This article discusses cinematic extremes – on-screen sex and violence but also extremes of grain and texture and production cultures – in the work of several women directors closely associated with the underground film culture of downtown New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The article looks in particular at Bette Gordon’s feature debut Variety (1983, based on a script by Kathy Acker) and the associated documentation of the film by Nan Goldin (as exhibited in Ballad of Sexual Dependency and elsewhere), along with the short films and music videos of Beth B. (in particular “G-Man” and “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight”) and Vivienne Dick’s early films “Beauty Becomes the Beast” and “She Had Her Gun Ready”. To varying degrees the filmmakers are all associated with New York’s ‘no-wave’ creative milieu which formed an important part of the nascent punk/post-punk music scenes in North America and as such they are indebted to punk’s prevailing aesthetic and political dogmas (and economic pragmatism). Equally the films are shaped by the feminist discourse of the day – both touchstone scholarly texts by writers like Laura Mulvey, as well as the wider pro-sex / anti-porn debates taking place. They are films, says Joan Hawkins, that live ‘somewhere between official academic theory and a theory-savvy, streetwise ‘lay’ avant-garde style’. The article considers how these films mashed up punk’s ‘rip it up and start again’ approach with the ‘scorched earth’ aesthetics of feminist counter cinema. More broadly though, the article is interested in figuring out why this particular downtown scene (and the aesthetic playbook that underpinned it) was, briefly, such a fertile space for feminist filmmaking.

The anti-everything of No Wave was a collective caterwaul that defied categorization, defiled the audience, despised convention, shit in the face of history, and then split. – Lydia Lunch1

To cast your eye over the names of artists routinely associated with the fertile underground filmmaking culture of New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s – particularly so the film cultures closely intermingled with the so-called “No Wave” music scene – one of the first thing that stands out is the number of women integrally involved. Beth B, Bette Gordon, Vivienne Dick, Lydia Lunch, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, Sarah Driver, Kathryn Bigelow, Nan Goldin, Tina L’Hotsky, Lizzie Borden, Susan Seidelman, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Sara Hornbacher, and many others. The number of women filmmakers, writers and performers engaged in the broader scene as well as those who are cited as being absolutely central to the No Wave canon (as much as a canon is possible for such a resistant subculture), is striking. I can think of no other film movement that could claim the same.

To begin to understand the gender dynamic of No Wave cinema, it’s vital to take stock of the social contexts of its emergence.2 The late 1970s to early 1980s represent the peak years for No Wave, and New York’s underground punk bohemia more generally. Those same years also represent the peak of the so-called sex wars in which scholars, community activists, politicians, artists and others were engaged in a volatile public debate about women’s reproductive rights, about women’s right to enjoy sex safely and without fear of reproduction, and – most especially and most divisively – the correct ways that women should deploy those rights. This article focuses on three women filmmakers – Bette Gordon, Beth B and Vivienne Dick – who emerged from the midst of those overlapping cultural contexts. Their filmmaking practices were simultaneously shaped by a heated feminist debate about representations of women on-screen, sexual desire, pornography and violence, and a punk-inflected critique of popular culture and the fine arts establishment.

Feminist Cinemas

G-Man (Beth B, 1978). Courtesy of Beth B.

The early films made by Gordon, B and Dick offer a small but representative sample of the wider film culture that emerged through and in tandem with downtown New York’s No Wave music scene. They encompass film and art making right at the centre of the No Wave scene as well as activities happening somewhat on the periphery. The films also bookend the period in question, beginning with G-Man (Beth B and Scott B, 1978) and She Had Her Gun All Ready (Vivienne Dick, 1978) and closing with more commercial manifestations of downtown’s go-to themes in Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983) and the 1984 music video for “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” (Dominatrix, video by Beth B). The first of the filmmakers, Vivienne Dick, is an Irish artist who lived in New York for several years until the early 1980s, and made a series of short 8mm films, principally with friends and fellow No Wave musicians Lydia Lunch and Pat Place. Dick’s films, particularly She Had Her Gun All Ready and Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), are the best embodiment of the youthful scuzz and vernacular amateurism so characteristic of No Wave cinema. The two psychodramas – the former about a relationship between a sneering young woman (Lydia Lunch) who bosses about her mopey pal (Pat Place), the latter a fragmented life-story of a troubled American youth with Lunch playing both a five-year-old and a teenager – are filmed in lackadaisical takes, in a semi-improvised diaristic mode, and with a soundtrack of alternately No Wave noise and giddy 60s pop.

Feminist Cinemas

Beauty Becomes the Beast (Vivienne Dick, 1979). Courtesy of Vivienne Dick and LUX, London.

Feminist Cinemas

She Had Her Gun All Ready (Vivienne Dick, 1978). Courtesy of Vivienne Dick and LUX, London.

The films of Beth B exhibit a fixation with violence, power and sex (particularly terrorism, torture, cults, bdsm and black humour). Though they share a similar rough-hewn amateurism, B’s films eschew the diaristic, vernacular mode of Vivienne Dick’s work in favour of an in-your-face approach and a more explicit engagement with popular culture and trash aesthetics. Loosely based on Beth B’s experience working “at a whorehouse as a receptionist,” G-Man centres on the kinky proclivities of an otherwise straight-laced government official (Bill Rice) who, when not investigating the terrorist activities of an underground political group, submits to abuse and humiliation at the hands of a dominatrix (Sylvia Morales).3 Similar themes of power and abuse (both real and performed, on-screen and in the form of sensorial assaults on viewers) continued to be a part of Beth B’s subsequent work, including the bdsm-themed music video for the club hit “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” (the song about a downtown dominatrix needing a night off, the clip featuring a gang of dominatrices who take over a mechanics workshop).

Feminist Cinemas

The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight (Beth B, 1983). Courtesy of Beth B.

At a slight remove from No Wave cinema proper are Bette Gordon’s early films. In Gordon’s debut feature film Variety, “nice girl” Christine (Sandy McLeod) takes a job selling tickets at a neighbourhood hardcore porn cinema. Intrigued by the porn films that play in a perpetual loop in the background at her new job, Christine becomes involved in riskier and more risque behaviour – following a regular customer (and underworld figure) around the city and describing pornographic scenarios in detail to her boyfriend. The script for Variety was written by Kathy Acker, but the film is based on Gordon’s 1981 experimental 8mm short Anybody’s Woman (the title one of several nods to Dorothy Arzner’s pre-code films) which, along with Empty Suitcases (1980), was more rooted in the No Wave scene. In essence, Gordon migrated from structural film practice to more conventional narrative cinema via her involvement in the underground punk bohemia of downtown New York.

Focusing on these key films and filmmakers from across the headiest years of the downtown film scene and the headiest years of the “sex wars,” this paper attempts to answer a couple of questions. Namely, in what ways were these films actually ‘punk’ (or not)? Is there something about No Wave music (or the broader underground punk bohemia) which helped facilitate women filmmakers? More specifically, is there a connection – beyond the merely rhetorical – between No Wave’s “rip it up” approach and the “scorched earth” aesthetics of feminist counter-cinema?

“Fuck Virtuosity”

The central aesthetic and ideological premise that underpinned punk (music in the first instance and then the culture broadly) was its “clear the decks” and “back to basics” agenda. Punk was simultaneously a violent canonical rejection of the popular music of the day and an open-armed invitation to (youthful) amateurs that bordered on proselytism. “It was easy, it was cheap; go and do it!” and at the same time “I hate shit. I hate hippies and what they stand for. I hate long hair. I hate pub bands.”4 Those twin motives, negationary distaste and do-it-yourself amateurism are what defined just about everything else about punk. They carried over into the oppositional sensibility of the look and sound of punk, and into punk’s wider (irony-rich) critique of the popular media industries. And they are especially evident in punk’s visual culture, which made ready use of cheap and simple production strategies involving basic hand-drawn lettering, scribbles and doodles, cut-and-paste, photocopying, bricolage and later video, Super-8 and re-photography of film and television.

The same twin impulses play a vital role in shaping the so-called ‘No Wave’ and underground New York music scenes that provide the context for the filmmaking cultures I’m discussing here. For pedants No Wave isn’t strictly punk – Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks says “I hated almost the entirety of punk rock” – but in many ways it offered an extreme continuation of punk’s central premise.5 The scene combined an aggressive negation of both canonical and popular tastes together with an enthusiastic DIY call-to-arms that was very often more punk than punk. For the likes of Teenage Jesus, DNA, the Contortions, Mars and other bands central to the No Wave scene, their version of “clearing the decks” manifest not so much as back to basics authenticity as scorched earth annihilation. The music skews towards the noisiest aspects of free jazz and art rock, mixed with punk rock’s aggression and performance art’s confrontational showmanship. Canonical destruction extended beyond trashing the tastes of hippies and disco bunnies to include punk idols like the New York Dolls, Richard Hell, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and proto-punk darlings like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and The Stooges. For Lunch, none of them had been radical enough, she wanted the music canon to be “disembowelled”.6 As the poster child of No Wave, Lydia Lunch represents its most extreme (and loquacious) sentiments, but the distinctions she makes are important. Punk’s initial DIY call-to-arms said “it was easy, go do it,” meanwhile posted up all around the East Village was a flyer that read “everyone here is in a band”. Jon Savage argues that the essence of punk was about “stripping everything out” and in process creating the sense of an “apparent scarcity” of good bands; “Only three bands were cool in the past. Everything else sucked.”7 Meanwhile the micro-milieu of No Wave postured that there were no good bands at all and there never had been; “Destroy everything before 1976. It’s over. It’s incinerated.”8 Instead of encouraging you to start a band, let’s just assume you and everyone else are already in one. And instead of a scarcity of good music, there is a vacuum. Together that made for a rather more vehement (punk) bohemianism.

In myriad direct and indirect ways, the No Wave music scene and its extreme sensibilities percolated into New York’s independent and underground filmmaking culture. Participants of both the underground film and music scenes were drawn to the physical and cultural decay of downtown New York in the late 1970s; an exhilarating combination of cheap apartments, abundant squats and affordable living on the fringes of the city.9 They congregated together in the same neighbourhoods and frequented the same the same lower Manhattan clubs, which served as both band venues and screening venues (often on the same bill). Painters gave up art school to make music, musicians flirted with filmmaking, filmmakers were in bands, and all of them starred as semi-fictional versions of themselves in each other’s films.10 As in the best bohemian traditions, filmmakers and musicians (together with other like-minded artists, writers and dilettantes) were neighbours, lovers, friends, roommates, classmates and collaborators.

Finally, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, downtown’s underground film culture was also directly influenced by punk’s commitment to canonical rejection and thrifty DIY amateurism. For Jim Jarmusch, the overriding contribution that New York’s underground punk scene contributed to the local film culture was its disavowal of technical prowess and formal skill. Reflecting on the process of making his first feature – Permanent Vacation (1980) – shortly after dropping out of film school, during an improvised shoot which consisted primarily of following his real-life friend Chris Parker around the streets of downtown, Jarmusch described the influence of No Wave as follows:

If it hadn’t been for that music scene we probably wouldn’t have been making films. Rock and roll bands said, ‘Fuck virtuosity’ … That helped me and others to realize that even if we didn’t have the budget or the production structure to make films, we could still make them by using Super-8 and 16mm equipment and scratching funds together.11

True to the ‘fuck virtuosity’ spirit of No Wave, New York’s underground filmmakers shot quickly and casually, typically on Super-8, with miniscule budgets, little to no commercial rationale, and an amateur cast made up of friends and acquaintances. The final prints were assembled with minimal edits and post production, accompanied by a soundtrack of local musicians (or the filmmakers themselves, in the case of Beth and Scott B’s G-Man). Bette Gordon’s 8mm film Anybody’s Woman (1981) was made in just a week for $50, as an “emergency” response to the latest round of cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.12 The early 8mm films made by Beth B were put together so quickly and with so little money they resulted in what B jokingly calls a “poverty aesthetic”.13 More extreme again are Vivienne Dick’s films, with their spontaneous performances, haphazard camera work and “home movie logic”.14 Although ‘fuck virtuosity’ was without doubt a fiscal and technical prerequisite for the No Wave filmmakers, the gritty and rough-hewn look that it produced was also a much-coveted (punk) sensibility, relished not only for its denial of the craftsmanship and production values of commercial cinema, but also for the ways it disavowed many of the tropes and techniques of structural film. Although all three filmmakers came from a background in visual arts, they were ambivalent about New York’s visual arts and experimental film establishment. Beth B and Vivienne Dick in particular expressed disdain for the structural film canon and suspicion of its measures of value and accreditation.15 As J. Hoberman surmised at the time, the films were both “technically pragmatic” and “willfully primitive”.16

Feminist Cinemas

Anybody’s Woman (Bette Gordon, 1981).

The feminist potential embedded in punk’s DIY aesthetics and approach have been widely discussed, not least by the women musicians and culture makers directly involved. Linder Sterling, an essential voice in defining punk’s visual culture, describes the appeal of punk in terms of “cutting out” the need to ask for permission, “…It was all done very quickly and intuitively: the distance between having an idea and executing it was minimal.”17 In the realm of No Wave, you can find near identical testimony from dozens of women involved in the scene. For example, Ikue Mori (drummer with extreme art-punk band DNA) says that seeing Lydia Lunch hack her way through a performance with Teenage Jesus helped her realise that technique, discipline and training weren’t prerequisites for making music, “I thought, I can do that, too. …Lydia was my liberation.”18 Or as Vivienne Dick summarises succinctly, until punk came along, very few women “stood out” in prominent creative roles: “Punk was a great liberating thing for women.”19 The sentiments expressed in relation to feminism and the DIY culture of No Wave (and punk writ large) are pretty straightforward but I think they are sufficiently important to take a moment to repeat them. Women visibly doing and being in creative roles begets more women in those roles. Women in key creative roles (lead singer, director) begets more women in other creative roles (drummer, scriptwriter). The various stages of creative practice – school, training, technical mastery, accreditation, recognition, funding, opportunity, commercial potential – are overwhelming for many artists but more so for women. The shorter “the distance between an idea and its execution,” which “fuck virtuosity” and “disembowel the canon” achieves on multiple fronts, the more gender diverse a field rapidly becomes.

“Scorched Earth”

How is it, that a film culture so patently productive for women filmmakers is routinely understood in opposition to the touchstone feminist cinema of the day? Or indeed, why have the No Wave women filmmakers routinely been left out of historical accounts of this period of feminist experimental film, even among those writers explicitly seeking to expand the canon beyond a handful of names?20 In the 1970s a new feminist counter cinema began to emerge, one that explicitly sought to challenge the representational and structural qualities of classical narrative cinema which had, so the consensus went, overwhelmingly catered to a male desire for visual pleasure and dominance. Key to shaping and codifying this new feminist cinema was the critical work of Claire Johnston, Juliet Mitchell and in particular Laura Mulvey. As Mulvey explicitly states in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (the most “widely reprinted and influential theoretical essay of the era”) her intention was to destroy the conventional pleasures of Hollywood cinema through scholarly scrutiny.21 Both Johnston and Mulvey (among others) called for the creation and support of a feminist counter cinema. Answering her own call to action, Mulvey made Riddles of the Sphinx (with Peter Wollen, 1977), which attempted to put her theory into practice, refusing to present women as erotic objects and instead experimenting with new non-voyeuristic formal codes that denied the “ease and plenitude” of mainstream narrative cinema. Riddles of the Sphinx, together with other theory-rich cine-feminist texts (what E. Ann Kaplan dubbed the “avant-garde theory film”) – including Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (1974) and several Chantal Akerman films, most especially Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, although Je Tu Il Elle, 1974, and News From Home, 1977, are also regularly mentioned) – have come to exemplify the tone and approach of feminist cinema of the late 1970s. Collectively, these films were consciously engaged with contemporary feminist film theory (in the case of Potter, for example) or at the very least they were consciously engaged with the same broad themes and issues elsewhere identified by contemporary feminist film theory (for example Rainer, who critiqued the cinematic treatment of women’s bodies but resisted being identified with any particular cine-feminist discourse).22 The films are formally experimental, cerebral, minimal and they make for difficult or frustrating viewing. The cumulative effect is that they have routinely been read (often inaccurately) as severe, dour, humourless, austere, cold and wilfully unpleasant; opting for formally “correct” feminism at the expense of lust, longing, feeling or material sensuousness. Not least by Mulvey herself who later referred to this period of feminist cinema in terms of “scorched earth” and “ground zero” aesthetics.23

This period of “scorched earth” cine-feminism was established against the backdrop of a burgeoning hard-core adult film industry, increasingly vocal activism against gendered violence and emergent theories of rape culture, which eventually culminated in the so-called porn wars or sex wars of the early 1980s. Part of this wider feminist discourse involved the development of a moral position on what a “politically correct” feminist sexuality might be, that is, a position on how women might explore their sexuality and desire in a truly feminist way. Commonly this involved support for women-friendly erotica (as distinct from pornography) and ideals of an egalitarian sexual practice between partners. For Jane Gaines, the “scorched earth” aesthetics of feminist counter-cinema was the formal equivalent of a “politically correct” feminist sexuality: “Upholding feminist principles right down the line…The camera, like the lover, had to be respectful and gentle, not dominating or probing”. At both a political and aesthetic level, there was little tolerance “for those other feminists who profess to enjoy the charge of power differentials, whether in bed or in the cinema…”24

Feminist Cinemas

Anybody’s Woman (Bette Gordon, 1981).

Compared with the prevailing 1970s feminist counter cinema (or at least, compared to the prevailing historical accounts of it), the work made by Dick, Gordon and B is weird, kinky, funny, explicit and often entertaining and eminently watchable. The films are propulsive and pulpy, combining elements of assorted pop culture detritus from Hollywood genre cinema, cult horror and late night tv, to true crime fiction, talk show confessionals and B serials (so beloved of Beth B and Scott B, as their name attests). Variety, the most conventional of the films discussed here, is a raunchy neo-noir in which a pretty blonde cashier at a porno theatre, becomes fixated with a mysterious (and likely criminal) customer. Anybody’s Woman, the short film Gordon made as a precursor to Variety, features a similar premise interspersed with scenes of actors (Nancy Reilly and Spalding Gray) sitting in the Variety theatre delivering dirty monologues direct to camera, in which they describe a series of memorable encounters with extreme sexualities and hard-core cinema. Beth B and Scott B’s G-Man opens with a pig-tailed, gum-smacking novelist and terrorist, whose activities are later investigated by a counterinsurgency specialist who also pays a beautiful dominatrix to abuse him in sadomasochistic sexual encounters. Vivienne Dick’s film She Had Her Gun All Ready features Lydia Lunch as a belligerent young woman who belittles her brow-beaten friend (another No Wave musician, Pat Place), until one day the power dynamics change and Place’s character seeks a violent revenge. The film climaxes with Place strangling Lunch with a scarf while the pair (together with the film’s director) hurtle at breakneck speed around and around the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. Like much of punk culture writ large, the films revel in themes of violence, sexual deviancy, delinquency, organised crime, cults, terrorists, spies, torture, abuse and power.25 Rather than seeking to stringently avoid or invert Hollywood filmmaking conventions, No Wave appropriated and subverted the rhetoric of commercial film and television (often sourcing material from its most maligned archives). In keeping with the wider downtown art scene – particularly the so-called ‘Pictures Generation’ associated with artists like Ericka Beckman, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin (the latter of whom was firmly enmeshed in the No Wave scene, appearing in films and shooting production stills for Dick and Gordon) – popular cinema was a source of inspiration, raw material and a subject of exploration in its own right. The films revel in “sexual incorrectness,” with a focus on taboo sexuality (and women’s taboo sexuality in particular). And although they are evidently informed by radical politics and feminist critiques, their approach is less deferential and more contrary – what Joan Hawkins characterises as being “somewhere between official academic theory and a theory-savvy, streetwise ‘lay’ avant-garde style.”26

Feminist Cinemas

Feminist Cinemas

Feminist Cinemas

Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983).

Another reason for the marginalisation of No Wave cinema from feminist film history comes down to a matter of subcultural posturing. The artists associated with No Wave and the wider underground film scene consciously positioned themselves as outsiders. They specifically sought to distinguish themselves from what they saw as the elitist culture of the avant-garde film and art world of the time. Beth B and Scott B talk of “hating” the cerebral intellectualism and (in their view) wimpy political correctness of structural film and the visual arts establishment. Specifically, Beth B says she wanted to “get away from the formal spaces: the white walls, the rigid wooden chairs, No Smoking, No Drinking, No Eating; you sit and analyze; you intellectualize.”27 Likewise, in describing what drew her to the downtown film milieu, Vivienne Dick complains that the avant garde film cultures she encountered at NY spaces like Anthology Film Archives were inordinately “heavy”. In comparison, says Dick, her No Wave colleagues “took making film lightly; it was fun”.28 Bette Gordon was less explicit in her critique though no less emphatic, since she moved from producing structural films herself to making a deeply sensuous feature narrative film with commercial appeal (bordering on Indiewood if not Hollywood). No Wave’s DIY critique of the implicit hierarchies and refined tastes of the professionalised New York arts world (as they saw it) manifest in a rough and tumble cinema that was visceral, bratty, sometimes arch, sometimes silly, and often very, very pleasurable.

“Scorched Earth” or “Disembowelling”

As more and more writers expand on the project of revisiting and revising the feminist experimental cinema canon of this period, resisting the temptation to elide the movement’s many complexities and contradictions, much of the predominant historical narrative has started to unravel. For all the critical differences that exist between the formal experimentation of 1970s feminist counter-cinema and the irreverent subversiveness of the work by the women filmmakers associated with No Wave, there are many points of continuity. They share in common an amateur and community-driven production process in which friends, family members and the filmmakers themselves play different characters (or versions of themselves). They blend multiple film modes, namely diary, documentary and narrative. They draw attention to the methods of production in similarly self-conscious ways. And both cinemas prioritise presentations of women which are complex, diverse, incoherent, contradictory, difficult and in all ways resist easy identification. Moreover, on closer consideration, the touchstone “avant-garde theory films” didn’t entirely do away conventional cinematic pleasures. Sally Potter was always interested in combining popular pleasures with feminist politics (as evidenced by Orlando, 1992), and regularly expressed displeasure at the prospect of her work being relegated to the “ghetto” of women’s filmmaking when she sought a mainstream audience. As many writers have observed, Ackerman’s interiors are compositionally exquisite and there is a sensuous and deeply emotional quality to the way she presents domestic chores in Jeanne Dielman (which were, after all, based on her mother’s daily rituals). Ackerman’s otherwise minimal and formal films of the time also featured scenes of violent and taboo erotics that wouldn’t be out of place in downtown cinema (Jonas Mekas criticised the shock scissors-to-the-neck ending of Jeanne Dielman as a needlessly commercial).29 Even Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx has its share of pleasures. Almost as soon as she had penned “Visual Pleasure,” Mulvey says she wanted to move on to something altogether nicer. She uses the term “scorched earth” to refer not to Riddles of the Sphinx but an earlier film, Penthesilea (1974), and by the time she made Riddles Mulvey had already embraced “an aesthetic that didn’t just get its signification from negation.”30 Negation, it seems, was an unnecessary and unwelcome crutch.

It is on this last point, the engagement with methods of cultural and aesthetic negation, that I think the real and significant differences between the two feminist cinemas emerge. Theory-driven “scorched earth” feminist counter cinema emerged at the intersection of avant garde film practice, feminist politics and structuralist critique of cinema’s normative codes and conventions. Much of the problem of mainstream narrative cinema was understood in terms of formal structure and so the solution – the counter cinema that was advocated – was conceived along similar lines. If the “rules of thumb” that govern mainstream narrative cinema are irrevocably patriarchal, then a successful counter cinema must invent a new rulebook that inverts the logic of the old one. This approach was often realised in the most formally literal ways: if classical cinema’s camera “penetrates” the frame, moving from long shots to close ups, a feminist counter-cinema must stay wide and move horizontally; if classical cinema is shot from the perspective and spatial experience of a (presumed) male protagonist and male cinematographer, then a successful feminist counter-cinema must frame its shots lower, from the relative height of a woman, and so on. In sharp contrast, No Wave women exhibited a fervent, punk-fuelled commitment to the creation of an oppositional and often nihilistic anti-aesthetic. Negation was not just a formal strategy but a sensibility in its own right. So whereas Mulvey concluded that a cinema of “pure negation” was without emotion or pleasure, the No Wave filmmakers concluded that there were plenty of both to be found in “negation”. Rage, anger, boredom, depression, spite, snark, laziness, fear, embarrassment, guilt, self-loathing; these are the feelings and emotions that the cinema of Vivienne Dick, Bette Gordon and Beth B makes abundant room for. While they certainly don’t provide the conventional visual pleasures – the “ease and plenitude” – of Hollywood, the films offer plenty in the way of sensual punk poetics: visceral (feminine) aggression and confrontational shocks, violent distaste, radical amateurism, material degradation and decay, and in particular what Vera Dika describes as the “acidic color, excessive graininess, and gauzy images” of 8mm film stock.31 They approached filmmaking as the No Wave musicians had approached music – as if the (popular and avant garde) canon had been eviscerated and now they were going enjoy themselves mucking about in the sullied scraps. Whatever rhetorical similarities there are between “scorched earth” and “disembowelling” there are quite radical differences in the way the two cinemas refused to accept what was on offer.

To some extent the different approaches to negation can be understood in historical terms. Broadly speaking, the two cinemas represent both successive generations of feminisms (second and third wave) and successive generations of sub/counter-cultures (hippies and punks). The No Wave women filmmakers discussed in this article can be thought of as the bratty younger sisters of second wave feminists, taking for granted the early accomplishments and pathways forged, but with a much greater appreciation for the performative aspects of sexuality and gender and thoroughly disinterested in being instructed on how to be a “correct” feminist (filmmaker). Certainly this is how Joan Hawkins understands the moment, describing the downtown filmmakers as a kind of “pre-third wave” who “overlapped” with second wave feminists, operating at “the intersection of two different moments in feminist film theory”.32 Equally importantly, the No Wave women filmmakers also represent brittle, coal-eyed ‘80s punks demonstrating predictable disdain for the tastes and traditions of a ‘70s hippy avant garde. Whatever ideological polemics and ‘scorched earth’ approach is championed in parts of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure,” the essay is also laced with self-important hippy rhetoric about building a new world order, of “leaving the past behind” “in order to conceive of a new (politically correct) language of desire”.33 Compared to the revolutionary poetics of the hippy counter culture, punk was a pre-millennial cult. It had a frantic end of days energy, which in the case of No Wave manifest as a manic, gleeful, romantic nihilism.

Feminist Cinemas

Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983).

But another important way to understand these differences is not simply as generational or historical, but rather as differences between “acceptable” and what Judith Halberstam calls “shadow feminisms”. Using Valerie Solanas’ extremist SCUM Manifesto (1967) as a quintessential example, Halberstam describes “shadow feminisms” as having “long haunted the more acceptable forms of feminism that are oriented to positivity, reform, and accommodation rather than negativity.”34 Although it advocates for the total rejection of the language of mainstream cinema, Mulvey’s structuralist critique also proposes the creation of a viable alternative paradigm in the form of a new, better, more correct language. As expressed in Riddles of the Sphinx, Mulvey’s theory attempts to replace negative representations and constructions of women (as passive objects, raw material for the sexual desire of active male protagonists) with alternative positive ones (women as diverse subjects, as critical thinker, worker, mother, daughter, friend). But in keeping with Halberstam’s description of shadow feminisms, the women in the early films of Gordon, Dick and B, are “unbecoming” in all senses of the word: unstable, unravelling, unappealing, unpleasant and utterly inappropriate.35 No Wave cinema was not so much interested in rejecting the sexual objectification of women by a heterosexual male gaze, but moreover in a wholesale rejection of heteronormative adulthood writ large; of mother and father, of straightness, squareness, marriage, family, domesticity, and of being – in the parlance of punk – a grown up. There is no positive agenda here, no reform offered. What anchors the films instead is the way they ruthlessly reflect cultural and cinematic tropes back to the viewer “like a funhouse mirror” – skewered, distorted, funny, and strange.36

To return once again to one of the opening questions – what did a punk or a No Wave aesthetic actually manifest as on screen? – it is this last point that I think demonstrates the most compelling connection between No Wave music and the cinema that emerged alongside it. Beyond the amateur and DIY production cultures, the roughly assembled, improvisational style, and preoccupation with themes of sexual deviancy, criminal gangs, violence and abuse – what they really share in common is a worldview from perspective the gutter. True to the origins of the term “punk” – to describe the lowest, youngest member of a criminal gang’s ranks (with all the catamite overtones that “young male apprentice” suggests) – the films discussed in this essay revel in extreme lows: low budget, low value, lo-fi, lowbrow, up-skirt, and under the spiked heel of a dominatrix’s boot, but also, less obviously, low feelings, low-paying jobs, low-status lifestyles. To paraphrase Kathy Acker’s description of her own debased interests, the early films of Beth B, Vivienne Dick, Bette Gordon offer a view “looking up from the bottom to see society in a different way.”37


This article has been peer reviewed



  1. Lydia Lunch, “Foreword: July 10, 2007” In Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. No Wave Post-Punk Underground New York 1976-1980. (New York: Abrams Image, 2008), p. 4.
  2. For the sake of brevity and clarity of expression, I’m choosing to use the phrase ‘No Wave’ and ‘No Wave cinema’ to refer to a cross section of underground artistic, music and filmmaking (sub)cultures centred around downtown Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not all of those involved did/do identify with the label ‘No Wave’ and even among those that do, there are varying levels of identification and engagement.
  3. Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 206.
  4. “It was easy…” from the Desperate Bicycles single released 1977. “I hate shit…” Johnny Rotten speaking at the Sex Pistols’ first music press interview in 1976.
  5. Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), p. 51.
  6. Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), p. 60.
  7. Jon Savage, “A Punk Aesthetic” in Punk: An Aesthetic, Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, eds. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2012), p. 346.
  8. Thurston Moore quoted in Blank City, directed by Celine Danhier (2010; San Francisco, CA: Kanopy Streaming, 2011), VOD.
  9. To look at them from 40 years hence, the burnt-out apartment-carcasses, graffiti-covered subways and rubble-strewn streets of downtown neighbourhoods – lovingly documented in films like Empty Suitcases (Bette Gordon, 1980), Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch, 1980) and Downtown 81 (Edo Bertoglio, 1981) – resemble a post-apocalyptic war zone more than they do Manhattan. No wonder downtown’s artistic immigrants felt like urban “pioneers” at the end of times. See for example, Bette Gordon and Joan Hawkins, “Interview with Bette Gordon,” in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p. 136.
  10. Vivienne Dick played organ for the short-lived band Beirut Slump with Lydia Lunch, who in turn starred in several of Dick’s films. Lunch also starred in films by Beth B and Scott B, some of which were made to screen at Teenage Jesus gigs and later they all toured Europe together on a double bill. Vivienne Dick also appeared in Bette Gordon’s Empty Suitcases (along with downtown artist Nan Goldin). Artist/musician/filmmaker/actor John Lurie did the soundtrack for Variety and he later appeared with Lunch and her one-time housemate James Chance in Rome 78, directed by painter James Nares who also played guitar with James Chance in the Contortions and with Jim Jarmusch in the Del-Byzanteens. You get the general idea.
  11. Jim Jarmusch, Jim Jarmusch: Interviews (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississipi, 2001), p. 90.
  12. Bette Gordon and Joan Hawkins, “Interview with Bette Gordon,” in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), pp. 139-140.
  13. Jack Sargeant. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. (London: Creation Books, 1995), p. 13.
  14. J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground” (1979) in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p. 16.
  15. Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 194; 204. J. Hoberman also describes the B’s as “hostile to structural film and oblivious to an earlier avant-garde” in “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground” (1979), Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p. 20.
  16. J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground” (1979) in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p. 15
  17. Sterling describing the design process involved with producing graphics for bands like the Buzzcocks and later on the influential punk zine The Secret Public. Quoted in Jon Savage, “A Punk Aesthetic” in Punk: An Aesthetic, Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, eds. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2012), p. 148
  18. Quoted in Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. No Wave Post-Punk Underground New York 1976-1980. (New York: Abrams Image, 2008), p. 33.
  19. Quoted in Alison Nastasi, “‘Punk Was a Great Liberating Thing for Women’: Filmmaker Vivienne Dick on No Wave and Making Art in ’70s New York,” Flavorwire, 27 March 2015, http://flavorwire.com/511514/punk-was-a-great-liberating-thing-for-women-filmmaker-vivienne-dick-on-no-wave-and-making-art-in-70s-new-york
  20. For example B. Ruby Rich’s history of the period Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998) and Robin Blaetz, ed. Women’s Experimental Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007). A couple of recent historical reconsiderations which have discussed the No Wave filmmakers include Joan Hawkins, ed. Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001 (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015) and Vera Dika The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  21. Scott MacDonald, “American Avant-Garde Cinema from 1970” in American Film History: Selected Readings, 1960 to the Present, Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon, eds. (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), p. 245 and Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 16.
  22. B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), pp. 105-106.
  23. Laura Mulvey in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), p. 334.
  24. Jane Gaines, “Feminist Heterosexuality and Its Politically Incorrect Pleasures,” Critical Inquiry 21.2 (Winter 1995): p. 399.
  25. Although not discussed here, the ensuing ‘cinema of transgression’ which emerged out of the same underground film contexts would pursue those interests to much greater extremes. See in particular Jack Sargeant. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. (London: Creation Books, 1995).
  26. Joan Hawkins, “Downtown Cinema Revisited” in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p. xv.
  27. Quoted in Jack Sargeant. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. (London: Creation Books, 1995), p.14.
  28. Quoted in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p.194.
  29. Quoted in B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998) p. 68.
  30. Laura Mulvey in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), p. 334.
  31. Vera Dika The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 59.
  32. Joan Hawkins, “Pleasure and Danger: Bette Gordon’s Variety” in Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001, Joan Hawkins, ed. (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2015), p.122-124.
  33. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 16.
  34. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), p. 4.
  35. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), p. 125.
  36. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), p. 137.
  37. Quoted in Robert Siegle, Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

About The Author

Maura Edmond is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Monash University. Her work on art, media and culture has been published in New Media and Society, Television and New Media, Overland, Senses of Cinema, Art and Australia and the Routledge Companion to Global Cultural Policy (Routledge, 2018).

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