The No Wave film scene emerged out of New York’s punk clubs in the late ‘70s. Bi director Beth B, who began working in collaboration with her then-husband Scott B, was one of its leading lights, working with musician Lydia Lunch as her frequent star. (In 2020, B released a feature-length documentary “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over.”) The movement included several brilliant female filmmakers, like Bette Gordon and Lizzie Borden, but few were permitted to establish a steady career in Hollywood.
Beth B has only made two narrative features as a solo director, and one wonders what she might’ve accomplished had she received as many opportunities as Jim Jarmusch, who came from the same milieu. However, she’s worked in shorts and documentaries, building an impressive body of work that covers a wide range of subjects: recovering addicts, the burlesque scene, drag queens, her mother Ida Applebroog (a painter), veterans coping with PTSD. Following a retrospective at MOMA last September, the Metrograph now offers another chance to see her films both in the theater and at home.
“Black Box,” a 20-minute short from 1978, takes on the abuse of power in its bluntest form. After a few minutes of cuddling with his girlfriend, an unnamed young man is kidnapped off the street and tortured by an unknown entity. Lydia Lunch, unconvincing as a fictional character but gripping in her intense attitude, recites the damage that will be done to him. The last five minutes turn this into an assault on this audience, as the man is locked in a box and subjected to flashing lights and deafening noise. Although the film was inspired by a real device manufactured by a Houston-based company for Latin American dictatorships, it seems strangely abstracted, with violence existing for its own sake and reflecting sexual sadism rather than achieving a political goal.
B’s first feature made without Scott, the 1987 “Salvation!,” stepped closer towards the mainstream but felt somewhat compromised by its desire to reach a wider audience. (“Vortex,” which is not part of this series, was a small step from her underground films towards a more accessible thriller.) Inspired by the scandals of Jim Bakker and other televangelists, it follows the lives of a working-class couple, Rhonda (Exene Cervenka, singer of the punk band X) and her husband Jerome (Viggo Mortensen), who watch Rev. Randall (Stephen McHattie)’s right-wing rants on TV. Rhonda is a born-again Christian, while Jerome’s a cynical atheist, but his sister-in-law Lenore (Dominique Davalos) shows up at Rev. Randall’s house one night and seduces him, leading to a series of contrivances by which Rhonda and Jerome become involved in his life. The biggest problem with “Salvation!” is its reliance on cheap potshots at dated targets: of course, the preacher turns out to be a hypocrite who drinks heavily and sleeps around. This type hasn’t disappeared, but their aesthetics have changed. Using bright, even garish colors, the film’s tone is satirical, but the proceedings are too ugly to be very funny. The best joke is the Christian hair metal song, performed by Rhonda on Rev. Randall’s show, which closes the film, but it glances in a direction “Salvation!” never really goes down: televangelists as mirror images of the rock stars they claimed to hate. B’s music video group for the dance music group Dominatrix’s early ‘80s club hit “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” which offers a much lighter take on the sadomasochistic imagery permeating her films, plays a short before “Salvation!”
“Two Small Bodies,” adapted from Neal Bell’s two-person play by himself and B in 1993, takes on the brutal dynamic of “Black Box” in a slightly less confrontational form. A very warped erotic thriller, it pits police lieutenant Brann (Fred Ward) and Eileen Maloney (Suzy Amis), a woman whose two children have gone missing from their bedroom, against each other in a bleak, sexually charged scenario. B made no effort to open it up. The film takes place entirely in Maloney’s house, with no other actors appearing. At first, it’s a straightforward indictment of male abuse of power. Lt. Brann can show up at her house at all hours of the morning and night, endlessly interrogating her about the disappearance of her two children, her job as a host as a strip club, and her sex life. Ward’s body language is a caricature of macho swagger. He looms over her, pushing her into walls and corners. To him, she’s failed as a mother in several ways. He believes she may be responsible for her children’s deaths, especially since she seems more worn and numb than sad, while he blames his own desire on her. B’s direction conveys the hopelessness of being trapped with Lt. Brann. But just when the film begins to turn rather one-note, Maloney’s behavior hints that the sexual tension between them is a two-way street. Both actors give rather stylized performances, suggesting an ultimate ambiguity about what’s really happening.
In her 1994 short “High Heel Nights,” B profiled two drag artists, Veneer (Michael Gorski) and Sherry Vine (Keith Levy). While the project looks like the start of a larger, unfinished feature, it gives Gorski and Vine, both cis gay men, a platform to speak about the importance of drag to them. Both say it allows them to express parts of themselves they can’t embody in ordinary life. Gorski says he wanted to build a character to express female sexuality without getting socially penalized, while Levy views Sherry Vine as a way to think and act differently from himself. Given the time when this was made, B’s “what is a drag queen?” person-on-the-street interviews are somewhat dated, but the film is a time capsule of a subculture that’s entered the mainstream via “RuPaul’s Drag Race” while becoming more demonized than ever by the right.
“Sex, Power & Money: Films by Beth B” | Kino Lorber | March 10-13 | Metrograph | Full schedule at https://metrograph.com/category/bethb/