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New York, 1970’s: Debbie Harry and the Rise of the No Wave Film Movement

It was at the edge of the wire, the reign of Nixon had finally died but the fiery trail of rage and young blood he had left behind was stained across the American soil. We had already fallen witness to the Vietnam War, The assassination of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy and the skillful termination of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

New York was now near bankruptcy and debauchery, proudly taking on it’s new title as The Wild, Wild West.

The shattered poster children of a proper American Democracy had flown too close to the sun, and as Nixon and Ford quickly burned their wings to ash, they dropped down back into the city rubble.

The streets were now owned by these fallen creatures, cameras replaced guns and film became more powerful than any bullet. A mad wave of genius and loving creativity had emerged out of the burned out rubble of the lower east side, a hidden minority of gathered survivors declaring their existence.

After the spark Andy Warhol had left in the underground film community, young directors needed a new direction to look at, the next step. The No Wave Film movement was born. A new narrative for the doomed generation, with permission to be as belligerent and technically false, the purpose and message it carried was much higher than any level of skill or education.

After Warhol came a new wave of young directors such as Vivienne Dick, Sarah Driver, Becky Johnson and Amos Poe, who became a loud voice for the No Wave film movement, helping create the cultural shift from Art based films to a much more narrative approach. This resulted in a new genre which heavily reflected the times and lives of these young artists, a life in which walking home was like going to war… and creating was the most effective weapon of self defense.

Films like Smithereens, Vivienne Dicks She Had Her Gun Already and Guilerre Talks showed a high intensity of free cinematography and narrative that showcased the time in a very straight forward yet artistic manner.

Amos Poe’s: The Foreigner is, in retrospect, a highlight of the decade as an example of just how far one can go with nothing infront of them but a Super 8 camera and New York City.

Shunned from the films, was the manipulated use of emotion and communication used in commercial pictures, sometimes leading to so-so acting performances and last minute dialogue, but this was a low price to pay for the pure and honest quality that Hollywood couldn’t have no matter how hard they tried, an act of Liberation.

A crossover began happening in film, music and art. The Painters were in bands, the musicians were painting, technique was the silent killer of absolute creative freedom.

Many Painters, Musicians and Filmmakers were falling prey to the intense creative freedom that was going on within the melting pot of the crumbling streets of downtown New York, and Debbie Harry was just one of them. As Blondie slowly rose from the ashes of the city rubble, music was not her only pillar of success, as Blondie began to gain momentum, Harry appeared in a number of underground films including: Amos Poe’s: The Foreigner, Unmade Beds, another collaboration with Poe, to more commercial rolls, like, Marcus Reichert’s Union City.

All of which, demonstrated Harry’s versatile ability as an artist, as her rolls, along with her musical success, began to enlarge as time went on, eventually leading to a captivating performance alongside James Woods in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

The Foreigner follows secret agent Max Menace as he awaits further instructions regarding a new case, having just arrived in New York City, wandering the streets and getting into conflicts with strange characters, but never ultimately discovering why he was sent there.

One of these strange interactions can be observed between Max and a beautiful stranger portrayed by Harry.

Stumbling through an alleyway, Max is approached by a young woman, asking him with a charming embrace for a cigarette. After fulfilling her request, we are treated with a unique performance by Harry, as she sings a beautiful French tune into the lens with a cigarette in her mouth. And as sweet as the moment is, it is gone as Max carries on down the alleyway, leaving the unique interaction behind him.

Unmade Beds introduces Rico, A.K.A Little Rico, a photographer living in 1970’s New York during the ‘New Wave’ who keeps to himself in his own world, on the search for a reality to live out his dreams. He trusts no one, hiding behind his camera like a loaded weapon. But when he falls in love, the world he has created for himself slowly begins to crack and crumble.

As Harry stumbles into the room where Rico sits peacefully at his throne, asking gently: “You ready to take my picture? we are instantly greeted by the intoxicating aroma of Harry that must have had every independent artist dreaming of working with her. She dives into a beautiful trance, singing Sweet Thing as the camera observes from a high angle.

She carries her words like silk as her legs hang over her chair, afterwards darting out of frame as casually as she entered, this is truly a beautiful scene that can leave a mark on any viewer.

Union City follows a young couple living in a crummy apartment in downtown New York. The overly obsessed husband becomes so fixated on who is stealing their milk that he looses connection with his neglected wife who starts to have ideas of her own.

Harry is simply beautiful in every scene of this twisted story, displaying the innocence of a stray dog as she fights with her insane husband. Harry steals the show in many ways, giving a very pure and playful performance that showcased the essence of the underground film movement of 1970’s New York.

Harry went on to star in over 60 film rolls, proving that her fine skills could be showcased in many forms. Alongside fellow Music/Film wizard David Bowie, Debbie will go down as one of the most diverse artists this world has seen, putting her footprint in one of the most important movements in film history and becoming a trailblazer in the world of pop and rock and roll.

If you walk through the streets of N.Y.C today, you’re lucky to catch a glimpse of the way things once were; the streets are now owned by fashion victims and the infamous venues that once housed these trailblazers are now buried deep beneath the face of a new generation. But if you look closely, way out on the horizon, you may catch a glimpse of one of these trailblazers, waiting in the shadows for a chance to bring it all back down again.