Urban Renaissance, by David Bax
There’s no denying that New York City in the mid to late 1970’s was a culturally important time and place, perhaps among the most important of the 20th century. Independent and artful rock music would not exist in the way that we know it if it weren’t for the things happening there and then. The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and so forth are the nexus of most of the popular music worth talking about in the decades since.
It seems perfectly obvious that a strong artistic current flowing through a group of people wouldn’t be limited to only one form of expression. We already know, for instance, that Jean-Michel Basquiat was working at the same time and friends with the same people as the bands listed above. Blank City, a new documentary, uncovers another overlapping art world from this fabled time. While the future of music was being kicked off, bold and new voices in filmmaking were also making their mark, both alongside and entwined with the rock scene.
This scene – and this film – includes some people who have gone on to great fame (Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Vincent Gallo), some notable names that enthusiasts are already familiar with (Susan Seidelman, Glenn O’Brien, Lydia Lunch) and some very interesting characters you’ve likely never heard of (James Chance, Nick Zedd, Patti Astor) along with many, many more. Gathering this many witnesses and participants is very helpful in giving a detailed and textured account of the scene at the time, even occasionally being able to describe changes from month to month. Where the director, first-timer Celine Danhier, comes through is in keeping the testimonials and the testifiers from getting too misty-eyed and nostalgic. Blank City does a good job of relating the importance of the era without exaggerating it into some sort of epochal event in human history.
Where the film does stumble, though this may just be a matter of taste, is in contextualizing. While it’s probably true that this was a highly insular scene, no place and time exists in a vacuum. The story leaves this few square miles of the Lower East Side very rarely. Even a mention Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation being screened uptown is like a venture into another world. The few references to President Reagan being elected are a shock to the system, when his feel-good “morning in America” presence is juxtaposed with Lunch and Richard Kern’s film Fingered. Sadly, there’s not enough of that sort of thing. For a movement whose tendrils of influence would reach into the mainstream, there’s very little evidence of it in this movie.
A quick search on Amazon shows me that a lot of the films mentioned here, many of which I haven’t seen and plenty of which I hadn’t even heard of, are available on DVD. But a lot of them aren’t. I hope this documentary makes a mark and gets some attention, not only because it’s good but because a renewed interest might get some of these films onto screens, either big or small. Until that day comes, at least take the opportunity to see Blank City on some kind of screen. It’s fun and it’s funny and it will make you wish you yourself lived in more interesting times.