Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman discusses the New York New Wave film scene, including lo-fi super 8 films of Vivienne Dick.
If the films of the '60s avant-garde were often displaced orgies, the new super-8 films are shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge.
Drifting across the Bowery, fallout from the 1977 punk “explosion” continues to spawn art-world mutations. For the first time in the decade since the structuralists zoomed in on the stuff and ontology of film, a radically divergent group sensibility has blossomed on New York's independent film scene. Closely linked to local art-punk, no-wave bands, these filmmaker's parallel the music's energy, iconography, and aggressive anyone-can-do-it aesthetic, while using the performers themselves as a kind of ready-made pool of dramatic talent.
The existence of a punk bohemia, the cross-fertilization of avant-garde rock and post-conceptual art (heralded by last May's no-wave concerts at Artists Space), and the proliferation of sync-sound super-8 cameras have stimulated a number of young artists and musicians over the last year to produce a new wave of content-rich, performance-oriented narrative films. These are hardly seamless fictions; some are willfully, at times brilIiantly, primitive. Many of the filmmakers were initially attracted to super-8 talkies as a documentary tool, and even the most extravagant of their fictions are grounded in a gritty, on-the-street verite.
Rejecting the increasingly academic formalism that has characterized the 1970s film avant-garde, as well as the gallery-art of video, the super-8 new wave represents a partial return to the rawer values of underground of the 1960s (Jack Smith, Ron Rice, the Kuchar brothers, early Warhol). Like its precursor, the new underground's technically pragmatic films enact libidinal fantasies, parody mass cultural forms, glorify a marginal lifestyle, and exhibit varying degrees of social content. Their populist rhetoric has a '60s ring as well: “I want to make films that people will see and that won't get stuck in some independent film art house," says one. "I'm thinking of drive-ins, rock clubs, prison, and television."
Beth B and Scott B, a look-alike pair of art school drop-outs in their mid-twenties, have been the most effective of super-8 filmmakers in getting their work around. Their "B-movies," Black Box and GMan, turn up everywhere from P.S. 1 to Hurrah. Currently, the Bs are screening episodes from their serial-in-progress, The Offenders, at Max's Kansas City. They call the fllm "a savage satire on society's distortions," and its cliff-hanger format suits their sensibility perfectly: It's as though the film's sinister conspiracies, femme gangs, and punk bank-robbers were just a part of the daily round of life in Lower Manhattan.
Other super-8 films have been surfacing intermittently over the last few months on the Millennium-Collective-Kitchen circuit, but the New Cinema on St. Mark's Place has been the punk-film bailiwick. Calling itself the city's first video-cinema, the New Cinema transfers super-8 to videotape and projects it upon a four-by-five Advent screen. The theatre's premieres have ranged from the neo-neorealism of Charlie Ahearn's The Deadly Art of Survival (a shoestring Enter the Dragon shot in and around the Smith housing-projects) to the guerrilliere newsreel of Vivienne Dick's Beauty Becomes the Beast (Teenage Jesus's Lydia Lunch as a 'five-year-old child); from the sci-fi povera of John Lurie's Men in Orbit (slum living-room as space-capsule) to the Quaalude surrealism of Michael McClard's Motive (a punk psychokiller rigs the Museum of Modern Art's men's room to electrocute random users).
The 50-seat storefront opened in January with cofounder Eric Mitchell's mock-Warhol, terrorist parody Kidnapped, and has been plastering its schedule across downtown walls ever since. Mitchell, 26, rivals the Bs as a pragmatic self-promoter. The Soho News tagged his theatre's blend of super-8 and video "a kicky scam to get [foundation] money," but Mitchell is an affable hustler. I ran into him several days after the New Cinema's advertised "Symposium on the 'New Narrative,’ " and when I asked how this unlikely but impressive-sounding event had gone, he burst out laughing.
"I just saw a really funny film, The Connection," Mitchell tells me. A connoisseur of dated bohemias, he has a small shrine to Edie Sedgwick taped up in his one-chair Lower East Side apartment, and blandly describes Kidnapped—shot last spring, shortly after Warhol's 1965 Vinyl played the Collective—as "a 1960s underground movie happening today."
Indeed, its 15 unedited super-8 rolls are a poverty-row rehash of the Factory's assembly-Iine method. A few jittery extroverts, stimulated by drugs, Mitchell's on-screen direction, and the no-wave music blaring from a plastic phonograph on the floor, jostle each other and the ever-panning camera within the cramped, harshly lit confines of the filmmaker's living room. When not trading insults, the cast vaguely pretends to have abducted a wealthy industrialist (Mudd Club owner Steve Maas) and are half-heartedly beginning to torture him as the camera runs out of film.
Kidnapped's follow-up, the more conventionally entertaining Red Italy, is an effective burlesque of the sort of early '60s import Pauline Kael called "come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties." Although Mitchell swears that his next film—a homage to Scorpio Rising, with an all-French cast—won't star anyone from the music scene ("which is going to shreds anyway"), what's immediately striking about the super-8 new wave is its symbiotic relationship to certain no-wave bands. Jennifer Miro (the Nuns), Arto Lindsay (DNA), Gordon Stevenson and Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) are all film performers. James Chance's Contortions—famous for his attack-the-audience punch-outs—form a subunit all their own. Saxophonist Chance and guitarist Pat Place have appeared in a number of movies, as has the group's ex-organist, Adele Bertei, and present manner Anya Phillips. (The flow works two ways: Gordon Stevenson is about to release a film, filmmaker Vivienne Dick plays organ for Beirut Slump, and the Bs are set to tour Europe this summer with Teenage Jesus. Performance-artist James Nares, another former Contortion, is the auteur of the scene's Grand Hotel—Rome '78, a 90-minute costume drama that looks like a toga party in Little Lulu's clubhouse and features at least half of the above-mentioned personalities.
Although 40 minutes too long, the film does have its moments. With one tooth blacked out, spindly David McDermott III plays the meglomaniacal Caesar as a sniveling, screaming six-year-old, tirelessly ranting "I am God!" on the steps of Grant's Tomb. Meanwhile, Mitchell—scratching his armor and mumbling "pretty weird," as though Stanley Kowalski had stumbled onto the set of Quo Vadis?—chain-smokes through a tepid love scene with the coyly simpering Lydia Lunch. A black slip hiked over her thighs and a spiky mop of hair cascading onto her face, she rises from her mattress-on-the-floor divan only once in the film, to chase McDermott around the camera with a whip.
Lydia Lunch, the lead singer and guiding light of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, is unquestionably the most stellar of the super-8 superstars. As Rome '78's dishevelled coquette, the bratty dominatrix of the B's Black Box, or the autistic child of Vivienne Dick's Beauty Becomes the Beast, this 20-year-old ex-groupie (hailed by the New York Rocker as "one of the few spontaneous geniuses in contemporary music") has demonstrable range as well as presence. Alone among the CBGB habitues interviewed in the 1977 rock-doc Punking Out, she confronts the camera with a purposeful identity: “Why I am I here? Because the Dead Boys are great fucks!"
After forming her own band, Lunch told one interviewer: "I'm frustrated. I'm in constant torment. I would do what I do even if the audience wasn't there." Fiery corn, but Lunch's onstage act and kachunk-kachunk wall-of-sound dirges ("I can't talk, I can't enunciate/And I'm treated like Sharon Tate") go so far beyond self-parody I can almost believe it. Her brilliantly regressive performance in Vivienne Dick's 40-minute Beauty Becomes the Beast is, in my experience, only comparable to Jack Smith's triumphant evocation of his beatnik misery in the underground classic Blonde Cobra (1962). Dick's film (which she referred to in passing as "Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women") opens with the big bleat of Teenage Jesus's "Baby Doll," then discloses its star shlumping around a deserted beach, squealing, drooling, and burying her hideously white, hollow rubber dolly in the sand.
The film, a complex, fragmentary assemblage of female images, plotlessly switches scenes and moods like a bored TV-watcher flipping the dial. It's horrifying, funny, poignant, and enraged. After a scary, psychotic sequence with a band of tacky demons in homemade monster masks leering the monotonous litany "Dirty little girl—give mommy some sugar," Dick cuts to Lunch wandering across a rubble-strewn lot wondering, "What's sex, Daddy? Last night I had a dream you came and sewed up my pussy." The chilling but comic "verite" of Christmas Eve shoppers aimlessly pawing through 14th Street toy bins is more than matched by a scene of Lunch (in black lipstick, green tights, and an orange REESE PEANUTBUTTER CUP T-shirt) watching cartoons on TV, crooning over or smacking her doll around, then listlessly mounting it on a cat. When she gives the doll a bath, the abrupt, final close-up of water gushing from its empty eye-socket produces the stunning effect of telescoping “mother,” infant, and filmmaker into one.
Others, Iike the Ds, are more polished arti-sans of super-8, but Dick—with her partially improvised psycho-docudramas—is the most adept at pushing the format to its limits. Her jaggedly contemplative and unexpectedly funny She Had Her Gun All Ready is a sort of summary no-wave Celine and Julie, centering on the mysterious relationship between the dourly menacing Lunch and a zombified Pat Place. The two hang around a Lower East Side kitchen vaguely exoticized by some green and magenta lighting. Sporadically, Lunch starts in, "You're not exactiy the life of the party... well waddaya gonna do?"—while her silent costar timidly looks into be refrigerator, shuffles through her records, plays five badly scratched seconds of Mick Jagger singing "Everyone Needs Someone To Love," goes back to the fridge, and slops some fruit juice on the table.
Dick has a great feel for scuzz lyricism and skillfully mismatched inserts, cutting away to a row of gutted tenements with a little silver et flying overhead. Her camera is a kind of third character throughout, asserting itself with choppy zooms and sudden movements.
With home-movie logic, Lunch and Place follow each other out to Coney Island. Place tries to strangle her nemesis on the Cyclone, and Dick's attempt to keep them in frame as he rollercoaster goes into its horrendous first drop ends the film in an exhilarating, totally kinetic jumble. The sequence is pure super-8; it's a long time since I've seen a movie looking like it was so much fun to make.
Mitchell, Nares, and Dick are familiar with the avant-garde canon of the '60s. If Mitchell emulates Warhol, and Nares the Kuchar brothers, Dick's films belong to the rich tradition of beatnik home-movies that includes Pull My Daisy (1959) and Ken Jacobs's Little Stabs at Happiness (1961). Both undergrounds share an ironic appreciation of American popular culture. But while Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1962) and Normal Love (1964), or Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids (1964), took their mythology from Hollywood, the super-8 filmmakers are far more apt to use archetypes generated by TV and rock.
To further schematize differences is to oppose the related sensibilities of "camp" and "punk." Both ironically reclaim the dated styles of the recent past, discovering their fashions and artifacts in thrift shops or old movies. But camp is concerned with the styles of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, while punk history only begins with the postwar TV, youth, and suburban cultures. In other words, punk—like Howard Hawks's The Thing (l952), the first sci-fi film to be set in the post-atomic "Now"—dates from 1950.
For the pseudo-aristocratic camp sensibility, the key element in American popular culture is its mass-produced glamour; for pseudo-lumpen punk, it is America's mass-produced sleaze. Camp appreciates the Universal horror flicks of the '30s; punk, Roger Corman. The camp/ punk border is patrolled by the films of Paul Morrissey on one side, and those of John Waters on the other. The ultimate camp movie-star is, as Andrew Sayris dubbed her, the "deliriously defective" Maria Montez. The ultimate punk moviestar is most likely the doomed, adolescent James Dean; but then, while camp valorized the Hollywood goddess, punk fetishizes the TV terrorist. Camp's most romantic expressions are Sternberg's Dietrich films; punk's are Alphaville, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Camp's vanguard subculture was the homosexual; punk's is the alienated urban teen. The secret star of camp is the female impersonator; the sacred monster of punk is the doininatrix. Camp was obsessed with sexuality as a style; punk is obsessed with the aesthetics of violence.
If films of the '60s underground were often displaced orgies, the new super-8 films are shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge. Violence triumphs over sex as a libidinal spectacle, and when sex does break through it’s apt to be more sadomasochistic than polymorphously perverse. Many of the new films have political aspirations, but, in all save a few, their ideological stance—one foot in a fashionable art-world vacuum, the other in a decaying Third World slum—is unclear. "A fascination with violence, especially its iconography and rhetoric, pervades the current scene," wrote Mark Segal in his program notes for Amos Poe's 16mm punk feature, The Foreigner which played the Whitney last spring. As dreadful as this lackluster homage to Alphaville, Fassbinder, and CBGB was, The Foreigner is the avatar of the more talented super-8 films that have followed in its wake. Just as Jack Smith liberated the erotic content of a Hollywood "desert" film, the punk artist, like Poe, longs to take the aestheticized violence of 42nd Street or TV and release it from its nominal "moral" framework. An even more naive precursor to the super-8 underground would be The Legend of Nick Detroit, the 1976 Punk magazine fumetti concocted by Legs McNeill in which punk star Richard Hell vanquishes a band of "Nazi dykes"—including Blondie and Anya Phillips—against a backdrop of Lower East Side rubble.
Ambience aside, The Foreigner's most radical element as Segal noted was that it swerved "away from the moral and stylistic
codes of Hollywood" as well as "the cerebral refinement and cultural aspiration of the avant-garde." Take, as a more interesting ex periment along these lines, the Bs' maiden effort, G-Man, premiered here last fall. It's rambling 70-minute melodrama with Bill Rice—the slight, sad-faced off-off-Broadway actor who serves as the Bs emblem for the ultimate in middle-aged, bourgeois wimpery—playing the head of the NYPD "arson explosive squad." Interspersed with terrorist bulletins filmed off TV, a gaggle of trendy artworld types pretend to plant bombs around the city (talking credit for last summer's ice cream truck explosion of Fulton Street), while the abject Rice discovers his wife shooting smack in the shower, or crawls about in a nightie slobbering over his hired dominatrix's shoe.
G-Man is much too meandering to have maximum impact, but the Bs have tightened up their subsequent films, using rock club audiences to test their new work. Although I'd have to characterize the Max's crowd I saw The Offenders with as tolerant rather than rabid, the Bs have produced at least one film visceral enough to bold its own at a roller-disco on New Year's Eve. Their notorious Black Box was inspired, they say, by Amnesty International's description of the "refrigerator,” five-foot isolation cube rigged out with loudspeakers, strobe lights, and a climate control unit, manufactured by a Texas firm for "coercive persuasion" in Chile, Uruguay, and imperial Iran. With a grant from the National Endowment, the pair built their own version of the refrigerator, then employed it as their central prop.
The tight script, clever angles, and well-mixed soundtrack of Black Box encapsulate all the Bs' major themes—crime, mind control, sexual repression—with the "minimal perfect-build" aesthetic of the man-sized vibrating containers Scott produced in his 1975 sculptor days. The plot is simple. A passive innocent (Bob Mason) leaves his tawdry room—neon Big Brother sign blinking ominously through the window, Mission Impossible flickering on the TV, and amorous girlfriend draped across the bed—to be kidnapped Party Hearst-style by a gang of punk thought-police. Menaced by an ogreish mad scientist, stripped, hung upside down, and tormented by surly, "shut up and suffer", Lydia Lunch, Mason is finally crammed into the dread refrigerator, where he, and we, are bombarded by a 10-minute crescendo of sound and light.
It's easy enough to loathe Black Box, as many people do, but I find it impossible to dismiss. Working in the tradition of Orwell, Hitchcock, and Burroughs, the B's conjure up a parallel sense of seedy, malignant total tarianism. The film's title evokes the whole artifice of filmmaking and filmviewing, as its depiction of theatricalized suffering recalls one of the movies' most enduring spectacles. In a formal sense, Black Box reflects on the mind control exerted by every "thriller from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to Haloween (a favorite of theirs). The least that can be said for the Bs' blatant identification with their film's thought-police is that, given their roles as directors, its not hypocritical. Although my hunch is that the film misses beat in its box-to-box progression, the Bs Pandora-like exploration of the sound-and-light machine's repressed content may be the punk Wavelength. (Of course, for the Bs—hostile to structural film and oblivious to an earlier avant-garde—Michael Snow's 45 minute zoom is probably a worse torture than any devised by Lydia Lunch.)
The Bs' most recent film, the almost lyrical Letters to Dad, is a 15-minute meditation on authority that superimposes the spectre of Jonestown over the relatively fresh faces of the parapunk art world. The Bs asked two dozen artists and musicians to pick from the letters written to Jim Jones by his flock the phrase that he/she could most identify with. "We wanted to get at the brainwashing effect," they told me. The film is a series of superbly lit talking-heads mumbling, "Dad is the best thing that ever happened to me—he can make you feel so big and so small," or declaiming, "Being white-skinned, I never realized how enslaved I was by capitalism until you freed me," while the soundtrack's one-note anxiety hum and looped electronic gulp grow louder and louder. The joke, of course, is that all the participants are, or could be, talking about their own "dads,” but the film takes on a musical form—like a 20th-century ballad composed of subliminal behavior cues, advertising testimonials, and the text of the National Enquirer.
The Bs put themselves into the film a well. With a crazed glint, Scott comes on muttering how he won't beg for mercy, repeating, "I’ll proudly die for a proud reason, even if everyone else deserts you." Then Beth, overmugging for the camera, drawls "I think a lot about torture—about having my nails ripped out one by one. I wonder if I'll be able to hold out until I'm unconscious. I think a lot about torture...." .
Apparently they do. After they show me the film I scan the metal bookcase in their debris-littered loft and spot The American Police State, Evolution and the Modification of Behavior, The Trial, The Book of est, Coercive Persuasion, The Complete Guide to Hypnosis, and two copies of Mein Kampf huddled together on the shelf.
Meanwhile, Scott is telling me, "We want to be bigger than Star Wars," while Beth reveals her fondness for Woody Allen. You may call the Bs punks. I think they're space-age social realists.
No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground by Jim Hoberman 1979, Copyright Jim Hoberman and Village Voice