say that their deceased loved ones are “still with us,” but Genesis’s unshakable belief that this is true of Jaye is terribly convincing—and moving. “Reality is just stuff,” Genesis concludes while sitting in front of a sampling keyboard. A lifelong acolyte of the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, both of whom s/he befriended, Genesis realizes that physical life is just a sample source for endless remixes. This allows he/r to approach the latest version—that of aging pandrogyne, widow/er, retired musician, and currently active artist-writer—as terrain at once familiar and strange.

If anything ties Gatien and Genesis together, it is their stoicism in the face of extreme reversals—an admirable, much-needed quality in these trying times.

Andrew Hultkrans