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American Underground Film Season at IMMA

A season of rarely-seen films from a defining period in the history of American underground cinema opens at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Friday 15 September 2006. New York: No Wave Cinema focuses on the hotbed of talent and creativity that was New York City’s East Village from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s – a period that marked a new era in the relationship between film, art and music. The season includes such seminal films as Rome 78, Underground USA, Downtown 81 and The Blank Generation.  Continuing until Sunday 1 October, it offers Irish cinema buffs an opportunity to see the films that were essentially responsible for developing the American independent film genre, which went on to become a major force in world cinema. In addition to the screening of seven classics of the genre, the season will also feature the cult classic cable network television programme, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party.

Of particular interest to Irish audiences will be several appearances by the American artist David McDermott, who, as one half of the celebrated art duo McDermott and MacGough, has been part of the Dublin art scene since 1995. These roles include that of the Roman Emperor Caligula in Rome 78 (1978), directed by the British painter and musician James Nares, and a German spy in Long Island Four (1979) by the Swedish director Anders Grafstrom, based on a real-life World War II story – both of which are given an unmistakeably No Wave treatment.

The East Village of the time was home to an eclectic group of young artists who, thanks to the low rents in the area, had taken up residence there from all parts of America and Europe. No Wave Cinema (1976-1984) was the result of the ever-evolving relationships between these artists and the interchangeable roles they were prepared to undertake across a variety of art forms. Beginning with the explosive Punk/New Wave movement in the mid-1970s, it quickly came to provide a platform for collaborative experimentation, with filmmakers creating projected works for concerts, musicians composing sound pieces for artworks and a variety of artists, including filmmakers Glenn O’Brien, James Nares and Jim Jarmusch, performing in bands.

The aspirations of the group were, perhaps, best summed up in the words of the Israeli-born photographer Amos Poe, considered by many the father of modern American indie cinema. His first feature film Unmade Beds (1976) was a homage to Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave, arising as he explained from a desire “to start where Godard started, to go back to basics: innocence, romanticism, bohemianism, all things that made up New York City for me at that time”. 

The season traces the history of No Wave Cinema, beginning in 1975, when Poe and Ivan Kral (guitarist with the Patti Smith Group) set out to direct a 16mm film on the punk scene that became the cult classic, The Blank Generation. With seminal performances by the Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Talking Heads and Johnny Thunders, it proved to be an important launching point for the development of the genre. Through films such as Unmade Beds and Rome 78 to The Foreigner and Underground USA audiences can chart the movement’s evolution to the significant changes in the New York art scene from 1981 onwards, when developments in the presentation and promotion of artists and their work eventually led to its demise some three years later.

No Wave Cinema reflected the interests, lifestyles and modest means of its participants. These traits provided a common link between its members and served to differentiate them from nearly everyone else involved in filmmaking in America at that time. As the first generation to have grown up with television, they had a strong desire to tell stories based on real-life issues, which were not being portrayed in mainstream American cinema. In Eric Mitchell’s Underground USA and Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81, for example, both depict the downtown scene of New York City with authentic locations (Mudd Club and CBGB’s) and true-to-life characters. Up until this time, the story of this creative hub of activity was for most part only available to its actual participants. For these new young filmmakers the B-movie, the avant garde and the French New Wave were the ideal cinematic forms.

Most of the films also share a distinct appearance and sound, having been shot using Super 8mm sound film, largely for the pragmatic reason that it was cheaper to buy and develop. Many were shown not at organised screenings but in unconventional spaces frequented by their makers and their supporters, such as Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Glenn O Brien, Jim Jarmusch, Vincent Gallo, Jean Michel Basquiat, Lydia Lunch, Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, David Byrne, Vivienne Dick, Patti Smith, John Lurie, Keith Haring, Kenny Sharf, Arto Lindsay, McDermott & MacGough, Patty Astor, James Nares, Ivan Kral, and The Ramones.

Commenting on the season, curator Aileen Corkery, said: “For IMMA’s New York: No Wave programme, I have made a considered selection from countless films which I hope will relay not only a sense of the time but an understanding of how these dynamic artists worked together.  My rationale in selecting the films was assisted by identifying a few members from this period who would be familiar and of interest to Irish audiences and  that, in the programme’s entirety, it would reveal an interesting story. For the most part, the invalauble contributions of the main players in the No Wave movement to the development of the successful, and profitable, business of the American independent film industry has not been adequately acknowledged. I am hoping with programmes such as this, greater interest will be generated, not only into the content of the films, but in the incredibly talented and hardworking individuals who came together and changed our understanding of film, art and music.”

Aileen Corkery is a curator responsible for development and curation of the Dublin-based artist film and video programme, Temple Bar Outdoors: outside visual arts. She has commissioned films from Dorothy Cross, Paddy Jolley and TJ Wilcox and has worked extensively with artists including Matthew Barney, Salla Tykka, Phil Collins, Gerard Byrne and Richard Billingham. Having moved from Dublin in 2005, she is now based in London working at Hauser & Wirth London with the artists Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades.

The season opens on Friday 15 September with Rome 78 and Long Island Four and continues from Thursday to Sunday of each week, in the Lecture Room, until Sunday 1 October – see schedule attached. 

For this season, the films have been transferred from their original formats of Super 8mm and 16mm to DVD.  This is due to fragile state of many of the original works many of which have not been duplicated into prints.

A public in-conversation between Glenn O’Brien and David McDermott takes place on Thursday 14 September at 6.00pm. Booking is essential as space is limited. Please contact the automatic booking line tel: +353-1-612 9948 or email [email protected]

Admission to all screenings is free.

For further information and images please contact Monica Cullinane or Patrice Molloy at Tel: +353 1 612 9900; Email: [email protected]

16 August 2006