Lining up for rush tickets and then miraculously getting in thanks to the Ticket Fairy (actually, a nice Spanish man who sold me one of his extra tickets), I caught the premiere and after-party of Celine Danhier’s Blank City Saturday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. Many of the moviemakers and actors featured in the documentary were in the audience, including Steve Buscemi, whose notoriously fan-shy demeanor was in full blush as he begrudgingly chatted with an admiring fan inside the theater. It is an enjoyable chronicle of the giddy, nihilistic moviemaking style that emerged alongside the No Wave music scene of late 1970s/early 1980s in New York. The film joins a growing roster of projects examining this storied moment in New York history, and nostalgia is high. Only the night before Blank City, two screenings of Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB were sold out with few rush tickets released. But where Burning Down the House and 2004’s Kill Your Idols focused on the music, Blank City examines the films that sprang from the same fertile bed of manic creative fury.
The doc features clips from iconic films—such as The Blank Generation, Smithereens and Downtown 81—raw, energetic works made with no budget on Super8 stock, featuring friends and fellow musicians. Some were absurdly funny—like Rome ’78, in which a motley crew of characters including Patti Astor and James Chance dressed in togas and “acted” amidst the Roman columns of downtown New York’s City Hall. Some were painfully autobiographical accounts, such as The Wild World of Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd’s breakup movie featuring real-life ex Lydia Lunch. Most were terribly made, but quickly shot and edited—sometimes over a couple of speed-fueled days—and then screened at places like the Mud Club and the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place.
According to Charlie Ahearn (1983’s Wild Style), whom I talked to at the after party in the Bowery district, the important thing was the singularity and honesty of one’s effort. “It was the whole thing of making your own film, to bring together a really strong sense of reality, but telling it in a fictional story,” he explained over booming strands of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” “And not to make a documentary, not make an art movie, but to make a movie—that was the idea.”
Later I spoke to Tess Hughes-Freeland, assistant editor for Fingered, Richard Kern’s 1986 violent porn-as-antiporn film starring Lydia Lunch, who remarked that today’s explosion of instant DIY moviemaking—via digital outlets such as YouTube—mirrors the spirit of the Super8 moviemakers. She also praised Danhier for the comprehensiveness of her approach to chronicling that dynamic time.
Indeed, Danhier’s debut effort is impressive in its scope, deftly gathering the converging movements of post-punk and hip-hop music, feminist moviemaking and hardcore art and placing them within the cultural and political context of the time. Moviemaker interviews include Charlie Ahearn, Nick Zedd, Amos Poe, Beth B, Susan Seidelman, Nares and Kern and many others. Actors and musicians featured include John Lurie, Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy and Lydia Lunch.
With a background in theater and fashion, Danhier has a great affection for the films and hopes her documentary will bring renewed attention to the No Wave moviemakers.
The result is more polished than anything the No Wave moviemakers came up with, but her scrappy backstory is in the same spirit. Arriving from France just three years ago with no film training and no connection to the scene, Danhier tracked down the moviemakers via the Internet and Kim’s Video, the beloved, now-closed East Village resource and haven for underground-film lovers. Amazingly, nearly everyone she approached agreed to be in her film—perhaps because they could sense her sincerity.
As a moviemaker, Dahnier displays an ability to communicate the giddy eclecticism of her subject. In one interview in the film, John Lurie recalls the energetic intermixing of talents: “All the painters were in a band; all the musicians were painting… Nobody was doing what they knew how to do.” Danhier pairs this quote with an archive image from a flyer on a post that read: Everyone here is in a band. It’s a great touch that exemplifies her intuitive understanding of the playful spirit that animated these projects.
Some of the best quotes she gets come from today’s well-known indie actors and directors who emerged from or alongside the downtown New York art scene of the late ’70s-early ’80s. Like John Waters, who praises the merits of Fingered, and quips: “If you took a girl out to see Fingered and she said she liked it, you knew you were gonna get laid—but how were you gonna get laid?”
Or like Jim Jarmusch, whose early films like Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise featured his friends hanging out in their run-down apartments and walking the streets of the then-dilapidated Lower East Side. Instead of lamenting the co-option of downtown DIY culture into mainstream condo living, he notes that “New York was always about trade, commerce and thievery”—and that it remains a hotbed for con artists (whether small-time hustlers or real estate developers) and more importantly, fresh ideas.
In talking with several of these moviemakers afterwards, it seemed the freshness still hasn’t worn off. Michael Oblowitz (1983’s King Blank) is still making movies. Nick Zedd is now painting and getting into fashion design. But some, like James Chance, are probably simply inspiring others to be themselves.