The Glasgow Short Film Festival sheds light on influential area of US cinema
Focus on No Wave DIY ethos of 1970s and 80s New York
No wave is a difficult term to pin down. The bands that collected together as part of this late-1970s and early-80s New York scene – The Bush Tetras, James Chance and the Contortions, DNA and Lydia Lunch’s outfit Teenage Jesus and the Jerks – had little to connect them other than a spirited, DIY ethos and an often violently overspilling sense of fun. Latterly, DJs and record labels including Glasgow’s own Optimo have catalogued and promoted this music, bringing its more danceable rhythms to a new audience of fans. Now it’s the turn of the Glasgow Short Film Festival to shed some light on the period’s cinema.
‘The filmmakers were very much coming from the same DIY ethos as the punk and post-punk music scene,’ says George Clark, the programmer of the two No Wave strands showing at the festival. ‘In the same way that people started picking up guitars and forming bands without any formal training, people started picking up 8mm cameras and making movies. The period has largely been understood and unified in retrospect, but there was an incredibly diverse range of work produced during this time – film, video, performance, art, music, poetry – that often blurred the lines between these areas. Many filmmakers were in bands for example.’
This is true of Vivienne Dick, an Irish-born filmmaker who moved to New York in the 1970s to shoot Super 8 shorts and play organ in Lydia Lunch’s pre-Teenage Jesus band Beirut Slump. ‘I saw a picture of Patti Smith in The Village Voice,’ she remembers. ‘And that brought me down to [legendary punk rock venue] CBGBs, and I was like, “woah, what’s going on around here?” So I moved down to the Lower East Side.’ There, Dick collaborated with performers including Lunch, and Pat Place from The Bush Tetras to produce some stark, but witty and playful films that documented what Dick calls her ‘extended adolescence’.
‘The performers would forget I was there with the intention of filming, and they’d start messing around; put on a record, do whatever. And then I’d start filming. It’s on the edge of being documentary and fiction – it slithers between the two.’
Dick’s She Had Her Gun All Ready showing as part of No Wave 1: The Blank Generation, follows Place and Lunch on a fun-finding mission that leads them to Coney Island and, eventually, into a fight with each other. It will show after the 1979 CBGBs documentary, Punking Out, that features footage of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols on untouchable, snarling form. The second programme, subtitled ‘The Para-Punk Underground’ explores the scene’s move into the cinema of transgression, with films including Beth B and Scott B’s Letters to Dad and Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s Baby Doll, both of which manage to be political and irreverent in equal measure.
Writing in The Village Voice in 1979, critic Jim Hoberman attempted to sum up no wave’s practices: ‘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.’
But classification is perhaps unnecessary considering that so many of no wave’s key players despised the idea they might be part of a movement. The simple joy of the work elevated it above muddy, postmodern theorising. ‘I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker even,’ concludes Dick. ‘I was just doing, making something to show.’