ROTTERDAM — Although its most talented artists would go on to have long careers, No Wave was condemned to an early death. Owing as much to Dada as punk, No Wave skewed closer to “anti-art” than art. It was perhaps inevitable that the movement, predicated on refuting aesthetic conventions and commercial success, would fizzle out almost as soon as it was named. Yet some 40 years after the movement began, a re-examination at the International Film Festival Rotterdam showcases its continued relevance.
For the festival’s 2020 edition, No Wave filmmaker Beth B programmed a sidebar of shorts and features, all but one directed by women, to accompany her latest work, the documentary Lydia Lunch – The War Is Never Over. The selected films deal with domestic violence and sexual assault, social expectations of women that prioritize motherhood over career, challenges to visibility faced by LGBTQ communities, and the tendency of men in power to abuse it. Aside from bringing overdue recognition to Beth B herself, the lineup allows viewers to appreciate No Wave for its vital contributions to art, music, and independent film.
One of two programs of shorts — both of which juxtapose No Wave-era and historical films — examines conformity; the other challenges gender stereotypes and advocates for female agency. Bread, from 1918, eerily foretells the #MeToo movement and today’s headlines about sexual abuse in Hollywood as it follows the sexual assault and exploitation of women in the film industry; Kathy Brew’s experimental Mixed Messages (1990) is a potent and timely work of media criticism that takes on gender stereotyping in the media; and Barbara Hammer’s Menses (1974) breaks media taboos that still exist today regarding female biological processes. The features, including Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983), the last with a script by Kathy Acker, all share with the shorts the movement’s thematic preoccupations and help contextualize No Wave within cinema’s history.
The most radical film of the program may be Richard Kern’s Sewing Circle. It documents a performance in which artist Kembra Pfahler (ironically wearing a Young Republicans T-shirt) has her vagina sewn shut as a protest against the prevalence of rape. While the symbolism is clear, watching Pfahler’s performance has a visceral impact that exceeds the concept. Kern’s camera alternates between close-ups of the procedure and Pfahler’s face, making for an excruciating seven minutes that prompted a fair share of walk-outs. But the pain on display and the increasingly strong urge to look away underscore the urgency of the message, and no written description can match the power of the image.
Easier to watch but harder to process is Beth B’s own Two Small Bodies (1993), an astonishing chamber drama about a strip-club hostess, Eileen (Suzy Amis), who may or may not have killed her own children, and the policeman, Brann (Fred Ward), investigating the crime. The film is based on a play by Neal Bell, and Amis’s sharp retorts to her infatuated interrogator and taboo statements about femininity and motherhood could evoke a 1990s erotic thriller were it not so grim. “Sometimes I wish my children were dead,” she says at one point, not out of hatred but out of exhaustion.
Amis resists succumbing to Hollywood bombshell tropes and transforms moments that would be erotic in a more conventional film into tragedy. Brann’s sexual advances, his aggressive demeanor, and his repeated ridiculing of Eileen’s work are not openings for Eileen to assert her own power but threats to overcome. The miracle of Two Small Bodies is Eileen’s ability to maintain the upper hand in even the most humiliating scenarios. Watching it after Black Box — Beth B’s punishing, noisy assault on the viewer that screened in one of the shorts programs — its emotional potency is even more striking. These two films alone showcase the range, thematic consistency, and artistic power of No Wave and cement Beth B as a great artist.
Equally revelatory was Melvie Arslanian’s Stiletto (1983), long presumed lost. A seductively amoral film, it attempts to reconstruct a murder from the point of view of the victim’s investigating sister. Although the syntax of film noir is apparent — the fatalistic voiceover, the flashbacks, the high-contrast black and white lighting, and especially the proximity of sex and death — there is no retribution, only disappointment; no assertion of law, order, or meaning. Stiletto might be pure nihilism if not for its rebuke of standard portrayals of women in noir as “good girls” or “femme fatales.” There are no familiar archetypes, nothing to fall back on, just the intoxicating sense of watching something mysterious and new.
Navigating an enormous festival slate can often feel like digging for buried treasure, but finds like Stiletto — and the overdue recognition of filmmakers like Melvie Arslanian, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Sara Driver, and Beth B — make it well worth it.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 22 through February 2. Keep an eye out for these films at future festivals.