The 1970s saw the institutionalization of experimental cinema, as celluloid seers and weirdos left their day jobs (or lack thereof) and took up teaching positions at various state universities (namely Binghamton and Buffalo) and art schools (namely the San Francisco Art Institute). Critic P. Adams Sitney, among others, had won attention for artists' films, and the sorts of severe, minimalist movies being made lent themselves to academic instruction. A reactionary movement was probably in order, and the avant-garde found one in what was called punk or no wave cinema. Sustained by the downtown music scene that supplied its actors and spurred on by the new, cheap Super-8 format, no wave cinema was defined by its embrace of spectacle, emphasis on acting out and rejection of formalism. Time hasn’t necessarily been kind to no wave cinema. It’s often left out of the academic histories it was rebelling against, which frequently move from the structural filmmaking of the 70s to people like Su Friedrich without so much as a footnote for the punks. This could be a testament to the genuinely radical nature of the enterprise—the culture they rejected failed to assimilate them!—but could also be a matter of people simply losing interest in the films.
But in the past year or so, like a lost continent, the films and videos of Vivienne Dick have been resurfacing, impressing critics and audiences and showing that the no wave wasn’t always know nothing.
Along with being exceptionally beautiful at unexpected moments, Dick’s films are remarkable for a witty but intense social consciousness. Why Dick seemingly hasn’t been on the radar for years would probably make a good subject for a class on feminist historiography, but it’s nice that LUX in London has released her work on DVD and that it’s been making the rounds at festivals and art galleries. In terms of mood, Dick’s early work most resembles the early collaborations between Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith, films like Blonde Cobra and Little Stabs at Happiness. The latter film seems particularly relevant; in it, Smith lounges around, mugs for the camera, does nothing much and then does something striking like chew the crotch of a doll while staring you directly in the eyes, thereby recasting the previous shenanigans, loading them with strange resonance. Patterns of punctured stasis often structure Dick’s movies.
Dick’s first film, Guerillere Talks (1978), is a series of eight reel-length, in-camera-edited portraits of New York women. Undoubtedly owing something to Warhol’s screen tests, these vignettes are more homey, casual, less austere; Dick already has an eye for the key detail captured at some off-kilter angle, seemingly tossed in there without much thought. Dick’s second film, She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978), is a chilled-out psychodrama that, with its entwined, symbiotic and opposed female leads, recalls Bergman’s Persona, Altman’s 3 Women and even Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female. What you can make out of a plot concerns no wave goddess Lydia Lunch’s obsession with crushing the spirit of an affectless Pat Place, who in turn becomes obsessed with Lunch. The feminist-underdog twist is that Place lashes out and tries to strangle Lunch on a rollercoaster (while Dick, behind camera, struggles to keep the two in frame). Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979) is a meandering, 40-minute testament to improvised playacting and barely suffused rage. The start of the film juxtaposes exteriors of nameless New York (where an adult—Lunch again—seems to be playing a little girl) with interiors of a nondescript apartment (where Lunch seems to be playing a teenager), but this is before Lunch has a freak-out nightmare in which low-tech ghouls either want to kill her, or make kiss-kiss, or both. Lunch wakes from the dream standing in front of a vacant lot and has apparently accessed either repressed fantasies or repressed memories, which she relates to the viewer in a few gnomic phrases, like “I had a dream that you stitched up my pussy, Daddy,” and “I don’t want a corpse in my mouth.” (Neither do I, Lydia!)
The 80s found the expat Dick making movies back in her Irish homeland. There are probably personal reasons for this, but I’d also like to think she just wanted to get away from Reagan. Visibility: Moderate (1981) is a fake travelogue that follows an American tourist who, probably unlike most tourists, is actually interested in the subtleties of Irish politics. Rothac (1986) shows Dick moving from no-fi to lo-fi, being a 16mm portrait of the Irish countryside, the lyrical beauty of the landscape undermined by a dissonant soundtrack. A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994) is the most recent and the most straightforward Dick movie playing this week. An account of Dick’s childhood set to contemporary images of her extended family, Little Man’s tone is situated somewhere between Steve Reinke’s lazy confessions and Su Friedrich’s more formally precise autobiographical films. “I look at mouths when I speak or listen; eyes say too much,” intones Dick as she follows her family from behind. It’s perhaps this reluctance to engage too directly that gives Little Man, and Dick’s other films, their beguiling charm—they’re all confessions, but halting ones; they speak to you, but refuse to look you in the eyes.