(by Carolina Astrain)
Céline Danhier’s first documentary film, Blank City, is a love letter to the filmmakers of New York’s No Wave movement in late Seventies/early Eighties. Much in the spirit of the subject’s do-it-yourself spirit, Danhier started the project shortly after receiving her law degree despite her lack of formal training in filmmaking. The documentary is strewn together by footage from No Wave films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds (featuring Debbie Harry of Blondie) and Vivienne Dick’s She Had Her Gun All Ready (featuring Lydia Lunch). Other artists featured in the documentary include Jean-Michel Basquiat, hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddie and actor Steve Buscemi.
The No Wave Cinema collective steered away from what Andy Warhol created with his avant-garde projects. They weren’t interested in art for art’s sake; they were interested in telling stories that would touch people. Their subjects are often closely related to their personal experience. In Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch follows a 14-year-old kid walking around the dilapidated jungle of New York’s Lower East Side, where most of these renegade filmmakers lived. Starving young artists like Jarmusch had nothing to lose but plenty to give. They prided themselves on conquering the world with Super 8 cameras and atonal avant-garde music. In Jarmusch’s case, Permanent Vacation won a prize at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. The raw debut caught the attention of the already-established Wim Wenders, who gave the upstart New Yorker some film stock that would eventually be used for his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise— a cult hit that became the turning point of his career.
None of the filmmakers had gone to film or acting school; they were playing off impulses, drugs and desires. “Most of us were actors anyways, in our lives,” director Nick Zedd says in one the interviews in which he explains everybody’s lack of actual talent. Amos Poe describes the state of his life at the height of his success, “I used up all my money, and I got fired from all my jobs and my wife was pregnant and had a baby… then to top it all off my wife went crazy and eventually went into a mental hospital… it was the best of times and the worst of times.” Now this sort of sacrifice for art would be called “irresponsible”, but that is exactly the sort attitude the movement fought against.
Although the film is dense with interviewees and subjects, the mythical nature of the movement wouldn’t have been believable without the wandering eye of the editing. The documentary only starts to feel like it’s gone off the train tracks when the No Wave music scene is introduced at the bridge of the film— one artist referred to posters being plastered up all over the neighborhood with, “Everyone here is in a band,” written on them. Debbie Harry states during her interview, “I was an actor, pretending to be a singer.” The dissonance is almost too metaphorical.
As someone born after the movement, watching this documentary seemed to be required viewing. Although most of today’s hipsters I’ve met have indeed suffered through hard economic times, nothing could possibly come close to what the No Wave New York crowd of the 1970s seemed to have endured for their craft. It’s actually sort of depressing to watch this documentary to see how young people used to spend their time then versus how we spend our time today. Video game consoles, Facebook and iPhone applications can easily sedate the average 20-something-year-old to a safe, confined Saturday night indoors. Today, being a rebel means buying your clothes at Urban Outfitters and smoking clove cigarettes. The craziest kids compost and work at local bakeries. The 20-somethings of the 70’s could definitely kick our butts.
What this documentary really left me wondering was, “Where are all the artists now?” (Jarmusch and Buscemi have achieved mainstream success while many of the peers had led obscure careers.) Toward the end of the film, Director Maneul DeLanda describes the end of the No Wave movement as a scene that “had become a little too content with itself,” which sounds a lot like what critics are saying about today’s youth. Ending on a soft note of moving forward, Daniher introduces the next movement after No Wave, Cinema of Transgression, which looks a lot like the B-movie horror wave of the 80s. But Blank City leaves me wanting to see more of the No Wave cinema. It is a film that activates, encourages and revives a movement from a time before being a starving artist meant living in your parent’s basement and working at Chili’s. Although it lacks objective perspective, the stories are heartfelt and will hopefully inspire the next Amos Poe in the YouTube era.
Blank City is playing at the MFAH on 8/19 (7:00pm) and 8/20 (7:00pm).