With Blank City, first-time director Celine Danhier offers a celebration of the influential art scene of New York City during the late seventies and early eighties, which explored everything from music to movies to art with an almost nihilistic attitude. The movement earned the name “No Wave” because it went against the notion of art. It was the perfect complement to the attitudes in London that spawned the punk scene headed by the Sex Pistols during the same time. One of the many denizens of run-down East Side NYC Danhier interviews notes that her peers of the No Wave movement had felt art had ceased to exist in a “culture of blandness.”
Among those Danhier interviews are: Amos Poe, Ann Magnuson, Becky Johnston, Beth B, Bette Gordon, Casandra Stark Mele, Charlie Ahearn, Daze, Debbie Harry, Eric Mitchell, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O’Brien, Jack Sargeant, James Chance, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, JG Thirlwell, John Lurie, John Waters, Kembra Pfahler, Lizzie Borden, Lung Leg, Lydia Lunch, Manuel DeLanda, Maripol, Michael McClard, Michael Oblowitz, Nick Zedd, Pat Place, Patti Astor, Richard Kern, Sara Driver, Scott B, Steve Buscemi, Susan Seidelman, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Thurston Moore, Tommy Turner and Vivienne Dick.
Danhier assembles quite a colorful cast characters from the scene, and the film never falls short on illustrative anecdotes that typified the aesthetic of the No Wave scene. Lurie, a saxophonist credited for founding the Lounge Lizards in the late seventies, notes his contemporaries held disdain for any artist who did anything with any skill. Technical proficiency at anything was “not cool,” he says. If you were a musician, you tried your hand at acting. If you were a filmmaker you played in a band. Lurie even expresses his embarrassment about his ability to play the saxophone, saying he felt so ashamed of his skills he hid it from others. He instead tried directing films and acting, famously starring in Jarmusch’s breakout feature Stranger Than Paradise (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com).
Though Blank City touches on musicians like the Ramones and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Danhier focuses on the filmmakers of the era and offers tantalizing clips of an array of historic and obscure films featuring Buscemi and Vincent Gallo that are hard to find on DVD, if at all. The films of the No Wave scene, which are mostly shot in back and white, are best described as primitive. Danhier does an illustrative job at getting into the directors’ processes: from what equipment they used (more often than not rented Super 8 cameras) to a glimpse at their scripts, which invited improvisation from the actors and sometimes had child-like drawings as directions. Not only did these filmmakers shoot their movies without permits, they often trespassed into unoccupied buildings. Lurie noted how he set out to fund one picture by staging a robbery at his apartment and collecting the insurance money on his saxophone to budget the picture.
Blank City is filled with many great anecdotes like that, and anyone with an interest of a snapshot of the milieu that spawned the No Wave scene will delight in the information packed into this documentary. The only fault I might find in this exploration is that Danhier seems so fixated on the era, she fails to ask the deeper questions of how it fits into the expanse of art history. There is one point where she touches on the appearance of art galleries everywhere, including someone’s bathroom, and how it seemed to bring money into the scene but offers no further detail.
At least she spends a good chunk of the movie highlighting another art movement spawned from the scene. After Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise began appearing in the movie theaters to much critical praise, it seemed like the alternativeness and independence of the artists was over, as they had seemingly sold out. Then comes the sub-underground movement of the “Cinema of Transgression” where drugs and sex take center stage. The directors of these films usually eschewed story lines in favor of offering shocking scenes where some actors would act out their sexual fetishes and/or get high on camera. The filmmakers of this scene emphasized a desire to shock and repulse more than anything.
This post-No Wave scene featured filmmakers like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern whose movies are hard to find nowadays possibly because of their lack of relevance in today’s post-torture porn culture, a commercial Hollywood movement lead by filmmakers like Eli Roth and his Hostel series. Kern has a compilation of his short films from the era covered by Blank City simply titled Hardcore Collection (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com). Zedd’s compilation, however, Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd, seems out of print but seems to be going for a hefty price on the secondary market, at least on Amazon, so there still might be some curious interest in these films, but it would have been interesting to see Danhier explore the relevance of these filmmakers now. Supposedly Kern is still working mostly as a photographer but he also directed some erotic voyeur pictures. Zedd, meanwhile, seems to still be at work in the same lo-fi aesthetic that defined his films, but, from what can be gleaned from the ratings and information on his filmography on the Internet Movie Database, still seems to be working for a small audience with little appreciation for his work.
Danhier sums up the demise of this counter-culture movement with the rise of MTV and its “co-modification of downtown.” If these guys thought MTV was bad in the early eighties, I would be curious what they think of it now. Lord knows I have bemoaned the hypocritical dictates of MTV and its role in the stupefying of today’s youth (see this post). It is for that reason that it would have been interesting to see how the No Wave aesthetic fits into today’s world. Blank City ends with Jarmusch declaring filmmaking has become more democratic now with the Internet and affordable digital cameras. But it would have been even more interesting to explore the “truthiness” of that notion further instead of end the film at that.
In the end, Blank City indeed offers an exuberant look at artists who can care less about culture while creating vibrant works of art. For these people to have existed in the gloom of late seventies, run-down New York City, nonchalantly dealing with routine, sometimes violent muggings and battling rats for a place to sleep, while still producing vibrant art that celebrated living in the moment, offers a testament in itself.
Blank City has one last screening at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday (June 19), at 8 p.m. It then opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 24) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where it will play through June 15. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check Blank City’s website for its screening schedule.