If the French New Wave was a movement that aimed to shock and provoke, then No Wave cinema was the next logical step.
The late ’70s and early ’80s found New York City in economic decline, with crime rates soaring and many residents fleeing the boroughs for more peaceful pastures.
It was during this period of troubled transition that several brilliant young filmmakers decided to embrace their surroundings as material and create an entirely new genre of cinema.
Often referred to as No Wave cinema, this movement would take on a variety of names including New Cinema, underground film, avant-garde cinema, etc., but it would always retain its essential nihilistic attitude.
It was a revolt against mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, but it also rejected the slick imagery of the French New Wave.
Most important of all: independent cinema actually existed in America again!
No Wave Cinema
What Is No Wave Cinema?
No Wave Cinema was a movement in New York City during the late 1970s and early 1980s that included filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, and Beth B.
It was a reaction to the more mainstream New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.
Where New Hollywood focused on story and character development, No Wave Cinema rejected these aspects of filmmaking.
The films were about the “now” — their themes were about city life, their characters were often portrayed as outsiders, and they had a raw visual aesthetic that reflected the grittiness of living in New York City.
What Is No Wave Cinema?
No Wave Cinema came out of the punk rock scene and was defined more by attitude than style.
Filmmakers like Kembra Pfahler, Beth B, and Tommy Turner were influenced by the raw energy of punk music and the art world of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.
No Wave Cinema was characterized by its gritty look, use of non-professional actors, and edgy themes.
There were no major releases or box office hits; these films were made for a select audience.
No Wave Cinema was sometimes labeled “underground,” but many of those involved rejected the label because it seemed too limiting.
No Wave filmmakers had a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to their work. They didn’t care about money or fame; their goal was to create something that could be appreciated by a small group of people.
For years, you couldn’t find these films anywhere outside of a few select NYC revival houses and obscure foreign festivals.
In 2007 (the same year as Jarmusch’s Independent Spirit Award win), No Wave Cinema: The Definitive Collection hit DVD through Plexifilm. It featured three full discs worth of material from these filmmakers.
Shooting Blanks: A History Of No Wave Cinema
The films of the No Wave movement are as wild, confrontational, and controversial as the music that inspired them. Here we take a look at some of the key films from this short-lived movement, which began to flourish in New York in the late 1970s.
The No Wave Cinema movement was influenced by the gritty spirit of punk rock and its do-it-yourself ethics.
It was very much a reaction against the established cinema of the time, which members of No Wave considered to be both too self-serious and have silly plots.
The No Wave Cinema filmmakers used many techniques seen in avant-garde films but they did so with a DIY punk attitude.
They borrowed from rock bands like The Velvet Underground, who made their own films to play along to their music and thereby created a new ‘visual’ experience for their fans.
They also borrowed ideas from Samuel Beckett, who believed that words were just as important as images.
This led to an emphasis on using words to convey meaning and emotion rather than relying on dialogue and plot development (as Bresson had done).
The filmmakers were mostly young, unknown people making their first films, so there was no studio politics or pressure to conform to any norms or expectations.
Essential Films From The No Wave Cinema Movement
A lot of the movies in this collection are not going to be for everyone. The vast majority of them have no narrative at all and rely on a combination of:
- sound effects,
- and maybe an occasional voiceover to take the place of any plot.
But if you keep an open mind and don’t expect a plot in the traditional sense, these movies offer up some weird, interesting ideas about film editing and structure.
During the 1970s, some artists began to question how much control they had over their own art forms. And with the rise of video cameras and super 8 film equipment, anybody could create movies.
So was it art, or just entertainment? No Wave Cinema came into being as an answer to those questions.
Filmmakers used techniques like splicing film together, showing it at random speeds, or recording directly to video, which was considered a medium for commercial content at the time.
They explored how those techniques affected the audiences’ perception of what they were seeing on screen. Some wondered what it would be like if we showed movies backward or printed words backward on screen so we had to read them in a mirror.
Born In Flames (1983)
Born in Flames is a 1983 documentary film essay directed by Lizzie Borden. It chronicles the development of American feminism from the 1910s to the 1980s and explores the intersection of feminism and anti-nuclear activists.
The film is structured around several interviews with women and also includes archival footage. The film’s title comes from a poem by Denise Levertov, “Born in Flames”.
The poem makes use of the imagery of fire to evoke a sense of radical transformation.
Born in Flames was made at a moment when the radical feminist movement was undergoing a rapid re-evaluation of its goals and strategies.
Many women were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the commercialized direction being taken by second-wave feminism (as exemplified by Ms. magazine) and were searching for new directions.
The archival footage used in Born in Flames is striking for its depth and diversity; it includes newsreels, Hollywood films, television, music videos, educational films, and home movies. This footage is seamlessly intercut with contemporary interviews with women from diverse backgrounds.
Incredible Women Of New York City’s No Wave Cinema Scene
The 1970s were a time of artistic revolution in New York City.
The Museum of Modern Art was showing more experimental films than ever before; artists were pushing boundaries with new media and performance art; musicians were playing music that had never been heard before.
Music photographer Deborah Feingold and her husband, filmmaker Tony Silver, were there to witness all these changes.
So when they decided to make their own film in 1978 — an experimental documentary called The Blank Generation — they didn’t have to look far for actors.
They knew all the people they needed to cast lived right there in their apartment building on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side.
In 1978, Silver and Feingold were living on the sixth floor of a tenement building at 165 Ludlow Street in Manhattan, along with 21 other residents: artists, poets, filmmakers, and musicians.
Feingold met many of them to make this film, a great example of the No Wave movement.
History Of No Wave Cinema
No Wave Cinema is the story of an art form that came out of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was documented in photos, films, and music recordings.
Some of the most iconoclastic artists of the era helped create it; some sought to destroy it.
For a brief moment, it all came together but then dissipated, leaving behind some incredible artworks that have become cult classics and some legendary shows that were never recorded or filmed.
No Wave Cinema is more than just a history lesson; it’s also an exploration of how art forms evolve as they grow out of their own chaotic beginnings into more refined forms.
Every generation has its rebels who fight against their elders, who break down old definitions and try to redefine what art is.
Essential Filmmakers Of No Wave Cinema
Titles such as No Wave, Blank Generation, and Times Square are a few examples of No Wave films.
Although the term No Wave Cinema was coined by art critic R. Crumb, it was musician James Chance who used the term to define his own work—films with a raw, grainy quality, and an improvisational feel.
There are different kinds of non-traditional, anti-Hollywood approaches to filmmaking that came out of New York City around this time, but they all have some common elements.
They embrace low-budget production methods and home video aesthetics, are politically charged, and aimed at a younger audience.
The subject matter is mainly derived from the daily life of young people living in urban New York, their interactions with each other, and their political views.
Music played an important role in this movement – often the soundtracks were produced before a movie was shot.
Many of these movies were shown at nightclubs, bars, and other alternative venues.
Importance Of No Wave Cinema
This form of cinema was born in New York City in the mid-1970s and involved combining experimental film with performance art.
It’s an art form that was propelled by a very specific time and place, so it’s important for those who wish to try their hand at No Wave Cinema to understand the importance of this movement.
There was something about this era in NYC that created a breeding ground for No Wave Cinema.
The Lower East Side was teeming with artistic activity thanks to cheap rent, underground music venues (such as Max’s Kansas City), and a general feeling of lawlessness that allowed artists to think.
No Wave Cinema Theory
The “No Wave Cinema Theory” emerged from the idea that cinema is more than just a medium of entertainment.
In its capacity as a form of media, cinema has the ability to stimulate social change.
The theory attempts to make this argument by suggesting that No Wave Cinema was a movement created by artists and filmmakers to address the limited amount of “artistic freedom” within the film industry at the time.
In other words, the No Wave Cinema Theory argues that No Wave Cinema was created as an alternative to mainstream narratives in cinema because it provided an outlet for artists with radical ideas and concepts that would not necessarily be accepted by Hollywood.
This essentially means that No Wave Cinema was created by artists to create art for art’s sake, rather than art for money’s sake.
The underlying objective of the No Wave Cinema Theory is to simply spread awareness about the movement amongst people who are unfamiliar with it.
The theory also aims to provide insight into some of the techniques, aesthetics, and theoretical foundations behind this movement.
So, if you are unfamiliar with this particular film movement or are just curious about it, feel free to check out some movies based on this theory.
The End Of No Wave Cinema
The No Wave movement began to fade by the mid-1980s and disappeared by the end of the 1980s.
The name “no wave” came from the fact that many filmmakers had roots in punk music and used a similar philosophy when making their films.
The cinematic movement’s roots come from the early 1970s when artists began to work outside of mainstream cinema.
The idea of No Wave cinema may have begun with the release of Blank Generation (1975), which was one of the first punk rock movies released in New York City. Other movies that were made during this time include Cutter’s Way (1981) and Times Square (1980).
These independent films were often shot with little money and were filmed using homemade equipment or discarded cameras.
The films included a variety of styles due to their low budgets.
Some films were black and white while others were shot on color stock, while still other films were filmed without sound.
Many filmmakers did not credit themselves as directors but instead used pseudonyms so they could retain more control over their work. The films also had little structure, as some ran for only 10 minutes
No Wave Cinema – Wrapping Up
Trying to define these films is a tall order.
These films are underground in the sense that they did not appeal to the lowest common denominator and they are not interested in mass-market appeal; instead, their focus is on the creation of art for art’s sake.
No Wave Cinema was an attempt to view filmmaking as more than just a money-making venture.
No Wave Cinema asks us to rethink where we place popular cinema along the continuum from mainstream to underground because it challenges our assumptions about low-budget filmmaking, community, and art for art’s sake.