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Review: Blank City

A new documentary looks at the downtown NYC No Wave film scene
By GERALD PEARY  |  May 26, 2011
2.5 2.5 Stars

When you romanticize, everything awful is awesome and inspiring. And so it is with the nostalgic, now-middle-aged, indie filmmakers interviewed in Céline Danhier's Blank City, reflecting on the late '70s and early '80s on New York's Lower East Side. There they lived — blissfully, communally, often giddy on drugs — amidst the cockroaches and rats in crumbling, abandoned buildings. Those were the days! Borrowing or stealing, they got hold of 8mm and 16mm cameras, and as part of the punk zeitgeist (everyone ended the night at CBGB), they made wild, nihilist films, proudly proclaiming their inexpertness and inexperience. Gather your slutty, nutty, flamboyant friends — fledgling actors, artists, musicians — and shoot!

The title of this documentary alludes to The Blank Generation, a 1976 rockumentary by Amos Poe, featuring a gaggle of all-star punkers just before they broke famous: Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, the New York Dolls. In 1977, there was the Blank Generation LP by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, featuring the single "Blank Generation." Back to movies: take note of Michael Oblowitz's 1985 feature, King Blank, about a New York couple carrying their hateful argument from a hotel room to an outsider world of hookers, drinkers, losers.

But to add confusion: the filmmakers chronicled here were never called "the Blank City group," or anything close to the movie title. Their labeling came from an influential Village Voice article by film critic J. Hoberman championing the No Wave movement. The No Wave cinema is what Blank City is about, and here are some of its filmmakers: the aforementioned Poe and Oblowitz. Also, Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver, Eric Mitchell, Bette Gordon, Scott B, Beth B, James Nares, Vivienne Dick. And some of its actors: John Lurie, Ann Magnuson, Vincent Gallo, Steve Buscemi.

Blank City is not a great documentary. Too much is covered way too rapidly. Interviews are cut short, making room for samplings from No Wave movies. These scenes, too, are severed quickly, so that it's impossible to get hold of any one director's style or aesthetic. It's easier to grasp No Wave influences: the in-the-street shooting and pseudo-noir dialogue of Godard, the brazenly amateur acting of Warhol and the Kuchar brothers. In most narratives, there's youthfulness, sexuality, and anger, and a tongue-in-cheek intensity. The films are hipster, and anti-hippy, far more Burroughs than Allen Ginsberg. And they're in black-and-white. But after that?

Filmmaker Danhier doesn't make things easier by supplying a surprise second act, leaping into the 1980s and abandoning the No Wave filmmakers for what followed: "The Cinema of Transgression" of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. Yes, it's potent, anarchic stuff, but deserves it's own X-rated documentary.

Watching Blank City can't help but make most people frustrated, panting to see the actual films. Except for our familiarity with Jarmusch, how many Bostonians know the oeuvres of the No Wave filmmakers? Mass College of Art, programmed by Saul Levine, would be the likely local showplace, but when is the last time a movie by Amos Poe, Michael Oblowitz, Eric Mitchell, and Scott B and Beth B played the Hub? As a curator, I once brought Bette Gordon (a Newton native) to Harvard, and Sara Driver to BU. As a film critic, I guiltily confess: I've never seen anything by James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Michael Oblowitz, or Vivienne Dick.

So how about it, HFA or MFA? We need a comprehensive "No Wave" filmmaker series. Maybe Jim Jarmusch would come up from the Big Apple and introduce it.

Related: Review: Sons of Perdition, Review: Louder Than A Bomb, Review: Pianomania, More more >
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