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Intermedial Negative: The Role of Punk Cinema in the Downtown Scene (New York, 1976-1984)

L’Intermédialité en négatif : le rôle du cinéma dans la scène Downtown (New York, 1976-1984)
Céline Murillo


À New York à la fin des années 1970, le cinéma No Wave – une forme plus contestataire et plus artistique du punk – est pris dans des relations intermédiales, plurimédiales et transmédiales très complexes. Celles-ci sont liées à l’esthétique et l’éthique Do It Yourself du punk, son rejet global des valeurs dominantes et son désir de tout remplacer par des formes alternatives. Le cinéma No Wave en défaisant les codes du cinéma hollywoodien établit des relations intermédiales avec la musique No Wave et punk. De plus, ces films sont créés sur une « scène » qui rassemble des artistes qui refusent le savoir-faire comme préalable à la création et ainsi ne se spécialisent dans aucun art ni medium mais touchent à tout selon leurs collaborations. Enfin les membres du groupe portent un intérêt particulier au cinéma, peut-être à cause de sa médialité complexe et multiple qui le rapproche de leur propre posture, mais aussi en raison de leur souhait d’attaquer la forme dominante : le cinéma hollywoodien.

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1“They seem to have rejected all values, they are anti-everything,” says the off-screen voice of the television presenter in a documentary about British punk bands embedded in a punk film: Amos Poe’s The Foreigner (2001). The presenter underlines that punks’ contestation is not targeted at anything in particular but widespread; that it globally negates everything belonging to the mainstream. Stacy Thompson explains: “Punks have attempted to absent themselves from capitalism as much as possible, both in terms of their aesthetics and their economics.” ("Punk Cinema" in New Punk Cinema, 24). Punks do not want to reform the system but to create a parallel alternative system where everything is punk—be it visual art, magazines, music or alternative spaces. This makes the movement not medium-specific like futurism

which was realized in different media (text, painting, sculpture, etc.) with the formal means specific to each medium. The concrete realization of this aesthetic occurs in each case in a medium, but per se it is nevertheless not bound to a specific medium. Rather, it is transmedially available and realizable, i.e., available and realizable across media borders. (Rajewsky 46).

2We will continue to use “transmedial” here, using Rajewski general definition of a transmedial phenomenon (i.e., the appearance of a certain motif, aesthetic, or discourse across a variety of different media), and in a way that is different from the adjective “transmedia” that has recently become a qualifier attached to practices of storytelling and world-making.

Figure 1. Menace (Eric Mitchell) looking at a documentary on British punk in The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978)

Figure 1. Menace (Eric Mitchell) looking at a documentary on British punk in The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978)

© Amos Poe, The Foreigner, 1978. Visions.

3Punk has largely been associated to music, thus to study punk film implies an intermedial relationship. I use the word “intermedial” in a narrow sense, that of a phenomenon occurring between media but having a clear medium of origin. This corresponds to what Irina Rajewsky calls “intermedial references” (52).

4This article will focus on a corpus of films and videos made in New York in the late 1970s with a very small budget or no budget at all by members of a “scene” that are often called punk. Yet the label that is the most currently attached to the films I will mention is “No Wave”. The term is meant not to be an American version of the French New Wave, and even not “part of any wave at all.” (Yokobosky 117). No Wave was a term used for film as well as for a second wave of punk music in New York that was both clearly punk and assumed an explicitly avant-garde posture including a form of self-conscious “shock” à la Dada (Gendron 57).

5This article will account for the intermediality that links punk music to punk film and see how it is related to the overall transmedial punk movement. It will also analyze intermediality and transmediality in terms of spectatorial and creative practices, namely the “scene” phenomenon. Ultimately, the focus will be on the plurimedial nature of cinema to assess its position in the “anti-everything” punk movement.

1. From Punk Music to Punk Film

6Dylan Clark notes that

early punk was a proclamation and an embrace of discord. In England, it was begun by working-class youths decrying a declining economy and rising unemployment, chiding the hypocrisy of the rich, and refuting the notion of reform. In America, early punk was a middle-class youth movement, a reaction against the boredom of mainstream culture (Clark 225).

7Marry Harron, in a dashing shortcut, links high unemployment in Britain and suburban boredom in the US to Richard Hell’s song “Blank Generation” that she envisions as “the new teenage anthem.” (Harron 29). Suburban boredom in the US spawned musical genres such as garage, surf and fuzz and bubble-gum pop, which are seen as the precursors of punk and were played by bored American teenagers (Osgerby).

8Soon American bands toured in the UK and vice-versa, so that different values could be exchanged or adapted. For example, Mary Harron sees British punk outfits that used safety pins and rolled up jeans as the desire to use what others did not want—which could be linked to reclaiming Do It Yourself practices as an ethos (Barrett 26; Ribac 60) and an aesthetic in both American and British punk.

9Even if the music was the “the hook” (Bernière and Primois 5), or the primary expression, other media, like magazines and fanzines, were used specifically to broadcast information about this incipient musical genre. Fanzines catered to punk community, a punk subculture that was being created (Clark 223). It is difficult to say whether the social, political and economic conditions which presided over the creation of the musical genre that gave punk its style and method, also presided over the way fanzines and, later, films were made. In that case, punk would be essentially transmedial. Yet it is also possible to think that the punk method and style are derived from punk music, be it shockingly aggressive like “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols (1977) or lean, deskilled, gritty and ironic like The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”. The fact that Greil Marcus uses “Anarchy in the UK” as the point of departure for one entire book corroborates this hypothesis (2009).

10When we watch the embedded documentary in the Foreigner, we hear British punk music. The song played by The Damned is “a thrashing four-chord circular riff” (Somner n.p.) accompanied by fast drumming and shouting singers whom we hear through a very poor recording, which makes us even more sensitive to their being offbeat and out of tune. The musicians do not seem to make any effort to sing melodiously—indeed many of these bands never had any training. As Mary Harron recalls:

I remember The Damned appearing in a small town outside London, a look of desperate concentration on their faces, playing so fast as if they were trying to catch up with their own music. […]. Inexperience made them vulnerable to every failure in their ghastly equipment. They were banging at the microphone, kicking at the amplifiers, and screaming in frustration. (29).

  • 1 See also Captain Sensible interviewed by Scott Rowley (2007).

11She concludes that they were “working class kids who know they have been fucked over all their lives.” (30).1 They had no know-how because, for them, there was no way to get any.

  • 2 See also Robert Christgau (2002).
  • 3 Dave Marsh 1993, 165.

12For the Ramones, who had grown up in a middle-class suburban environment which they “reveled in and reviled” (Osgerby 162),2 it was more a conscious rejection of know-how. The Ramones could not play and stated it very plainly. From this acknowledgement, they moved on to becoming “do-it yourself anti-musician.”3 Joey Ramones, talking about its members, notes that at the outset

We didn’t know what to do when we started playing. We’d try some Bay City Rollers [a pop, rather than progressive, band] songs and we absolutely couldn’t do that. We didn’t know how. So, we just started writing our own stuff and put it together the best we could (McNeil and McCain 1983).

13They produced an album without training or external approval: they literally did it themselves. But what exactly was this Do-It-Yourself method that enabled them to produce an album both quickly and cheaply to great critical acclaim? (McNeil and McCain 206 and 229). Stacy Thomson explains how the three-chord form contributed to this prowess:

In terms of difficulty, most guitar chords are no easier to learn than single notes; each chord or note requires a specific positioning of the fingers. However, chords, which are produced when several notes are played together, fill out a band’s sound in a way that individually played notes cannot. In order to avoid the time and money needed to learn to play the guitar well, technically speaking, guitarists in bands such as the Ramones learned to play a few chords, thereby becoming capable of producing a full sound, and they eliminated solos in order to sidestep the need to play lengthy “riffs”— progressions of individual notes or combinations of chords and notes (Thompson 2004, 13)

14They dared do the simplest possible thing: in addition to the chord simplification and the absence of riffs and solos, they played very fast. The total effect was literally unheard of and a shock for the listeners, which made them successful.

15According to Ian P. Moran: “Even if the Ramones did not understand the original nature of their rebellion, it has influenced the D.I.Y. punk subculture drastically” (64). Their style, dependent on a punk method, made them independent aesthetically and financially from the music labels and from any external approval. Their posture was linked to a global rejection of the establishment and the hierarchy. If you did not learn the forms at school, then you would not reproduce the existing social structures, as explained in Louis Althusser’s denunciation of the school system as being one of the Ideological State Apparatuses that ensure “subjection to the ruling ideology” (8). Through this method, “this deliberate unlearning” (Savage 82), punks thought they could escape the rules of hegemonic capitalism (Thompson “Punk Cinema,”2005 24). What was started as local and specific to music and well documented with proper musicology tools (O’Meara ) can be abstracted from this particular media and applied to any media. The DIY method and ethic I just outlined starting with an example in music was used for a number of films (as well as videos and TV shows) produced in New York in the late 1970s on a shoestring budget—The Foreigner among them.

16Amos Poe’s film does not respect the rules of mainstream cinema, in other words the Hollywood style that requires spatial continuity and stylistic transparency so that film form does not call attention to itself, but focuses the spectators on the all-important plot instead (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 1–87). In The Foreigner, the plot is sketchy if not absent, and the fictional space seems to be made of random bits and pieces which happen to be close to each other without an obvious justification.

  • 4 See a very detailed analysis in Stacy Thompson, “Punk Cinema.” However, let’s note that the many o (...)

17The style is everything but transparent: the camera zooms in an out indiscriminately, and pans widely, not bothering to cut to spare us the dizziness.4 As a result, the film seems to be “defiantly unfocused and sloppy” (Prigge 2003 quoted in Thompson, "Punk Cinema" in New Punk Cinema, 2005, 27) and hastily put together. It was produced on a five-thousand-dollar budget (Thompson "Punk Cinema" 2005, 26). A convincing depiction of three-dimensional filmic space would have required at least two cameras, with two people who knew how to place them accurately, actors who would have been willing to be placed specifically relative to these cameras and maybe more space to place them on the shooting location. And later, a very attentive editing of both sound and images. More than money, it is time, work and know-how that would have been necessary, and that Poe’s film renounced. This way what the film did to mainstream cinema was similar to what The Ramones did to Rock’n Roll with their three-chord style even if we cannot find exact equivalents nor traces of a distinct musical aesthetic in The Foreigner.

2. Punk Film Style: Looking at Music

18Yet, The Foreigner is not the first punk film; an earlier film by the same filmmaker, titled The Blank Generation (Král and Poe, 1976), has a far closer link with music since it thematizes the passage from punk music to punk film. The film documents various musical numbers without narrative voiceover. Again, more expensive equipment would have allowed to record the sound together with the image. Instead of attempting a meticulous time-consuming lip-synch in post-production, Amos Poe gave it up altogether (David. Laderman 33–34), in the same way The Ramones gave up on riffs and solos. In the film, when we see a band onscreen, we can hear their songs but is it often a medley of several songs, while the image seems to record just one performance, or vice-versa. This produces a very messy effect, and is disruptive for the spectators who, because of their viewing habits, are uselessly trying to pair the sound with the performers’ lip and body movements. The latter attract the camera, which isolates body parts for their expressiveness. For example, in the sequence where The Ramones are playing, the camera is framing a mouth wide open and moving fast, or a thigh, and next a foot, both jogging to a beat that is similar to the one we can hear. The zooms, pans, and close-ups point to the presence of a camera person and/or a film director. Once again, the film does not wish or pretend to show a filmic world that would unfold naturally, as if on its own, as Hollywood recommends.

Figure 2. Foot moving to the beat in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)

Figure 2. Foot moving to the beat in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)

© Ivan Kral and Amos Poe, The Blank Generation, 1976. Poe Productions. New Line Cinema.

19Here, editing is very scarce and does not favor the traditional matched cuts (eye-line matches, reverse shot, match on action, cut-in and cut-out). Instead, there are a number of jump-cuts, with no significant changes in angle nor shot scale, that just give us the impression that we have missed a frame or two. In many sections of the film, we are not in a position to build a continuous filmic space. Sometimes the music helps us to do so, but sometimes the camera jumps between different concerts (as in the Patti Smith section), and even inserts mini narratives, taking place in other spaces, like a man throwing a TV set onto the pavement when the band called Television is heard playing, or Blondie’s band members pushing their stalled car together.

Figure 3. Blondie pushing their stalled car in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)

Figure 3. Blondie pushing their stalled car in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)

© Ivan Kral and Amos Poe, The Blank Generation, 1976. Poe Productions. New Line Cinema.

  • 5 I borrow this phrase from the title of an exhibition bearing on similar works and on “the melding (...)

20There is no sophisticated lighting, stable throughout a whole sequence, there is no appropriate match between cuts to help us figure out what is going on, nor any narration to walk us through a story led by cause and effect. As for the music, film is stripped to its effective basics: camera movement, zooming and cuts—not catering for the viewers’ comfort. This method is not in defiance of cinema as a medium, rather a pared down style that resembles the punk musical style. There is a symbiosis here, as if we were “looking at music”5 and it would be possible to feel the punk style while watching only the muted images.

  • 6 This tune is the first on the album No New York which featured the main bands of the No Wave music (...)
  • 7 The term is used by Vera Dika (58–59).
  • 8 This is the sensation we get in “Less of Me” when after a tuneless repetitive chant, Lydia Lunch v (...)
  • 9 “ No wave music is a highly theatrical, performance-based approach to music, characterized by roug (...)

21Another example, Kidnapped (Mitchell, 1978) has also a lot of moments when one is “looking at music.” In this film, a sketchy narrative makes us understand that people at a house party decide, out of boredom (Hoberman), to kidnap and torture a man. We are allowed (or forced) to hear a number of period records: these are a lean bouncy and speeded up punk version, not so much a cover but a corrected version of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” by Devo (1977), James Chance’s “Dish it out” (1978),6 “Less of me” (1979) and “Orphans” (1978) by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The two latter songs are full of high tones that are not harmonious and resemble a screeching noise7 or a caterwaul by either a saxophone being tortured by its player or a female voice, flying to painful heights, sometimes evoking the sound of nails on glass8. Only a deconstructed rhythmic pattern and booming percussions contrast with the voice. These songs are typical of the experimental forays made by No Wave bands9 that went a lot further in rejecting rules and accepted values than the original punk ones: “No Wave music irresistibly invites metaphors of dismemberment, desecration, and ‘defiling rock’s corpse’” (Reynolds 51).

22In Kidnapped, the visuals are also quite experimental: the framing is gratuitous and the editing non-existent as the film is made of several reels pasted back-to-back. Sometimes there are several takes of the same action, as if the filmmaker had refused to cut, and if was for the spectators to decide which one is the best. There is no respect for the fourth wall convention: the filmmaker (Eric Mitchell) is heard giving directions and then enters the frame as if walking across the screen, and becomes an actor, creating a stylistic form of “screeching.” Participants mostly improvise: this way we have the feeling of being there with them, of being immersed in the film; there is no barrier separating actor from filmmaker, and consequently, by osmosis, spectator from filmic world.

Figure 4. Eric Michell looking directly at the camera in Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978).

Figure 4. Eric Michell looking directly at the camera in Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978).

© Eric Mitchell, Kidnapped, 1978.

23It would probably be possible to extend this study to yet another medium, and show that fanzines and rock magazines graphic style (the type of font or hand writing they use, as well as the way they lay out the text and pictures) and the aesthetic of their pictures are similar to the style of No Wave film photography, titles and posters. The question is not that one would be borrowing from the other, but that the same ethos and the same rejection of know-how and of former traditions in magazine layout or film titles lead to similar results. For example, the double page dedicated to The Ramones in Punk Magazine (Holstrom ) has high-contrast pictures, with dark background, and very little depth, that are very close to the image quality in Amos Poe’s frames of the The Blank Generation. The way the names of the players are nearly pasted on the page looks hand-made, and so do the end titles of the film, where the names of the performers are written in white letters arranged on a black leather jacket.

Figure 5. Punk Magazine issue 1 (1976).

Figure 5. Punk Magazine issue 1 (1976).

© Mary Harron.

3. The Punk Scene and its Multimedial Practices

  • 10 See also Kevin Baker (2015) and Robert Zevin (1977, 11–29).
  • 11 “LYDIA LUNCH: Work? Are you nuts? Please. $75 per month—that was my rent when I got an apartment o (...)

24As explained above, philosophical and political justifications transform DIY practices from intermedial (moving from music to film) to transmedial (the DIY punk ethos needing realization in every possible media film, music and fanzines for example). The conditions in which the DIY punk methods were applied further removed all thinkable media specificity. Namely, in New York, the movement operated as a scene: the actual practices took place in a geographically limited zone (Taylor 52). Nearly all the participants were gathered in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and formed what came to be called as the “Downtown scene.” As the city was nearly bankrupt (Reynolds 144),10 ridden with crime and drugs, and middle-class inhabitants had fled to the suburbs, the rents were extremely low. Artists flocked in since the cost of living was so cheap;11 they barely had to work and had more time to practice their arts, to go to clubs or to attend the numerous concerts and shows available.

25These artists did not reach out to large audiences but rather communicated with the public through Xeroxed fanzines (Holstrom) and worked cooperatively as an “in-group” (McCormick 39). Downtown had become what Bourdieu has called a restricted “field of cultural production” (Bourdieu and Johnson 33, quoted in Taylor 31), where it was possible to circumvent the limitations that existed in the wider field. On the Downtown scene, all the diverse artists worked against, and even bypassed, the rules imposed by an art market they wanted to avoid or were excluded from (Moore and Miller 3). They had to find or create venues, which were open to various media. For example, music clubs such as Max Kansas or CBGB would accept to screen films, and institutional venues such as The Kitchen, that had originally been a place for video art, would accept music and performance too (Goldberg 1 48–49). Dika further explains:

But many clubs, as well as art galleries and performance spaces, also showed a distinctive mix of art works. At venues such as The Kitchen and the Mudd Club, or at events such as Paul McMahon’s Party Club, the shows could offer a mix of, say, music, performance, sculpture, or film in a single presentation. (Dika XVIII)

26The members of the scene created large multimedia exhibitions called “shows.” Some were created by a collaborative group named Colab which was composed of about forty artists and “was initially formed to take advantage of funding sources designed for organizations supporting new art” (Schumann, Robinson, and Collaborative Projects 9) in a non-hierarchical collaborative structure (Schumann, Robinson, and Collaborative Projects 22). For eight years, this simple yet demanding organization put many people in contact with one another and fostered creation. Some films previously mentioned, such as Kidnapped, were made through Colab. The group demonstrated great medium fluidity in their activities as shown by this quote:

Colab and related activities reared its head once again. My co-worker Anne Kugler collaborated with Christopher Wool on Hell is You, a screening series of Super-8 feature films from the late 70s, and thus I was only introduced to the Colab-associated New Cinema. David Schmidlapp and Phase 2 did a slide lecture on the golden age of Aerosol/ Subway art. Schmidlapp, a photographer who was marginally associated with Colab, was a fastidious documenter of subway art and had founded the IG Times graffiti zine which Phase 2 would join as art director. (Schumann, Robinson, and Collaborative Projects 11, emphases mine).

  • 12 Flyer reproduced in Colab.

27People in the same group created zines, posters, performances, films, gave talks and also undertook political action. The words “collaborated,” “introduced,” “joined,” “connection,” “crew” and “friends” emphasize the sense of a network or a community, and the phrase “reared its head” presents Colab as a powerful hydra. One important action that the group pursued was to help artists find suitable buildings to practice and show their art. In the late 1970s, Soho became more commercial (Chevalier 11) and artists were ousted from their dwellings. They sought other places and started inhabiting the East Village and the Lower East Side, often squatting. For example, they occupied the 123 Delancey building. When the state refused to grant the artists the right to use this building, they put up a very cohesive show called the Real Estate Show with many installations, performances and also films which were screened all day long.12 Thanks to this multimedial show, the artists appeared as a force (Schumann, Robinson, and Collaborative Projects 106–7). The multimedia spaces and groups mentioned above implemented the “anti-everything” values since they appropriated private buildings and rejected the way government treated them. They also rejected hierarchy and private property and, instead, promoted self-determination and solidarity.

  • 13 See also “What is Naked Eye Cinema” ("Naked Eye Cinema Archival Project | Allied Productions, Inc. (...)

28However, in terms of reception and spectatorial practices, cinema was provided with special spaces. Even if some clubs like CBGB would have films screened before or during musical gigs, most screenings occurred in separate rooms. For example, in the Real Estate Show, films were shown in an adjoining building. As Colab settled in the ABC no Rio building, films were for a while shown together with other art on the same premises, but after a couple of years film screening took the form of a dedicated group called “Naked Cinema” operating in different parts of town (George n.p.).13

4. Film’s Special Role as Meta-media and Impulse

29Film watching requires a dark room with a white screen, or at least a white surface and some measure of silence; this tends to confine film in the dedicated space of the traditional theater. Punk filmmakers wanted to break this convention and show films to people who never attended theaters (Hoberman), but they still had to respect some basics. Films could not be included in the large open-plan multimedial spaces of the shows because of spectatorial need that in turn depended on cinema’s “multimedial complexity” (Pethő 2). According to Robert Stam, the “cinematic language is the set of messages whose matter of expression consists of five tracks or channels: moving photographic image, recorded phonetic sound, recorded noises, recorded musical sound, and writing (credits, intertitles, written material in the shot).” (Stam, Burgoyne, and Flitterman-Lewis 37). Hence, to understand a film, we need to consider these five channels or techniques. In turn, these contribute to make cinema “a multifaceted qualified media” (Elleström and Bruhn 25), meaning that it is not only the addition of different techniques, or medias, but also the realization that they come together to create semantic and aesthetic forms, which are identified by audiences as “what cinema is” in André Bazin’s famous book title words (1975).

30Traditionally, the legitimacy of cinema was predicated on the transparency of the stylistic codes and the near invisibility of technique when watching mainstream movies, as Pethő reminds us: “Not only […] the spectator does not distinguish between the media constituting cinematic multimediality, the mediated nature of the experience itself (the mediality of the movies) also becomes almost unperceivable.” (Pethő 57). Cinema may appear as putting together and naturalizing existing media and also referring to other media and other texts in an “intertextual-intermedial” (Pethő 59) relationship. However, the way punk/No Wave films reject the rules of mainstream filmmaking and any transparency attached to it, make the audience more akin to perceive cinema’s multiple facets.

  • 14 The group had been named simply after four of them participated in an exhibition at Artists’ Space (...)

31The multiplicity also resonated with the transmedial punk movement and with the fact that the artists of the scene were not attached to one particular medium to express themselves but used whichever one their next, often collaborative, project would require. These is one reason why, according to the title of Vera Dika’s book, the members of the Downtown scene were part of “The (Moving) Pictures Generation.” Just before them, The Pictures Generation14 group were the first artists to be native to visual consumer culture and to be immersed in cinema, advertising and magazines. They included such artists as Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Richard Prince and Jack Goldstein, and largely used strategies of appropriation of both form and content that blurred “boundaries between originals and reproductions, and between the real world and the world of images” (Moore Saggese n.d.). In many of their works, cinema is the “impulse” to quote Vera Dika’s book subtitle. For example, Robert Longo’s Seven Seal, for Missouri Breaks (1976) is a sculpture that uses cinema to question, as Eadweard Muybridge (1885) did, movement and immobility in space and time; but not by using what was in front of the camera (the profilmic), rather by representing the cinematic in the experience of a spectator watching the film Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976) and then collapsing the medial layering of cinema in just one technique: sculpture. Longo and other members of the Pictures group showed their work in a gallery named “Metro Pictures”; it seems that through the confusion with the film studio, “film images, film history, the institution of film had infused [their] work” (Dika 3)

  • 15 “The magazine’s themes include French New Wave cinema, the Baader-Meinhof group, and punk music. T (...)

32The artist of the No Wave scene went further in considering cinema as the focal point of their world as nearly all them engaged with filmmaking or video. The members of Colab had decided to call the group’s magazine X Motion Picture15 (Sitney and Fitzgibbon). Its contents were constantly yet sometimes obliquely linked to film: in its second issue a long text by James Nares, filmmaker and painter, is part free poetry, part reflection on how to film; a picture shows Andy Warhol filming a naked Jimmy de Sana; filmmaker Amos Poe writes about Charlie Chaplin’s death, to quote just a few of its densely cinematic fifty pages(1978). For the X Motion Picture Magazine contributors, the world seemed to revolve entirely about film and filmmaking —for them cinema was a way to understand the world.

33This tropism does not amount to fascination: cinema was led by Hollywood—the symbol of the mass entertainment industry: hence it was the archenemy according to punk ethos. As the filmmakers from the Downtown scene were eons away from Hollywood both in stylistic, economic and distribution terms, creating alternative or punk films was a logical way to attack mainstream values. The two rationales of cinema as world view and of Hollywood as the enemy converge in a performance by David Byrne, who was also the lead singer of the New Wave band The Talking Heads. The performance, “Report from LA,” was recorded at The Kitchen for a TV show called Two Moon July (Bowes). The setting is intensively multimedial: the room is lined with television screens and still pictures (some of them by Cindy Sherman). Byrne, dressed in a suit, declares: “Today, I flew in from LA, business class, and of course I thought about movies.” Movies associated with “business” create a coercive train of thoughts. He starts reading a list of film titles none of which are very famous. At the same time, he is running as if the accumulation of titles was setting him in motion. He only stops when he is out of breath, eventually concluding “I want to see them all.” Indiscriminate consumption leads to exhaustion, levelling heavy criticism on the mass media industry.

Figure 6. David Byrne in Report from LA Two Moon July (1986)

Figure 6. David Byrne in Report from LA Two Moon July (1986)

© Tom Bowes, The Ktchen Presents Two Moon July, 1986. Kitchen.

  • 16 See “Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?” (Freed).

34David Byrne’s performance uses video, which was a relatively new medium at the time. In the 1970s, the media landscape was changing quickly and this was not limited to the introduction of video. It encouraged artists not to specialize “because they sensed the instability among all boundaries, they worked across mediums” (Dika 8–9). Technical changes increased the divide between films produced for the mainstream and low budget movies. Some inventions, like Dolby noise reduction system or Imax were geared towards the movie industry: they were here to foster theatrical gross income. But others affected directly the independent, underground filmmakers, such as the widespread use of the videotape that enabled them to transfer and keep or sell copies of their films at a low cost. And some even endowed filmmakers with added freedom,16 such as the Portapak, an easy to operate, relatively inexpensive “battery-operated portable video recorder and camera ensemble” (Meigh-Andrews, n. p.). In the media landscape of the era, for the punk or No Wave artists, the moving image, be it video or cinema, had the ability to assimilate modern inventions by returning to the flickering image and spectacle of early cinema (Krauss 44). Also, the moving image had conflicting links with the artists’ wish to avoid the art market; namely by producing works that were “labelled ‘ephemeral’ the intent being to create an experience rather than a product, and new terms were devised to describe them, such as ‘installation’ and ‘performance.’” (Apple 5). However, there often was a movie or video camera that captured the performances or concerts. This puts the moving image in a very ambivalent position: both useful for us now as researchers and spectators (if Byrne’s performance had not been recorded it would have disappeared forever) yet not a work of art per se (in Two moon July, we do not even know who is filming “Report from LA”). However, many films intended as documentation and archive were belatedly granted the status of “art objects” (Sandler 24, quoted in Taylor 27) thus becoming marketable.


  • 17 In Glenn O’Brien TV Party (Poe and Brinkfilm).

35In Downtown 81 (Bertoglio, 1981), Jean Michel Basquiat’s character tells the audience in voiceover “I’m an artist, when I tell that to people, they usually say ‘What is your medium?’, I usually say ‘extra-large’” putting an end to the media discussion with a joke. Indeed, willingness to engage into the notion of media-specificity in the late 1970s or early 1980s would have been quite passé. As Rosalind Krauss notes, the purity of media, its specificity—even in a case of a complex aggregative media such as film—is grounded in a modernist posture. Whereas the seventies and eighties where rather marked by post-modernism as defined by Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism for example. Basquiat painted on canvas, wrote on walls, typed on TV screens,17 played the clarinet and recorded music with his band—Gray, and, even if briefly, performed as an actor. With his elegant one-liner, he defines himself as a post-medium artist. But in fact, he does not try to embrace late-capitalism’s post-modernism. He does so for the reason we have evoked previously: he refuses to be fettered by technical mastery or the lack of it; and he is part of a scene where he collaborates, thus he is led to perform across media.

36This is not exactly what Krauss had in mind. For her and people like Donald Judd and Joseph Kosuth (Krauss 1999, 10), the post-medium condition was marked by practices such as conceptual art, and installation art. These practices tend to render the “technical support” (46) nearly irrelevant, and also have been made complicit with late capitalism demands (Krauss 56), whereas punk and No Wave are not so. At first glance, the fact that punk/No Wave may be summed up by an ethos of anti-everything minimalism and “deliberate unlearning” may lead us to think that punk is a concept, an idea, and as such can be used regardless of media. However, punk principles may be an umbrella concept, yet individual realizations do not, as a rule, rely on a concept that would be more important than the work itself. The process is important: learning three chords and playing them as fast as you can, for the The Ramones, or making a documentary about a music club with no voiceover and no synch sound (The Blank Generation). But for all these works the medial realization, including sensory experience, participates in the enjoyment: and many of us relished “Blitzkrieg Bop” without being fully aware of the idea that gave birth to it. If punk /No Wave can be realized across media, it is not only because it stems from umbrella principles, but also because the very contents of the principles foster different types of intermediality: unlearning unleashes the ability to practice any art regardless of your abilities, while minimalism also allows for further freedom. The “anti-everything ethos” of punk/No Wave is germane to intermedial phenomena: intermediality accounts for the rhizomatic expansion of its rebellious productions in many available media. It spreads, formally speaking, thanks to “intermedial reference,” and, genetically speaking, thanks to collaboration which creates some harmonious crisscrossing between media following the exchanges of participation among the East Village and Lower East Side scene. Intermediality worked symbiotically in the dis-order linked to the No Wave tabula rasa of “anti-everything.” The border crossing essence of intermediality was an effective way to challenge the cultural establishment, and film’s complex plurimediality made it an excellent wedge; to the point that No Wave films were often shown in clubs which only afford “approximate spectatorship” (Wielgus 192) to the viewers. The No Wave ethos rejected even the most basic media specificity of spectating practices: the need for a dark and silent room to screen.

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1 See also Captain Sensible interviewed by Scott Rowley (2007).

2 See also Robert Christgau (2002).

3 Dave Marsh 1993, 165.

4 See a very detailed analysis in Stacy Thompson, “Punk Cinema.” However, let’s note that the many other types of film do not have a transparent film style, especially all experimental, art films, and what was called at the time structural film. The reason why it is not transparent and fluid is more important than the fact itself.

5 I borrow this phrase from the title of an exhibition bearing on similar works and on “the melding of music, media, and visual art”: Looking at Music: Side 2, The Museum of Modern Art, June 10–November 30, 2009.

6 This tune is the first on the album No New York which featured the main bands of the No Wave music movement and was produced by British producer Brian Eno in No New York (Mars et al.) for the label Antilles.

7 The term is used by Vera Dika (58–59).

8 This is the sensation we get in “Less of Me” when after a tuneless repetitive chant, Lydia Lunch voice flies an octave higher to pronounce the word “mediocrity” and goes back to her droning rendition.

9 “ No wave music is a highly theatrical, performance-based approach to music, characterized by rough and often dissonant sounds” (Yokobosky 119).

10 See also Kevin Baker (2015) and Robert Zevin (1977, 11–29).

11 “LYDIA LUNCH: Work? Are you nuts? Please. $75 per month—that was my rent when I got an apartment on 12th Street. You could eat for two or three dollars a day. You begged, borrowed, stole, sold drugs, worked a couple of days at a titty bar if you had to. I don't know how I got by, but it didn't take much.

JAMES NARES (Contortions/filmmaker): Different disciplines came together. There were filmmakers, artists, musicians, poets. We would be making a racket in a studio one day, and shooting a movie the next day.” In “NO!: The Origins of No Wave” (Masters, n. p.).

12 Flyer reproduced in Colab.

13 See also “What is Naked Eye Cinema” ("Naked Eye Cinema Archival Project | Allied Productions, Inc. " n.d.).

14 The group had been named simply after four of them participated in an exhibition at Artists’ Space called “Pictures” in 1977. (Eklund 2009, 16)

15 “The magazine’s themes include French New Wave cinema, the Baader-Meinhof group, and punk music. The cover of the first issue consists of three stills from Godard’s 1976 film ‘Ici et ailleurs,’ whilst the second cover features a found photograph of a man holding two swords in the shape of an X. The final cover references the Baader-Meinhof group, discussed in the issue, with the phrase ‘Red brigade’ scrawled on a brick wall.” (Allen 311).

16 See “Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?” (Freed).

17 In Glenn O’Brien TV Party (Poe and Brinkfilm).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Menace (Eric Mitchell) looking at a documentary on British punk in The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978)
Crédits © Amos Poe, The Foreigner, 1978. Visions.
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Titre Figure 2. Foot moving to the beat in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)
Crédits © Ivan Kral and Amos Poe, The Blank Generation, 1976. Poe Productions. New Line Cinema.
Fichier image/jpeg, 35k
Titre Figure 3. Blondie pushing their stalled car in Blank Generation (Amos Poe, 1976)
Crédits © Ivan Kral and Amos Poe, The Blank Generation, 1976. Poe Productions. New Line Cinema.
Fichier image/jpeg, 62k
Titre Figure 4. Eric Michell looking directly at the camera in Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978).
Crédits © Eric Mitchell, Kidnapped, 1978.
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
Titre Figure 5. Punk Magazine issue 1 (1976).
Crédits © Mary Harron.
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Titre Figure 6. David Byrne in Report from LA Two Moon July (1986)
Crédits © Tom Bowes, The Ktchen Presents Two Moon July, 1986. Kitchen.
Fichier image/jpeg, 51k
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Céline Murillo, « Intermedial Negative: The Role of Punk Cinema in the Downtown Scene (New York, 1976-1984) »Interfaces [En ligne], 48 | 2022, mis en ligne le 21 décembre 2022, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Céline Murillo

Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Céline Murillo is a lecturer in English and American Cinema at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord. After her PhD, she published a monography on independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Le Cinéma de Jim Jarmusch. Un monde plus loin, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016). She has published several papers on Jim Jarmusch, Westerns and underground American cinema from the 1960s onwards. Her research now focuses on punk and No Wave films in downtown New York in the late seventies and early eighties, with an emphasis on collective creation, as well as humor and politics.

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