The generation of subversive filmmakers who emerged out of
the rubble of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1970s, who wrote, cast,
produced and directed their own punk riffs on narrative feature films long
before the digital revolution made it easy, has long gone without a proper
documentary that chronicles their fascinating emergence during this era. Well,
no more. Blank City, directed by French newcomer Celine Danhier, was one
of the most talked about docs at festivals worldwide in 2010, and recently started
its theatrical engagement at the IFC Center in Manhattan and across the USA at
major indie-cinema venues.
Packed with film clips, period footage and insightful
interviews with key players from the scene, such as Debbie Harry, John Waters,
Ann Magnuson, Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Patti Astor and Jim Jarmusch, Blank
City is a fascinating and inspiring documentary that unspools like a
long-overdue oral history, both of Manhattan’s Alphabet City and of the “No
Wave” film movement that exploded there in the mid-to-late ‘70s. Its bombed-out
streets of vacant lots and nearly uninhabitable tenements provided the stage
for the first generation of DIY filmmakers -- nearly 30 years before YouTube --
who picked up Super-8 cameras and cast their friends and themselves in hastily
written films with names like Blank Generation, Rome ‘78, Permanent
Vacation and Empty Suitcases. If the titles sound like punk album
titles, they essentially were. The same ethos that informed the short, jagged,
minimalist music of bands like Television, the Voidoids, The Contortions and
Teenage Jesus -- then rocking CBGB’s on the Bowery -- was also the philosophy
behind these no-budget mini-masterpieces.
“It felt like our lives were movies,” says Blondie’s Debbie
Harry, who, like many in the downtown scene, was both in a band and in her
friends’ films, such as Amos Poe’s The Foreigner (1978).
James Chance, of the punk-jazz band The Contortions, was a
player in friend James Nares’ Rome ‘78 (1978); punk siren Lydia Lunch,
of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, was an actor in Vivienne Dick’s Guerillere
Talks (1978), and so on.
Although it’s nearly impossible to imagine now, when
“recession-era” real estate still means $1,800 per-month studio apartments on
the same blocks where these filmmakers once squatted for free (or paid a
maximum of $100 per month), the bankrupt city translated into a ground-zero
stage of opportunity for these young, broke art- and film-school grads.
“Because of the condition of the city,” remembers Bette Gordon, director of Empty
Suitcases (1980), “we were able to be here and live cheaply.”
“None of us had any money, so there was nothing to steal
from us, so that danger sort of energized people rather than frightened them,”
says Jim Jarmusch, whose Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than
Paradise (1984) are two of the key touchstones of the movement.
Blank City conspirators
Another key film of the era is Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens
(1982), which follows a lonely, abrasive young groupie around downtown
Manhattan as she posts up flyers for her favorite punk bands, hoping to earn
some attention from them. “I wanted Smithereens
to capture the rawness of the characters and of the world they were living in.
When you don’t have a lot of money to make things, you just use what’s there.”
Director Amos Poe -- considered by many in the film as the
movement’s instigator with his The Blank Generation, 1976 -- situates
the No-Wave group as aesthetic and political inheritors of the French and
Italian New Waves as personified by Godard and Antonioni, respectively. Both
movements emerged from post-war economies, and both sought to upset the
prevailing stupor and middle-class respectability of both countries.
However, director Danhier, through footage clips and
interviews with other actors and directors of the time, makes a more convincing
case that the No Wavers picked up where Warhol left off, but instead of
avant-garde scenarios, they dared to be narrative.
“Amos Poe started the next independent film movement after
Andy Warhol,” firmly states actress Patti Astor, perhaps the most frequently
cast actress from the period. She played the lead in Eric Mitchell’s Underground
USA (a sort of Mudd Club-retelling of Sunset Boulevard), and also
appeared in Unmade Beds, The Foreigner, Rome ‘78 and The
Long Island Four.
“They were taking from the underground, they were taking
from the experimental movies and they were coming up with a new genre,” says
John Waters, “that was certainly darker. It was really reflecting the times,
completely. I mean, to go out at night was frightening! And it reflected how
much people like Alphabet City and how much they knew they lived in the
scariest neighborhood and just walking home was like going to war.”
By the close of the ‘70s and start of the ‘80s, a new wave
of filmmakers were appearing on the scene, and wanted to push the boundaries
already pioneered by their contemporaries. Directors like Nick Zedd and Richard
Kern kicked it up a notch with transgressive films that trafficked in gore,
sleaze and genderf*cking, like Zedd’s They Eat Scum (1979) and Geek
Maggot Bingo (1983), while Kern Kern focused his interest on subjects of
extreme sex, violence, and perversion, like Fingered (1986) which got
him booed off the stage at a German film festival. The Cinema of
Transgression was their moniker (reportedly coined by Nick Zedd), and their
ranks included Zedd mainstay Kembra Pfahler (later to form the band The
Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black), Beth B, Cassandra Stark and Tommy Turner.
Director Danhier locates the dissolution of the movement
around a confluence of events, but perhaps symbolically sparked at around the
same time as downtown graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat “sold out” by
becoming starmaker Andy Warhol’s acolyte, around 1985. (“I’ll never forgive him
for that,” says John Lurie near the end of the documentary.) On February 10,
1986, he appeared on the cover ofThe New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The
Marketing of an American Artist." Money was beginning to talk, Wall Street
was entering its go-go heyday, and the commodification of Downtown had begun,
explains actress Ann Magnuson, who also faults MTV with accelerating this
process. But above all, most in the doc admit, AIDS was the definitive death
knell. Many of the movement’s major players were either felled by the disease
(such as artist/filmmaker David Wojnarowicz), or lost several friends to it,
effectively killing the spirit of the times with a pall that hung over
Manhattan like a death cloud.
Blank City hits all of its marks, owing to Danhier’s intelligence and
honesty as a documentarian, and doesn’t soft-peddle the ironies or contradictions.
A broke, dangerous, drug-riddled New York City was the setting for an
incredible explosion of provocative filmmaking, done on the fly and cheap, but
those moments -- as all art movements throughout history have shown -- are
always fragile and fleeting. Jim Jarmusch urges the viewer away from nostalgia,
and offers the most honest and apt coda at the end, saying that New York began
as a trading post, and its central activity “has always been people trying to
figure out how much they can take from you. So let’s forget about the past and
bring on the future.”