Michael M. Bilandic (Hellaware) Talks the Curious Pleasures of Public Access TV

A filmmaker delves into the murky nighttime world of New York public access TV station MNN and reports back on its weird delights.

I love going to the movies as much as the next person, if not more. Why else would I bother going through the extreme nightmare of making them? I try to hit up as many movies as possible, in as wide a variety as possible. And when the theaterʼs not an option, Iʼll happily download whatever looks interesting or explore the lower depths of the wasteland that is Netflix streaming. Obviously the internetʼs an essential part of the daily cultural diet too. I recently watched a 50-second YouTube clip of a monkey having sex with a duck that left a more indelible mark on me than any cinematic offering I’ve encountered in weeks. From the basic-cable melodrama of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta to the prestigious artiness of HBOʼs The Leftovers, mainstream television scratches a certain itch as well. However, it can occasionally start to feel a bit repetitive and predictable. When I really want to mix it up, thereʼs one place I can always rely on: Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN).

One of the best aspects of living in Manhattan is how many types of people occupy such a ridiculously tiny space — on any given block you can likely find a variety of outrageous and unpredictable characters and scenarios. MNN is the perfect encapsulation of this varied and semi-schizophrenic urban experience. With public access TV, you never know what youʼre going to see, but the odds are that you’ll stumble across something memorable, inflammatory, confounding, provocatively boring, hilarious or informative, or some combination of the above. Itʼs a seemingly random cross-section of individuals utilizing a free platform to get whatever they need to off their chests and project it into the ether at all those Time Warner Cable subscribers. Itʼs a roll of the dice. I decided to spend one night, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., watching MNN to see where itʼs at in September 2014. Here are some of the highlights.

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Lower East Side Biography Project
Since I live in the East Village myself, this show is of particular interest. Itʼs made by Penny Arcade and chronicles an array of O.G. downtown creative types. In her mission statement during the opening credits, Arcade explains, “We created this program in order to preserve the secret history of New York, in order to stem the tide of cultural amnesia, and in order to introduce you to some amazing New Yorkers.”

This particular episode focused on a performance artist with cerebral palsy named Frank Moore. Arcade explains how she met him recently, “when he attended my San Francisco premiere of Bitch Dyke Fag Hag Whore.” We get a brief overview of his decades-long career of hyper-sexual, “shamanistic” and durational performances. I vaguely remember him from the 1988 Lydia Lunch-narrated underground classic Mondo New York. As the show settles in, Arcade joins him and his wife Linda Mac for a discussion. Due to his disease, Moore canʼt talk and instead wears some type of laser-pointer headset and spells out words with it. The overwhelming bulk of the episode consists of Mac reading an angry letter from 1989 by the editor of High Performance magazine Linda Burnham (aka Linda “whatever the fuck her name is”) that theyʼre all still livid about. After about 20 minutes of listening to this prolonged diatribe against Mooreʼs work, Arcade lets loose in an incredible rant against academia, self-serving non-profit organizations and every form of “stupid, dumb and sophomoric” art institution. Right before the final credits roll, she offers her final advice to young artists: “Youʼre not going anywhere. Thereʼs no money. Thereʼs no career. It doesn’t exist.”

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Late Night with Johnny P
This is like the Tonight Show of Staten Island, or of all New York public access, for that matter. It’s set up like an archetypal late-night talk show: opening monologue, various guests, musical act, etc. Only on a micro scale, playing out in front of a studio audience of 25. I kept thinking, while watching this, of those endearingly low-budget Turkish remakes of Hollywood movies. Johnny P talks about recent happenings, such as having just seen The Last American Guido at the Garden State Film Festival and his plans to have the “Johnny P Orchestra” as his house band soon. The first guest is Andrea Liotta, who is the organizer of a charitable “shopping event” called Divaʼs Night Out. Itʼs never mentioned if sheʼs related to Ray Liotta or not. After some standup comedy and an interview with a character actor from The Sopranos, the biggest guest comes out: the Staten Island Clown.

Three young dudes and a guy dressed like Pennywise from Stephen Kingʼs It make their entrance. Weʼre informed by Mister P that theyʼre the practitioners of the “biggest promotional stunt on Staten Island in 10 years.” They had filmed this clown holding a balloon and looking creepy in all sorts of places around the island, and created a national news story in the process. I remember hearing reports of it myself. The viral stunt was a way of promoting their film collective, Fuzz on the Lens Productions. They explain some of the new projects theyʼre working on, including the short Covering the Spread, about “a day in the life of a gynecologist,” and another called A.A. that “Ron Jeremy is very interested in.” Having dabbled in my own internet hijinks with the “Iʼll Cut Yo Dick Off” rap video, this segment definitely had me feeling “some type of way” about independent film marketing in 2014.

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Zenbockʼs Forte
Like most shows on MNN, this could have been taped anywhere between 1982 and last week. It looks like it was shot on the worldʼs first camcorder and stars Zenbock, a chubby, middle-aged man with a mustache wearing pointy elf ears and a cape. In the opening credits, we see him in full costume hanging out at fan conventions with miscellaneous actors from shows like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Bewitched and Babylon 5.

For the first bit, Zenbock sits crammed in between Ed Wood actor Conrad Brooks and another performer named Johnny Link. Brooks rattles off a list of his work, holding up DVDs and VHS tapes of them that he has for sale, including Glen or Glenda, Ice Scream, Bikini Drive-In and a movie he directed, Jan-Gel, the Beast from the East. Link, an older man with long, shaggy hair and a bit of a stutter, chimes in to plug his porn parody Titanic 2000! He happily tosses out the tag line, “This time itʼs guaranteed not to sink!”

The high point of the show comes when Zenbock talks shop with Troma actress Roxanne Michaels. She describes the intricacies of her craft, which also feel relevant to the show itself and a lot of other public access shows, for that matter. “People think itʼs just being able to not act,” she explains, “but to be able to look like youʼre acting badly and do it well is actually a talent in itself.”

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DMT God 3.0
Hands down, this is my favorite title of any show currently on TV. I see it listed constantly and always click on it without fail. Yet I have absolutely no idea what itʼs about. Not even remotely. Itʼs got something to do with Jesus and “the story of human survival and the emergence of the consciousness of the human brain in the inspiring absolute relativity era.” An Asian man in a baseball hat talks about cosmology, spirituality, New Jersey politics and the concept of “reality,” while shots of Britney Spears, Hitler, outer space, the pyramids, Clint Eastwood talking to that chair, and home video of a ballet from 1998 are all cut together into an unforgettable, deeply demented, fast-paced montage. Ultimately, itʼs this level of radical weirdness that keeps me coming back for more and waiting to see what’s on next!

Michael M. Bilandic is a New York-based filmmaker. His first feature, Happy Life, was called the “poor schlub’s High Fidelity” by Variety. His latest film, Hellaware, opens Sep 26th at Cinema Village and is available On Demand through Factory 25.