Although it’s an unfortunate turn of phrase given the era, the best way to describe the documentary “Blank City” is still as something of a gateway drug when it comes to the late ’70s, early ’80s underground film scene in New York. It’s easy to tell this since it’s obvious French director Celine Danhier recreates her own experience of discovering the no-budget avant garde movement known as “No Wave” cinema in her documentary, presenting one snippet of rare footage after another, teasing the audience with clips of Michael Holman’s self-descriptive “Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ” and Charlie Ahearn’s groundbreaking hip-hop flick “Wild Style” and having such personalities as Deborah Harry and Steve Buscemi talk about what a wild and crazy time it was.
It’s the shortcoming of “Blank City” that it isn’t as adventurous in mirroring the era the film documents, settling into a style where the era’s survivors talk about the crazy things that happened in the usual talking head format at a remove in new interviews, but when you have alternative culture iconoclasts like Richard Hell, Nick Zedd and Jim Jarmusch onhand, it’s still enough to keep things lively, especially when they’re placed next to clips of a woman pounding a nail into her head in Vivienne Dick’s “Guerillere Talks” or “The Long Island Four,” the late Anders Grafstrom’s film about Nazis who make their way to America.
The title, of course, is a reference to Hell’s punk band The Voidoids’ song “Blank Generation” and the film of the same name that inspired in 1980. As it’s repurposed by Dahnier, it suggests the bombed out Lower East Side of Manhattan as a canvas on which filmmakers, locked arm in arm with the vibrant music and art scenes that were simultaneously going on, were allowed to express themselves freely and created a body of work that would ultimately prove influential as well as unusually important anthropologically, as films like the Jean-Michel Basquiat starrer “Downtown 81” and Richard Kern’s walking tour “Goodbye 42nd Street” captured the economically plagued area gave way to artistic experimentation.
At first, “Blank City” feels as though it’s going to chronicle everything, which would be unnecessary since recently there’s been a wave of documentaries about the era such as “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” and “Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB” that have covered similar territory while concentrating on one medium, though ultimately “Blank City” wisely does the same. Out of the clips and interviews emerges a fascinating history of how a group of radical filmmakers were able to beg, borrow and steal equipment and film stock to create content and distribute it themselves through the New Cinema on St. Marks, director Becky Johnston’s makeshift video theater that would show the films nearly moments after they were shot. And though the films were tossed off quickly after being produced, they were thought through as reactions to what the filmmakers saw in mainstream cinema, rectifying gender and racial imbalance and not afraid to be overtly political.
There’s no doubt it was difficult for Dahnier to track down many of the films today, which is part of “Blank City”‘s great appeal, as much if not more so than tales of how Jarmusch dragged houseguest Basquiat under the frame to keep him out of “Permanent Vacation” or Zedd making an autobiographical film about his ex-girlfriend Lydia Lunch dumping him starring the actress as herself. While that may be frustrating for those who want to delve deeper into “No Wave” cinema, it’s almost appropriate that even in a history of such a transient cinematic movement, you’re only treated to brief glimpses.
“Blank City” is now open in New York before opening on May 6th in Denver and Chicago.