REVIEW: Blank City Overexplains NYC's Late-'70s DIY Scene, with Great Footage
In Blank City, a discursive oral history of New York's DIY film scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, Lydia Lunch says she doesn't the mind the "No Wave" moniker coined to describe the work she and her friends were doing. "We need to have a category in which to define movements, I guess," she says. "I have no problem with 'No Wave,' because it says No Wave. So again, it's defined by what it isn't. What is it? I don't fucking know."
Lunch is part of the impressive cohort director Celine Danhier gathered to try and answer that question. John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, Amos Poe, Nick Zedd, Beth B., Lizzie Borden, and Vivienne Dick are among the interviewees, and Danhier has culled a host of rarely seen clips of their films. But as a format, a dozen-plus talking heads interspersed with loops of footage feels like an uninspired choice to describe a group that might be defined as aptly by what didn't tie them together as what did. The arrangement of the images and anecdotes is flat but erratic, an effect that's compounded as Blank City goes on and Danhier finds herself casting a wider and wider net in the hopes of drawing in the heart of the matter. Though the film concerns events contained within the roughly 50 square blocks of the East Village, it suffers from the narrative equivalent of urban sprawl.
If there is a unifying theory of the scene, its progenitors and their output, it involves the paradox of any branded outsider movement: The struggle to maintain integrity while seeking -- and then, God-forbid, receiving -- recognition. Much of the talk and the footage lingers over the mythological ruin that was downtown New York in the 1970s. "We did live like itinerant kings in these rundown palaces," says James Nare. The area's confined decay and unlivability are presented, as artistic legend so often has it, as ideal Petri dish conditions for creative growth. Clips from Amos Poe films like The Foreigner and Unmade Beds, both shot in the streets in 1978 on Super-8 film that was begged, borrowed or stolen, confirm the legend of what a strange and abandoned frontier downtown Manhattan was in those years. After 45 minutes of war stories involving drugs, squatting and cockroaches, however, the "so what" factor kicks in: I get it. It was cool. What else was it?
A movement closely tied to the punk scene and an ambivalent descendant of the experimental stylings of Andy Warhol, "No Wave" is described as being torn between downtown exceptionalism and the impulse toward more accessible storytelling. Because Danhier moves so rapidly between filmmakers and micro-eras, the opinion, theory and conjecture attached to the movement's terms and evolution feel a little random. Post-Vietnam rage, revolt against Reaganism, Cold War nihilism and the real estate tyranny of the Ed Koch regime are all cited in passing as key themes in No Wave and the later "Cinema of Transgression." No doubt they were, but Blank City rushes through its paces too quickly for those references to be absorbed as anything but boilerplate punk rhetoric.
Danhier clearly had to sort through dozens of hours of interview footage, but instead of distilling a story, her choices effect a sound bite history. Which means that half an hour after Michael Oblowitz declares No Wave filmmaking to have been a narrative-driven response to the art films of the Warhol Factory years, he claims that making politically radical films was more important to the movement than making narrative ones. Which is not to say some combination of the two sentiments is not possible, but the editorial hopscotching staggers information such that it occasionally moves past incoherence into seeming contradiction.
It's still a treat to look at footage of Debbie Harry, the redoubtable Ms. Lunch, Steve Buscemi, and a Little Italy butch named Vincent Gallo sneering for the camera and roving through the East Village in lambent black and white. It's still a wistful jolt to hear John Lurie blame Jean-Paul Basquiat for ruining the scene by making money and status cool, where they had been the exact opposite. There's a great story in there -- hundreds of them, no doubt. The only thing lacking in the raw materials of a movement that resisted definition by definition, is room for a documentary caught up in spelling things out.