A Goofy Tribute to Film Noir

On February 2, Millennium Film Workshop will present an evening of goofy comedies by avant-garde film makers Jacob Burckhardt, Royston Scott and Jim Neu.

This evening features two collaborations between Jacob Burckhardt and Royston Scott: “Tomorrow Always Comes” (2006), a tongue-in-cheek film noir about a black private detective, and “The Professor and his Improper Potion” (2006), a silent short and homage to Georges Melies, full of magic effects that were done in the camera the old fashioned way. The evening is rounded out with “Duet for Spies” (1993), collaboration between Jacob Burckhardt and Jim Neu. It is based on a 1985 play by Neu, in which two secret agents, as they are debriefed by their superiors, can only guess at the missions, priorities and agendas behind the doublespeak and double-think of their encounters.

It’s an opportunity to view key works by a community of artist/filmmakers who evolved out of Robert Wilson’s company, whose work crosses over between theater and underground film. “Tomorrow Always Comes,” a “film noir sex romp comedy thriller,” chews up and spits out blaxploitation movies and detective pastiche. “Duet for Spies” illustrates the adaptation of Jim Neu’s unique and intricate stage language for the screen. “The Professor and his Improper Potion” is an homage to a master film maker, faithful to his formative camera techniques.

D E S C R I P T I O N S of the F I L M S

TOMORROW ALWAYS COMES (2006, 50 Min, black and white, digital video)

Jacob Burkhardt as a bat wielding hotel clerk; Royston Scott as the detective, Spade Slade, in Tomorrow Always Come
Jacob Burkhardt as a batwielding hotel clerk; Royston Scott as the detective, Spade Slade, in Tomorrow Always Comes (2006).

“Tomorrow Always Comes” (not to be confused with the XXX “Tamara Always Comes”) is a delightfully low-budget sendup of racial stereotypes and the detective genre, shot on location in New York City. The setting is late in the 1940s. The City is full of shady characters – none shadier than Spade Slade (Royston Scott), a black, luger-packing, trigger-happy private eye. Slade is often drunk and always cocky; it’s as if the Shaft movies were set in the postwar era and drawn by R. Crumb. The egregious references to film noir are deliberate. The acting is campy, the production values cheap; it’s all part of the fun.

Blonde, beautiful Vivian Conners Jr. (Megan Pearson) hires Slade to find her absent husband, the wealthy Basil Conners Jr. (James Tigger! Ferguson), who at the time is enjoying a lurid sex act in a seedy hotel with an Asian seductress, Mai Fun (Mariana Newhard).

When Slade’s secretary (Mimi Gross) is assassinated, it sends the headstrong dick to a murky smoke filled shop in Chinatown where he wheedles clues from an evil-looking, pointy-moustached herbalist (played by Bill Rice, in one of his last performances before his death in 2006) and to Skid Row, where he takes compromising photos of Basil and Mai Fun in their vermin infested hotel room.

After a series of cheap plot tricks, including a shipboard slugfest and a blazing shootout, our “second rung nobody of a private eye” solves the case, gets the reward money and takes a roller coaster ride into the sunset with his best girl.

Produced and directed by Jacob Burckhardt and Royston Scott; screenplay and art direction by Royston Scott; camera and editing by Jacob Burckhardt; music by Marc Ribot and Bret Flute; choreography by Amalia Rosa. With: Royston Scott, George Kuchar, James Tigger! Ferguson, Armen Ra, Mimi Gross, Mariana Newhard, Bill Rice, Megan Pearson, Amalia Rosa, Kimberly Lewis and Meghan Love.

THE PROFESSOR AND HIS IMPROPER POTION (2007, b/w, silent, 16mm, 4 min.)

A Voyage to the Moon by Georges Melies.
A Voyage to the Moon by Georges Melies.

“The Professor and his Improper Potion” is a four-minute epic of love found and lost. Royston Scott plays a scientist who has made a potion to grow and shrink tomatoes. When he fabricates a Josephine Baker-style dancer in a tiny vial in his lab, he is smitten with her and tries to enlarge her to life-size, with surprising consequences. An homage to Georges Melies, this short comedy is full of magic effects that are done the old fashioned way, in the camera. The short captures the broad acting, contrasty texture and movement style of early silents.

Camera and editing by Jacob Burckhardt; sets and costumes by Royston Scott. Performed by Royston Scott and Amalia Rosa.

DUET FOR SPIES (1993, B/W, 8 mm, 22 1/2 min.)

Jim Neu in his play, Duet for Spies
Jim Neu in his play, Duet for Spies (1985), photo by Donna Ann McAdams.

“Duet for Spies” is a story of doubt and deniability, a dark post- cold war comedy of individual and institutional delusions becoming the same. Two spies meet at a rendezvous over a crowded city expressway. Their thoughts go back to the key debriefing of their careers, and their separate memories are strangely identical. We see how in both cases coded behavior crossed gender lines as the senior agent’s behavior became more and more bizarre, and each spy has to decide how far he or she must go to satisfy a superior.

Author Jim Neu is an “experimentalist playwright” with “a keen ear for post-New Age lingo” (Jennifer Dunning, new York Times). His plays and musicals ride on a wry, cool humor that is intelligently zany. While his characters claim to be “coherency-neutral,” their observations about themselves and their world often make a strange sense. Spies’ lives are a beloved signature theme for Neu, who first made his mark with two plays of this genre in the ’80s: “Duet for Spies” and “Deep Cover.” In this adaptation of his 1985 play, there’s plenty of Neu-speak for audiences to relish in the life-distending philosophies of the characters, like those expressed by this head spy:

“I get a little . . . . physical sometimes walking around in a group of other people

I think about what the guy next to me doesn’t know about the guy next to him

I think about how much more I’ve got for him to not know about than he could possibly have for me to not know about.

Look–you’ve got to be able to love the life!”

Such humor has attracted an enthusiastic following of Neu-philes, who flock to his plays to revel in the space between what is said and what is thought to be said.

Neu’s own underplaying once reminded a reviewer of “a kind of Groucho Marx on medication.” Jacob Burckhardt and Jim Neu first met and worked together in 1973, in Robert Wilson’s “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin.”

Produced and edited by Jacob Burckhardt. Directed by Jacob Burckhardt and Jim Neu. Script by Jim Neu. With: Roberta Levine, Carol Mullins, Jim Neu, David Nunemaker. Steadicam operator Sergei Franklin. Camera operator: Eduard Tisse. Production assistants: Sue Sheehy and Mark Baumgartner.



Jacob Burckhardt has been directing and producing films since the early nineteen seventies. His two features, “It Don’t Pay to be an Honest Citizen” (with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Vincent D’Onofrio) and “Landlord Blues,” have shown in festivals around the world, including Berlin, PIA (Japan), and Birmingham. “It Don’t Pay to be an Honest Citizen” was licensed to WDR TV and was shown last Spring at the Pioneer Cinema.

All the while making underground movies, Jacob Burckhardt worked at a variety of jobs: blueberry picker, steel Mill laborer, Fuller Brush man, truck driver, taxi driver, camera repairman and photographer of painting and sculpture. He has done sound recording in North Africa, worked in the industry as staff re-recording mixer at Ross-Gaffney, Inc., and now runs a post-production sound editing and mixing facility at Workedit, Inc.

He has made 33 movies, most in 16mm. and some in video and super-8. In 2002 he began a collaboration with Royston Scott which has resulted in three movies in the series “Black Moments in Great History,” the latest of which is “Tomorrow Always Comes.” His 16 millimeter work also includes a series of poetic and contemplative black and white shorts, such as “Roma” (2004), a “poetic” view of the modern ancient city from the point of view of a familiar pedestrian, with stones, water, graffiti, lights, cats, pedestrians, and even the Pope.

Eschewing the money raising rat race, he now prefers shorts, in film and video, where it is possible to preserve a direct relationship between the film and the film makers, and still photography on gelatin silver paper. The three comedies in this presentation represent one thread of Jacob Burckhardt’s work: funky, scripted urban tales, often featuring gangsters, that seem to be “in defiance” of art. Burckhardt’s other genre is poetic documentary films comprised entirely of images, with no people but with intricate sound tracks. Burckhardt is son of the Swiss-born photographer and experimental filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt and husband of modernist choreographer Yoshiko Chuma.


Royston Scott is a director, writer, actor, designer and film producer. Originally from Baltimore, he graduated from NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing where his mentor was Anne Bogart. His theatrical work includes appearances at Mabou Mines, La MaMa, P.S. 122, The Guggenheim Museum, En Garde Arts, Chashama and European tour in Dar A Luz’s “Tight, Right, White” directed by Reza Abdoh. A long time fixture on the downtown nightlife scene, Royston hosted parties and performed in the late 1980’s as Mr. Renee (a hairdresser gone bad) at such venues as The Pyramid Club, King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, Flamingo East, Tortilla Flats, and Sugar Babies.

He has appeared in the Icelandic feature film “No Is No Answer” directed by Jon Trygvasson, “Kiss Daddy Good Night” directed by Peter Ily Huemer (with Uma Thurman), “Bandidos” directed by Bruno Levy, “Soap Opera directed by Seth King, “Malcolm X” and “Spiderman.” TV work includes “Homicide,” “Law and Order” and “New York Undercover.”

His company, Real Cheap Film, has produced three comedies with the filmmaker Jacob Burckhardt as part of a series called “Great Moments in Black History” on which he was screenwriter, production designer, and star. These include the tongue in cheek biography “Freedom Ho! Or Harriet Tubman’s Tale” (Black Film Festival of Berlin), “Louis The Fourteenth Street,” (Howl Festival, NYC and Experimental Film Festival of Bangkok) and “Tomorrow Always Comes.”

He has written and performed sketch comedy for NY public access TV and danced in the B-52s’ ‘Love Shack” music video among others.


Jim Neu has been called “the Oscar Wilde of the Postverbal Generation.” As a dramatist, he is a master of deadpan circumlocution and an elliptical take on language. This makes for blindingly brilliant dialogue, doublespeak, and a minimalist comedy style that is all Neu’s own. His plays have been presented by some of the leading experimental theaters in New York, as well as Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and London. He has also written scripts for Yoshiko Chuma and Charles Moulton.

Neu began working in theater as an actor in Robert Wilson’s company in the early 1970’s, performing in New York, Europe, Brazil and Iran. When Wilson began employing text in his work, Neu began writing for him. He contributed to the scripts of Wilson’s “Ka Mountain,” The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin” and “A Letter for Queen Victoria.” In 1984 Neu wrote the screenplay for Andrew Horn’s award winning film “Doomed Love.” A second collaboration with Andrew Horn, “The Big Blue,” premiered at the 1988 Berlin film festival. Neu wrote and acted in Jacob Burckhardt’s “This Object” (1982) and acted in Burckhardt’s “It Don’t Pay to be an Honest Citizen” (1984).

The films will be showing for one night only on February 2nd, 2008 at 8:00 pm, at Millennium Film Archives on 66 East Fourth Street, Manhattan (Between Second Avenue and Bowery). Tickets are $8/$6 members. The phone number for info and reservations is 212-673-0090.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.