Blank City (n/c) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Celine Danhier, USA, 2010, 94 mins

Review by Dave Hall

This documentary charts the explosion in independent filmmaking that bubbled up from the sump of downtown New Yorkin the late 1970s and 1980s. A collaborative group of artists, musicians and filmmakers all grabbed themselves a Super 8 camera and took to the streets (and each other’s apartments), creating the No Wave/Cinema of Transgression movement, with films whose titles are a statement in themselves: Born in Flames, Go to Hell, Submit to Me Now, and John Waters' personal favourite: They Eat Scum.

The movement was out to shock, although looking at most of the footage now it’s difficult to work up a sense of outrage. Perhaps you had to be there: these films were made as Reagan and the yuppies were moving in, and AIDS was taking hold, long before globalisation and the mass media had brought the underground into everyone’s home. It’s ironic that the most shocking footage here is used almost as backdrop:New York, an economic basket case at the time, looks like a war zone with piles of rubble where buildings ought to be and littering and looting in place of civic order.

In derelict tenements and squatted lofts, a mulch of creativity gave rise to (or at least helped along) figures such as Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry and Vincent Gallo. Most are interviewed, along with surviving contemporaries but there’s no real sense of why we should consider the movement to be anything other than a filmic curiosity. Once it becomes clear that contextualised references to the punk movement or the art scene generally will be strictly rationed, Blank City starts to seem like the closed shop the movement may well have been: everyone gets a say except those who might provide a perspective.

Reductive though this is, the clips and interviewees are undoubtedly entertaining. Lydia Lunch is particularly good value, both as commentator and performer. Danhier’s decision to shoot Nick Zedd (Geek Maggot Bingo-director and free floating hate figure), and musician James Chance (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) in gloomy medium shot adds a poignancy to their testimony. The Monty Python-esque Rome ’78, with its attempt to recreate ancient Rome on the streets of the Big Apple hints at the guerrilla filmmaking tactics often employed by the group. Richard Kern (The Right Side of My Brain, Fingered) brings home the thematic concerns of No Wave as it developed into the Cinema of Transgression: perverse sex and violence delivered with snuff movie aesthetics.

As a primer, this at least is pretty comprehensive (though no mention of, say, Abel Ferrara, also working in the city at the time). But you may be left wondering what there is to be nostalgic about: a New York on the brink of implosion, or a collection of films most of which look nigh on unwatchable from this distance? You may feel that today’s cinema is not challenging or transgressive enough, but you’d be hard put to make a case for those virtues based on Blank City.