DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Blank City
Documentary tells story of independent art scene in NYC in 1970s and 80s.
“People were doing it because they felt it. It was an explosive moment.”
These words echo the frenetic montage of grainy, authentic footage and scratched film clips that openBlank City, an engaging and layered documentary about the “No Wave” independent art scene in New York City during the 1970s and 80s. The members of this movement were hybrid artists, “painters who were in bands” and “musicians who were painting and making films.”
Unbridled passion and independent vision were their driving motivations, blending punk rock sensibilities with their own forms of guerilla art. They shared a collective outrage toward the social and political injustices plaguing post-Vietnam America, making films any way they could. A few even went to the extreme of stealing equipment or defrauding insurance companies for cash in order to wrap production.
As a piece of non-fiction, Blank City constructs an extensive historical timeline that establishes both a sense of place and ideology. The film intricately documents the shifts in perspective and style that defined the “No Wave” filmmakers and musicians, and the Cinema of Transgression that followed. Brutally frank talking heads interviews, the subjects of which range from Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, and John Waters, are juxtaposed with rare concert and film footage from the era.
Director Celine Danhier gives the viewer a time-capsule view of a skuzzy 1970s New York City bursting with expression; a place riddled with burnt out buildings, shady characters, and young artists on the verge of greatness. Rats and cockroaches figure prominently in their memory banks, but so does Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan’s crippling conservatism. For them, the two groups are one in the same.
What makes Blank City so interesting is its non-judgmental examination of the artistic process, and how depending on the artist, it can be a very unique and dissenting experience. As a result, the specific filmmakers and musicians showcased in the film are all given a platform to remember their own genesis.
Amos Poe, who virtually started the “No Wave’ filmmaking movement withThe Blank Generation, confesses the first time he saw a Super 8 camera, “it was love at first sight.” He and other filmmakers like Nick Zedd, Eric Mitchell, John Lurie, Lizzie Borden, Richard Kern, and James Nares share similar anecdotes about how and why they were drawn to this potent medium. In a fascinating moment late in the film, Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi confesses that being poor allowed a certain artistic freedom that was integral to their process. This realization speaks to the bitter battle between art and commerce that rages throughout Blank City.
Amazingly, there is even more material to supply with this subject matter, and Blank City feels more like a first chapter than an all-encompassing novel. The foreshadowing of video, the onslaught of MTV, and the stifling capitalism of Reaganomics are merely hinted at, and considering that all three played a hand in fracturing the “No Wave” artists, the subjects are begging for more coverage.
Still, Blank City is that rare documentary that feels intimate and epic simultaneously, tapped into the personal spectrum of its subjects while also exploring an overarching historical context shaping the artists modes of expression. The deadpan words of Jim Jarmusch dim the lights on Blank City; “Forget about the past and bring on the future." Despite AIDS, censorship, infighting, and greed, the “No Wave” artists always see a demented type of hope on the horizon, and in doing so they keep the dream of cinematic subversion alive for the generations to come.