Filmmakers Scott B. and Beth B., artist Diego Cortez, Lydia Lunch, Johnny O'Kane, Bill Rice and Adele Bertei of the Contortions, pose for a photo in New York City, 1980.

'Blank City' Looks Back at Underground 'B' Heyday

Dennis Harvey June 3, 2011

New Yorkers develop tough hides, taking a certain pride in thriving in adversity. Many if not most of the city's greatest artistic innovators over time created something out of nearly nothing, with shoestring finances, found materials and the help of equally threadbare friends. Of course this might be less true today: Like San Francisco ever since the dot-com boom, NYC has become a very expensive place to live, even in its outer burroughs.

The last time Manhattan residency could be really cheap—if you were willing to take your life into your hands by setting up camp in some seriously decayed neighborhoods—it not surprisingly saw a cutting-edge art renaissance. That moment's cinematic side is chronicled in Celine Danhier's Blank City, a documentary about the “No Wave” movement that briefly flourished in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

This was a period when New York City was on the verge of fiscal and social collapse, so overrun by drugs and crime and suburban flight that whole buildings (notably in Alphabet City) were neglected and abandoned—thus perfect for “starving artists” to squat in and/or pay the most minimal rent for. A community of hardboiled creatives existing on zilch sprang like a flower from dung in that violent, edgy, energetic milieu. They ranged from “punk” bands that seemed radical at first but proved mainstream-acceptable (Talking Heads, Blondie) to inventively abrasive outfits that were never going to tempt a major label (James Chance & The Contortions, The Bush Tetras, anything Lydia Lynch was in...).

There were also painters (like Jean-Michel Basquiat), writers (like David Wojnarowicz), actors (Vincent Gallo, Steve Buscemi)—all frequently contributing to each others' media, especially that most collaborative art form accessible to the cash-poor, film.

Danhier uses latterday interviews and a whole lot of archival clips—from movies you'd mostly have a tough time tracking down these days—to chronicle this exciting period of willfully raw, envelope-pushing, even amateurish independent cinema, which proved a major factor in pushing forward the train that would make U.S. indies a real commercial presence by the late 1980s.

Star directors emerging from this scene included Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman (whose Smithereens led to Desperately Seeking Susan). But Blank City's primary focus is on those talents that came and barely emerged from the underground, like Amos Poe (of seminal 1976 punk documentary The Blank Generation), Lizzie Borden (Born in Flames), Scott & Beth B. (Vortex), and “cinema of trangression” shockmeisters Nick Zedd (Geek Maggot Bingo) and Richard Kern (Fingered).

Admittedly, a lot of their work is probably best watched in excerpt at this point—what once seemed thrillingly taboo can now play as louche mannerism, the bad acting by musician friends and crudity of storytelling/technique lazy rather than provocative. Still, the liberation the participants felt then is still palpable, whether we're hearing reminiscences from largely forgotten filmmakers or such scene-graduating celebrities as Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Ann Magnuson, or Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. (Let alone admiring outsider John Waters, who as usual has the funniest insights.)

This story ends as so many do: Once they'd gotten a taste of actual commercial success, many talents here either chased it or floundered. Meanwhile the enviroment that encouraged such free experimentation fell prey to gentrification, mass evictions, the scourges of AIDS and crack. Tourists, theatregoers and other potential mugging victims no doubt appreciated the mayoral cleanup campaigns that most famously saw the “Disneyfication” of Times Square. But the forcible removal of objectional elements—“starving artists” included—also made the city much less of a hub for hardscrabble creativity. Like so many recent New York documentaries, Blank City looks back at a past at least as difficult and dangerous as it was glamourous...and sighs, wistfully.

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