Honoring some forgettable films
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 17, 2011
With nostalgia for Super 8 filmmaking fueled by the release of “Super 8,” DIY film buffs of an edgier bent may want to consider “Blank City,” an engrossing documentary — if one of somewhat narrow appeal — about the so-called No Wave and Cinema of Transgression movements that exploded in the art-crazed Lower Manhattan of the late 1970s and ’80s.
John Waters, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi and Debbie Harry are among the better-known talking heads who show up to reminisce about a time when all you needed to make a movie was a cheap camera, stolen film stock and enough speed to keep your cast and crew awake. But if you don’t also recognize the names Lydia Lunch, James Chance and John Lurie, you are probably not this film’s target demographic. Sure, those three are probably better known for their music than for their movies, but most of the people interviewed by director Celine Danhier fall into the multi-hyphenate category: actor-writer-painter-musician-filmmaker types who did a little bit of everything, as long as it was creative.
More than a mere chapter of film history, though, Danhier’s documentary is a snapshot of New York during the brief window between its brush with bankruptcy in 1975 and its economic rebound in the 1980s. (That’s why it’s called “Blank City,” a reference to Amos Poe’s 1976 documentary about punk and new wave music, “The Blank Generation.”) Artists could still afford to live — and make movies — there.
Most of the films have been lost to the mists of time. “They Eat Scum”? “You Killed Me First”? A few later titles had crossover success: Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”; Charlie Ahearn’s “Wild Style.” But broad appeal was never the goal. The movies may have been “naive and badly made,” as filmmaker James Nares (“Rome ’78”) says, but they have a raw, angry integrity.
At least they seem to. The biggest shortcoming of “Blank City” is that, despite its vivid portrait of the time period, we never get much sense of what the actual movies are like. “Blank City” is littered with stray clips from films by Poe, Vivienne Dick, Michael Oblowitz and others. But in general they’re so short and random that it’s hard to get a sense of what any one film was like. Jarmusch’s early works are the exception but only because they’ve been relatively widely seen (if screenings of his 1980 debut, “Permanent Vacation,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden can be called “widely seen”).
Not that there’s much chance for a curated retrospective of the rest of these underground movies anytime soon. Having watched a handful myself over the years, I can tell you that, for the most part, you’re not missing much.
More than anything, “Blank City” evokes someone else’s home movies. Watching the documentary may make you think, more than once, “Fun party, but I guess you had to be there.”
Danhier tries to make the case that there’s a more lasting legacy of the No Wave movement than the two or three success stories that came out of it. To some degree, she succeeds. It’s that today’s truly independent art-house films — movies such as, say, “Meek’s Cutoff” — are the direct descendants of such nose-thumbing, anti-corporate larks as Waters’s “Multiple Maniacs.”
Contains obscenity, violent imagery, drug use, nudity and sexual content.