Re-written in the Feminine: The Films of Vivienne Dick, Or: Justifiable Matricide, the Contemporarily Unspeakable and the Return of the Repressed

Still from Excluded By The Nature of Things (2002, courtesy of Vivienne Dick)

Through the sold-out clamor of the crowd at Judson Church, just moments before Yvonne Rainer received a standing ovation for her virtuoso performance Trio A: Geriatric With Talking, I overheard someone whisper, “It has to be about more than the nostalgia of a bunch of old-fogies.” At the roundtable that opened the previous evening, titled A Sanctuary For the Arts: Judson Memorial Church and the Avant-Garde 1955-1977, Malcolm Goldstein characterized today’s young artists as being more concerned with writing their resumes than making their work.  When an audience member questioned this characterization, the moderator squelched it as too cosmic a topic to deal with within the evening’s timeframe.  It is a question, however, that’s been in the air lately.  Recent re-evaluations of the legacy of the 1960s and1970s, ranging from the CUE Art Foundation’s That is Then. This is Now., to CUNY’s conference In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 1970s, have asked what the radical history of this period can tell us about where we are today and how we got here.

A retrospective of filmmaker Vivienne Dick at Artists Space– and the conversations that surrounded the show– speak unfalteringly to the generational zeitgeist.  Amy Taubin began the discussion after Dick’s first three films, Guerrillere TalksStaten Island; and She Had Her Gun Already (each made in 1978), by noting that half the people in the room were here in 1978 and the other half weren’t even born. She suggested that with the passage of time, the documentary element of the films had only become more powerful. Fair enough, but for some of us who weren’t there in 1978, the most striking aspect of the films was the way in which they spoke to unresolved questions about gender, spectacle, and power. These questions are evident today in Cheryl Dunye’s The Owls (2010), in Harper’s Magazine’s October 2010 article by Susan Faludi: “American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide”, and in Jack Halberstam’s October 19th response on the website Bully Bloggers, “Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi.”

If there is a popular understanding of Vivienne Dick’s work at the moment, it seems to be summed up by review articles with titles like “Dick Flicks” and “Dicking Around. Perhaps these titles highlight what Jim Hoberman called Dick’s “obsession with female macho,” in his 1980 article “Note on three films by Vivienne Dick” from Millennium Film Journal.  They certainly highlight the extent to which Hoberman’s oft-reiterated articles, celebrating Dick as “the quintessential No Wave director,” over-determine the contemporary understanding of her career.  Only about 5 of her 20 films fit within the historical paradigm of No Wave, a super-8 film movement associated with downtown New York’s avant-garde punk bands of the late 1970’s.

A 1989 review of Vivienne Dick's London Suite by Amy Taubin in The Village Voice. Taubin's early reviews of Dick's work are much more difficult to access than Hoberman's. While Hoberman celebrated Dick's 'female macho,' filmmaker Abigail Child described her work as “Rewritten in the feminine… multi-tongued…intimate, shy, fierce, and original.”

At any rate, Dick’s films were also initially received in terms of generational divides within feminism, which seem centered around gender presentation. In Karyn Kay’s 1980 article in Idiolects No. 9-1 she writes:

[She Had Her Gone All Ready (1978)] could provide a brilliant anti-dote to Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” the almost religious canonization of the cultural stars of feminism.  Dick speaks the contemporarily unspeakable: women’s anger and hatred of women at the crucial moment of overpowering identification and obsessional thralldom.  “What are you going to do?” repeated over and over on the soundtrack (by Lydia Lunch) to utterly non-responsive Pat Place, who would rather leap out a window and commit murder than answer.  Is it Lunch’s teeny-bopper swagger and too short mini skirt that drive the androgynous Place to kill?  Lunch’s over-determined feminine sexuality is juxtaposed to Place’s boyish transexuality…  The point of struggle in Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast is again generational, although here the battle lies between mother and daughter (reminiscent of Mildred Pierce and Ida Lupino’s Hard Fast and Beautiful). [Emphasis mine]

This review appears with articles by today’s cultural stars of feminism including Yvonne Rainer and Carolee Schneeman. Moreover, it positions Dick in relation to the Feminist Art Movement, Classical Melodrama, and Ida Lupino. Lupino was known for her hard-boiled performance of femininity, and was described in Kay’s 1977 anthology Women and the Cinema as dealing with “feminist questions from an anti-feminist perspective.”  She had recently been ‘uncovered’ through the feminist film events of the early 1970’s that included a focus on authorship.

However at the Artists Space retrospective thirty-two years later, the idea of the documentary element continually came up. Dick repeatedly had to assert her presence as an author with statements like “they were chosen, they were cast.”  When Taubin asked why Pat Place (as character and performer) went out the window in She Had Her Gun All Ready, Dick answered “because I told her to,” leaving Taubin to respond: “In Avant-garde films we seldom talk about directing.”

Ed Halter initiated several conversations about Dick’s relationship to feminism, and Dick described herself as “very aware, very conscious of working with the representation of women,” saying, “some feminists found it difficult to take and I remember feeling hurt by that because I felt it was misunderstood.”  Halter and others in the audience commented on the influence that Liberty’s Booty (1980) appeared to have had on later and more widely discussed films by Bette Gordon and Lizzie Borden.

Dick continues to make films: the subtlety and sophistication with which she engaged both gendered experience and representation in the moment, shifting from the radical 70’s to the ‘post-feminist’ present may be best understood in relation to her continued career and development as an artist.  Towards the end of the evening’s discussion, Taubin asked her,  “Do you even think about stuff like this anymore, or are they all arguments of the past?” Dick answered, “Things have shifted, but the world we live in has many of the same imbalances of the past.  I think feminism has been repressed and there will be a resurgence.”

At the Judson Church roundtable a week later, Carolee Schneemann insisted that “the Vietnam War was an undercurrent, a shadow over our intentions and collaborations.  Parallel to our burgeoning creative forces were the assassinations of our leaders and the imagery of history being suppressed.” Just an hour before the Judson Church event, outside in Washington Square Park was a rally in response to recent LGBT suicides where a speaker from the Audre Lorde Project connected the bullying and suicides to The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was passed as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 — funding the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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About Kerrie Welsh

Kerrie Welsh is an experimental filmmaker whose work has been presented in galleries, festivals, and international conferences. She teaches in Tisch School of the Arts’ Undergraduate Film & Television program.
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