Sighting an Irish Avant-Garde in the Intersection of Local and International Film Cultures
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boundary 2 31.1 (2004) 243-265



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Sighting an Irish Avant-Garde in the Intersection of Local and International Film Cultures

Maeve Connolly

Introduction

Vivienne Dick is an Irish filmmaker who has yet to acquire a place within Irish film history, despite international critical recognition for films such as Guérillière Talks (1978), She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978), Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), Liberty's Booty (1980), and Visibility Moderate: A Tourist Film (1981). Born in Dublin, she moved to the United States on leaving university in the 1970s and first came to prominence as a member of New York's "No Wave" or "Punk" movement. Since then, her work primarily [End Page 243] has been theorized within the American film avant-garde.1 It was the subject of two programs at the Pacific Cinemathèque, San Francisco (1981, 1988), and Visibility Moderate was included in the 1983 Whitney Biennial. Dick's Super 8 films also featured in two major American film retrospectives, "No Wave Cinema 1978–87," at the Whitney (1996), and "Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films," at the Museum of Modern Art (1999). Her films are characterized by a fascination with American culture and are defined by appropriation from Hollywood, television, and pop music. This exploration of "Americana" through myth and popular iconography is, however, structured by Dick's perspective as an outsider, and the investigations of incest and prostitution in Beauty Becomes the Beast and Liberty's Booty are informed by a critique of Irish society. The Irish subtext becomes overt in Liberty's Booty, through direct references to the Irish economy and Catholicism. Visibility Moderate, the last of the New York films, is set partly in Ireland, and it parodies an American tourist's home movie. Dick returned to Ireland in 1982 before relocating in 1985 to London, where she joined the London Film-makers' Co-operative. During this period, she completed Like Dawn to Dust (1983), Rothach (1985), and Images/Ireland (1988), which explore representations of the Irish landscape in greater complexity.

Dick's work parallels that of her Irish contemporaries, Joe Comerford, Thaddeus O'Sullivan, Bob Quinn, and Pat Murphy.2 Because of her status as an outsider, however, Dick is not usually discussed as an Irish filmmaker, and her films are largely absent from published histories of Irish film.3 The Irish Film Archive did not acquire copies of her films until, in 1999, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum co-funded the production of new prints from the deteriorating Super 8 originals. Within Irish cinema studies, the period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s has been historicized in terms of the emergence of an indigenous industry. This serves to reinforce the notion that avant-garde practice constitutes a transient process [End Page 244] of "experimentation"4 rather than a critique of the industrial apparatus and the institutions and structures of production and reception. This period was also marked by the emergence of a critical film culture5 associated with developments in film policy. It also witnessed a "new wave" in independent Irish filmmaking, supported by the Production Board of the British Film Institute and, subsequently, by the workshop program developed by Channel Four Television. These developments in Irish film culture should be situated in relation to contemporary theories of avant-garde practice. The exploration of identity and landscape in Irish filmmaking was mirrored by a new concern, in film theory, with sociohistorical formations and questions of reception. Dick's work, which transects the independent film cultures of New York, Dublin, and London, occupies this intersection between local and international avant-gardes.

The Avant-Garde and No Wave Cinema

In the late 1970s, New York–based filmmakers, including Vivienne Dick, Beth and Scott B, Eric Mitchell, and Kiki Smith, created low-budget film narratives, appropriating the iconography of Hollywood B-movies and incorporating the sound track of retro pop and contemporary punk music. Many of them worked exclusively in the inexpensive and accessible medium of Super 8...