Legendary New York City no wave filmmaker Beth B was one of the leaders of the underground filmmaking movement during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. At the tail end of the punk movement, no wave brashly rejected the boundaries of art-making and confronted audiences with shocking, violent images and a lo-fi aesthetic. With only a shoestring budget, her collaborator/partner Scott B, the grimy environs, and a group of musically gifted friends at her side, Beth’s earliest films dismantled power structures — political, social, and sexual.
One of the few women working behind the camera at that time, her films also placed women front and center — from Sylvia Morales’ dominatrix who brings Bill Rice’s head of the New York City bomb squad to his knees in G Man, to sharp-tongued “torturer” Lydia Lunch in Black Box, a frightening allegory about the death of the individual.
Flavorwire spoke to Beth B about the no wave scene and her vital work just before a retrospective of her films at The Metrograph, which opens June 11 through June 13. A Beth B and Scott B retrospective will follow from June 14 through June 16. Also screening from June 10 through June 16 is Call Her Applebroog, Beth’s deeply personal portrait of her mother, the artist Ida Applebroog.
Flavorwire: Art and film from the no wave scene, and ‘70s New York City in general, has had a resurgence lately. What was it like for you living in New York City during that time period? What was the vibe?
Beth B: It was an extremely unique time in history in New York City. There were a lot of artists, filmmakers, performers, and musicians converging on this one place at the same time, all very like-minded. I think everyone was searching for a home. It was a band of misfits who were searching for a new family and a way to express these very volatile notions of idealism, angst, and rebellion against the establishment. It was an extraordinary time. We were all really young, idealistic, and rebellious — and no rules applied.
The landscape of downtown Manhattan was our playground. At that time, it was decimated. No one was living there except for artists, filmmakers, and the outcasts of society. The buildings were vacant and destroyed — holes in the walls. There were drugs everywhere. It really was this incredibly fertile ground for creativity. People could grasp onto this concept of ‘We can do anything.’ Do it yourself. Fuck the establishment, and let’s create our own world, our own modes of expression. It was very much against this sort of specialty. So, a musician might make a film, or a filmmaker might make music for your film. There was this incredible cross-pollination between disciplines.
It’s interesting you called it an ‘idealistic’ time. I don’t think many people would associate that word with the time, because there was all this angsty artwork being made.
It was the concept that I could do something to change the world. That was the most important thing — and exposing things, having dialogues about things that were not being discussed. It was pulling back the wool, asking people, demanding that people see things that they didn’t want to see. A lot of the early films that were made in that time, some of them were very political. Others not. I think a lot of people lump all of the films together. ‘Oh, this is what they were about.’ But people were making films that were very different in intent and content. They are lumped together because it sells. ‘Oh, no wave. Now we have a label, and we can throw all these films and bands together.’ I think it was mostly that we were all very uncensored, working without the usual rules. We didn’t fit into the art world, the film world, or any previously established mold.
You mentioned ‘political’ works of art. Do you view your films as political? G Man seems maybe the most overt or closest to that. How do you view your films?
I absolutely view every film I have ever done in my career as political. I think that if you are working as an artist, you have to be political. For me, as an artist, I’m not interested in painting pretty pictures or making pretty films. I’m making art to provoke people to ask questions.
Provocation was a big part of no wave.
Yeah, I mean, just jar them in their brains, so that they question the norm — question the bullshit that people are often fed in society through the media, and the brainwashing that we’re all subjected to.
The music was a form of provocation and a huge part of that scene — and also within your personal films. Vortex has a wide variety of music. It has that ’50s, noir-ish sound. It has ambient noise, harsh noise, and then disco. How do you choose the music for your movies? And can you talk about the process of creating your own music for these films?
For me, film is visual, but it is also aural. The sound is just as important as the picture. That that has been present in all my films. I was really inspired by a lot of the music at that time. People were mining a similar kind of angst and rebelliousness, and it was very easy to merge that with the filmmaking that we were doing — especially working with Lydia Lunch, John Lurie from Lounge Lizards, and Adele Bertei from [James Chance and] the Contortions. Even today, because I worked in television for eight years and did documentary hour-long programs for television, I brought in a musician, Jim Coleman, who was in the band Cop Shoot Cop. Are you familiar with them?
They became really well known in the ’90s, and when I met him, somehow we really clicked — and he has done all the music for my films for 20 years. He’s also my husband now. [laughs] He totally connects with the emotions that are within the films I’m making.
Regarding the early films, we would edit in music, but as we were editing, we’d bring in different musicians who we thought might grasp the sensibility of each scene, and then work with them. There was John Lurie playing saxophone, or it might be Lydia [Lunch] coming in with a couple of other musicians and playing as we had our rough cut playing to it. Or it might be Richard Edson, who was in the original Sonic Youth. It was really just musicians that we knew — like Adele Bertei. She’s really fantastic with guitar. We had what we called our little sound stage that we did the recording on, and people would just come in and play to the rough picture. We never used preexisting music. It was always done specifically for the films, depending on who we thought might best approach doing music. It wasn’t like someone sat down and scored it. We watched the picture a couple of times, and then they played very spontaneously. We would do a few takes, fine-tune it, and then cut it to the picture.
Do you still work in that improvisational way?
It varies. Working mostly with Jim now, I will often rough cut something, and then give it to him. He’ll rough out some tracks, and sometimes I’ll say, ‘No, this is not what I want,’ and he will go back into it and fine-tune it. On Call Her Applebroog, there were some preexisting tracks that he then revised and did original scoring for some of the pieces, especially for the more emotional, intimate sequences. But it is often improvisation, giving people the scene, looking at it several times. I work very closely with them in terms of the kind of tenor and sensibility that I’m looking for in the scene.
Because music is so crucial to you, is there a filmmaker working today who you feel uses music or sound in a very compelling way?
Gaspar Noé. The sound is really, really effective. It becomes a part of the journey. That’s very much how I hope to use sound as well — where it becomes intrinsically married to each other, the picture, the sound, and the music. In Call Her Applebroog, it is highly successful, because there is a lot of music in the film, and some of it is very high, fast paced music, and then other times it becomes very slow and very moody.
Some of the same musicians acted in your films. What was the rehearsal process like for your early films?
A lot of it had to do with starting out with character and what the story was about — and then trying to find people who we knew, who were on the scene, who were interesting characters. The character, in a way, would not be too far of a stretch. So, in Black Box, we need a torturess. ‘Ok, who do we know? Lydia! Perfect!’ With The Offenders, we wanted a female lead who was a diminutive character — you know, when you look at her, you think, ‘Ah, harmless.’ But then she is a powerhouse. Powerful. That was Adele. She’s tiny, but boy, that mouth and those brains. Musically she is extraordinary. It was really trying to find people who we knew to cast them in the roles that we were looking for. For Vortex, we found James Russo through a friend. He was a professional actor. You know, it started to change, but a lot of it was really working from a pool of our friends.
In some ways, I haven’t changed that much. With the film Exposed I went back to the underground, and through getting to know some of the performers in the burlesque scene, I found my characters. It was really important to find people who were not the conventional burlesque performers, but rather to find the people who were dealing with issues and content that was very edgy, new messages, confronting things. The casting for that was an involving process of getting to know the people in that scene. In Call Her Applebroog, obviously, I had known Ida Applebroog my whole life.
I had no idea she was your mom until recently.
[Laughs] That was really fascinating, making that film, because it was very, very different. I knew a lot of the story that I wanted to have told, and yet she was not willing to tell a lot of the stories. That was probably the most challenging film for me in my entire career.
Beth B and Ida Applebroog
Tell me more about that. It makes me think of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman. She made No Home Movie with her mom. It’s so vulnerable and intimate to have that relationship up on the screen for everybody to see.
I started filming 15 years ago, not knowing really that I was making a film, I just thought, ‘Well, I really want to document her shows and the installation of her shows.’ I was always very involved in that with her. As the years moved on, and I’m watching her aging and realizing she’s not going to be here forever, it made me want to paint a portrait of her and her work. I felt like the best way to do that was with my hand. I was painting that portrait with my hand through the camera. It was my point of view.
She is a very shy, private person. She was extremely reluctant to answer my many, many questions and would tell me to turn the camera off, turn away, or leave the room. But I’m very tenacious and persistent, and I really knew it was an important film for me as well as for her. As time went on, I think maybe trust and just respect for each other evolved and grew. Since 2013, she became a little more public about some of the things that had happened in her life, and it opened the door for me to ask her and really insist that she address these things that I felt informed her work so much.
What does she say to you about your films?
She loves my films. She told me I’m brilliant, I mean, how much more could I want from her? [Laughs] We have always been incredibly involved, but involved at a distance, with each other’s work. I have always been there for all of her installations. That is also what made the making of the film so complicated, disconcerting, and confusing at times. My role is not just as a filmmaker. My role was also daughter, colleague, best friend, filmmaker, director, editor, and cinematographer. I was wearing all of these different hats, playing multiple roles — and yet always being careful, because she had certain boundaries, and I wanted to respect them. But I also wanted to make the most powerful film I could. Ultimately, I do feel it is that powerful film that I wanted. I’m extremely pleased about that.
In thinking about the progress you’ve made with your films, you were working with such a limited budget early in your career. Was it difficult to make certain creative choices due to those restrictions?
Absolutely. It’s continued to be. I still work on no budget. It’s really unbelievable that there is no support for independent films these days of the nature that I’m making, and a lot of other people are making. There are movie theaters, and I feel so lucky that The Metrograph is showing these films. It’s filling a huge void. Budget has always been an issue. In the shooting of the early films, it was always like, ‘Okay, let’s shoot at this person’s apartment . . . what can we get for free?’ It was extremely limiting, but sometimes it can be very freeing. You become very inventive. In Vortex, there’s this amazing rooftop scene, which was like, ‘Ok! Let’s find a great location, because we can’t afford to buy some ordinary location.’ A lot of it was being inventive about what you don’t have and sometimes you end up with something even better, something much more creative. It’s a challenge that, still to this day, I actually love — to figure out how I am going to do something without the resources that I really need. In making the film Two Small Bodies, it takes place in the US. But the only funding I could get was from German television — and part of the requirement of getting the money from German television was that I had to shoot it in Germany. So I was like, ok, we will bring the actors from the US — and we had two extraordinary actors, Fred Ward and Suzy Amis. We had to make it look like an American location, which we did. I am just basically trying to do the most with what I have.
Yeah, you meet the challenge. Was there room for spontaneity in terms of dialogue? Lydia is such a great storyteller and such a poet. For her scenes in Vortex, did she memorize a script, or did you just kind of let her go?
Most of the scenes were scripted, but we always left things very loose. Improvisation was always welcomed. All of my films, except for Two Small Bodies, there was openness. Two Small Bodies was such a two-hander, in terms of the choreography with the camera, which I was extremely particular about with that film. I felt that the cinematography, how the camera was moving, and the lighting . . . it was almost a dance with the actors. So it was not open to them going off script. I think that the film is my strongest film — so tightly wrought and beautiful.
What did you like about working with Lydia?
The Lydia today is very different from the Lydia of 1978. She’s very business-like and still is. People might be surprised by that, but she came to the set very prepared and very open to doing what you wanted her to do — but also with this notion of being able to improvise, if that is what she wanted to do. What I loved is that she was really professional, even as a really young person. I think she was around 16 or 17 the first time I filmed with her, and she just had this extraordinary sense of herself at such a young age. I would say that she was inspiring to me as a young woman — to see someone who wasn’t going to take shit from anyone. She was terrific and worked incredibly well on the films. She came there with the sense of self-possession. I think that all my films have had very strong, powerful women.
Still of Adele Berti and John Lurie in ‘The Offenders,’ courtesy of Gallery98 / Marc H. Miller
Yes, I wanted to talk about that next. I’ve always been impressed by your female characters.
We are so fucking male-dominated in the world. I feel like, as an artist, it is really important for me, as a woman, to give voice to other women and the complexities of women — and to have female lead characters who can speak their minds, who are extremely intelligent and articulate, and hold their own without needing any accouterments. In every single film that I have made, from early on, they are female-dominated characters. It’s showing people the strength within women and the vulnerabilities. The multidimensional characters, that is what really interests me — and you even see it in my most recent Call Her Applebroog. Ida is a very complex woman with a voice that is critically important in terms of expressing a variety of ideas that have to do with our place in the world and our displacement in the world. I think it is very universal.
Who are the women that inspired you when you were starting out?
There’s an extraordinary filmmaker that I love, Liliana Cavani. And Lina Wertmüller. You know the film The Night Porter?
Yes, I am a fan.
That was one of the most influential films. Also people like Yvonne Rainer, who had such a strong presence in the art world early on. But also my contemporaries like Lydia and Adele — strong voices who weren’t going to compromise. Patti Smith was also a huge influence.
Still from ‘G Man,’ courtesy of Gallery98 / Marc H. Miller
One thing I noticed about your films, and no wave films in general, is there’s male nudity. Movies are generally fixated on gratuitous female nudity, so it stands out as a refreshing difference. It’s nudity that naturally occurs for the story, too. It’s not for show. I wondered what it was like shooting sex scenes or nude scenes in these movies, or if you had any thoughts about the way that women are presented in cinema?
Well, I love working with nudes. [Laughs] My artwork has a lot of nudity in it. I’m actually working on a whole book of nudes now. I don’t have issues around sexuality. I didn’t even think twice about saying, ‘Okay, this person has to be nude in this scene.’ It was just like, yeah, it’s necessary. It’s not done for exploitative purposes; it is done for the story and the messaging. People who know my work, like you, understand that immediately. Look at Exposed. That was a really important thing. I did not want anybody telling me, ‘No, you can’t show a penis, and you can’t show a vagina.’ For me, those were critically important, as this was their mode of expression. I do not want to censor who they are as artists, nor do I want to censor myself in my own mind. I never censor.
When I went to television for eight years, I had to censor myself. I think that is why I ended up doing Exposed after that. I was like, ‘I want to show lots of vaginas and penises doing really perverted shit.’ Because, you know what? That’s where I come from — the art world that I came out of. I remember coming to New York City and seeing the work Vito Acconci did called Seedbed, which was him masturbating under the gallery floor. Let our minds be free, and I think the freer your mind is sexually, the less room there is for people to be boxed up. I think repression breeds illness.
I was fairly repressed sexually, and my reaction was to go against that and say, ‘I will not.’ Sexuality is a positive part of our well-being, and we need to embrace that as we embrace eating, shitting, kissing, and loving. Our sexuality is a natural extension of who we are as human beings, and that makes us healthy, rather than to suppress it.
So, it looks like you had a lot of fun shooting Salvation! The sets are interesting, and everything has this great energy to it. Can you talk about the controversial music video you directed featuring Salvation! star Dominique Davalos that MTV refused to play?
Dominique Davalos was in the band Dominatrix, with Stuart Argabright. He was the lead of the band and asked if I would do a music video for him [for “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” which you can watch over here]. I think males were controlling the airspace at that time, and they are still today, but some executives saw women taking over the male domain of a garage, and that they kicked the guys, threw them out, and took over. I have no idea, maybe it was too sexual for the guy, or for the committee, but at the last minute they pulled it, and it was not shown. But it became hugely popular, anyway. That year, Madonna said it was her favorite music video, and it was playing at all the clubs. I love it. It was really fun to make.
Courtesy of Gallery98 / Marc H. Miller
Do you have any advice about creative collaborations with people you’re very close to?
Ultimately, if you are in an intimate relationship with someone you work with unwillingly, it can really destroy the relationship. I do think that is what happened in my early relationships with a couple of people. I’m a very strong personality and director. It is really important for me to be the director. I’ve learned that through the years. I can collaborate with people fantastically, and I love it, but I have to be the one in charge. I love working with a multitude of creative personalities.
My husband, Jim, I worked with him for 20 years, and we work together seamlessly and beautifully. There is never any conflict, because we are very honest with each other and able to maintain our intimate relationship and our work relationship. But I think it is because our egos are in check. We are not in competition with each other. With Ida, in some ways, it’s sort of similar. At one point, she was saying she wanted to have final say over things, and if there were things that she wanted to cut, that I needed to do it. I thought about it for a while, and I concluded that I cannot do that — because, then I am second guessing myself, and it’s not going to be my vision. Ultimately, I said, it has to be my vision.
Advice? My work is richer because of collaboration. But you have to know your vision in order to collaborate well with others.