By Don Simpson | April 24, 2011
Director: Céline Danhier
To be perfectly honest, I could probably just recycle my review of Downtown Calling and re-title it Blank City. Both documentaries adeptly cover almost the exact same timeline of Lower East Side history and they share a similar balance of talking head interviews (with some of the exact same heads, in fact) and archival footage. The only difference is that Downtown Calling focuses on the art and music scenes, while Blank City focuses on the underground film community. The only real striking difference is the lack of narration in Blank City (Deborah Harry narrates Downtown Calling).
And just as the art and music scenes of the L.E.S. were incredibly diverse — with only vague overarching commonalities that could possibly define them as cohesive communities — so too was the film community. The filmmakers all shot on Super 8 film, repeatedly “go[ing] over the boundaries of millimeters”, and they worked with no budgets (apparently as soon as budgets became a part of a filmmaker’s lexicon, he/she was promptly exiled). Otherwise, there was no binding style or creed; some filmmakers were political, some confrontational, some experimental, some neo-realistic, some cinéma vérité, some all of the above. There were two distinct yet concurrent cinematic movements to come out of the L.E.S. in the mid-to-late 1970s: “No Wave Cinema” and “Cinema of Transgression”; at the risk of over-simplifying, the latter was more about shock, taking many of its cues from horror and snuff films as well as John Waters. No Wave arguably began with Amos Poe’s The Blank Generation, his Jack Smith-inspired homage to CBGB’s most revered acts. (Poe offers a priceless story about the editing of the film.) Actor/musician John Lurie provides a good explanation for No Wave’s inbred rebellious spirit: “No one was doing what they knew how to do… Technique was hated. Musicians were painting, painters were making music and films…”
The filmmakers showcased in Blank City (to name a few: Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, John Lurie, Vincent Gallo, Steve Buscemi, Eric Mitchell, Glenn Branca, Lizzie Borden, Scott and Beth B, Charlie Ahearn, Nick Zedd and Amos Poe) lived in a L.E.S. that was riddled with economic hardships. The landscape became a mecca for poor, struggling artists (you know, “freaks and crazy people”). They thrived off of the surrounding turmoil; just as their resulting films play as a reaction to the devastation and danger. (They were reacting to external factors — Cold War, gay rights, class warfare, conservatism, Ford Administration — as well.) You might even say that the dilapidated and deserted urban landscape — which resembled a bombed-out post-WWII Europe or a post apocalyptic city from a science fiction film — became a central character in the narratives. It goes without saying — but to stress the point, I will say it anyway — these films could have never been made in a post-gentrified L.E.S.
If Downtown Calling‘s raison d’etre is the archival footage of rare live music performances, reason numero uno to see Blank City is the sheer menagerie of both rare and popular No Wave and Cinema of Transgression films, including Bette Gordon’s Variety, Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds and Alphabet City, and Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style.