"There was something important happening, which was out with the old, in the new," announces an interviewee at the start of Blank City. He's speaking of New York in the late 1970s, when the so-called No Wave movement in music, film and art created provocative new works, but the sentiment itself is so generic and clichéd it could apply to any number of decades or artistic vanguards. All documentaries about creative flashpoints run the risk of hagiography, but Blank City is worse than most, by and large eulogizing a dead scene in the most hackneyed, non-era-specific terms possible. The upside is a wealth of archival footage and a coherent introduction to the films of the time, but the presentation nearly cancels out any interest. Like the marginalized original works, widespread audience interest is dubious.
The No Wave scene rose out of the ashes of mid-'70s Manhattan, as bohemian types congregated in the Lower East Side, thriving on the low rent and dangerous vibe. Confronted with a landscape that looked like a war zone and economic disenfranchisement, filmmakers like Amos Poe, Scott and Beth B., Vivienne Dick, James Nares and others responded with fiercely amateurish, campily acted and often boundary-pushing work. As the decade rolled into the '80s, a fiercely insular and self-pollinating scene was discovered, first by wealthier uptown types and then by the world. In response, the scene mutated into even darker territory with the "Cinema of Transgression," featuring deliberately confrontational scenes of sex, torture and dismemberment as a response to Reagan-era politics, AIDS and gentrification.
The footage itself is fascinating: even if you don't respond to the aesthetics, the time-capsule aspect is invaluable. This renders the obstinately unrevealing interviews even more unfortunate. Cramming three decades' worth of clichés into 94 minutes, Blank City's interviewees at various points remind us that 1968 was a turbulent year in which the Vietnam War was raging and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that the movement was "all about throwing everything out the window" and that a lot of boho types didn't like Ronald Reagan. Elsewhere, various attempts to jazz up still photos involve paltry gestures like animating curling cigarette smoke.
The interviews only grow more myopic as the film ventures into the '80s. While the various interviewees—including the still-marginalized filmmakers listed above, as well as better known alumnus Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch—are correct in noting that No Wave became the Cinema of Transgression in response to a feeling that their movement, like punk, was too quickly becoming stale and co-opted. Some of their other comments are significantly less helpful.
What to make, for example, of Poe's statement that the "principles" he learned from the films of Jean-Luc Godard were primarily "working without lights" and "being able to shoot handheld?" What can be gained from watching singer Lydia Lunch explain with such self-congratulation how raw, dangerous, vital and naked everyone's work was? Is it really the case that '80s artists succumbed to heroin because mysterious government forces were trying to decimate the area for gentrification forces (rather than because of self-indulgence)? Did MTV single-handedly destroy Lower East Side culture? Despite the footage and some neat anecdotes (including one about underground legend Jack Smith walking through the neighborhood, pointing to rats and deeming them the souls of dead landlords), the film grows increasingly curdled and smug—precisely the opposite of the scene chronicled.
Distributor: Insurgent Releasing
Director: Celine Danhier
Producers: Vanessa Roworth and Aviva Wishnow
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: April 6 NY