No Wave filmmaker Vivienne Dick on 1970s New York - interview
The influential filmmaker behind She Had Her Gun All Ready reminisces
The influential filmmaker behind She Had Her Gun All Ready reminisces ahead of a screening of her work at the Glasgow Film Festival.
List: Could you tell us a bit about when you started making your early films like She Had Her Gun All Ready and the scene at the time?
VD: Well, it was editing and everything at home where I was living on the Lower East Side and I didn't think when I was making it that it was going to be shown outside of the places I was frequenting like the clubs and so on, you know? I had met some people who were hanging out in the same places and who were making Super 8 films like Scott and Beth B, and we were beginning to show work in very ad hoc places, like between bands in various places. I didn’t think of myself as a film-maker even, I was just making something to show, you know? It was like that. Which was great because I suppose if I had thought too much about it, it would have stopped me from making what I was making. I think it’s nice to mess around and make something and not have too much of a concern about the outcome or what people might think of it, because I think that can be a bad thing. There’s a strange sort of a shape to it: there is a bit of a narrative, and noir elements to it as well. And I really enjoyed making it with Lydia Lunch and Pat Place [of the Bush Tetras], who I thought were brilliant people. And I admired them as musicians and as personalities, in the way they looked, and so I was inspired to work with them.
List: How much time were you spending with them on a personal basis as well as working with them?
VD: Well, Lydia I’d seen around playing in Teenage Jesus [and the Jerks]. I’d seen her on the street because it’s a very small area and you just bump into people. I was making their earlier film called Guerillere Talks, and I really didn’t know what I was doing in the sense that I didn’t know how long the film was going to be or anything, but I had an idea to shoot one roll of film with different people, and women in this case, that was a deliberate choice. And Lydia, I went up to her and introduced myself and asked her would she do this with me? That was my way to meet her because I didn’t really know how to introduce myself or what I was going to say so I said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this?’ So it started off a friendship. She’s been in a number of my films, she came to Ireland once and we made a film here in Connemara, and I played in one of her bands for a while, Beirut Slump it was called. The last time I saw her was September. She was in the Tate and she opened my show there with an amazing performance, an anti-war rant, it was really great.
List: Talking about the Lower East Side at the time, in your films you see a lot of dystopian looking landscapes. What was it like living there? Was it quite dilapidated and shell-shocked?
VD: Some parts of it definitely was and looked like Berlin at the end of the War, below Avenue A, B, C, down there. But I didn’t live there; I lived between 1st and 2nd on 9th Street. So where I lived was very much a neighbourhood, people sitting out on the steps and up on the roof; it was a very friendly place. I mean, okay, there was a lot of unemployment at the time and a very bad economy, and there often was the danger of getting mugged, but it wasn’t so bad that you’d worry about it, and in fact we didn’t really take it seriously. I didn’t at all feel in danger there, it wasn’t a bit like that, it was very much a social place. Much more so than London is. Or perhaps maybe like over by Brick Lane, where everyone’s on the street. It’s a bit like that.
List: Did you take your camera everywhere you went? Or would you come up with very specific ideas for what you were going to film and then set up shoots on locations for that purpose?
VD: It would be more set up, but I did also bring my camera with me places, and if you had a small tripod can you could fold it up and have it in your bag, the way you can have a video camera now.
List: So you were filming on Super 8 at the time?
VD: With sound as well, that was very important, that it had sync sound.
List: When you were doing that were you considering the techniques or effects that you’d get out of that or was that just the equipment that was available to you at the time?
VD: Well, it was easier to work with than video at the time because video was much heavier and we just didn’t have access to it. It was easy to get a [Super 8] camera and the film wasn’t expensive, you could buy it in a local photo shop. And it also looked beautiful. It still does. What’s amazing is that it has survived. That it’s still there, that people still shoot in Super 8, is amazing.
LIST: In Guerillere Talks you’ve got different people talking about their own creativity and creative process, and a lot of it struck me as almost childish, or maybe a better word is naïve, but in a positive way. Would you describe the scene at that time as naïve at all?
VD: It depends, there’s always naivety about. I wouldn’t say we were that naïve. I think we were pretty well informed about stuff. You mentioned the word childishness, and playfulness. There was that element. All of us were coming from other places. We were coming from other parts of America or even other countries. And this was a place where you could just let loose. It was kind of this extended adolescence. I grew up in Ireland as a teenager and it was incredibly boring and I used to really wish I was in London, that I was on the scene. So I relived that whole teenage thing in New York at that time and relished it; I was very conscious of it. So it was playful, but knowingly. And there was this thing as well of people digging things out of bins and dressing up in 60s gear because that was the beginning of all that kind of thing, recycling of other decades and that. We didn’t have any money so we just found these things. And music as well, we discovered amazing music on the street or in old shops, old LPs. It was an amazing time where you could rediscover things from other decades. There was a lot of listening to music from the 60s then, girl bands and all of that.
List: You were involved with the Bush Tetras and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks?
VD: Yeah, I was friends with people in the Bush Tetras.
List: Were there any other bands or artists about at that time that you had particularly close relationships with?
VD: Well before Bush Tetras came along the four minimalist bands were Teenage Jesus, Contortions (I adored them), Mars, and DNA. They were the four bands that would kind of fit together. But I liked other bands too: we all loved Patti Smith, she was the first. I liked some Blondie stuff and the B-52s.
List: So looking back on that period, other people who've commented on it have said that a lot of the art produced is quite dissimilar or quite eclectic. Do you believe in the No Wave term? Do you think that you can draw comparisons between the different works that were being produced at that time, in music, film and in other art forms?
VD: Well I think there was a whole range of stuff at that time. There were lots of other things going on in New York in that period that I think were very inspiring. For example, there was interesting stuff in cinema, there was interesting stuff in theatre; I was interested in people like Meredith Monk and I was interested in jazz. I was interested in people like Sun Ra, bands like that. And they were around; you could see them play. Robert Wilson was there, there were very interesting things in dance. There was so much going on everywhere, it wasn't just punk, it just seemed like an incredibly inspiring place to be. It gave you courage to try things. I think it's hard to work in isolation; you need to be in a kind of a soup with other people. You pick up things.
List: When you're observing work that's been produced now, do you sense that there's that excitement, or that there have been any periods since that time where the same soup has existed? Is there anything that gives you that similar buzz?
VD: There was a lot of stuff in England at that time, all that art over in East London. And I think in Berlin, currently, it's a very exciting place, and it's to do with the economy often. It's cheap to live there and you've got time off from working. If you're working all the time to pay rent you can't do anything, if you're anxious about bills and rent all the time. In Berlin, people have been able to live there and work, make music, make films, make whatever and that's really interesting. I think there will be other places in the future. I'd imagine places like Istanbul, and goodness knows what's going to happen in Egypt, it's very exciting.
List: Can you remember any specific venues where you first showed your films? How would you describe the audience for them at that time?
VD: I can remember some very early screenings in a bar called Tier 3 that had bands and we'd show the films in-between the bands. Also Max's Kansas City: that was a long-running music venue and we often showed films there. I think She Had Her Gun All Ready was shown there first. There was a place that a few people set up called the News Cinema and films were shown there too. It didn't last very long but it was a place on 8th Street.
LIST: And what sort of reaction did people give to them at that time?
VD: It was great, it's amazing because I was always petrified showing my work. I projected it myself, because I was really worried about the print, because it wasn't a print, it was an original. The audience was very vocal because it was that kind of audience, because it was there for music. So to show the sort of work we showed, that was not so straightforward. People who were in the films would be there too so it was kind of a show for them as it would be the first time showing it. I found the audience were amazing. They'd tell you if the sound wasn't good or whatever, because sometimes with films it was hard to get the sound good because it was such a tiny little track. But it's amazing how good it is, considering it's such a tiny little track that size and with a cheap microphone.
List: When people would perform in your films, was it just the case that you would that you would point a camera at them and film?
VD: No, it was more set up than that. It looks like it just grabbed this way or that way but it wasn't like that. Sometimes, it was like you'd get yourself in a location with a view to doing some shooting, but you'd have something going on in your mind about what you wanted to do. Sometimes I would set up and direct where people would sit, what people would say whatever, and other times I'd wait for things to unfold, and they would forget I was there with the intention of filming and they'd start messing around or doing whatever, put on a record and then I'd start filming. It would often be like that so it's on the edge of being documentary and fiction. It sort of slithers between the two and you don't quite know if it's one or the other sometimes, you know?
List: In that vein, did you ever retake?
VD: Not so much, no.
List: You mentioned how people were recycling their clothes at that time. Was fashion something that you were quite conscious of picking up on?
VD: No, people just dressed the way they dressed, but it was very much for fun. Nobody ever spent money on clothes, never. Everything was taken from the bin. And we were kind of proud of that, you know?
List: When you say from the bin do you mean really from the bin or from charity shops and things?
VD: From skips and things, and from thrift stores.
List: Tell me about when you moved to New York and why.
VD: I moved there about '74 or '75, around that time. And then I came back and spent a year in Paris, and I was very gloomy there, I was teaching English. And I went to London for a bit and then I went back to America with a view to stay. And that was when I saw a picture of Patti Smith in the Village Voice and that brought me down to CBGB's and I said, Wow! What is this? What's going on around here? It was like that. So I moved down to the Lower East Side, I met a guy called Rafik who had this screening place called OP and he was friends with Jack Smith, he's a filmmaker. And I was working with him for a while taking photographs, and that was fun as well. I did that for a while. And after that I started making my own films, I started getting interested in making my own films.
List: And when and why did you decide to leave New York?
VD: I left in '82. I hadn't been in Ireland for about twelve years. So I decided to go back for a bit, which maybe was a mistake, I don't know. I went back there and it was like living in another world completely. And then I moved to London, which turned out to be a good move. I lived in London for fifteen years. Everything comes to an end. There was a period where New York was really an exciting place, at the particular time I was there. Things started changing in the 80s. It was a different time. And that's the way with everywhere, it's always changing. It isn't the same now at all there, although I suppose there are lots of things happening in Brooklyn, but it's very hard for people to live there now. There's lots of unemployment. It's really difficult.
List: Do you think there's anything about this present time that means that people are particularly interested in that time? Do you feel as if that late 70s period in New York is having a vogue at the moment?
VD: Yeah I think people are interested in that. Everyone was going around making work and not feeling so self-conscious about it because I think a lot of artists now are very much orientated towards a career, and it's just a different kind of set-up. But I think that is changing: there is a desire to have very informal-type clubs going where people can bring their work and show it, or play music or just do something. We're running a thing here, actually, in Galway, called Live at 8 that's like that, and it's really successful. It's been going for two years, it's free, and there's live art, there's films, there's music, whatever, and that's the kind of thing we want: venues where people can come and bring their work, because it inspires other people, and it just gets things going. In Ireland we're in huge difficulties now: recession; it hasn't even begun yet, we'll roll into it now in the next seven, eight years.
List: But you're still optimistic that people can work in that sort of environment?
VD: Well, the thing is, the rents are going to have to come down. People will have time on their hands and the technology's there, ever better than before. Those cameras are amazing, those little video cameras, and the sound is really good. There isn't any excuse. It's ridiculous to think that you have to have these large budgets, but the bigger the budget the more control the producers have over you work. It's just the idea that counts, isn't it?
List: Do you think a recession can be a healthy cultural thing?
VD: I kind of do think that, yes. But it's just because people have the time, because they don't have work to do and rents go down. It's just very important that the Arts Councils have money available to help people during these periods where it can be very enriching for the culture. And it helps people to not be depressed.