Blank City is a vital, but somewhat flawed piece of documentary filmmaking from French director Celine Danhier that is at times as roughly crafted as the films it talks about.
In the Lower East Side of New York City starting in the mid-1970s and continuing through the 1980s, a form of independent cinema arose from the burgeoning punk rock scene known as “no wave,” a style of filmmaking somewhere between avant-garde fiction and documentary made by people who really seemed to be making films as a way of simply coming up with something creative. Filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, and Lizzy Borden were figureheads of a movement in artistic filmmaking that blossomed thanks in part to the punk rock ethics that drove the community they were a part of. Their films ranged from artful and obtuse to straight up narrative works. Naturally for the time and place, there was quite a lot of drinking and drugs involved with the making of the films, but the film does a great job of not moralizing or showing remorse for the lifestyles that made up one of the last truly independent movements in world cinema. The film also looks at the point where some key members of “the scene”, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, decide to “sell out” and filmmakers like Nick Zedd take matters a bit further with the boundary pushing “cinema of transgression” movement. In an area of the city where pretty much everyone thought they could be in a band, everyone also thought they could be a filmmaker. But, unlike traditionally coddled filmmakers, these were people who were in touch with lower class society in a way that few others were; living in run down buildings or in some places flat out squatting.
Blank City looks at some very interesting people who made some of the most accessible pieces of artistic cinema in history and Danhier has certainly talked to the right people who were at the forefront of the movement, but the talking head style of the film is both a blessing and a curse. At times, the film gets somewhat repetitive with things that anyone who was ever a part of a musical “scene” would already know going in. There are only so many times one can hear people talking about their scene was destined to die. By having so many people talking about the scene ending, but never really showing us where it ended, it kind of makes all the talking about its impending doom somewhat pointless. If Danhier had pruned these sequences back a bit and let the films speak for themselves, Blank City would be nearly flawless.
Despite that relatively minor complaint, Blank City is a really solid history lesson in the cinema of the streets. I will admit to not caring very much about the entire history of the “no wave” movement before watching the film (outside of several of the major filmmakers, musicians, and artists that made careers from it), but I do care a bit more now. It is kind of amusing that in a movie talking about a shapeless movement in fillmaking that many of the subjects can’t really seem to agree on an overarching meaning to all of what they did, but that is part of the beauty of the film. It is a film about films that don’t ask for an explanation that doesn’t pander to audience expectations by giving them one. Any movie that makes people want to take a look at Born in Flames, Wild Style, or Geek Maggot Bingo is a film that will get a positive vote from me any day.
Directed by: Celine Danhier
Top image: Eszter Balint in Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise, featured in Blank City. Photo courtesy Squat Theater Archives.