"Born in 1950?s London to Polish immigrants who had fled a Russian concentration cap during Word War II, Kowalski grew up in a milieu of nomadic displacement.
His family finally settled in the post-industrial city of Utica, New York. By the age of ten, still struggling to become fluent in English, he was having a difficult time in school. A few years later, Kowalski received a gift that would turn his world around: a Super-8 camera.
At 14, he shot his first film, The Danger Halls, about high school potheads. The film marked a sinister debut for the budding auteur, soon to embark on a bleak series of films whose aesthetic malevolence was often mirrored by Kowalski?s current thematic drug of choice. Each film that followed retained an ambivalent obsession, on camera and off, with both legal confrontation and narcotic abuse.
By 1971, Kowalski had fled Utica for New York City where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and discovered his two greatest influences, Shirley Clarke and Tom Reichman, both early purveyors of cinema v?rit?. Clarke was a middle-class, white woman who made films about black junkies. Reichman, an impoverished genius best known for his stark 1968 film portrait of jazz legend Charles Mingus, dabbled in everything from low-rent porn to industrial gigs and sporting events. He commited suicide in 1975.
By 25, Kowalski had shot and directed over a dozen porn loops. Although these allegedly Mafia-financed films did not survive the 1970?s, veteran New York arts writer Mark Kramer, who was a featured ?player? in Kowalski?s Loops of Violence, called them ?Grand Guignol on a beer budget? and ? a disquieting homage to anti-sex.?
Ironically, it was the porn industry, although still in its leather diapers, to which sex seemed to mean the least. Their disdain wasn?t even disguised by death and gore; the lost souls of New York?s burgeoning porn scene just did it ? and they did it cheap. In 1977, Kowalski completed his first feature-length film, Sex Stars, a documentary about NYC porn actors.
Soon afterwards, the punk movement began to espouse a credo far more heathen than hedonistic. Kowalski, however, only became interested in punk when a toxic double assoualt of heroin and commercial interest had virtually bled the movement to death ? hence the title of his 1981 film, Dead On Arrival (a.k.a. D.O.A.). He used the Sex Pistols?s apocalyptic tour of America as an allegorical stage on which to set his vision of an entire subculture?s downfall. His unauthorized filming of the Sex Pistols mirrored the hostile climate, resulting in footage as violent and chaotic as the tour itself. D.O.A. was saturated in an oppressively post mortem atmosphere enhanced by the unique sound editing of frequent Kowalski collaborator, Val Kuklowsky. Producer Tom Forcade, who founded High Times magazine by smuggling large quantities of grass from Central America, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in November of 1978.
In 1985, Kowalski made his most shocking film to date, Gringo. A nearly unwatchable work of cold blooded yet oddly compassionate neutrality, the film blended fictional set pieces with authentic heroin abuse, depicting the life of a notorious New York dope fiend named John Spacely. Ann Barish, wife of Blockbuster film producer and Planet Hollywood creator Keith Barish, bankrolled much of the project, and through her the film garnered heated testimonials from Stacy Keach and David Keith. Matt Dillon, who was dating an ex-girlfriend of Kowalski at the time, appeared briefly in the film?s opening scene. Gringo premiered at Riker?s Island penal colony and was also shown at the White House as an anti-drug message film. With endless scenes of bloody sinks, botched injections, and vomit soaked overdoses, it was far too extreme for most viewers. Troma Films eventually eventually released it as Story of a Junkie.
Over the next few years the plight of Manhattan?s homeless escalated to a level no one could ignore. No stranger to poverty. Kowalski spent months in 1989 hanging out and filming habituates of a Lower East Side soup kitchen on the verge of seizure by the New York Housing Committee. The resulting film, Rock Soup, was aired on public television but, as in the past, Kowalski?s intensity often kept the viewing public at bay. The Sundance Film Festival invited Kowalski and Rock Soup to their 1989 event and then changed their mind abruptly when the director extended the invite to a fleet of homeless people who arrived by bus from Salt Lake City. In New York, a theatrical run at Film Forum was terminated when the film?s subjects smashed the windows of an adjacent restaurant where a post-premiere celebration was being held.
It would be over a decade before Kowalski completed another feature, Born To Lose. The Film proved to be his most complex and problematic venture since D.O.A. An early showing at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival marked the beginning of the end of a decade-long struggle to dissect a story only Kowalski could properly tell: the life of proto-punk guitarist and junkie figurehead Johnny Thunders.
Thunders, whose band flyers would exclaim ?See him while he?s still alive!?, invented the sound (with the New York Dolls) upon which later punk groundbreakers like The Ramones would base their musical style. But Thunders was no ordinary junkie; he made William Burroughs look like John The Baptist by comparison. His excess ? almost pornographic in nature ? was miraculously managed by rock ?n? roll thanatos, until 1991, when he was found dead in a New Orleans flophouse with ample evidence of foul play.
Born To Lose: The Last Rock ?n? Roll Movie, received the most critical attention of any film Kowalski had previously done. Featuring a cast of the New York punk scene?s walking wounded, the film presents a hard-edged look at Kowalski?s familiar themes. Not simply a morbid, morally vacant gaze into the reality of suicide on the instalment plan, Born To Lose is a remarkably powerful human drama, and the nightmare flip side to rock-star dream of mansion life an limousines.
The film was the basis of my frenetic working relationship with Lech Kowalski. In 1999, I designed the film?s theatrical one-sheet, covered the Toronto event, and most importantly, after shattering both of my feet in a whiskey soaked, second-story plunge only hours after New York advance screening of the film, allowed him to document ma bloody hands and knees crawling to a midtown hospital. No one said working with Kowalski would be easy.
Thirty years after his emergence as the American underground?s answer to Werner Herzog, Lech Kowalski is working on a dark trilogy of European projects collectively titled The Wild, Wild East. The first of these is the recently completed The Boot Factory. (?Imagine if the Sex Pistols made boots instead of music?, says Kowalski.) Second is Hitler?s Highway (an unscripted road trip on a sinister route paved by the Third Reich to facilitate the invasion of Eastern Europe). And finally, The Fabulous Art of Survival, which centers on the estimated 15,000 prostitutes currently walking the streets of Poland.
The films of Lech Kowalski are finally coming of age in a period where reality may indeed become more profitable than fiction. There currently exists a marginal audience with a strange and terrible appetite for bitter reality in films that obsessively document the horror of his sickness called the human condition. The French, who devour Charles Bukowski like America does Stephen King, respect these films. America?s taste is decidedly more saccharine. But with the success of The Blair Witch Project and confrontational films like American Beauty and Fight Club, perhaps there is a stateside future for Kowalski?s work.
by Gene Gregorits, Filmmaker - The Magazine of Indepentend Film 7/24/01