NO NEW CINEMA: Punk and No Wave Underground Film 1976-1984 By Harris Smith It’s a classic piece of Lower

East Side urban mythology. Sometime around 1977, a dealer in “gray market” goods, know as Freddy the Fence, on East Houston street, acquired a case of new Super-8 Sound cameras. When members of the neighborhood’s then thriving but still very underground punk music and arts scene got wind of this, they leapt on the opportunity to get their hands on these cameras for cheap, and the result was a nearly five year boom in underground filmmaking on the Lower East Side. This brief movement, which had no particular name but is sometimes referred to as “No Wave” (after the underground music scene it shared many players in common with) or “New Cinema” (after a short-lived screening room on St. Mark’s Place run by several filmmakers on the scene), remains largely unknown, and yet had a significant impact on both underground film, spawning the Cinema of Transgression (Beth B, Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Tessa Hughes-Freeland and others) and the notion of mainstream independent film in New York (Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo). By the time Freddy the Fence made the scene, a young Israeliborn filmmaker named Amos Poe, along with Czech-born Patti Smith Group bassist and Iggy Pop guitarist Ivan Kral, had already taken a movie camera to the neighborhood’s punk scene with “The Blank Generation” in 1976. Poe’s first film is comprised of silent 16mm footage of bands playing at CBGBs accompanied by music from the bands records (including some earlier versions of songs that would later show up on popular records, and rarer tunes like Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”). Among the artists featured are some of the seminal punk bands of the era, many poised on the brink of mainstream popularity, like the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie as well as more esoteric but still legendary acts like Television, Richard Hell and Wayne County and several more obscure bands like the Marbles, the Tuff Darts, the Miamis and the Shirts. Lacking synch sound, the film is more document than documentary (a more “professional” but less intimate and musically diverse portrait of the CBGBs scene, “Punking Out” (1977) exists but remains more obscure and harder to find than Poe’s film), but the dedication to the scene, sharp cinematography and interesting stage footage between musical numbers suggest a talent that would become more evident in Poe’s three major underground feature films, “Unmade

Beds” (1976), “The Foreigner” (1978) and “Subway Riders” (1981), as well as his more mainstream work, like “Alphabet City” (1984) and the underrated “Frogs For Snakes” (1999). “Unmade Beds” and “The Foreigner” typify the kind of work to come from the filmmakers on the scene. In “Unmade Beds”, downtown painter Duncan Hannah plays a photographer in contemporary New York who believes he is a character in a French New Wave film. Poe cleverly uses Frenchlooking architecture and street signs to create the faÁade. The cast includes such luminaries of the scene as Patti Astor (a regular in underground films of the time), Debbie Harry of Blondie and Frenchborn filmmaker Eric Mitchell. Mitchell takes the starring role in “The Foreigner” as Max Menace, a secret agent from an unnamed country who arrives in New York on an unspecified mission and finds himself in the midst of undefined mystery and intrigue. In one of the films more memorable scenes, Menace is attacked and slashed with a razor (for real, according to Mitchell) by the Cramps in the bathroom of CBGBs while the Erasers play onstage. Also in “The Foreigner” are Duncan Hannah, Patti Astor, Debbie Harry, photographer/singer Anya Phillips and Poe himself. Poe also appeared in Edo Bertoglio’s film “Downtown 81” with Jean Michel-Basquiat, Eszter Balint, Debbie Harry, David McDermott, John Lurie and many others from the downtown scene. The film, written by Glenn O’ Brien (a writer for Interview magazine and the host of “TV Party”, a cable access showing focusing on the downtown punk and art scenes), remained unfinished until the late 1990s, when it received a brief theatrical release. Much of the original sound was lost, so the late Basquiat’s voice had to be re-dubbed by poet Saul Williams. Alongside Poe, Mitchell proved one of the major players in the downtown film scene. Like Poe, his work was infused with the energy of the punk and underground art scenes, influenced by the French New Wave and the American underground films of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, and dealt with issues of displacement and alienation. One of the earliest super-8 films of the scene is Mitchell’s “Kidnapped” (1978). Stylistically similar to Andy Warhol’s early films (it particularly resembles “Vinyl”, Warhol’s pre-Kubrick version of “A Clockwork Orange”), “Kidnapped” is essentially centered on the personalities of a group of people gathered in a room. It is technically primitive, consisting of several rolls of super-8 sound film spliced together, with the only cuts the splices, and the film ending when the last roll runs out. There is no post-production sound, so all the music is played on an on-screen tape player. In many shots, the script can be seen taped to the wall behind the actors, who include Patti Astor, Anya Phillips and Duncan Smith. The personalities of actors, combined with Mitchell’s

scenario make the film work. Far more technically accomplished is Mitchell’s “Red Italy” (1979). A noirish film, it uses locations like the Lower East Side, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel to recreate a punkishly reimagined postwar Europe. Jennifer Miro stars as a bored, rich woman who falls first for an American G.I., then a communist worker. Also in the cast are Patti Astor, Rene Ricard, James Nares, Mitchell himself and a band consisting of the likes of John Lurie (of the Lounge Lizards) and Arto Lindsay (of the band DNA) playing a cool, ragged cover of Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula”. Mitchell’s best-known films are “Underground USA” (1980) and “The Way It Is” (1983). The latter is a remake of “Sunset Boulevard” by way of Warhol/Morrisey’s “Heat”. Mitchell stars as a down and out hipster hustler who hooks up with an aging movie star played by Patti Astor. Also in the cast are Rene Ricard, Cookie Mueller, John Lurie and Taylor Mead. “The Way It Is”, Mitchell’s last feature to date, features the first major film roles for Steve Buscemi and Vincent Gallo, who also composed and performed (and released on his own record label) the film’s score. In addition to his prolific work as a filmmaker and actor, Mitchell proved to be something of a leader to the “No Wave” film scene as well. In 1979, along with James Nares and Becky Johnston, he created the New Cinema, a video screening room on St. Mark’s Place dedicated entirely to showing underground films. Although the venture didn’t last more than a year, it provided many underground filmmakers of the time an opportunity to actually get their work seen, and many others an opportunity to actually see it. Mitchell’s New Cinema cohorts, James Nares and Becky Johnston, were filmmakers as well. English-born Nares, who played in seminal no wave band the Contortions and the Del-Byzanteens (with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Phil Kline, Phillipe Hagen and author Luc Sante), was one of the less prolific filmmakers of the time, but one of the more creative. His “Rome ‘78” is perhaps the most epic film of the No Wave scene, a no budget retelling of the story of Caligula. Shot around various old looking NYC locales (and some not so old looking ones, like graffiti strewn downtown alleyways), the film makes light of its budgetary limitations, flaunting them with punk rock defiance. In some scenes, actors can be seen wearing wristwatches, and often in the exterior shots cars can be seen driving by in the background. As much as any other film of the time, “Rome ‘78” works, because it is not afraid to not take itself too seriously, yet remains within the framework in a fairly serious film. The cast includes Eric Mitchell, David McDermott, Anya Phillips, John Lurie, James Chance (of the Contortions) and Lydia Lunch (of the band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks). “Rome ‘78” was followed by a documentary, “No Japs At My

Funeral” in 1980, and a rather brilliant avant-garde super-8 short “Waiting for the Wind” in 1981. Nares also shot Becky Johnston’s “Sleepless Nights” in 1980. Johnston would go on to find success in the world of mainstream film writing screenplays for the Prince movie “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986), as well as “The Prince of Tides” (1991) (for which she received an Oscar nomination) and “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997). James Nares, on the other hand, mostly retired from film in the early 1980s and has found success as a painter. He appeared in the short film “Modern Young Man” with Bill Rice and filmmaker Tom Jarmusch in 1999. Another prolific director of the New Cinema was Irish-born Vivienne Dick. Her films include “Guerillere Talks” (1978), “She Had Her Gun All Ready” (1978), “Beauty Becomes the Beast” (1979) and “Liberty’s Booty” (1980). Dick’s work tended towards the abstract more so than many of her contemporaries, but was no less engaging and energetic. Like many filmmakers of the time, she drew upon the underground music scene of the Lower East Side, both in terms of energy and the performers themselves. Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8-Eye Spy) was a frequent star of her films, as was Pat Place, guitarist for the Contortions and Bush Tetras. The two were teamed in one Dick’s best films, “She Had Her Gun All Ready.” In the movie, Lunch stalks Place from the East Village to Coney Island and eventually kills her. The film utilizes its performers and New York locales to create a thrilling atmosphere, despite the fact that very little actually occurs during the course of the narrative. Vivienne Dick continues to make films and videos today. She currently resides in Ireland. Developing around the same time as New York’s punk and no wave music scenes were hip-hop, break dancing and graffiti culture. Filmmaker Charlie Ahearn came into contact with this bourgeoning movement while shooting his super-8 martial arts epic “The Deadly Art of Survival” around the projects of the Lower East Side in 1979. After finishing the film “Twins” in 1980, Ahearn turned his camera towards the hip-hop scene, first shooting a video of New York’s first Hip Hop Convention, then with the 16mm feature film “Wild Style” (1982). In the film, Ahearn drew upon the filmmaking principles of the No Wave scene (as well as some of its performers, including Patti Astor, Bill Rice and Blondie’s Chris Stein, who contributed to the musical score) but remained firmly dedicated to presenting an accurate and authentic portrait of hip-hop. The film’s star is Lee Quninones, a real life graffiti artist who, in part due to his connection with Ahearn, found some success on the downtown art scene. Among the musicians featured in

the film are Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble and several other legends of the early New York hip hop scene. Upon its release, “Wild Style” played to packed audiences on 42nd street for several weeks. Despite its success, Ahearn turned from narrative film to painting and video art for most of the 1980s and 1990s, creating a video journal through the window of his Times Square apartment in “Doing Time in Times Square” (1991) and an acclaimed series of artist portrait videos. In 1999 he returned to feature film with “Fear of Fiction.” In addition to his films, Ahearn was, along with his twin brother John, active in the art world as a member of Collaborative Projects, the artists collective responsible for many legendary shows around New York City, mostly famously the Times Square Show in 1980. Also active in Collaborative Projects were husband and wife team Beth and Scott B (since divorced). Together and separately, the duo’s dark, abrasive cinematic style and harsh thematic content were instrumental in the genesis of the Cinema of Transgression, a mid1980s wave of low-budget super-8 and 16mm filmmakers influenced by the New Cinema and punk scenes, but more focused on films centered around explicit sex, graphic violence and other shocking images. Together, Beth and Scot B made the films “Black Box” (1978), “G-Man” (1978), “The Offenders” (1979), “Letters to Dad” (1979), “The Trap Door” (1980) and the feature film “Vortex” (1983), frequently casting Bill Rice and Lydia Lunch as well as such underground figures as author Gary Indiana, Ann Magnuson (of the band Bongwater), filmmaker Jack Smith, Adele Bertei (of the Contortions), John Lurie, Evan Lurie, Walter Lure (of the Heartbreakers and Richard Hell and the Voidoids), Pat Place, designer Anna Sui, actor James Russo and even character actor Dick Miller, a regular in the films of Roger Corman. On his own, Scot B. made the super-8 shorts “The Specialist” (1984) and “Last Rights” (1985). Beth B., meanwhile, has continued to make films and videos in a variety of medias, from avant-garde shorts like “Belladonna” (1989) and “Thanatopsis” (1991) to narrative features like “Salvation” (1986) and “Two Small Bodies” (1993) and documentaries like “Visiting Desire” (1996) and “Breathe In, Breathe Out” (2000). In addition to these principal players, many others were making films around the fringes of the No Wave/New Cinema scene: Musician/actor John Lurie directed the hilarious 1980 super-8 film “Men In Orbit” in which he and Eric Mitchell play chainsmoking astronauts, as well as a remake of “The African Queen” starring James

Chance and taking place entirely in Lurie’s bathtub. Swedish-born Anders Grafstrom made the 1980 super-8 feature film “The Long Island Four.” A success on the underground film circuit, “The Long Island Four” was based on a true story about four Nazi spies who landed in New York in 1942, but found more interest in the local nightlife than in their original mission. The cast includes David McDermott, Patti Astor, future “Sixteen Candles” star Gedde Watanabe and electronic music pioneer Klaus Nomi, many of whose early performances were filmed by the director. Sadly, Grafstrom was killed in an auto accident shortly after finishing “The Long Island Four.” Some of his footage of Nomi was used in the 1980 video “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video.” Collaborative Projects artists Michael McClard made films of the Contortions in concert in 1978 and a short called “Alien Portrait” in 1979. McClard was also a co-founder of All Color News and Communications Update, two early cable access documentary programs rooted in the downtown arts and punk scenes. Also making films on No Wave bands was Paul Tschinkel, who shot footage of Lydia Lunch’s Eight-Eyed Spy in 1980 and Arto Lindsay’s DNA in 1981. Future music video director Michael Oblowitz made the feature “King Blank” in 1983, towards the end of the No Wave scene. The film, starring Ron Vawter (later in films by Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderberg) and Will Patton (later a character actor in many Hollywood films), is notable mainly for its unrelenting willingness to be unrelentingly negative and unpleasant. Oblowitz later directed the mainstream indie “This World, and Then the Fireworks” (1997), based on a novel by Jim Thompson, as well as several direct to video films like “On The Borderline” (2000), “The Breed” (2001), and “Out For A Kill” and “The Foreigner” (no relation to Amos Poe’s film), both from 2003 and both starring Steven Segal. Bette Gordon had been making short films throughout the 1970s, and made “Empty Suitcases” (1980) and the acclaimed feature “Variety” (1985) around the No Wave cinema scene. “Variety” starred Will Patton, photographer Nan Goldin and character actor Luiz Guzman and featured an excellent jazz score by John Lurie. Gordon taught film classes at Columbia and directed for television throughout the late-80s and 90s, then returned to feature filmmaking in 2000 with the mainstream indie “Luminous Motion.” Gordon’s then-husband, Tim Burns, from Australia, was also active in the downtown underground film, video, theater and art communities. Together, the two made the video “What Is It, Zach?” in 1983.

Like Bette Gordon, filmmaker Lizzie Borden drew heavily upon feminist themes in her work. Borden’s 1983 feature “Born In Flames” was one of the most ambitious feature films to come out around the edges of the New Cinema film scene. Shot on a miniscule budget, “Born In Flames” takes place 10 years in the future, after a peaceful Socialist uprising. The film chronicles the story of a group of feminist revolutionaries who, dissatisfied with the treatment of minorities of the new regime, rise up against it. In the cast are Becky Johnston, Adele Bertei, Ron Vawter, performance artist Eric Bogosian and Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow, then active in the downtown arts scene, would soon go on to direct her own feature film, “The Loveless” (1982), which was Willem Dafoe’s first movie, then more mainstream films like “Near Dark” and “Point Break.” Lizzie Borden, meanwhile, would go on to make the award winning feature “Working Girls” (1986) and the controversial mainstream indie film “Love Crimes” in 1992. Lizzie Borden and Bette Gordon both also directed episodes of the late 1980s television horror anthology program “Monsters”, as did filmmaker Sara Driver. In 1981, Driver made “You Are Not I”, based on a Paul Bowles short story and starring Suzanne Fletcher, Evelyn Smith and Luc Sante. The movie was well received by the underground. Driver’s co-writer, co-producer and cinematographer was Jim Jarmusch, who also shot her ethereal 1985 feature film “Sleepwalk”, also starring Suzanne Flectcher, with Ann Magnuson, Steve Buschemi, Bill Rice and future “Candyman” star Tony Todd. Driver’s most recent film is “When Pigs Fly” (1996), co-produced by Jarmusch and starring Alfred Molina, Marianne Faithfull and Seymour Cassel, and featuring music by Joe Stummer of the Clash. Jim Jarmusch was another figure on the edges of the New Cinema. He had played in the Del-Byzanteens with James Nares and worked on Eric Mitchell’s “Red Italy” before he shot his first feature, “Permanent Vacation” in 1980. Ostensively his NYU graduate thesis project (the university refused to graduate Jarmusch because of the film’s length), “Permanent Vacation” (for which Sara Driver was a production manager and assistant director) is a definite by-product of Jarmusch’s involvement with No Wave film. The themes of displacement and alienation resonated from the works of Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell, who also appeared in the film along with Driver, John Lurie, Evelyn Smith, Chris Parker and Frankie Faison (later in mainstream films like “C.H.U.D.”, “Manhunter”, “Silence of the Lambs”, “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon”). While attending NYU, Jarmusch studied under legendary filmmaker Nicholas Ray (“Rebel

Without a Cause”). In 1979, German New Wave filmmaker Wim Wenders came to New York to make a film with and about Ray, “Lightning Over Water.” Jarmusch’s contact with Wenders proved significant, when the German filmmaker gave Jarmusch some left over 35mm B&W film stock from “The State of Things” (1982) to shoot the short “The New World.” “The New World”, about a Lower East Side hipster (John Lurie) and his best friend (Richard Edson, of the bands Konk and Sonic Youth, and later in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) who receive a visit from the hipster’s cousin (Eszter Balint), became the first section of Jarmusch’s second feature, “Stranger Than Paradise.” Released in 1984, “Stranger Than Paradise” was a critical and commercial success. The New York independent film, once firmly rooted underground, would be increasingly brought into the mainstream, with films like Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) finding similar success as “Stranger Than Paradise.” Soon, independent films from all over the country would become more and more popular. The scene really broke in 1989 with Stephen Soderberg’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” What had started in the Lower East Side’s punk underground had reached the American popular culture mainstream. Independent film companies began to get bought up by major Hollywood studios, and increasingly independent films began to resemble miniature versions of their bigger budgeted counterparts, rather than as an outlet for new voices and visions. In New York, the film community became increasingly fragmented. Today, there is little unity among young filmmakers in New York City. The rising cost of filmmaking, competitiveness of the post-indie world of film, discontinuation of super-8 sound film by Kodak and the lack of a unifying scene to unite people have resulted in a increasing focus on the work of the individual, as opposed to a community of filmmakers working together. Meanwhile, the work of the No Wave scene has remained more or less ignored by the mainstream. Recently, however, Amos Poe’s “Blank Generation”, “Unmade Beds” and “The Foreigner” have been released on DVD. Hopefully, young filmmakers will see these films and want to find out more of what they’re all about. Perhaps these young filmmakers will discover the work of the No Wave, and see how much power a community or artists working together can have. And perhaps, if this happens, the underground will go back underground and begin again. HOME