Blast From the Past

Christopher Knight headline“A movie that is at once raw, funny, insightful, dumb, occasionally boring, often engaging.” That’s how art critic Christopher Knight described “Young Turks” in a Herald Examiner article written just before the Downtown Drive-In event at which the rough-cut of Stephen Seemayer’s film was shown in 1981.

Stephen Seemayer's studio at the corner of Olympic and Central in 1981.

Stephen Seemayer’s studio at the corner of Olympic and Central in 1981.

Knight — today on the staff of the Los Angeles Times — had visited Seemayer at his 851 S. Central studio and combined his review of the movie with a mini-profile of the filmmaker himself: “Born in Hollywood but raised in a middle-class environment in the San Fernando Valley, the strangeness, perversity, poverty and despair of life in the downtown warehouse district … turned his prior existence inside out,” Knight wrote. “Yes, cheap rents are what brought him downtown in the first place, the way it’s brought scores of other artists to the area east of Broadway. But it’s the daily weirdness that sustains him. ‘I need to feel the tension,’ he says. ‘That keeps me alive, that edge. Disorder makes me feel alive.’ ”

That led Knight to his review, which started: “Disorderly is the way one could describe Seemayer’s new film, ‘Young Turks,’ a 90-minute documentary (of sorts) about 12 artists and a writer who were among the original art-world settlers in the manufacturing zone.”

Of course, that was then and this is now. “Young Turks” today has been digitized and fully reedited with an eye to straightening up some of the disorder and presenting a fast-moving and visually stimulating portrait of the downtown art scene at that time.

But a lot of what Knight wrote then about the movie still applies. Here are a few excerpts:

The documentary mixes home-movie silliness with cliched-Hollywood silliness with serious art talk with staged satire with archival intent with self-consciousness, self-analysis and self-aggrandizement. … [It] is a decidedly personal look at the downtown art scene, and Seemayer makes no claim to objectivity. …
Sculptor James Croak in a still from the film "Young Turks."

Sculptor James Croak in a still from the film “Young Turks.”

[“Young Turks”] is a picture of the sharp contrasts that make up the disorder and tension that fuels Seemayer. Sculptor Jim Croak is shown responding to a critic’s suggestion that he decide between making art and acting tough by emptying a revolver into the wall of his studio’s basement shooting range. Woods Davy is discussing the elegant balance inherent in his work … when the film abruptly cuts to the artist caressing a go-go girl’s pet boa constrictor at Pino’s Paradise Lounge. Randy Johnsen, when asked about the downtown art boom, pulls no punches: “Art? It’s not about art! It’s about real estate!” …

[The] derelicts and transients who wander through the film provided some of the best moments, acting as surrogates for the artists. “I’m living down here because I want to live here!” one of them screams at the camera as he sits in a trash-strewn alley. “I choose to be here!” He’s speaking for Seemayer.

Knight concludes that “the film is worth seeing,” and he finishes his review with an eerily prescient sentiment that resonates even more today than it did in 1981:

Those who are familiar with the downtown scene know that the Young Turks are a thing of the past, supplanted by the quickly evolving activity of the area. … And the gentrification of the area will only accelerate. “I give it another four or five years,” Seemayer concedes. Like the now-legendary scene that revolved around the Ferus Gallery and Barney’s Beanery in the ’60s, what the film depicts is already gone. The movie is a period piece, with a faintly romantic nostalgia [about it.]

Thankfully, Seemayer’s film is still around — and better than ever — as a snapshot of that vital and exciting time in downtown’s history.