Tribeca Review: Celine Danhier’s Doc on No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression, Blank City

Back in 1977, New York was a city in twain, with equal amounts of kvelling (Downtowners: The drugs and poverty!) and kvetching (Uptowners: The drugs and poverty!). For those of us born after those heady and heterodox times, cultural historian Luc Sante describes the scene in his phenomenal essay, “My Lost City”:

“Aside from the high-intensity blocks of Midtown and the financial district, the place seemed to be inhabited principally by slouchers and loungers, loose-joints vendors and teenage hustlers, panhandlers and site-specific drunks, persons whose fleabags put them out on the street at eight and only permitted reentry at six.”

Alongside this less-than-desired demographic and the ashes from downtown’s rampant arson (“By 1980 Avenue C was a lunar landscape of vacant blocks and hollow tenement shells”) bloomed the No Wave cinema (and its famed, same-named sonic analog), a fiercely independent movement that was Beat-ific in a dual sense — its swashbuckling bliss and its Kerouacian belief that “everything belongs to me because I am poor.”

These anarchic, down-and-out conditions were as key in cultivating the do-you-dare-what-I-dare movement as they are to any art renaissance (later, its less appealing, more extreme offspring, the Cinema of Transgression, rebelled against uptight, Reaganomics America. With Blank City, newcomer Céline Danhier expertly weaves documentary staples — talking heads, archival and obscure Super 8 and 16mm clips (c. 1977-1987; it’s truly encyclopedic in its scope), and a rollicking score (names like Patti Smith, DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, and even Grand Wizard Theodore, with his impossibly catchy “Subway Theme,” thrust the textured montage) — into a rich, absorbing throwback to the era’s l’amour fou with drugs, arty storytelling, outré provocations, and the unbearable hipness of being, well, ____. The title itself nods to Amos Poe’s formative punk showcase Blank Generation, which, in turn, derives from Richard Hell’s number one stunner. But there’s also a link to Naked City: the stories and back stories within have been surprisingly unexamined among the eight million others.

Back then, pooling resources was the loose collective’s m.o. Equipped with black-market Super 8 cameras, everyone collaborated with each other in a demimonde that John Lurie describes, more or less, as an amateur hour (often, the avocation would turn to vocation): “No one was doing what they knew how to do. Painters were in bands; musicians were making art or films.” Indeed, Danhier assembles a crackerjack brigade of eyewitnesses, proving that the Hollywood maxim holds true: if you build them up, they will come. While there’s Debbie Harry, Fab Five Freddy, Thurston Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Lydia Lunch, the interviewed talent remains, by and large, behind-the-camera, figures like bigwig Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Amos Poe, an especially reflective James Nares, feminist Lizzie Borden, B-boy heavy Charlie Ahearn, enfant terrible Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, and Casandra Stark, among many others.

Candidness is the struck keynote: platinum-beauty Harry confesses her erstwhile hankering for movie fame; good ol’ Poe reveals that he edited Blank Generation at the Maysles Brothers’ space over a 24-hour period with the aid of the best assistant in the biz: speed; and Lurie retains his contempt for Basquiat, who basically single-handedly imploded the scene with his infectious cupidity.

Blank City‘s editor Vanessa Roworth especially deserves a shout from the LES rooftops for the sheer amount of material to dice. Throughout, Danhier enlivens the cast’s verbal exposition of the hustling, fend-for-yourself ethos with numerous excerpts of films both seminal and not-so-much: Poe’s Unmade Beds (a no-budget remake of Godard’s Breathless); Ahearn’s exuberant Wild Style, Glenn O’Brien-scripted Downtown 81 (especially notable for trailing Basquiat across the city as he becomes a political sloganeer with a spray can); and several of Nick Zedd’s leftfield shockers with telltale titles like They Eat Scum and Police State. Of course, Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise also came out of this all-for-one scrum.

Whether they premiered in one-room apartments or public access or even the now-extant New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place, many of these culled bits strike one as the visual equivalents of basement tracks: resourceful, yes, but highly personal, brimming with manic energy, at times kitschy, and always with a no-philistines-allowed stamp. Above all, they documented themselves if only to project themselves to the world — even if that flattened world seemed  bounded by the Bowery. You’ll glimpse Lurie in his bed-sheet toga for Nares’ uproarious, Manhattan-imagined period piece, Rome ’78; Buscemi busting a move in another clip; and even a young Vincent Gallo in bed (the more things change, the more the stay the same).

The lament of the inevitable fade — due to the usual ’80s suspects: infighting, drugs, AIDS, money and attendant commercialization, and that beloved, teflon-coated President — becomes a refrain towards the end, although Jarmusch bullishly justifies that “New York was always about hustling, thievery.” Danhier’s scope happens to catch the nascent hip-hop movement descending from Harlem, but it seems hasty; she tries to be too comprehensive. Not that one can fault her effort, as the unhinged energy is contagious even 30 years after the fact, and Danhier’s vital achievement is to revisit (and reintroduce) it with such same-minded verve.

Blank City screens for the final time at Tribeca tomorrow night at 6 p.m. Click here for ticket info.