Published: February 29, 2012
Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray
Celine Danhier’s documentary on New York’s underground film scene delves so deep into NYC hipster history that it features photographs of director Jim Jarmusch with dark hair. Thus Blank City qualifies as essential viewing for those households where the likes of Jarmusch, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, and Richard Kern are household names. If you’re confused by music writers using the term “no wave” like it should mean something to you, or if you’re a 8 mm and 16 mm film fan in a streaming world, you should probably see it too.
One of the biggest revelations Danhier’s film offers is what an utter shithole Lower Manhattan was in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Some of the footage she uncovers makes the place look like bombed-out postwar Berlin. Of course, that made it cheap, which drew young would-be artists, many of whom picked up dinky Super 8 cameras and started making films—a roster of no-budget DeMilles that includes interviewees Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Beth and Scott B, Susan Seidelman, and many more. Just as first-wave New York punk (e.g. Patti Smith) gave way to more nihilistic no wave (e.g. Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), Danhier’s loose narrative traces early trailblazers (Poe, James Nares) giving way to more extreme types self-lumped under the banner of Cinema of Transgression (Kern, Nick Zedd) as well as a handful of more pulled-together shoestring filmmakers who would go on to build careers out of their formative efforts (Jarmusch, Siedelman).
The narrative is so loose, in fact, that Blank City stumbles and yaws here and there as it tries to sketch the feel of the moment (rats, drugs, and scams were ever present), the filmmakers’ ties with the equally febrile New York art and music undergrounds, and the scene’s rise and fall. What make Danhier’s account ultimately worth the trouble are the films themselves, extensive clips from ever-obscure works such as Poe’s noirish The Foreigner, Nares’ Rome 78, Eric Mitchell’s The Way it Is (starring a young Steve Buscemi, interviewed in the documentary), the Bs’ “Black Box,” Sara Driver’s “You Are Not I,” and various Zedd and Kern outrages. Some of these roughshod films are perhaps best seen this way—glimpsed rather than endured in their entireties—but their appearances here serve as a welcome window into a vital moment in film history when no one had any money or Hollywood ambitions and everyone had rude creativity to burn.
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