Beginning in the mid-to-late 1970′s through the mid 1980′s in New York City, an art & cultural movement exploded on the Lower East Side in the wake of the city’s, and the country’s, socio-economic turmoil. Spawning a myriad of new musical styles, bands, visual artists, nightclubs and cutting-edge filmmakers, the volatility and desperation gave us works which recorded and clearly marked the period before gentrification, Reaganomics and MTV began to commoditize the scene. In French director Céline Danhier’s exceptional documentary film, BLANK CITY, she takes us on an in-depth chronicle of the rise & fall of the era’s fertile downtown art scene & creative class through the eyes of the filmmakers who, generally with little or no money, captured the essence of the era with their 8 and 16mm cameras, leaving a profound impact on future generations of independent artists, musicians & cinema.
[NAMEDROP] BLANK CITY features acclaimed directors Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, actor-writer-director Steve Buscemi, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Hip Hop legend Fab 5 Freddy, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, photographer Richard Kern as well as Amos Poe, James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Susan Seidelman, Beth B, Scott B, Charlie Ahearn and Nick Zedd. Fittingly, the soundtrack includes: Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Contortions, The Bush Tetras, Sonic Youth and many others. [/NAMEDROP]
The title BLANK CITY is simple, representative of the emptiness and hollow futures felt by people coming of age in this period that sired “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression”. Brought together primarily by virtue of proximity & cultural interest, and recognizing that they had few avenues from which to obtain money to fund their creative works, the “No Wave” creatives frequently found themselves caught in a daily struggle between survival and the whirlwind of artistic expression. Empowered by a sense of freedom with their self-recognized nothingness, filmmakers embraced their personal sense of creative urgency by filming the people they knew and the bands they saw at clubs like CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah.
Throughout this period, film directors often took huge risks for their work which, even by today’s standards, would be considered outrageous. There were films that openly represented the struggles of battered women, rape victims and homosexuals, graphic representations of violence and drug usage that had never been explored on film in this way. What their film cameras captured that was special about this downtown Manhattan art scene was dramatic sea change in progress — that even though most of their films were clearly influenced by Warhol, everything happening at the time represented a post-Warhol, post-Vietnam war cultural break from the kind of creative work that seemed to care solely about its commercial value or purpose. In direct opposition to attempts at commerce through art, throughout BLANK CITY we consistently hear tales of on-the-fly, guerrilla film making and entire works created & shot in one or two days without concern about film permits, content or borders. With few exceptions, these weren’t films you were likely ever going to see at a cineplex; the graphic, aggressive anti-establishment nature of these movies was such that many were relegated to video cassette — a technology that came of age during the “No Wave” movement.
Unlike many historical movements of art which are solely a convention of the wealthy’s fascination with the poor, the “No Wave Cinema” movement wanted to thrive among those who lived on the fringes of society or outside the mainstream. The creative community surrounding “No Wave” was far more intentionally inclusive of the poor, destitute and otherwise derelict, with many openly shunning the artifacts of money (and people with money) in exchange for whatever could be borrowed, stolen or cobbled together.
During this time, the unlikely marriage of Manhattan’s uptown graffiti artists, hip-hop’s founding fathers and breakdance crews with its downtown filmmakers, artists and punks emerged from a true cross-cultural admiration. Moviegoers get a chance to hear from those who created & witnessed this phenomenon unfolding, one which is unique to this era of New York City — the shared poverty, struggle and creative survival ethics represented by each resulted in a permanent creative bonding.
As the tales told by interviewees unfold, the extent of the glaring inaccuracies of commercial films of the day becomes clear. As these filmmakers never relied on the commercial potential of their films as a measure for success, BLANK CITY successfully illuminates how the many independently-shot and financed films released during this time period far more accurately depict what was going on in the arts at the street level.
BLANK CITY examines beautifully how, with seemingly no intentional organization, these creatives often found & collaborated with each other on film projects when they weren’t really looking & unknowingly left an historical permanent mark through their work that encapsulates the frequently anti-heroic visions, fears, hopes and dreams of their generation of New Yorkers. For those who tend to over-romanticize the New York art & film scenes of the era, the film’s narrative elegantly puts to rest any hyperbolic or delusional tendencies by those who equate the glamorization of drugs with the era’s creative output in art / music / film.
Danhier’s seemingly expert interviews with an essential who’s-who of the era intermingle with clips from a number of films of the era, serving as the audience’s tour guide through hobbled buildings, desolate neighborhoods, tenements, crash pads and clubs of lower Manhattan from 1976-1987. If you share any interest in independent film making, in the creative output of this era or those whom it has heralded, I cannot recommend this impassioned, ranging and spectacular film highly enough.
::: THEATRICAL RELEASES 2011 :::
• NOW PLAYING @ IFC Center in New York City & Magic Lantern Theater – Spokane WA
::: COMING SOON :::
• May 4 (one day only!) @ The Little Theatre – Rochester NY
• Opens Friday, May 6 @ Denver Film Center – Denver CO
• May 13 (one day only!) @ The Cleveland Museum of Art – Cleveland OH
• Opens Friday, May 13 @ The Plaza Theater – Atlanta GA
• Opens Friday, May 20 @ Cable Car Cinema – Providence RI
::: DETAILS :::