BLANK CITY (directed by Celine Danhier) is a documentary snapshot of the late 70’s post-punk, underground film and music scene out of New York City. Monikered as “No Wave” – it was an antithesis of the New Wave movement that followed immediately after – low tech and completely independent. While most readers, like myself, were not around to appreciate this era, BLANK WAVE gives you all you’ll need to know about it from an inside-out point of view.
Manhattan Island is one of the most expensive places in the world to live, with rent in the uber-thousands per month, and sometimes years waiting lists just to get in. It wasn’t always like that. In fact, in the mid to late 70’s, it was the exact opposite. It was a place to fear – smutty, crime and rat ridden – broken down and dirt cheap. It was a garden where music, film, and art grew forth from a bed of drugs, prostitution, violence, and ruins. Inspired by punk rock, and molded by poverty, it sprung beanstalks of talent, ranging from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Deborah Harry, Lizzie Borden, and even early pre-rap Beastie Boys.
It was a time when desperation was the flavor of the day – it reflected and held back the artists as much as it molded and drove their ideas. A time when artists of all natures pushed through the concrete and smut, forcing their otherwise undiscovered talents upon the world by picking up a camera, hitting the streets of NYC guerrilla style (no permits), and just making what they felt. Often, these productions were thrown into theaters the same week. It was the YouTube of the pre-cable / pre-digital era – self created and progressive, edgy and poor-man artsy. On one side, these films were extremely amateur, rough edged, and not palatable to the average consumer – but the flip side was golden. They were 100% uncensored and unproduced. Complete originals, brought to cellulose with then purity of only the film maker’s imagination and inspiration.
While this home-made and short lived era of No-Wave music and film came and went within a five year period, it permeated the cerebellums of creators with its silver lining of production with commercialism. BLANK CITY documents this into a neatly wrapped 90 minute package like no other, summing up the times with footage and music that can only be understood and appreciated if looked at within the context from which it had sprung. That is the value of the experience BLANK CITY offers to share with today’s post New Wave viewer.
BLANK CITY features a soundtrack driven by bands like early Sonic Youth, and James Chance and the Contortions (among others), features film makers James Nares, Seth Tillett, Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Scott B and Beth B, and is embedded with countless interviews with talent springing from that era, such as Deborah Harry, Steve Buscemi, Nick Zedd, Fab 5 Freddy, etc. Documentary wise, it offers a unique perspective of a time I personally had long forgotten, when despair was embraced and reflected, instead of grappled with, fueling the fire of those who had forged art from a wasteland of anarchy and plight. Modern music listeners and filmmakers may find this a bit too grimy and artsy-fartsy, with most footage playing out more like amateur hour in black and white with a lot of cigarettes – but if you’re a fan of New York style independent film and the Grunge genre in music – its good to know who your forefathers were.
While its an informative piece thoroughly detailing the flash in the pan known as no-wave, BLANK CITY just comes across a bit black and white and dry for someone bred post of the era. You can tell BLANK CITY makes great efforts to be fully accurate reflection, and those who lived the music and film of the day will probably enjoy this playback reel of its arts, but to others, it may drag with B&W, cigarette littered art that is sometimes so rooted in poverty and experimentation that it can be dreadfully dull.
As a music/film documentary you can’t help but respect the quality of BLANK CITY as a snapshot of the time and genre – its well made and belongs in every fully schooled music historian’s realm of knowledge – its just a little hard to get through from a pure pleasure angle, especially for persons under the age of 40 who have no other self identification with the time or style.