One of the ideas behind the so-called No Wave movement, the subject of “Blank City,” is about the retreating of art away from the establishment, the denial that a structure can exist to help an artist thrive. One learnt to make a movie because someone shoves a camera in their face and said “you can do it.” The genesis of No Wave was a band of disposessed twentysomethings who roomed together in the Bowery and St Marks Place and banded against roaches and rats together and made music and movies using handheld cameras and manufactured their own world. From the middle of the 1970s to the end of that decade, cultural stagnation and economic turmoil prevailed.
The first Reagan presidency was about to start on the heels of a great disappointment, courtesy of the Ford Administration. New York had been refused bailout funds. Downtown Manhattan was a giant swirling toilet and the No Wave clique was on a lifeboat, paddling furiously against the flow.
The start of No Wave could be attributed to the sale of stolen camera equipment. Filmmakers Amos Poe, Nick Zedd and Jim Jarmusch describe to interviewer (and documentary director) Celine Danhier, how someone in the Village in the mid-70s came into a bunch of cameras and sold them to the locals (ie., a lot of the people who appear in “Blank City”) for cheap, inspiring many to take up filmmaking.
The films were raw and the cameras held by hand–cinema verite’s influence was all over this bad boy. And even though No Wave was a clique of people working to make cinema, music and painting Danhier focuses her documentary on the films that emerged from this period.
Jarmusch was actually the only one of the lot who went to film school. Noone else in this loose group of partners-in-crime knew anything about filmmaking, or music-making. They were up for it, and that’s what counted. Look for footage of a very young Vincent Gallo, as well as Julian Schnabel and Steve Buscemi horsing around for the camera.
This short-lived movement (about five years) was highly influential, especially in the quality the heirs it fostered (Jarmusch went on to become one of the leaders of American indie cinema and the band Sonic Youth, interviewed for the doc, has enjoyed worldwide popularity for nearly three decades now).
“Blank City” Director Celine Dahnier moved to New York City in 2006 after living in Paris where she was a member of an avant-guarde theatre group called La Compagnie Vapeur.
But she also studied Law at la Sorbonne—you could say she is a member of the modern No Wave clique. Her documentary is strong though it does not offer any major insights into an already well-documented era. The footage and the music are all familiar by now, thanks to an ever-increasing body of works directly or indirectly about the era.
But Dahnier also expands the narrative to include the early 1980s, documenting the first quivers of the advent of hip-hop (Fab Five Freddy weighs in several times on the strange meddling of musical genres and their cultural offshoots) and bringing Warhol and Basquiat, two successors of the No Wave movement but obviously artists in their own right, into the mix. The latter’s sudden success in the 80s marked a turning point for No Wave and likely killed it. Cash, greed and commercialism insinuated themselves into the art world and killed off a lot of the impetus for what had been created before.
John Lurie told Dahnier that to this day he hasn’t forgiven Basquiat for only seeking out wealthy friends since he himself had started earning loads of cash for his art.
It is difficult to imagine any arts movement nowadays following its life cycle without some funding from the arts establishment. The Arts would wither away without some help from society. No Wave came to be, thrived and quickly undermined itself, though not because of a lack of funding–money caused harm directly to the endeavors of that day, and so the irony goes.
Dahnier includes a lot of excerpts from the films made during this tumultuous period. Bette Gordon’s “Variety,” Amos Poe’s “Unmade Beds” (to continue in the tradition of Godard’s “A bout de souffle”) and “Alphabet City,” and Charlie Ahearn’s “Wild Style,” which went to the Cannes Festival. “Blank City,” is a fun ride for those of us unlucky enough to have missed it all and a moving tribute to some unique individuals.
Let’s hope “Blank City” finds a distribution deal; essential fare for those interested in revisiting gritty downtown New York City and its permutating art scenes and an entertaining ride for everyone else, too.