Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Blank City

As downtown New York seems to teeter on the brink of a fresh set of “bad old days,” Celine Danhier’s compelling documentary, Blank City, reminds audiences that they might stand to gain as much from fiscal ruin as they do to lose.


Blank City played at a Tribeca Film Festival screening in the now-trendified East Village. But the young, French Danhier’s examination of New York’s No Wave cinema movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s conjures the neighborhood in burned-out tatters. Rents for floor-through lofts peaked at $300. Neighborhood streets were so desolate that movie shoots took place in broad daylight without permits or distracting passersby. Such alienation and constant fear (“Walking home at night felt like going to war,” is a constant refrain) produced a frenetic creative hotbed that prospered in since-shuttered outposts like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and the New Cinema on St. Mark’s.


No Wave filmmakers defied mainstream categorization (director Lydia Lunch: “I’m fine with the No Wave label, because the word ‘no’ is in it”). But they strived to elevate cheap 8mm and 16mm film stock above the esoteric film school ghetto to which those grainy formats had been confined. These were no-budget art films, but traditional narrative was key. Influences included Godard, Fellini, Antonioni and Cassavettes, brilliant filmmakers who, while outside the Hollywood mainstream, attracted the New Yorker raves and subsequent uptown crowds that the No Wave misfits ostensibly shunned.


Blank City showcases a dizzying array of avant-garde filmmakers. And while it’s gratifying to see so many underground artists gain exposure, the movie’s purview is almost too encyclopedic. The impression is of a splinter group of artists who lived in the East Village in the late ‘70s, all made edgy movies and all hated each other. There are petty squabbles and romantic soap operas (“I respect his talent, his art and his intelligence, but he didn’t even have to say anything for people to despise him” Lunch says of former flame Nick Zedd) but scant camaraderie. And the film’s segue from late-‘70s/early-‘80s No Wave (highlighting Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn, Beth and Scott B, Eric Mitchell and others) to the shock-heavy Cinema of Transgression (Zedd, Richard Kern, Casandra Stark) of the Reagan years is flimsy.


Outward misanthropy be damned (Steve Buscemi, something of a No Wave muse, remembers his giddiness whenever he witnessed a reluctant half-smile from Zedd), many subjects (including, yes, Zedd) emphasized that humor was key to the subgenre. No Wave was born of the desperation that living in a bombed out East Village (“It looked like postwar Dresden!”) inspired. But it also rebelled against the self-important high art scene that was about to explode onto already-sanitized SoHo galleries and, God forbid, Park Avenue living rooms—at least until growing recognition inevitably diluted the genre’s scrappy charm.


It’s possible that No Wave was a victim of its own success. Jean-Michel Basquiat, an emblem of the ‘80s New York art scene is eviscerated by his peers for, as Poe says “making money cool. I still hate him for that.” And Buschemi recounts his ambivalence about attending one friend’s film premiere uptown in Chelsea, “outside the art ghetto.”


Parties weren’t made to last, of course, and Blank City attributes the death of scrappy No Wave cinema to all the usual external suspects: drugs, AIDS, gentrification, Reaganism and the recently deceased money culture it inspired.


But Blank City is no elegy. Several interviews were shot after the economic meltdown, and Poe for one is optimistic about the “power of ideas” finally fighting back against the “lying, murdering thugs” selling wars in the desert from Washington and intangible derivatives from Wall Street. Jarmusch echoes that thought with the documentary’s closing line: “Forget about the past; bring on the future!”

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