DIRECTED BY: Celine Danhier
PLOT: This documentary examines the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film
movements and their connections to performance art and punk rock in New York City circa 1977-1985.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely a supplemental feature for your weird movie education, giving background information on a significant underground DIY film movement.
COMMENTS: “It felt like our lives were movies,” says Debbie Harry early on in Blank City. “It was very cinematic.” Perhaps this explains Celine Danhier’s choice, which earned her criticism in some quarters, to place the focus more on the filmmakers than the films in this documentary. Based on the No Wave film clips which illustrate the story, this was the correct angle to take on the material. Most of the “greatest hits” Super-8 highlights consist of grungy hipsters smoking cigarettes in grainy black and white, or walking around dirty East Village streets in washed-out, home-movie color. By contrast, the Bohemian lifestyle the filmmakers fondly recall—sharing $50 apartments in burnt out tenements with cockroaches, shooting on the street on the spur of the moment whenever they could assemble a crew, sneaking into locations to film without permission or permits, and heading off to CBGB’s after a hard day of scraping together footage to drink and dance the night away while a pre-fame Blondie or Television played on stage—is a lot more interesting. The No Wave scene flourished during New York City’s downbeat phase, when the burg was deep in debt, full of abandoned buildings, and riddled by crime and heroin abuse (basically, the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The city in the late Seventies was nasty and dangerous, but for nouveau-beatnik types it offered cheap rent, cheaper Super-8 film stock, and the company of like-minded free spirits. Although it grew out of the ashes of the previous New York avant-garde exemplified by Andy Warhol and Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith, movement godfather Amos Poe explains that this wave rebelled against the abstract experimentalism of the previous period, seeking instead a cinema based in realism, narrative, and political consciousness. The works emerging from this enterprise were (for the most part) grounded in the gritty reality of the streets. Filmmakers, graffiti artists and punk bands deliberately cross-fertilized ideas (John Lurie explains that “the painters were in bands, the musicians were making movies or painting, nobody did what they knew how to do.”) The resulting movies were amateur, improvisational, and based around dramatic scenarios that required no money (the most ambitious may have been James Nares’ Rome ’78, which located its story in ancient Rome using classical Gotham facades of museums, libraries and post offices as sets). When Reaganism rolled around and the economy rebounded, there was suddenly money available for funding filmmakers and artists, and success and sell-outs gutted the movement. Jean-Michel Basquiat, who used to use abandoned buildings as his canvases, became a darling of the art world. Susan Seidelman’s punk drama Smithereens (1982) made it all the way to Cannes, and within three years she was making a studio vehicle for Madonna. In 1984 Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise was another festival hit, and the No Wave was suddenly looking relatively mainstream. In reaction to the sudden respectability of the New York underground, in 1985 Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch launched a more dangerous and nihilistic movement they dubbed “Cinema of Transgression.” Equally as amateur as their No Wave forebears, this counter-movement is more interesting (for our purposes, at least) due to their confrontational themes and weird textures. In The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983), Nick Zedd documented his breakup with Lunch, basically stalking the annoyed-looking goth beauty with his camera. The same director’s notorious and much-despised Geek Maggot Bingo (1983) features bizarre, Kuchar-esque tableaux: cardboard sets, cheap cyclops masks, and a cameo by horror host Zacherly. Kern’s Manhattan Love Suicides (1985) was a suite of blackly comic short films about obsessive love, each ending with a gruesome suicide. The Cinema of Transgression may not have produced any unquestionable masterpieces (or achieved much that John Waters hadn’t done before, and done better), but it did have the all-important sex, graphic violence, and obscenity charges necessary to garner an enduring infamy not shared by the tamer No Wave movies. All in all, Blank City is an interesting, nostalgic time capsule whose main function may be to inspire you to grab a couple of friends and a cheap camera and make your own movies that no one will ever see. Most of the films profiled here may not be worth the trouble of seeking out, but it sure looks like the artists had a blast making them.
Liquid Sky (1982), a very weird (it’s about aliens hooked on chemicals secreted by the human brain during orgasm) New York based film of the period, gets overlooked because it was made by No Wave outsiders, and because it parodied the New York punk art scene rather than celebrating it. Llik Your Idols (2007) was a lower-profile documentary with a many of the same talking heads, but focused almost entirely on the Cinema of Transgression.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The effect is something akin to having chaotically experimental work screened in the sterile white chambers of a modern-art museum, rather than, say, a bedsheet in the back of a squat basement or on a fifth-generation VHS dub. It makes for a certain head-snapping dissonance, but also a granting of respect to artists who have rarely received it.”–Chris Barsanti, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)