Michael M. Bilandic’s films combine cyberpunk aesthetics, rave-inspired colour palettes and hilarious screenplays. Starting out as a PA for original NYC bad boy Abel Ferrara, Bilandic explores the changing face of the city, often through the eyes of artists or idealists lingering on the precipice of total irrelevance.
While Bilandic’s work is consistently funny, there remains a pervasive sense of melancholy, with evident sympathy for the precarity of his characters and an incisive perspective on the eternal struggle between the cynics and the dreamers.
His 2011 debut Happy Life centres on an ageing techno enthusiast who attempts to save his record store by throwing an “old-skool” rave in an abandoned building, convincing a legendary MC called DJ Liquidz (played by Gilles Decamps) to come out of retirement for the night. 2013’s Hellaware sees a struggling photographer stumble upon a Juggalo rap-rock group in Delaware during a coke-fuelled YouTube deep-dive. He decides to make the face-painted, shitfaced teens the subject of his next project, ruthlessly exploiting their adolescent earnestness for his own means. Finally, the protagonist of 2018’s Jobe’z World is a middle-aged rollerblader / sci-fi fanatic / drug dealer, tasked with making a drop to his favourite movie star only to end up on the lam after the actor is found dead in his home. All three are available to stream on The Deeper Channel.
Bilandic’s latest film, Project Space 13, is a pandemic-inspired satire that follows a performance artist called Nate, who finally lands a prestigious show at a Manhattan gallery only to have it shut down by Covid-19. Driven by hubris and mania, Nate decides to stage the performance anyway, entering into existential imprisonment with the building’s two armed guards. The film stars previous Bilandic collaborators Keith Poulson and Jason Grisell, with cinematography from Sean Price Williams, who has worked with everyone from Alex Ross Perry to the Safdie Brothers.
For this month’s column, Michael agreed to take us on a tour of the films that live inside his head rent free. In his own words:
“I wouldn’t say these are all classics. Honestly, I didn’t even finish them all! They are, however, films that live inside my head and have had a lasting impact on both my worldview and appreciation of cinema. They’re films I haven’t been able to shake off. Most of them are comedic. All of them are weird. None of them are duds. Enjoy!”
‘Liquid Sky’ (1982, Dir: Slava Tsukerman)
MDB: A friend of mine in high school shoplifted this from our local lamestream video store, Hollywood Video. He was less than thrilled with his acquisition, thinking it was going to be softcore porn or something. He said it was the worst, most confounding movie he’d ever seen, but that I'd probably like it. I get this a lot. People love to say, “I just saw the biggest piece of abject shit ever. It sucked so bad. I bet you’d like it.”
At first I usually take it as an insult. But they’re almost always right. As was the case with Liquid Sky. It was life-changing. It’s about aliens that come down to earth looking for heroin and get caught up in a hyper-decadent world of fashion and nightclubs. It was made by a group of Russian immigrant nobodies who were unconnected to any noteworthy scene or movement at the time. Out of the blue, they created the most cracked out proto-new wave, avant-garde, comedy, unlike anything else at the time. They built something monumentally bizarre from nothing and set the tone for so much culture to come. It’s my favourite New York movie ever made!
‘Beware Of A Holy Whore’ (1971, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
MDB: Easily my favourite film of all time. It chronicles the making of a film and is loosely based on the actual production of Fassbinder’s own Whity (1971). For this one, he brings in Lou Castel to fill in for himself as the director character. The majority of the story follows assorted eccentric nut jobs (i.e. cast and crew) sitting around, arguing about politics, hitting on each other, getting beyond fucked up, playing Leonard Cohen hits on a jukebox, screaming about money, and waiting for something to happen. In other words, a normal shoot!
Finally, Castel delivers one of the all-time great meltdowns (set to Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned”) – he chugs ten Cuba Libres in a row, fires all the dead weight from the crew and proceeds to make a masterpiece, like a boss. I met Castel once. I was one of only two or three people at the US premiere of a new film he'd made. It was an hour and a half of him tinkering with and clanking on a tin can. I have no idea what it was about and was possibly the most esoteric thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre.
‘The Plumber’ (1979, Dir: Peter Weir)
MDB: The Plumber is an absolute triumph for the simple feat of presenting the single most insufferable character in film history. The plot revolves around an academic liberal couple who live in a brutalist university housing complex. The husband's a doctor, courting funding from the World Health Organization for a project. The wife, who works from home, is doing her dissertation on a tribe from New Guinea. They both share a love of all things African, as their apartment is covered wall-to-wall in artefacts from their various global outings.
One day, while deep in her studies, the wife gets a knock at the door. A plumber has arrived, unannounced, to work on their bathroom. It’s unclear if he’s a legit tradesman, a mentally unstable imposter, or even a serial killer. But one thing is certain, he is unbearably chatty and tears their bathroom to shreds in the process of “fixing” it. At one point he performs a Bob Dylan-inspired acoustic guitar and harmonica jam that tests the stamina of both the beleaguered resident and the viewer. Clearly a prototype for The Cable Guy, which takes the schtick and runs with it to the end zone. The film pushes the limits of awkward social interaction to the breaking point. The good news is, whenever anyone bothers me now I think, “Damn, this person’s a nuisance. But they’re not nearly as bad as The Plumber!”
‘Madame Wang’s’ (1981, Dir: Paul Morrissey)
MDB: While Paul Morrissey has a supreme catalog of untouchable cult classics, this deep cut rarely gets proper respect. Morrissey’s unique and personal brand of humour, driven by extra large nutso personalities – often drifting, and suffering, through the urban margins and underground subcultures of the day – scratches an itch rarely provided in what passes as contemporary “comedy.”
Before you could watch any maniac blabber for hours straight on YouTube about fast food, you had to turn to the man himself for that specific brand of content. There’s a ten-minute monologue about McDonald’s cheeseburgers in Madame Wang’s that’s one of the funniest and most punishing bits I’ve ever experienced. The film is about a ripped East German who washes up on a beach in Hollywood. He tries to find Jane Fonda so they can link up and start the revolution together, but instead he shacks up with some prostitutes, yoga gurus, swap meet aficionados, and a bunch of early punks. He sees all he needs to and heads back to the ocean to go swim home.
I attended one of the only public screenings of News From Nowhere, his last film from 2010, featuring Viva. The plot's strikingly similar, except it’s about an Argentinian man who washes up in the Hamptons, gets annoyed with everyone, and goes back home. A winning formula!
‘Project X’ (2012, Dir: Nima Nourizadeh)
MDB: I loved this movie so much I saw it three times in the theatre (something I rarely do). It encapsulated the manic optimism of Obama’s first term mixed with the deranged energy of YouTube and social media back when it was still potentially “fun.” This was when people thought Facebook was going to usher in positive global change, bring about Middle Eastern democratic revolutions, and all that good stuff. Instead, as we all know, everything spiralled out of control, like the party in the film, and propelled us into our current techno-Hellstate.
Project X is the story of a dorky kid, Thomas, who, for his 17th birthday, gets convinced by his similarly nerdy friends to throw a small house party. As word gets around about the party online, it subsequently escalates into an apocalyptic, bacchanalian orgy of pure destructive chaos. The party finally ends with the military being called in to end the festivities.
Inspired by a viral YouTube video from Australia, it served as a companion piece to the equally YouTube-centric, party-into-oblivion masterpiece, Spring Breakers. If you can accept that the internet is an addiction, this was the moment where it started getting out of control. And everyone knew it. But since there was no way to not use smart phones or computers we all just decided to ride out, full force, and maybe just OD on it all.
‘American Eunuchs’ (2003, Dir: Gian Claudio Guiducci and Franco Sacchi)
Note: Ordinarily, we would put the trailer here, but as it features graphic castration footage, we’d instead advise you to look it up at your own risk.
MDB: American Eunuchs is about an elderly online “cutter” for hire, who performs surgeries in his seedy, ramshackle home office in Philadelphia. It’s extremely graphic and features full-on operating table gore. It’s the only time I ever had to burst out of a theatre because it was way too real! I never saw the second half of it, but I think about this movie all the time.
Relatedly, I saw John Waters talk back in the day and he claimed that there was a hot new trend called “Ultimate Nudity” sweeping the nation where guys were removing their scrotums and replacing them with a see-through material so you could see their actual testicles. I’ve never heard of “Ultimate Nudity” ever again and there’s no digital footprint of it online. Did I make this all up?
‘Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams’ (1981, Dir: Tommy Chong)
MDB: The crowning achievement from our favourite duo. As they lowride into the coked up 1980s, their “nice” dreams of a blissed out hippy existence fade further and further into the rearview mirror. All they want to do is sell some herb from their pimped out ice cream truck and cash out, with the end goal of starting a retirement home for ageing stoners called Laid Back Manor.
Instead, they’re faced with a variety of Hollywood bozoz, including a hamburger obsessed cokehead Pee Wee Herman, who they party with under a table in a punk rock Chinese restaurant; a modelling agent who snatches their food; a highly twisted Timothy Leary, who and pontificates to Cheech while he’s trapped in a straight jacket; and, worst of all, Stacy Keach, who plays an LAPD sergeant who is slowly mutating into a lizard person due to an exotic strain of bud he’s been smoking.
Directed by Chong, Nice Dreams is freewheeling attempt at having a good time against a yuppified, sleazy, California backdrop. Chong’s unwavering, zen’d out attitude, as his utopian fantasy crumbles before him, serves as an inspirational proto-Lebowski path to enlightenment. I’d love to know more about the “making of” this perfect train wreck. One of the only times I was ever starstruck was meeting Chong at the Soho Grand! His 1980’s Playboy TV roast is also a true work of art. Look it up.
‘Street Wars’ (1992, Dir: Jamaa Fanaka)
MDB: After making the highest grossing independent film of 1979, the prison boxing opus Penitentiary, Jamaa Fanaka was primed for the big time. He’d made that film on a shoestring, industriously utilising the UCLA campus as a prison yard, and successfully creating an innovative and artistic masterwork. He'd even made two other films while there, Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) and Emma Mae (1976). Yet the industry acceptance he sought out never materialised, leading him to become an outspoken critic of Hollywood politics.
Realising a studio career wasn't in the cards, Fanaka doubled down into his own outré sensibility, merging genre conventions with deeply surreal flourish. He made Penitentiary 2, followed by 3. The third being most famous for the extended fight scene, all in a tiny prison cell, between a boxer, Too Sweet, and a flying dwarf, who gains the power of flight through smoking crack and flailing his arms about super fast. I saw it repeatedly on USA Up All Night as a kid and was mesmerised. Those films were all test drives, though, for his final masterpiece, 1992’s Street Wars.
It’s the story of Sugar Pop who, upon returning to South L.A from Exeter Military Academy, utilises his advanced education to help his local street gang take over the hood by using ultralight airplanes to fly around and do drive-bys from the sky. Everything about it, from the dialogue to the costume design, is singular, stylised, and absurd.
Sadly, Fanaka went too hard with it and it was his final work. I remember when I was working at Kim’s Video on St. Marks, I found the VHS one day on the shelf and decided to toss it on. Everyone was delighted and riveted. Random customers were all glued to the TV. We’d put it on all the time. It’s an inimitable comedic take on Boyz In Da Hood from a true outsider who never wavered.
Project Space 13 will open in NYC theatrically on the 3rd of December, 2021 at Roxy Cinema. Mubi will stream it on the 10th of December in the U.S, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Find more info here.