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Guest Post: Beth B “Who Says An Old Punk Can’t Learn New Tricks?”

Guest Post: Beth B "Who Says An Old Punk Can't Learn New Tricks?"

I moved to NYC in the early 80’s with dreams of making films that would change the world. To prime my path, I was prepared to serve first. There were two internships I wanted. Having grown up listening to Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey records, he was one. He didn’t hire me. The Super-8 No Wave film thing was taking the city by storm — or at least the East Village. I turned my sights to working for Beth B, one of the key figures in the “Cinema Of Transgression”. I got the interview… but not the gig. Although I have had to watch from afar, I have kept track of Beth and her work, and have always found it inspiring and uncompromising. How Beth navigates the challenge of giving her work form while leading her life and not being lead is both a marvel and a mantra. As Beth points out in her post today, it is not easy, it is a struggle, but the rewards prove the choice’s righteousness time and time again.


Warning: Kickstarter video is NSFW.

I’m in the trenches again. How did I get here? I made a promise to myself ten years ago that I would never make another independent film unless it was fully funded. At this proclamation, I ventured into the world of network television, producing and directing documentaries for eight years. It was great. I was no longer an independent filmmaker at a time when the term ceased to have meaning—everyone was one! And, I was making money and not stressing about paying the bills for the first time in my life.

But, three years ago, the restrictive nature of making commercial television increasingly closed in on me. It was very subtle. I didn’t realize that my creative, cultural and intellectual expression was eroding. And, over time the passion I had felt for filmmaking began to diminish. Through a long bout of depression, I realized I needed to get back to my roots in filmmaking—I came from Super 8, no budget films. I was determined to philosophically go back thirty years and reinvent myself…at my age, with a daughter to care for and overhead we’ll not speak of. Serendipity brought me to a meeting with Suzanne Anker, Fine Arts Chair at the School of Visual Arts, where I had gotten my BFA and I signed on for some adjunct teaching. Okay, not the money to make a feature film, but it provided wonderful support and faith. Then, dipping into some of the savings from my TV work, I began filming guerilla style, hiring cinematographer, Dan Karlok, who worked for a pittance. We’d go out to clubs at midnight – 2am and shoot burlesque shows on the Lower Eastside at the Slipper Room. James Habacker of the Slipper opened his doors to my film and I was right back there—1978, when I was showing films at Max’s Kansas City, going to CBGB’s, and spending nights in the subculture of a NY that was in its infancy. And, 2008—I was back in the clubs where another subculture of performers was picking up where the uncensored work of Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe left off.

Using the model of television, I thought I would film the burlesque scene for a few weeks and then edit a trailer, show it to some networks, try to land a series. Obviously, I was delusional and the repeated reaction was, “Oh, it’s great, but can you sanitize it.?” This would totally defeat the message and the power of what these performers were dedicating their lives to. So it was a clear choice. I had no money, but was completely liberated, unfettered and had one agenda—mine.

I started filming again trying to narrow my focus and find the more extreme characters. I loved the traditional burlesque performers, but as I dug deeper, I saw the underbelly of the pretty and my characters emerged! This wasn’t a reality show. These performers live on the edge, creating work that is provocatively sexy, comedic, intelligent and sometimes shockingly confrontational and transgressive. They are dealing with issues of difference including transgender, disability, sexuality, the body politic and exploding assumptions about this subculture. They are pushing boundaries to the limits and questioning “what is normal”…for god’s sake, “why be normal?!?!”

True to the “DIY” philosophy of the late 70’s, I was back to begging, borrowing and stealing to get the film done. Very humbling. I went through many DPs, exhausting their generosity and repeatedly the production ground to a halt. Spoiled by my past eight years of working in TV and having budgets to hire and pay crews to do the tech, I hadn’t picked up a camera in years. Two realizations hit me simultaneously: I was out of money and favors, and the performers began voicing discomfort at having cameras backstage (especially manned by men) when they were in various states of undress. They were closing ranks. One of them confided in me that if I did the filming, if I was “the crew”, I’d have better access. The next day, I borrowed the money to buy a tiny camera—the Panasonic HDC TM-700. I mounted a shotgun mic on the camera and became Producer/Director/DP/Sound person. This new approach brought an intimacy to the filming and the performers began opening up, allowing more access.

We’re currently in post-production having cut sixty minutes of the film. I’m working with my Assistant Editor, Amanda Scarmozzino (NYU student intern) and have begun to learn Final Cut. Our genius editor, Keith Reamer, is squeezing in days between his other jobs and my dedicated husband is composing the music for the film. I’ve regained my sense of idealism from the late 70’s and have broken away from the dependence that money grips us with. I recently saw the film, Bill Cunningham New York, and it was all there—the idealism, the independence…not being owned. In Bill’s words: “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do…money is the cheapest thing—liberty, freedom is the most expensive.”

Every few years I’ve had to reinvent myself—to survive financially and to challenge myself intellectually and creatively. I’ve gone from experimental films to dramatic features to network television documentaries. I’ve created large-scale video/sculpture installations at museums. I’ve never had a formula for maintaining my creative independence and financial realities have often derailed my path. Passion for my work and the subject I’m tackling necessitates non-intervention from other entities. In our money-driven, rabidly puritanical culture commercial viability is valued over content. We have forgotten how to view film as an art form and speak our truths. We all know that what appears to be transgressive today will be usurped and mainstreamed, defused, and the original intent lost. So my mission as an artist is to hold on to the vision and challenge myself creatively by continuing to reinvent and evolve as an artist/filmmaker though my work—uncompromisingly.

— Beth B

Beth B’s career spans thirty years experience in interdisciplinary work including feature dramatic and documentary films and experimental videos, media installations, sculpture, and photography for museums, galleries, public art spaces, theaters and television. B’s films have shown at festivals worldwide including: the New York Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Festival of Festivals, Locarno Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, and Singapore Film Festival.

Ted’s Note: Beth B’s Kickstarter campaign closes July 17 so don’t wait. Contribute. I did.

An excerpt from one of Beth B’s 90’s tapes:

Ditto on Beth’s 80’s collaboration w Scott B:

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