Parallel to the No Wave movement in music, there emerged a similar artistic endeavour in the late 1970s which attempted to redefine the conventional perceptions of cinema. Experimental, iconoclastic and low-budget, No Wave filmmakers used a guerrilla approach to filmmaking in order to work their way around budgetary restrictions.
Influenced by the films of the French New Wave and other creative forces like John Waters, the No Wave movement came into full swing in the Lower East Side of New York. Transgressive and employing unique aesthetic qualities, the No Wave proved once and for all that the revolutionary response to the monopoly of production studios was independent filmmaking.
One of the leading figures of the No Wave movement, Jim Jarmusch once said: “I’m a self-proclaimed dilettante, and it’s not negative to me, because I’m interested in so many things, from 17th-century English music, to mushroom identification, to various varieties of ferns, to all kinds of stuff…being a dilettante is helpful if you make films, because films have all these other forms in them. I’ve been finding more and more a lot of great directors I love were dilettantes or are.”
He added, “My thing is dilettantism, amateurism—I believe that I’m an amateur, because amateur means you do something for the love of a form, and professional means you do it for your job, you get paid, and nothing against that!—and variations. That’s my holy trinity lately of what my defining priorities are: being a dilettante, being an amateur, and appreciating variations in all expression. Because I love variations. To me, it’s the most beautiful form, to accept that all things are really variations on other things.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the No Wave cinema movement in order to examine its pioneering artistic sensibilities.
10 essential films from the No Wave cinema movement:
The Blank Generation (Ivan Kral, Amos Poe – 1976)
One of the earliest examples of No Wave cinema, The Blank Generation explored the contemporary music scene by featuring behind-the-stage footage of future icons. This gem includes sections with The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Patti Smith among several others.
Poe said, “I’ve had some strange experiences. But I’ve learned from them, matured, and that gives me a big advantage. For every movie I’ve made, from Unmade Beds, the first, some part of my fantasy was that I was making a Hollywood movie. But the kind of filmmaking I’m attracted to comes out of pure invention. You’re right there inventing it as you go, getting a real kick out of it.”
Rome ’78 (James Nares – 1978)
Rome ’78 is one of the more famous works from the No Wave movement, blurring the lines between historical accuracy and modernist symbolism. Made on a very low budget and not ashamed about it at all, Rome ’78 compares a modern New York City to Ancient Rome by deliberately mocking the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
The director recalled, “I’d always made these short Super-8 movies, and a couple of longer ones. But then Eric Mitchell was a great inspiration to me. Eric Mitchell and the whole attitude of learning your instrument by playing it that was around then. We applied that to filmmaking. We would act in one another’s films. I’d be doing sound on someone’s film one day, and camera on somebody else’s, and acting in another the next day.”
Guerillere Talks (Vivienne Dick – 1978)
A seminal film that has now come to be seen as a vastly influential feminist piece, this 1978 avant-garde short was Vivienne Dick’s first film. It follows the female condition in modern society, chronicling the punk sensibilities and piercing questions on Super-8 footage.
“I just started shooting. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would do one roll with each person; they could do whatever they wanted in front of the camera. We’d choose a location, and the camera would either remain steady or I’d play around with it, experimenting. It was an easy way to start,” Dick said.
Smithereens (Susan Seidelman – 1982)
This 1982 drama about a narcissistic young girl looking to make it big is definitely one of the standout No Wave films. Smithereens successfully took the American independent film movement to the big stage when it was invited to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I came from a small suburb outside of Philadelphia,” Seidelman explained. “There were no art cinemas back then. I loved movies, but I never saw European films or anything other than what was playing at the local movie theatre. It opened up a whole world of just other kinds of movies.”
Vortex (Beth B., Scott B. – 1982)
The very first 16mm feature film by the No Wave filmmaking duo, Vortex starred writer Lydia Lunch as a detective who sets out to solve the case of a politician’s assassination. Subverting the exigency of the genre and infused with the atmospheric anxiety of film noir, Vortex is a fascinating and nuanced showcase of the potential of independent films.
Beth B. said, “Film was an economical medium to use–much more so than video for us. Video equipment is difficult to get hold of. To make film all we did was pick up this silent little super-8 box Kodak camera. We’d had no training or schooling at all with film, but we had ideas that we felt could be directed through film to larger audiences, which was a very large part of what we wanted.”
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden – 1983)
Another No Wave feminist masterpiece that asks questions of race relations, gender, class conflicts and heteronormativity in an alternate version of the United States, Born in Flames is a courageous manifestation of a true artist. It dreams of a revolution that seems too far fetched for this reality but remains as relevant as ever.
“After Born in Flames, I realised a lot about how the structure of a movie affects an audience. That movie was structured the way it was for various reasons: lack of money, having to shoot things over five years as opposed to being able to do it all at one time.
“A lot of the complaints I got about Born in Flames – I got complaints about everything-had to do with the structure. People felt it should have been more of a story. They found it hard
to understand,” Borden admitted.
Stranger than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch – 1984)
Jim Jarmusch‘s 1984 absurdist comedy is still ranked by many fans and critics as one of his finest films. Shot entirely in long single takes, Stranger Than Paradise’s minimalist plot features a road trip undertaken by two cousins and a friend which turns into a philosophical journey. By breaking the conventions of Hollywood, this masterpiece became one of the definitive American independent films.
Jarmusch said, “Breathless was really inspiring to me formally. With that one, he didn’t have enough money to shoot a film with sound. It’s all dubbed after the fact, so he could go out on the street and just shoot in a guerrilla style, which is how I started out. And he used jump-cutting to facilitate the ability to edit something out of whatever he shot.
“When I made Stranger Than Paradise, I did an inverse of that. I had so little film stock to shoot with, and I realised if I make each scene one single take, I can make a feature film with the amount of material I have. Part of that came from Godard’s inventiveness and letting the form be influenced by the limitations you have of shooting.”
The Manhattan Love Suicides (Richard Kern, Nick Zedd – 1985)
A collection of short films directed by two No Wave icons – Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, The Manhattan Love Suicides launches a powerful commentary on the social conditions of that time. A dystopian vision of a very real city, the films present bleak vignettes of human depravity.
Zedd commented, “I think there’s something about making underground films and showing them in places where people have to come and see them is better because that’s a more physical commitment to an insurgent resistance to mainstream entertainment. I think the fact that everyone’s sitting in front of laptops and computers looking at these screens – it’s isolating people.”
The Way It Is or Eurydice in the Avenues (Eric Mitchell – 1985)
Although it is now famous for marking Steve Buscemi’s film debut, The Way It Is (which also starred Vincent Gallo) is one of No Wave legend Eric Mitchell’s best works. Contextualised within the streets of Lower Manhattan, the film follows the story of theatre actors working on a bizarre Jean Cocteau production when things take an unexpected turn.
As an experimental filmmaker who tried to find his voice, Mitchell drew inspiration from an eclectic mix of sources. In an interview, he cited the likes of Andy Warhol, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Pierre Melville and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as major influences.
Doin’ Time in Times Square (Charlie Ahearn – 1991)
Charlie Ahearn’s unique documentary features footage shot over the course of two years (1981-1983) from the window of his apartment on 43rd Street. Often referred to as the “home video from hell”, this interesting film records the brutality and the violence on the streets of New York before “adequate” government policies were enforced.
Ahearn fondly remembered the spirit of the movement, “There was this strong sense that if you were a happening artist of the time, the place to go was out, connect with people. It was a fresh view of what the whole process was about. You had Gordon Matta-Clark deconstructing buildings up in the Bronx. He was taking photographs of graffiti. I was going into housing projects on the Lower East Side. I have 16mm film of kids break dancing in one of those housing projects from 1978.”