Jim Jarmusch on NYC's No Wave Cinema of the 1970s:
The inspirational thing was people doing it
In this continuing series devoted to reviewing motion pictures ideal for this season of celebration and gift giving, here is KLYMKIW CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEA 2012 #8: The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of BLANK CITY, a terrific documentary ode to the beginnings of New York Underground cinema during the punk and new wave period. A perfect gift for the celebration of Baby Jesus H. Christ.
DEBBIE HARRY: OUR LIVES,
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Blank City is such an immersive, joyous and always thrilling movie experience that a little part of me hopes that audiences not as obsessed with movies, queer culture and punk as I am will get as much pleasure out of it as I did. I think they will, but probably in different ways. The converted will feel like they've died and gone to Heaven while others will either wish their most formative years as young people had been during the late 60s, 70s and a smidgen of the early 80s or, at the least, they'll come away with a new appreciation for the beginnings of truly DIY cinema and the sheer joy from living as art and art as living.
Director Celine Dahnier and Producer/Editor Vanessa Roworth weave a thoroughly entertaining narrative with a tight three-act structure (beginnings, heydays, end of days), truly inspiring, informative interviews and lots of great clips (with driving music that propels us with considerable force).
We hear and see a lot of Amos Poe - and so we should. Poe is, for many, the Godfather, the spirit, the soul of the entire movement of underground filmmaking in New York - coined by the great film critic Jim Hoberman as "No Wave". Poe describes his early beginnings as a photographer and tells a great story about visiting relatives in Czechoslovakia and how he eventually journeyed deep into "Dracula Country" within the Carpathian Mountains to surreptitiously "steal the souls" of superstitious rural country-folk with a long lens.
Returning to New York after Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to assert their Totalitarian power, Poe, like so many young people in America, especially artists, was ultimately gobsmacked by the sheer devastation within his country. The assassinations of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, the seemingly endless Vietnam War, the lies and corruption of government, the civil unrest, wholesale murder and assaults upon Americans, on American soil by Americans.
In Canada, we felt much of the same strife in other ways - firstly as a trickle-up effect from our neighbours south of the 49th parallel, but secondly, the more insidiously and subtly creepy manner in which the Canadian Government preyed on its most vulnerable, its intelligentsia, its First Nation Peoples, its Queers, its artists and anyone not subscribing to the Status Quo.
Artists Ann Magnuson and James Nares respectively note how punk rock was an ideal response to the remnants of post-war Leave It To Beaver blandness that permeated America, clutching on to control for dear life and emitting death gasps that seemed to signal something all together new waiting in the wings. What this movement became was something that the young artists of New York embraced with a fervour (a "fuck you" movement/scene that, in its own way was happening in Canada at the same time in direct conflict with reigning Protestantism in Toronto and backwards, insular midwestern homogeneity in Winnipeg.)
Amos Poe spent endless nights hanging in bars where friends like Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, Wayne County, Debbie Harry and Television played (initially) in obscurity, save for the "scene" in New York. Poe had long since abandoned his first loves, still cameras and the 8mm home movie camera and hung in these joints shooting the bands on silent black and white 16mm and record their music (not synched, of course) on cassette tape.
Out of this came Poe's highly influential Blank Generation. Once he had all the footage, he needed to edit it. He rented an editing room from the Maysles Brothers (Gimme Shelter) for $40, but was only allowed one straight 24-hour period to cut the film. Poe fuelled himself with speed, cut for 24-hours, then premiered the film the next night at the famed punk bar CBGBs.
From here, underground filmmaking in New York exploded and this was TRULY underground. It had nothing to do with the equally cool, but snobby artistes amongst the experimental film crowd, this was a wave of cinema created out of the punk movement and sought to capture the energy of the "scene", but to also tell stories and, of course, with virtually no money.
They wrote the rules and broke the rules.
The city was bankrupt, and the lower East Side of New York looked like a blasted-out war zone. Whole buildings stood empty and while most "sane" people left NYC, the "freaks" stayed and even more descended upon it.
People wanted to make movies. They had no money, but this mattered not. They made them anyway. James Nares describes how artists could, for virtually nothing, secure astounding digs that served as studios: "We lived like itinerant kings in these broken down palaces." This truly became the antithesis to Hollywood and the mainstream. In fact, there was almost the sense that the Lower East Side WAS a movie studio, but with absolutely nobody in charge.
Blank City blasts through these glorious days and it's so much fun that you as an audience member hope, unrealistically, for it not to end. After all, the movie is a Who's Who of great filmmaking talent. Steve Buscemi seems to be in almost every movie, John Lurie not only makes music, but makes movies. Scott and Beth B, Lizzie Borden, Sara Driver, Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern are but a few of those who flourished here (and are expertly interviewed by the documentary's filmmakers).
And, an end to all good things must come. Blank City reveals how the neighbourhood becomes gentrified and the lives led in a particular place and time are altered forever - as are the films. Some stay, others move on. What doesn't change is that for a glorious time, a scene of talented young people raged against the machine and made movies that captured a way of life and (both the filmmakers and their films) happily live on to influence and inform new generations.
If anything, Blank City is proof positive that Waves in filmmaking (or any great art) cannot be manufactured. They must come from the lifestyle, the gut, the artistry and invention of young passionate artists who find each other, support each other, make movies WITH each other, FOR each other and in so doing create a unique and indelible stamp upon the greatest magic of all.
The magic of movies.
Blank City makes an especially great gift for filmmakers, film lovers and/or old punks. Anyone who makes movies, cares about movies and can't live without movies must see and own this film. More importantly, after seeing it, do whatever you have to do to see the movie that started it all, Poe's Blank Generation and after you see that, dig up as many of the rest as you can. They make for great viewing. Blank City on Blu-Ray, looks and sounds GREAT. The disc is also chock-full of some superb supplementals. It's via Kino-Lorber.