Title: Blank City
Director: Celine Danhier
Featuring: Steve Buscemi, Fab 5 Freddy, Jim Jarmusch, Deborah Harry, John Lurie, Thurston Moore, John Waters, Susan Seidelman, Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Ann Magnuson and more
The angry, dirty and unforgiving streets of New York City have over the course of several generations taken on an almost mythical role in American independent cinema, fueling some artists, creatively bankrupting many more, and driving others into the arms of more lucrative, mainstream projects. An exhaustively comprehensive oral history of outsider cinema from the late 1970s and into the mid ’80s, Celine Danhier’s Blank City unfolds in all the hazy, erudite specificity of some breezy, memories-laden conversation between your parents and a bunch of their friends at some holiday party from your youth. Meaning, you ask? Meaning it’s kind of interesting in retrospect, or on a theoretical level, but also somewhat impenetrable, given everyone’s penchant for inside jokes and thorough, and thoroughly unedited, recollection.
Against the backdrop of economically bombed-out Lower East Side landscapes, powered by cheap dope and speed and inspired by the cinematic rules-breaking of the French New Wave, a certain DIY ethos took root in the latter days of the Ford Administration. A renegade collection of aspirant filmmakers, musicians, amateur actors and other artistically-minded misfits would, over the next dozen years or so, crank out all sorts of stark and provocative outsider films, in what would come to be known as the No Wave. Some filmmakers and performers (Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Susan Seidelman) would go on to greater fame with more accessible work, while others (Deborah Harry) would almost reluctantly find success in other arenas. Most, however, found their potential careers (to the extend they regarded them as such, and anything more than a way to fill their time) eventually derailed by jealousies and recklessness. The quirky work they left behind, though — long on alienation, often short on production value, rich in deadpan humor, and blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction — holds some interesting lessons for would-be independent filmmakers of future generations.
Neophyte French director Danhier has an obvious passion for the material, but lacks the ability the form a cogent narrative spine from all of her interviews. As such, the movie unfolds in largely lurching fashion. Some of the anecdotes are amusing, and fascinating for the simplistic yet radical notions they hold at their core. Director James Naren talks about craftily arranging to see a property he had no intention of renting (or of course even the means to afford), then surreptitiously leaving the windows unlocked, coming back later that evening, climbing up the fire escape with his friends and cohorts, sneaking in, and shooting part of his avant-garde Rome 78. Later, Naren also talks about a lack of overt manipulation being of paramount importance to he and most of the rest of his filmmaking peers, and if bad acting or filmmaking was resultant from that, so be it, that was fine.
The widescale (at least within this group) embrace of this sort of seat-of-your-pants filmmaking makes for some interesting sidebar speculation amongst cineastes, especially if there had been more formalistically and narratively adventurous parties pushing back against some of their peers. But Danhier has trouble taking this microclimate — one interview participant describes the area between 14th Street and Houston, and Avenue B and Bowery as his entire world — and making it matter to the layperson, or connecting it in deep, meaningful and convincing fashion to the cinema of today.
Bolstered by film clips from literally dozens of No Wave offerings, Blank City proves itself several times over a vital document of this outsider movement, even if mainstream interest in such a trip down memory road is likely to remain at a significant remove.
Written by: Brent Simon