Blank City – film review
Weaving together an oral history of the ‘No Wave Cinema’ and ‘Cinema of Transgression’ movements of the late ’70s to mid ’80s New York, director Celine Danhier brings together the key players of the art scene in a compelling biopic.ÃÂ
After the seeds of punk had been sewn on British soil by a bunch of arty New Yorkers thus creating year zero on both sides of the Atlantic where next for the residents of Manhattan to go for their next angry fix after its remains had been chewed up and quite literally spat out by the London upstarts? Well for the aptly named Blank Generation what better address to reside than Blank City, the erstwhile title of this biopic directed by Celine Danhier.
Blank City is not a proper address inManhattan but a state of mind and attitude that was borne out of the freestyle and freefall of the then recently passed punk era and a perfect location for a likeminded group of individuals who had little in common bar their difference and a desire to stream the zeitgeist.
Focussing intently on the attitude that was to instigate the scene that was to be termed in the press as No Wave Danhier has done a remarkable job in constructing a riveting document of an era that previously many who aspire to be influenced by it can only ever in truth have read or heard about it as previously little of it had been seen outside a small arty circle in New York.
Likewise the music that soundtracks the proceedings was, even on initial release, only available in specialist stores and it is this proper introduction to such an iconic underground movement that gives this film one of its many strengths.
Like the music and the films documented within Blank City the style and direction is short, jumpy, spasmodic and slightly neurotic. Cutting between recent interviews with successful scenesters such as Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi and Beth B and older footage of their slinkier, more sullen, younger selves the belief in what they were trying to achieve is still inherent within them.
The attitude that they were not merely rewriting the rules whilst breaking a few more in the process provided the DNA that coursed through the veins of the whole scene and gave it its lifeblood. Colourful characters such as Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern all weigh in with their own particular version of history and probably for the first time seem remotely in agreement with each other.
Here was a scene borne out of necessity created from complex minds and a desire to see how far was going too far. Film makers adopted the Warholian ruse of merely setting up a camera, switching it on and recording how people behave. Doesn’t sound too different from Big Brother but the difference was this was a bunch of interesting exhibitionists who were not solely motivated by money. In fact when Jean-Michel Basquiat broke through into the art world there was a general consensus amongst other front runners on the scene that by receiving any financial reward he had sold out. Others were still setting up insurance scams to merely fund their films. Likewise the desire to make music with non-musicians sounding as though it were made by people who hadn’t heard music before doesn’t immediately strike you as a group of people who want to storm the charts.
Danhier has ultimately succeeded in bringing to a new audience an idea of where the art scene in New York moved to after it had spawned the fledgling punk rock attitude that took off so much more successfully in Britain and must have gone to painstaking lengths to secure the material used.
It is a film that creates a much needed legacy for a scene that had been well documented in the press but remained unseen and heard for nearly thirty years. The clips from the movies and soundtrack are reason enough to see this film alone and serve as a reminder that there was a time before Karaoke Culture, perpetrated by the likes of Simon Cowell, when youth movements were allowed to breed and germinate before being pounced upon or stamped out by industry moguls.
All words by David Marren. You can read more from David on LTW here.