Home Video Hovel- Blank City
“There was something important happening” — we just didn’t realize it. Much like many documentaries about art, film and music movements, Blank City uses this temperament to describe the budding underground film collective of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Producing such artists as Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Steve Buschemi, John Waters, Debbie Harry (and many other artists vitally important to the movement that you’ve probably never heard of), the “No Wave” movement was a major precursor to today’s independent film culture. This documentary describes its history through an impressive amount of archive film footage and talking head anecdotes of its major players. The film should be viewed very much as a 100-level crash course in the people, films and topics surrounding the movement — never going into great detail and painting with a pretty broad brush.
This is both to the film’s advantage and its detriment. By moving quickly it is able to reach a variety of topics including (but not limited to): drug culture, the presence of New York City, the work of women in the movement, death, the fight against Conservatism, censorship, AIDS, success, etc. There were a number of times where I wanted the film to stop for a second and talk a little more about a particular subject, but the film doesn’t seem interested in full exploration. The results are pretty rambly. Though the documentary touches upon specific films (mostly toward the end), much of the narration sets up the world of New York City at the time of this work. The film cleverly uses the films that were produced to supplement the stories, making it incredibly clear how personal these films were to the artists. This also allows for a remarkable document of New York, which looks shockingly different than today. As one talking head put it, “All [of the films] were about New York, even when they were about ancient Rome.”
It is quite strange to see a film about such a radical group of film artist presented in such a safe, by-the-number way. Personally, I would have loved to see the filmmaker explore the subjects in a way truer to the art it is exploring. Interestingly, the younger versions of the talking heads would never had accepted this look at themselves. Perhaps, though, it is their age and the distance we have from the politics and opinions of the time that makes this possible. I get the idea that no one involved with the movement would have been able to fully understand their significance at the time and probably would have been too confrontational or stubborn to participate in any such document.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to Blank City is that it made me appreciate and have more interest in a lot of films I would otherwise have no interest in (on the soft end) or outright hate (on the harsh end). And though I know a good deal about some of the figures that came out of this collective, seeing their gives perspective to their work in the years that followed. I also commend the film in taking all of the work seriously — it treats a very well-regarded film like Stranger Than Paradise on the same level as a short film about cockroaches. From this sentiment, you can see community that existed around these people and these films. Unlike many film movements throughout the history of cinema, “No Wave” wasn’t necessarily about a certain genre, aesthetic or film style. It certainly wasn’t about who became rich or famous off of the work. It was about a certain time and place and it didn’t matter if you were talented, as long as you were bold.
Being a fairly modest documentary, it’s not surprising that there aren’t many special features on the Blu-Ray and DVD. Included is a short interview with director Celine Danhier, who talks about her interest in the subject and how she became involved in making the documentary. There are also a number of deleted and extended scenes (40 minutes in total) which touch upon even more random topics surrounding the subjects — just in case you hadn’t gotten quite enough.