Betzy Bromberg's City Girls

In an early trio of 16mm shorts, late-'70s New York is a scuzzy, decadent playground for women seeking liberation.
Caitlin Quinlan

Soothing the Bruise (1980). Courtesy of the artist and LUX, London.

Halfway through Betzy Bromberg’s 16mm short film Soothing the Bruise (1980), a woman strolls a busy New York street wearing a pink-and-black, block-striped sweater; tight, pink, leopard-print jeans; pink socks; and a red heel to the zippy tune of Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” She appears again later, with a friend who pulls teasingly at the clothes in front of the camera. They are young, beautiful, happy; the city street is their catwalk. 

In Bromberg’s early-career trilogy of 16mm works—Soothing the Bruise succeeds Petit Mal (1977) and the perfectly named Ciao Bella or Fuck Me Dead (1978)—the city is at once scuzzy and decadent, a playground for women seeking liberation. Skipping between locales, subjects, and music genres from Genesis to Annette Hanshaw, the films have an urban buoyancy that exudes the buzz of life everywhere the filmmaker looks. Bromberg shows us the sights—here’s the topless bar on the corner, the local biker gang hanging out down the street, the neighborhood cats, the subway station, the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway. Over there’s the patriarchal oppression bearing down on her friends, the international politics looming in the background, the pressures of conformity. These political concerns manifest most often through voice-over; Bromberg’s images of local hangouts and city life are narrated by friends, subjects, and sometimes newsreel anchors, relaying stories of manipulative men or nuclear threats from Russia. Her camera seeks out the safe spaces in the middle of a city wrestling with these conflicts, lingering on locales or sights that embody freedom, like the dance clubs or the tram car floating above the skyline. 

Born and raised in New York, the avant-garde filmmaker left the city to study at Northwestern and later Sarah Lawrence, where her early interests in photography led organically to experimental film. Bromberg has been making her own films since the late 1970s and worked elsewhere in the industry in optical effects on the likes of Pet Sematary (1989), Tremors (1990), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) before becoming the Director of the Program in Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a position she held until 2018. The recent retrospective of her work at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival in London was the first in-depth study in the UK of her five decades of filmmaking, which has veered over the course of her career from the personal to the transcendental. Beginning with more interior, somewhat narrative portraits of varied lives in the city, her attention later turned to more abstract work driven by color, light and sound. Feature-length films Voluptuous Sleep (2011) and Glide of Transparency (2016-17) are visually arresting and meditative works that wouldn’t feel out of place as gallery installations, loose and free-flowing in their studies of visual patterns and movements. 

Petit Mal (1977). Courtesy of the artist and LUX, London.

It’s the earlier work, though—these twisted travelogues, or magical mystery tours of New York City—that feel the most alive in Bromberg’s oeuvre. In Petit Mal, she follows an artist friend through her day-to-day life while she bemoans the restrictions placed upon her by the man she’s dating. Bromberg’s films often tread a fine line between claustrophobia and intimacy, rapidly flashing between images and associative ideas to evoke the way the women around her exist in a strange space between suffocation and freedom. “What I was, said he, was an artist. And I was his old lady,” Petit Mal’s subject expresses in voice-over while Bromberg captures her playful movements on camera, long and medium shots zooming into close-ups on her fiddling with her scarf, touching up her make-up or posing on sidewalk scaffolding. Locations flit between city street and art studio, car interior and ferris wheel. Often the artist is seen looking into a mirror or through a window, pairing her own self-reflection with Bromberg’s filmic view of her friend. 

As the filmmaker builds a sense of the artist’s personal and creative life through snapshots of her existence, her earlier troubles seem to melt away. A semi-naked party occupies the film’s closing scenes, complete with makeovers and sing-alongs; the artist wears little more than a scarf and some leather boots while perched cross-legged on top of a fridge. In a longer monologue she recounts a story of a friend coming to visit who proclaimed, “I’m gonna fuck him. When I get like this I get crazy, I could fuck all these men.” It’s the film’s greatest moment of catharsis—a moment where another woman is able to lay claim to her sexual expression and freedom in relation to men, a rebuttal of the artist’s predicament earlier in the film. When the artist then reveals that she joined a threesome with her friend, her own liberation is apparent too. It’s a rare point of singular focus for Bromberg, who lets the story be heard and the party play out in full without cutting to other images.Bromberg revels in their confidence and sensuality, the film a celebration of changed women. A “petit mal” is a kind of absence seizure in which you can lose sense of your surroundings, but it, of course, sounds suitably similar to “la petite mort.” A regained sense of self and surroundings is where the film settles. “You know, making love to a woman is like I always thought it would be,” the artist’s friend tells her. “It’s like drawing.” For this community of art-makers and creators, including Bromberg herself, the idea that love between women could be as foundational as drawing evokes pure romance. The film’s chaotic rhythm comes to a natural rest in this sequence, almost as if Bromberg has found the heart of the film itself. 

The city travelogue style continues in Ciao Bella, which lacks a single focal point but weaves through the metropolitan landscape in similar fashion. Ostensibly a summer chronicle, the film is observational and beautifully intrusive as Bromberg lingers on windows and doorways or captures the street from a CCTV-like angle, eager to witness life. In some of her most interesting juxtapositions, images of laundry swaying in the breeze are intercut with shots of a toilet flushing, while a prowling cat makes way for a sidewalk view of synchronized walkers in high heels. The domestic is observed as closely as these hidden moments of street glamor. Equally, shots of the city in black and white find a contrast in the dim pink lighting of the strip club that features heavily in the film; at points, Bromberg’s camera alights on the glittering colors of a live snake coiled around a lamp against a gilded curtain. The image has a mythical quality, evoking an alluring, almost threatening femininity and suggests a precursor to the films of Nina Menkes, whose explorations of isolated, beguiling women came after these early shorts. It also speaks to Bromberg’s broader efforts to spotlight the power of women in the city. As a woman dances in the club, another woman gets dressed at home; in both scenes, we watch their naked bodies on display for different purposes, yet Bromberg’s alignment of the two through her editing strips away the supposed binary between these contexts. Bodies are bodies, and the idea of women being defined by certain “roles” is as implausible as capturing the reality of the city in just one shot. 

Soothing the Bruise (1980). Courtesy of the artist and LUX, London.

The quotidian and the provocative clash once again in Soothing the Bruise, which rounds off the trio of films with similar techniques—pieced-together stories told in voice-over, images in negative, the use of pop music. But this film’s depiction of New York life ventures into more overt political territory with mentions of the Vietnam War and US tensions with Russia. Such additions make the work a richer, more authentic reflection of how we go about our daily lives, lost in the hustle and bustle while chaos brews elsewhere. Bromberg captures the lunch rush at a diner, then the nighttime streets illuminated by porn theater signs, with shots of the aforementioned woman outfitted in Barbie-core hot pink peppered in between. Again, the filmmaker dances across images and ideas, some punky and glitzy, others more spectral and haunting. Her song choices make some scenes feel like music videos, like shots of a truck driver, golden in the morning sun, set to Tammy Wynette’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” In this third film, the beginning of Bromberg’s expansion into broader, more abstract explorations of mood and landscape, with a particular emphasis on the supernatural, can be sensed. Eerie negatives of half-built houses and mountain ranges flash by and are cut with images of a torchlit woman swaying in a forest, a ghostly preoccupation that continued in later short Az Iz (1983). The contemplative and ethereal style of her later features registers as a further response to global flux, as the wider world seeps into her 1970s New York narrative and she seeks something more unearthly. 

All of these Bromberg films uniquely, poignantly capture life as a matter of small moments thrown together. Time spent on city streets is an amalgamation of throwaway gossip overheard in a bar, a story told by a neighbor, the daily glimpses of both mundanity and strangeness witnessed at every turn. It’s not the most immediate comparison, perhaps, but the work of New York chronicler John Wilson resonates as another figure fusing together disparate sights and ideas to make something magical. Both utilize associative editing and clashing images, a device which is more explicitly humorous in Wilson’s work but inspires some equally funny moments in Bromberg’s. They prove everyday life has a quality worth rendering cinematic, and therefore important. They observe the city with a kind eye, seeking out the essence of life there and resigned to its tangled, weird beauty. Bromberg captures it all with potent kineticism.

Soothing the Bruise (1980). Courtesy of the artist and LUX, London.

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