AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKING of late has been dominated by jewel-cutter formalism and minimalist documentary, but the films of Vivienne Dick serve as reminder that these paradigms have not always been in place. Obsessed with exhuming repressed traumas, voicing beaten-down identities, and generally meandering through a complex matrix of bad vibes, Dick’s works from the late-1970s onward are unapologetically messy, subjective, near plotless, and political—thereby proposing that so, too, is life.
Beginning as an Irish expat in drop-dead New York, Dick made her earliest films on Super-8, becoming one of the most celebrated and theorized of the downtown post-punk No Wave scene; the Spring 1982 issue of October included articles on her work (by J. Hoberman and Scott MacDonald), a crossover unimaginable for her equally underground contemporaries like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. In Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), Dick sets a baby-faced Lydia Lunch against the decaying, rubble-strewn corners of the city, invoking a backstory of parental abuse through music choices like the Shangri-Las’ heart-torn lament “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and a wry shot of a subway ad reading HELP DESTROY A FAMILY TRADITION. Leaning against a chain-link fence in a pristine white jacket, Lunch’s angry girl-woman voices lines like “I had a dream that you stitched up my pussy, Daddy. I don’t want a corpse in my mouth.” Visibility Moderate (1981), another Super-8 featurette, obliquely engages with Dick’s own return to Ireland by imagining the vacation movies of an incongruously glam new waver traveling to touristy spots like the Blarney Stone, expressing Dick’s own love-hate distance from home with disjointed bleats of punk and space jazz over ancient megaliths. The subtexts of these earlier works become more explicit in her video essay A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994), which uses handheld footage of her family’s happy gatherings as counterpoint to reminiscences like her parents’ coldness toward each other in the ’70s or a sister dying of cancer in apartheid-era South Africa, digging up still-potent artifacts from the wet bogs of memory.