Blank City: Movie Review

A well-researched celebration of No Wave cinema in all its grainy super 8 glory.

Céline Danhier’s debut focuses on the loosely defined No Wave movement.

There’s been no shortage of films about the era, and the music scene, centered on CBGB, has been much chronicled. Focusing on the loosely defined No Wave movement -- guerrilla moviemaking that took place in a nearly bankrupt New York’s desolate streets and abandoned buildings -- Blank City may not be groundbreaking, but it’s vibrant and well researched. With its ample excerpts from rarely seen films, Céline Danhier’s debut documentary, which screened at AFI Fest, is a natural for continued festival exposure and select art-house playdates.

Telling her story chronologically, from the first impulsive experiments with (possibly stolen) 8mm cameras to Nick Zedds Reagan Era-defying Cinema of Transgression, Danhier intercuts archival material with contemporary interviews. Many of the scene’s key players spoke with the filmmaker, and though they’re compelling subjects, the doc begins to feel like a choppily organized essay.

Familiar faces include Jim Jarmusch, Deborah Harry, John Lurie, Ann Magnuson (serene beside a Buddha, commenting on the city’s frenetic energy) and Steve Buscemi (seen clowning eloquently in his first feature, The Way It Is, which co-starred Mark Boone Junior and Vincent Gallo). Many will be pleased to see that Lydia Lunch, offering bracingly forthright commentary, hasn’t mellowed. The first person to film her, Vivienne Dick, is one of the untrained auteurs looking back at the period’s cross-pollination of music, film and art. As Lurie notes, “Nobody was doing what they knew how to do.”

They learned as they worked. Among such filmmakers as Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Lizzie Borden and Susan Seidelman (the first No Wave director invited to Cannes), there’s no unifying style, other than a seat-of-the-pants DIY approach and the evocative use of locations in the crumbling landscape of the Lower East Side -- one of the most potent elements in the chosen clips.

The ability to live cheaply -- albeit amid filth and danger -- was a crucial factor in the flourishing of an artistic community. Danhier never loses sight of the social terrain, bringing the narrative through the devastation of AIDS and the aggressive evictions that made way for gentrification. Though it might have been more streamlined or better paced, Blank City is a well-informed portrait of cinema that was truly independent -- unfettered by careerism or notions of marketability.

A Pure Fragment production in association with Submarine Entertainment
Director: Céline Danhier
Producers: Aviva Wishnow, Vanessa Roworth
Executive producers: Josh Braun, Dan Braun, Andrew Karsch, Fisher Stevens, Erik H. Gordon
Directors of photography: Ryo Murakami, Peter Szollosi
Co-producers: Anish Savjani, Vincent Savino, Sabine Rogers, April R. Loutrel
Editor: Vanessa Roworth
No rating, 95 minutes