Plunging in headfirst with an avalanche of film clips and interview snippets, Celine Danhier’s docu on the Gotham-based, nanobudget underground films of the late 1970s-early ’80s, which intersected and sometimes merged with the punk rock scene then flourishing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, often feels as inchoate as the phenomenon under discussion. Awash in famous (Jim Jarmusch, Ann Magnuson, Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi), infamous (Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch) and now-forgotten talking heads, and crammed with samplings of once-seminal Super-8 features (but thin on historical backstory), “Blank City” participates in the ex nihilo philosophy of its subjects.
According to consensus, what distinguished No Wave cinema from its forebears was its punk attitude, its belief that preparation, talent and even dedication were — at best –optional in film as in music. Indeed a certain amount of rank amateurism was de rigueur: John Lurie speaks of having to hide the fact he could really play the guitar.
The collectivistic movement (artists-musicians-friends crewed and starred in each other’s spur-of-the-moment slapdash opuses and played in each others’ bands), was inspired by a belief that one could “just do it,” the worse the better.
Wallpapering the screen with posters, headlines and news reports, Danhier stresses the peculiar economic, social and political forces informing the creation of No Wave, including the fiscal bankruptcy of New York, and the anarchy and danger of Alphabet City, the rundown, rat-infested, ultra-cheap Lower East Side neighborhood where its practitioners lived and filmed. Strangely, except for a passing reference to noticing William S. Burroughs on the street, no mention is made of Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats who, generations earlier, made the area their home. Indeed, Danhier sticks strictly within the parameters defined by the artists she interviews.
Danhier marks the transition from No Wave to what Nick Zedd dubbed the Cinema of Transgression, a reaction to the Reagan regime, its conservative censorship of art and the aggressive gentrification of the Lower East Side sanctioned by Mayor Ed Koch, which forcibly evicted locals. The films became more violently and sexually explicit, calling down the wrath of conservatives. The arrival of AIDS and the escalation of casual drug use further fueled the feeling of doom, death and impermanence reflected by the films’ impudent absurdism.
The major draw of “Blank City” lies in its generous glimpses of rare, virtually lost Super-8 and 16mm films, from Jarmusch’s “Permanent Vacation” to Beth B’s “Vortex,” Susan Seidelman’s “Smithereens” (the first No Wave film to hit Cannes) and Amos Poe’s hilarious cheapo remake of Godard’s “Breathless.” Other clips feature the then-unknown Ramones and Patti Smith at CBGBs, Debbie Harry wandering vaguely apocalyptic streets and a young Buscemi breakdancing.