To understand and appreciate the 'No Wave' film movement that came out of New York City in the seventies and the subsequent 'Cinema Of Transgression' movement that followed, you have to understand where those involved were coming from at the time this all started to reach a boil. French filmmaker Celine Danhier's 2010 film Blank City does a pretty good job of doing just that by tracking down more of the people involved than most familiar with all of this would have probably thought possible, getting them to sit down in front of the camera and open up about the odd little movies they made and about the scene that surrounded it.
In the mid-seventies, New York City was suffering some serious financial woes and the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a bit of a wasteland. Abandoned buildings were common, landlords were regularly torching various properties to cash in on the insurance money and drugs were becoming a common scourge in neighborhoods across the island. Out of all of this squirmed a group of like minded individuals who decided to use whatever minimal resources they had to basically raise a middle finger to the established film industry and make their own movies on their own terms. Basically the punk rock version filmmaking (it's not surprising to learn that there was a lot of cross over - members of The Cramps and Blondie appeared in these movies, which would influence later acts like Sonic Youth and both Max's Kansas City and CBGB were meeting places for those involved), this movement became known as 'No Wave' and it eventually centered, at least temporarily, around the New Cinema on St. Marks on the Lower East Side, once a fairly edgy and dangerous area, now a trendy tourist destination with a few cool record stores barely hanging on.
The film provides plenty of interesting context for all of this and makes sure we get a feel for what these filmmakers were going through at the time by letting them explain it in their own words. Interviewed here for the documentary are luminaries like Amos Poe, Susan Seidelman (who would go on to more mainstream success with projects like The Smithereens and after that Desperately Seeking Susan, Lydia Lunch (who seems to have acted or appeared in everyone's movies), Steve Buscemi (who has obviously gone on to quite a bit of mainstream success), Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Scott B., Beth B., Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Anna Karina, Fab 5 Freddy, Eric Mitchell, Thurston Moore, Debbie Harry and then in the later half, when the focus shifts to the 'Cinema of Transgression' movement, the likes of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. The film rightly notes that there are differences between the two scenes, with the 'COT' guys sometimes working off of a manifesto crafted by Zedd and with Kern's work far more overtly sexual in nature and labeled by some as nothing more than violent pornography. Of course, those paying attention and not just going by a kneejerk reaction will know differently.
Interestingly enough, the documentary also pays close attention to what eventually brought a stop to this movement. It got to the point where the New Cinema, once a haven for friends to get together and watch one another's films, was starting to get line ups outside each night. Films like Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style started to cross over into different aspects of New York City culture and would eventually find play in the more respected uptown theaters. Zedd and Kern would reject mainstream success but a few involved in the earlier side of things did not, and as Jarmusch aptly notes, there's no point in dwelling on the glories of the past when there are so many current and future projects to work on.
Ultimately, this winds up a fascinating look at some films that, if not necessarily good in the traditional sense, were made by those with spirit, determination and drive. A lot of these guys set out to smash taboos, some were more successful at it than others, some fell victims to AIDS or drugs, some made it to the big time, others continue to toil in relative obscurity - but the documentary does a great job of explaining how and why this material remains of interest. Much of it is funny, almost all of it was done with a sense of humor, but there's also a fascinating dark side to a lot of this as films such as Black Box aptly demonstrate. Danhier's film doesn't pander to hero worship or make some of this admittedly often times very amateurish material out to be any sort of masterpiece material that it isn't, rather it's a very matter of fact look at a fascinating and fleeting subculture within the world of underground film. You don't need a preexisting knowledge of what these men and women did to appreciate this film, nor do you need to worship at the altar of the movements that it documents - you just need to appreciate an interesting story and some fascinating personalities, two things that this documentary delivers in hefty doses.
Blank City looks pretty good in this 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Obviously the archival clips, many of which are culled from old 8mm sources stretching back decades and sometimes from old VHS tapes made from those sources, don't look as sharp as the newly shot interview footage - that's a given - but the recent stuff is clean, colorful and sharp. This isn't the type of movie you watch to geek out over video quality in the first place but Kino have done a fine job with the authoring.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, the only audio option on the disc, is fairly front heavy but it does use the rear channels to play around with the soundtrack in a few key scenes and it does so quite well. Aside from that, the dialogue, which is key to a movie made up primarily of interviews, is clean and clear and easy to follow. Any hiss or distortion evident in the clips used throughout the movie is still there, again this is completely understandable, but outside of that things sound just fine. No subtitle or closed captioning options are offered on this DVD.
Extras kick off with a ten minute interview with the film's director, Celine Danhier, who speaks about how she was first alerted to the 'No Wave' scene in her native France by way of the 'No New York' compilation album that Brian Eno put out. From there she talks about how she went about putting this project together and offers up some of her own thoughts on the films and the people who made them. Also included here are roughly forty minutes worth of extended and deleted scenes featuring the various interviewees, a few highlights include Thurston Moore discussing how he and some friends drove into Manhattan to Max's Kansas City to see The Cramps and Suicide play, and an on the street impromptu interview that Danhier conducted with Eric Mitchell. A small collection of outtakes and the film's theatrical trailer round out the supplements, and the disc also includes menus and chapter selection.
Blank City is an intelligent and well put together documentary that sheds some welcome light on one of the more interesting American underground film movements and by way of some revealing interviews, manages to put it into context. Plenty of interesting clips and snippets or archival footage gives you a great idea of what this stuff is all about and Kino's DVD offers it all up in a nice presentation with some solid extras too. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.