Once upon a time — the punk-bruised late Seventies — there
was a downtown No Wave indie scene, and Beth B was its eight-millimeter Frida (at first alongside her husband, Scott B), pioneering an anti-professional aesthetic of exuberantly bad behavior, no-rent ambiance, soundtrack dissonance, experimental longueurs, and acting that was more like
posing. This was the primordial soup that spawned Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, David Wojnarowicz, Nick Zedd, and John Lurie; nothing was serious except contempt for the straight grown-ups. But of course B, now 61, had to grow up (Scott did, too — he’s now a Peabody-winning documentarian). Her latest film is a perfectly orthodox portrait of a famed artist.
The artist at hand, Ida Applebroog, is B’s mother, a Bronx-born whirlwind who since the Seventies (just a few years before Beth, one of four siblings, went to SVA) has been generating art in a myriad of forms, almost all of it zeroed in on issues of body anxiety, gender stress, and sexual representation. Now 87, Ida is a seductive subject: sturdy, impatient, bullshit-free, fast-talking, with James Joyce glasses and a Gertrude Stein non-coif, and often wrapped in one bandage or another. She seems to feel she has no time to waste, even on chatting with her daughter’s intrusive camera, sometimes deciding to read her old diaristic texts instead of talk.
Beth doesn’t push her, laying out the breadth and texture of Ida’s life and career in quick montages; family politics and generational tension are not on the table. Instead the movie worships the work, from Ida’s
Seventies vagina selfie-sketches to her
cartoon-narrative art-books to her massive interrogations of fashion-industry imagery.
That’s about it — amid the familiar pack-up-and-set-up gallery installation scenes, the film is a vehicle for Applebroog-appreciation, daughterly and otherwise. It is, however, the spark behind a B retrospective at Metrograph, starting with Beth and Scott’s seminal Super-8 shorts. Included are G-Man and Black Box, both from 1978, seething low-rent objects of unease prophetically evoking, respectively, today’s world of surveillance and casual terrorism, and the trauma of Abu Ghraib. Their only feature together, Vortex (1981), is a moody, media-modulated dream about inexplicable corporate espionage, with a splenetic James Russo, a desultory Lydia Lunch, saturnine downtown icon Bill Rice as
a billionaire hermit, a hungry python, and voiceover work by Jarmusch.
That was the aura of the day: These films all seemed to play out in closed bars at night while the rest of the city slept. Of B’s subsequent solo features, Two Small Bodies (1993) still suffers from the ludicrous play it’s based on, but Salvation! (1987), a broad, zestily acted satire on televangelism and greed set on Staten Island (!), overflows with benefits: the fabulous Stephen McHattie maximizing preacherly loathsomeness, a young Viggo Mortensen as a hothead kidnapper, X’s Exene Cervenka nailing it as a starry-eyed housewife/worshipper, Rockets Redglare leering as a whining thug, a music video with a dwarf, and plenty more. Filled with the kitschy
blue-gel light of Reagan-era ultra indies and drenched in ironic bad taste, it’s a movie B can still be proud of.
Call Her Applebroog
Directed by Beth B
Opens June 10, Metrograph