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GREY MATTERS: How “Lifeforce” and “Mean Streets” saved my sanity

GREY MATTERS: How "Lifeforce" and "Mean Streets" saved my sanity

In 1986 an M.T.A. bus ran the light on 42nd Street and smashed into my face, sending my body hurtling about 15 feet until it crashed into a mailbox and the cement. My nose was crushed to the side of my face and gushing blood, my skull cracked, my knee and leg broken.

Some intense E.M.T.s out of Bringing Out the Dead showed up, cut away my ruined clothes and drove me to New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

A broken brain is like a sieve and memory is water. Right off, I lost all but twenty minutes of what happened to me at the hospital, and then a year of my life here and there in hours, weeks, months and more. I only knew time was lost when, for typical example, I thought today was Sunday, looked at the paper, and saw it was next Friday.

Having no money, I had no therapy. For a while, my food was brought to me by a sex worker/songwriter I knew and her cellist roommate. But otherwise, I can’t recall for certain who tended to me during those first crucial months spent on a mattress in a railroad apartment on 82nd Street in Manhattan. Pain was a constant; the cast on my right leg itched like torture. Finding words to make sentences, stopping the world from spinning sideways – beyond me.  The most terrifying, horrific thing: one day I had a cat…the next I didn’t.

And yet, all the time, my brain was busy repairing itself, reclaiming things lost  – a process enabled first by music, then by music and cinema.

The recent 20/20 interview with the entirely astonishing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, doing extraordinarily well after being shot in the head less than a year ago by an untreated schizophrenic, was as painful and inspiring as it was familiar. I am not suggesting that my situation was as remotely catastrophic as Congressman Giffords, but the effects of traumatic brain injury do exist on the same continuum of devastation.

I learned that the most terrible thing about brain trauma is the absolute loneliness of being trapped in a broken brain, of being unable to even ask, “I’d like some Motrin.”

After I started coming out of the worst of it, I had – of all things – an almost intolerable need to see a film. And which film did I need to see so much I smashed the cast off my leg with a screwdriver and a hammer?

Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.

Good or bad, for me, it was a reparative film. Between its batty image assault (Naked space vampire!  An Alien Resurrection in London! A mile-long umbrella spaceship!) and Henry Mancini’s source-poaching score, it was like cinematic jumper cables were jacking a galaxy of new connectivity into my ailing old cortex.

On 20/20, you see Congresswoman Giffords constantly trailed by therapists with keyboards and guitars, because it’s now a done deal that music is essential to making an injured brain again the cradle of a person’s identity. Instinct led me to compulsively program on my synthesizer thousands of sounds – think of sounds as words – and so I recorded hundreds of songs.  What is music but sounds stringed together to create sound “sentences?”

The film that best combined sound and image at the time was Blade Runner. I would eventually be compelled to see Blade Runner, either at the St. Marks Theater in the East Village where admission was 99 cents, or at another theater, or on video, 174 times.  Watching Ridley Scott’s masterpiece became less about story and more about images and sound and being safely in the moment, a very crucial thing.

When I regained the ability to walk, I met a trans woman named Lore who got me work programming synths, which led to studio work. I moved often, losing things along the way – addresses, photos, the validating artifacts of a life before 42nd Street. And then I lost Lore too. I can’t remember how.

I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who lately, where losing track and time happens every week. I miss Lore.

But lately I’m thinking nothing truly goes away. That even if there’s no scrapbook or person to confirm anything, maybe there’s still a way to get it.

Because as it turns out, there is: Netflix.

As an only child from a dysfunctional family, I moved on to a life in the outliers of the arts, where the attrition rate of friends and lovers – to mental illness, drug abuse, suicide, to just getting the fuck outta Dodge – has always been high. And then there was 42nd Street.

Often, survivors wonder if everything, especially good things, were made up. You want evidence and validation that doesn’t come. The happiest day of my life, for example, had always felt like a bedtime story I just made up.

But then Netflix’s half-assed accumulation of film history led me back to Mean Streets, and the floodgates were torn open and a little bit of my secret history is back. It was just a brief scene of Harvey Keitel in a restaurant, but it was the trigger I needed.

I see myself on that happiest day at Luna on Mulberry Street, in Little Italy, 1980. I’m sitting at a rickety table as a huge man in butcher’s whites tops off a small glass with bright red table wine as the ambient night music of Little Italy, the sound-blur of souvenir barkers, tourist murmur, and piped-in Bennett, Sinatra and Tormé, floats in through the front window-wall.

Why this moment is so perfect is something I’m afraid I can’t share right now. But it was.

Not long ago, Luna was shuttered. But it doesn’t matter now. Whatever nerve cluster storing that Luna memory that seemed to had been destroyed but wasn’t so destroyed after all, it just needed the magic word – or Scorsese film – to bring it back.

Next – Bette Gordon’s Variety, about a girl new to New York and her own sexuality. What I see in the film: my go-to dive bar and the faces of people I used to drink with, pulled out of the black lagoon of supposedly ruined memories.

Even when you’ve done a good deal of healing, exterior stress can create a blast radius of pathology. So when I lost my best friend and fiancé to illness in 1994 and my life savings to financial miscommunication, my still bone-china-fragile mind responded by essentially saying, “Fuck this shit,” and sort of, well, deleted most of that year from memory.

But as my project was suggesting – and at this point I was realizing I was engaged in some kind of batty project – perhaps everything is stored somewhere in your brain.

And so a few months ago, when, on Netflix, I saw Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped, a delightful look at the incredibly silly/inspired designer Isaac Mizrahi, it was like a guardian angel with supernatural AVID skills was delicately feeding me back images of every 1994 place with a good memory attached while editing out all the bad.

Theremy favorite bizarre SoHo antiques store! And therethe West Village magazine shop that had both the latest Kerrang! and Italian Vogue! And the NoHo coffee shop where I wrote my first article.

After a few films, I came to realize that I was trying to create a sort of virtual “family album” of my life via other people’s films, while also trying to trigger memories of my lost self.

Speaking of family, the early ‘90s were all about seeking refuge from grunge’s anti-style “authenticity” fetishism by embracing the exploding plastic wow of drag ball and voguing culture, as seen in Paris is Burning. To a degree, my fragmented memory had glamorized the clubs; now I see the poverty, dreams, hustling and H.I.V. They were so damned and brave.

On a more otherworldly level, Man on Wire flashed back my Wall Street Sundays, where the streets would be empty, and the Twin Towers so elemental and majestic they created their own weather system.

But the most nurturing film so far has been Rockets Redglare!, directed by the late Luis Fernandez de la Reguera (October 20, 1966 – August 14, 2006). A self-destructive, morbidly obese, East Village extreme comedy progenitor who appeared in films such as After Hours and Mystery Train, who counted among his friends such downtowners as Steve Buscemi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Willem Dafoe, Julian Schnabel and Jim Jarmusch, Rockets performed at holes like Pyramid Club and Club 57, places where I was hanging out when 42nd Street happened.

There’s a scene in the film where Rockets is doing a gig at a dive called King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. I thought I’d made this up – fuck, maybe I’d made the name of the club up. But there it is, and I’m recalling that I’d had the worst panic attack ever, and responded with way too much to drink.

And then Rockets comes on and says this astonishingly disgusting/hilarious shit that’s so bad, you can’t believe you’re hearing it, and I’m having that Luna feeling again, except this time…

…There’s a group of people. Just as I recall. One of them – I know it – is me.

The other night I watched a Doctor Who episode that had me in tears. A traumatic event has caused someone to unnaturally forget people and things they love. In the words of the Doctor:

People fall out of the world sometimes, but they always leave traces. Little things we can’t quite account for. Faces in photographs. Luggage. Half-eaten meals. Rings. Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.”

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, indentity politics, music and tragedy.

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