""Not far into Rome 78, James Nares's unlikely rendering of a sword-and-sandal costume drama on the minuscule format of Super-8 sound film, two soldiers clad in armor and togas lean against what one might generously imagine to be the walls of the Roman Senate, but is more likely a cheaply renovated East Village apartment. The pair discusses the increasingly erratic actions of Emperor Caligula without the genre's usual pseudo-Shakespearean gravitas; they sound like two deadbeat downtowners bullshitting at a bar. "If he insists on fucking his sister, what do you expect?" one asks. Well, the other says, "her ass is pretty imperial."
Rarely screened, Rome 78—part of this week's James Nares retro at Anthology Film Archives—has nevertheless built up its own aura over the years, no doubt due to its subcultural provenance. The cast includes a crowd that the British-born Nares remembers today as "all sort of downtown personalities": James Chance and Pat Place of the Contortions (for which Nares himself played guitar), fellow musicians John Lurie and Lydia Lunch, club heroine Patti Astor, television survivor Lance Loud, and filmmaker Eric Mitchell. Today, Nares is best known as a painter: His large-brush abstractions partake of a coolly controlled happenstance that one might faintly relate to Rome 78's more ragged insouciance.
Punctuated by in-camera flash-frames, off-kilter shots, and inappropriate laughter, Rome 78 (1978) embraces shabby-chic as a formal objective. Nares mocks up Ancient Rome by shooting in faux-classical sites like Grant's Tomb and Tribeca's American Thread Building, where a decrepit penthouse loft with a peeling-paint dome serves as an echoey stand-in for the imperial palace. The latter location required ingenuity: Posing as potential renters, Nares and associates asked the manager to show them the apartment, then unlocked the windows on the way out; a few hours later, they broke back into the space, full cast and crew in tow, to shoot the necessary scenes.
At every moment in the film, New York circa 1978 bleeds uncontrollably into a flimsy pretense of first-century Rome. Scheming courtiers allude to intrigues in Gaul, Brittany, and the Lower East Side; Mitchell chain-smokes while seducing a black-lingerie-clad Lunch on a zebra-skin rug; the Emperor himself—astonishingly portrayed by twitchy, gap-toothed ectomorph David McDermott—declares his own divinity at Grant's Tomb by screaming above the honks and engine rumbles of the West Side Highway.
Seen now, Rome 78 collapses three layers of dead civilization: The script conveys the waning days of the Roman imperium; the sets evoke the Empire State's 19th-century robber-baron capitalism; and the cast memorializes the last days of urban bohemia's counter-kingdom. "I don't think I was the first to draw a connection between the Roman Empire and the American empire," Nares states. "At that time, it really felt like things were falling apart. A real 'decline and fall' seemed very obvious, with the blocks of abandoned buildings and so forth. It was an easy call, really . . . .
""It's my only attempt at a narrative film with actors. It has its moments—quite funny at times, quite beautiful at times, too. But it doesn't interest me so much now." Rome 78 emerged at a time when Nares, Mitchell, and other alumni of the East Village art collective CoLab ran the 50-seat storefront New Cinema on St. Marks, a short-lived but influential attempt at creating a regular theatrical venue for micro-budget features by the likes of Vivienne Dick, Becky Johnson, and Charlie Ahearn. "We wanted to make 'real movies,' go legit or something," he remembers with only partial irony. "I think the films I was most thinking about then were the Warhol/Morrissey films—Lonesome Cowboys, Trash, that sort of thing." He appreciated the way they could "ride a line between documentary and fiction."