Downtown Initiative
By Sarah Fensom

Flying Lessons
Dir. Elizabeth Nichols, U.S., no distributor

Flying Lessons screened Saturday, March 16, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

In one of the opening shots of Flying Lessons, a poignant documentary by Elizabeth Nichols, a woman with spiky, orange hair and red-rimmed, cat eyeglasses, is seen across a crowded room. The camera seems strongly drawn to her as she walks among rows of seats, looking for a place to settle, studying her with curiosity and expectation. The moment feels almost like a scene in a teen movie, bearing the mixed-up self-consciousness and infatuation of a high schooler encountering her crush or soon-to-be best friend for the first time. The viewer feels it, too: this is someone who might touch them, and maybe change their life.

This woman is Philly Abe (1949-2018), a visionary artist, punk performer, underground actress, and longtime resident of the Lower East Side. Her expressions and gestures are bird-like, her voice high-pitched and delightfully scratchy. Abe and the director meet while living in the same rent-stabilized building on New York’s Lower East Side—Nichols as a new tenant, Abe as a multi-decade fixture. The building has been bought by notorious real estate owner Steven Croman, and both tenants are pressured to vacate their apartments so that the predatory slumlord can hastily gut-renovate their units and charge rents in the $5000s—like he has done to many others in the complex. Our introduction to Abe takes place at the Stop Steve Croman Coalition, an activist organization of Croman tenants across the East Village and LES, of which both women are a part, Abe more visibly.

In the film, Abe isn’t just a beleaguered downtown tenant fighting rapid gentrification, she’s also an avatar for a fading New York. The outré artists, radical punks, nightlife performers, and club kids who populated downtown Manhattan in the last few decades of the 20th century haven’t just been priced out of an increasingly commercial city, they’ve become nearly extinct. The landmarks of the downtown scene, like the Pyramid Club and the legendary squat and show space ABC No Rio, are either gone or surrounded by Targets and coffee chains. Abe’s apartment, brims with decades-worth of art and junk, its towering piles and densely crowded walls feel like a middle finger to the stark, cheap minimalism of the renovation that would undoubtedly overtake it.

Throughout Flying Lessons, Nichols interweaves her own footage with clips from the many films in which Abe appeared—works by her close collaborator Todd Verow, as well as George Kuchar, Mary Bellis, Gabriel Baur, Nelson Sullivan, and others. Abe gives Kuchar a tour of her apartment in Metropolitan Monologues (2000), telling him her rent is $438 as she takes slices of pizza out of her decrepit oven. In Verow’s This Side of Heaven (2016), a melodrama about a trans woman (played by Abe) trying to keep her rent stabilized apartment, a blonde-wigged Abe hangs up after a phone call with her landlord and screams into a cracked mirror, “You think you can get me out? I’m never leaving!” Nichols later splices in footage of an impassioned monologue from This Side of Heaven: “When artists and poets and dancers and singers and journalists can’t afford to live in the city then that city has no culture. A city without culture has no heart.”

At one point in Flying Lessons, Abe and other, mostly older, members of the Stop Steve Croman Coalition stage a protest in Tompkins Square Park, the historic site of acts of resistance, like the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1874 and 1988, both led by the unemployed and unhoused. There, Abe and fellow coalition members make impassioned speeches, while Nichols captures footage of young people in the park who seem carefree, clean, and safe—and completely unmoved by the group’s message. One member of the coalition, Helen, looks derisively at a cadre of twenty-somethings playing ping pong. “So young, so unconscious,” she yells. Nichols artfully juxtaposes this scene with archival videos by Nelson Sullivan that depict Abe as a young person dancing at the Wigstock Festival with friends in the park in 1986 and hosting an absurdist drag fashion show at Pyramid Club in 1985. It’s a sly way of implying that the youthful frivolity and forms of expression practiced by Abe’s crowd were markedly more politically and artistically engaged, while suggesting that its form of expression and youthful frivolity was markedly more politically and artistically engaged. Here, Nichols evokes the ever-present LES culture wars: what was once the stronghold of punks and drag queens is now seemingly a utopia for yuppies and trust fund kids.

Though Nichols’s film cogently addresses issues surrounding housing and gentrification, it’s the way she captures Abe’s distinct on-screen presence that makes Flying Lessons special. Abe is a uniquely charismatic person, and Nichols, with her patient and curious camera, summons the spirit of her subject’s irreverent humor, introspection, and willingness to experiment. In early interviews in Abe’s apartment, the star explains her work (dense and colorful visionary paintings, for instance) and her interests (like birds and a wide array of magic rituals), while performing gestures that she or the director suggests. But over time, as the relationship between Nichols and Abe blossoms, performance gives way to companionship. They’re not filming scenes, they’re hanging out with a camera in the room. Late in the film, when the pair listens to some of the songs Abe recorded with one of her bands years earlier, gone is any notion of the subject interpreting her life to the interviewer. Instead, they experience the songs together, as friends and collaborators, growing more trusting and intimate, which leads to Abe sharing a difficult memory from her past and Nichols sweetly comforting her.

The increasing closeness of the two neighbors heightens the blow when we discover, late in the film, that Abe has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer—even though Abe greets the news with an admirable lightness and openness, donning a t-shirt with a skeletal torso printed on it and dancing around her hospital room. Nichols films Abe posting on Facebook about her illness. It begins “hello fun seekerz” and closes by saying, “ready to talk, laugh explore and kick up shit just like before…therez actually something very sexy about da whole process.” The post was Abe’s way of asking for some peace from her contacts as she was dying, but it had “the opposite effect,” she tells Nichols. “They can feel ‘Oh, is she really talented? Did I miss something?’” It’s a brutal and incisive statement on how so many artists garner appreciation too late. But it also speaks to the way New York’s landmarks, inhabitants, and ways of life disappear or are destroyed in the name of blind capitalistic progress. Nostalgic interest or posthumous exhibitions can honor them but can’t bring them back. It’s heartening that Abe’s work and legacy have now been preserved so honestly and intimately.