Blank City

Blank City

Patti Astor in Eric Mitchell's film Underground USA, featured in BLANK CITY, a film by Celine Danhier.

Blank City (2010/2011)

Opened: 04/06/2011 Limited

IFC Center04/08/2011 - 05/19/201142 days
Cinema Village...05/20/2011 - 05/26/20117 days
Kendall Square...05/20/2011 - 05/26/20117 days
The Nuart05/27/2011 - 06/02/20117 days

Trailer: Click for trailers

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: Unrated


Before HD there was Super 8. Before Independent Film there was Underground Cinema. And before New York there was... well, New York. Once upon a pre-Facebook time, before creative communities became virtual and viral, cultural movements were firmly grounded in geography. And the undisputed center of American--some would say international--art and film was New York City. In particular, downtown Manhattan in the late 1970's and 80's was the anchor of vanguard filmmaking.

BLANK CITY tells the long-overdue tale of the motley crew of renegade filmmakers that emerged from an economically bankrupt and dangerous period of New York history. It's a fascinating look at the way this misfit cinema used the deserted, bombed-out Lower East Side landscapes to craft daring works that would go on to profoundly influence Independent Film today. Unlike the much-celebrated punk music scene, this era's thrilling and confrontational underground film movement has never before been chronicled.

Directed by French newcomer Celine Danhier, BLANK CITY captures the idiosyncratic, explosive energy of the "No Wave Cinema" and "Cinema of Transgression" movements. Stark and provocative, the films drew name and inspiration from the French New Wave; as well as Film Noir, and the works of Andy Warhol and John Waters. Filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mitchell, Beth B, Charlie Ahearn, Lizzie Borden and Amos Poe showcased the city's vibrant grit, and bore witness to the rising East Village art and rock scenes and the birth of hip hop. Short, long, color or black-and-white, their stripped-down films portrayed themes of alienation and dissonance with a raw and genuine spirit, at times with deadpan humor or blurring lines between fiction and reality. From Amos Poe's enigmatic The FOREIGNER to James Nares' comedic ROME 78 to Beth B & Scott B's political BLACK BOX -- the No Wave Movement was as varied as it was lively.

Made on shoestring budgets, in collaboration with the pioneering musicians as well as visual artists, performers, and derelicts that ruled Downtown, No Wave films are the documents of this community--and of a legendary-butfleeting moment in history. Although several filmmakers later gained fame with more accessible Indie offerings such as Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman and Steve Buscemi, the volatile, fast and furious No Wave Cinema itself burned out quickly.

Breaking onto the scene in 1984, "Cinema of Transgression" auteurs Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Tommy Turner, and Casandra Stark incorporated the harsher realities of sex, violence and drugs into their films. Drawing from the legacy of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, the Cinema of Transgression manifesto heralded shock value and outlandish humor to attack political, sexual and aesthetic mores. The film titles alone, including Go to Hell, Submit to Me Now, or They Eat Scum, conjure graphic immediacy. The Wall Street Journal denounced the movement, and theatres banned the films. When these works screened outside New York, they were frequently met with protest, and occasionally confiscated. Once the Cinema of Transgression had gained notice and notoriety, the movement rapidly disintegrated, torn apart by jealousy, resentment, and recklessness.

Time Out calls BLANK CITY a "who's who primer" for the last 30 years of Downtown culture. Danhier crafts an oral history of No Wave Cinema and the Cinema of Transgression through compelling interviews with the luminaries who began it all. Featured players include acclaimed directors Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, actor-writer-director triple threat Steve Buscemi, Blondie's Debbie Harry, Hip Hop legend Fab 5 Freddy, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Fittingly, the punk rock that galvanized the scene is now the soundtrack to BLANK CITY: Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Contortions, The Bush Tetras, and Sonic Youth.

BLANK CITY is a love letter to New York, a cultural portrait of Manhattan in the days of cheap rent and cheap drugs-- before Reagan, big money, and gentrification forever altered the fabric of the city. With ample footage from seminal, seldom-seen works of No Wave Cinema and the Cinema of Transgression, it is an homage to the filmmakers who made Downtown a breeding ground for the avant-garde. Though a look back, the heart of BLANK CITY does not live in the past, it is utterly contemporary. In this new age of digital democracy, the maverick spirit of the New York Underground has risen again. The Do-It-Yourself ethos, audacious storytelling, and sense of urgency guiding No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression are more relevant and inspiring than ever.

Interview with Celine Danhier

Q: What captivated you about this subject?

CD: I always have been fascinated with New York. When I was very young and living in Paris, I first discovered New York when watching Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS. The city seemed so strange and so dark and also so attractive. So, I always felt drawn to New York of that time.

Gradually I became familiar with the music scene, the no wave bands and the punk scene but I still wasn't really aware of the underground movies made in New York from the late 70's, and onwards. Except Jim Jarmusch's early films I knew of but that was about it. When I started to see some of the movies at a chance screening in Paris of an Amos Poe or Eric Mitchell film, it only made me more curious about the films of this era. And I would find many of the musicians I already knew and loved either acted in the films or made the soundtracks or even directed the films themselves. But it was very difficult to locate the films and so I knew I had to find out more.

Once I moved to New York, I hunted down more films and the more I saw the more, I felt inspired. These films had a brutal sincerity that captured not only the landscape of NY and some of the music from the period I was looking for, but also a certain spirit, an energy. The filmmakers weren't using actors but real people and they were improvising from scripts and designing their sets and making their clothes. It was this energy that I think really made me want to go out and make my own film--- BLANK CITY.

And, these films did also launch the careers of some of my favorite independent film icons, such as Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi, as well as created this alternative idea to Hollywood filmmaking in terms of financing, production or distribution. But I do think it's really that energy, that attitude of creativity with no boundaries that will hopefully inspire future filmmakers to come.

Q: What inspired the style and format of your documentary?

CD: I wanted the people in the film to tell the story their own way and the way they lived it. Initially the idea was to make a film in the style of Legs McNeil's book "Please Kill Me". As the Director, I would just help weave the stories together and in a sense, put the puzzle pieces in place.

When making the documentary, first and foremost, I really loved the free form style of a lot of these movies, almost blurring that line between fiction and documentary. James Nares' Rome '78 or Eric Mitchell's Underground USA really helped me get into that state of mind. While BLANK CITY is a bit different being a documentary, I wanted the visuals to be very loose and free flowing to capture that energy. Also, I looked back at other documentary films that I've always loved like Godard's Sympathy for the Devil or F for Fake from Orson Wells.

I wanted to try to keep that attitude of the period but also help to introduce some of these filmmakers, artists and musicians to hopefully a wider audience. It was such a unique period in NY because there were just so many art forms happening at once - not to mention personalities like Basquiat, Warhol, Jack Smith, Keith Haring or even Madonna - and a lot of really inspiring music, art, writing and film came out of that. You could never cover all of it in one film, but I was hoping to bring to light one of the lesser known aspects of that period which was the filmmaking. And through the filmmaking I think you get a great sense of what it was like to be a youthful creative personality at that time.

Q: How did you research the film?

CD: The film has been about 2 and a half years in the making. It took time because there were so many people I wanted to interview. We actually ended up interviewing 40 people by the end. When I started out, I didn't have any production company behind the film, there was just one American Express card and a lot of determination. We were all also working full time jobs during the week.

So, over the course of two years, we interviewed people like Jim Jarmusch, James Nares, Eric Mitchell (who was very hard to find!), Sara Driver, Vivienne Dick, James Chance, Steve Buscemi, Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, John Waters, Thurston Moore, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Charlie Ahearn and more! We wanted to interview as many people as we could find so we could really tell an accurate story. Sometimes I would interview somebody, and they'd lead me to the next person and say, "hey you should talk to Bette Gordon or James Nares" -- and then they'd give me a phone number or email address. I let the documentary unfold in that way, kind of organically.

To help figure out who to interview in the first place and which films would be best to include, I had read Jack Sargeant's book "Deathtripping" about the Cinema of Transgression filmmaking movement and he appears in my documentary as well. As we were working on the film, books started to get published and come out that related to the topic - like Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's book on No Wave. The books would be more focused on the music but there'd always be some mention of the films too. Also, we were lucky to get access to some great resources in New York, like Jonas Mekas' Anthology Film Archives or the NYU Fales Library.

Q: What film clips and music did you use?

CD: We tried to find films that really represented the period. And for music it was the same idea. But what was so unique about these films and the music is that even though there might have been a shared aesthetic or a do-it-yourself attitude and lack of technique -- they were all very different. So I tried to include some of the short films, the feature films, some that were black & white and some in color. Some of the movies had more of a narrative while some were much more loose. Some of the music was very noisy or very dance-y. So, I really wanted to represent a cross section and show all the variety.

Through making this film, I have constantly been introduced to new films and also music from the period. I was a huge fan of James Chance and the Contortions, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, the Bush Tetras, Patti Smith, etc. Then, I discovered others like Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca or imPLOG which was really exciting.

Dan Selzer, who became the music supervisor on the documentary, is definitely an expert in the music of the period (he's a DJ and also runs the Acute Record Label) and he helped introduce me to a lot of new stuff. One thing I particularly like about all of the music was the diversity of sound that you get. This was also the time that Hip Hop first emerged and then you have disco or electronic music mixing with punk -- as well as the noisier more minimal no wave stuff - but they all have that same raw energy.

Q: What was your process in creating the documentary?

CD: I moved to New York a few years ago (my brother was already living here) and it was only after a couple weeks I realized I wanted to make this film. I was very lucky because I quickly met my producer / co-conspirator Aviva Wishnow and then I met Vanessa Roworth -- who is a very gifted editor, musician and artist and together we got to work. Although I had to go back to Paris for a while, from France I actually was able to begin tracking down the people I eventually interviewed in BLANK CITY.

Although New York has changed a lot since the "No Wave" or "Cinema of Transgression" film movements, we kept the same filmmaking philosophy as much as possible -- doing everything very collaboratively and on the fly with no money. Today though, the "Do it Yourself"' sensibility is completely tied up with the economic factors of living in NY so filmmaking is much more of a struggle. Some days it would be so hard to find a crew when there was no money. But, if you have the passion for it, I think you can do it and find a way even if it does take a couple years and you have to hold down several day jobs in the meantime.

And, I was also able to do it because of all the digital technology around us. Editing and picking up HD cameras now is easier and cheaper than ever. It almost mirrors the way the filmmakers in my documentary picked up Super 8 cameras.

Q: Do you think the energetic, experimental and arty New York of the late 70s still exists? Where can it be found today?

CD: Today, New York is a place where art becomes a great struggle to create because it's simply so expensive to live here. Perhaps that struggle creates something better. Who's to say? The "DIY" sensibility still exists but is completely tied to the economic reality. A lot of people have found a way moving further and further out into Brooklyn or other boroughs.

But, I do think that some cities, like Berlin or Detroit, are simply cheaper to live and that helps create an inherent ability to create and a different kind of attitude. The title BLANK CITY to me is about that very idea. The documentary might start off being about a kind of punk "blank generation" specifically in New York City where anything could happen, but, in the end, I actually see the documentary as being a story about creativity and collaboration that could have happened or might still happen in any city -- like a blank slate. The title almost refers to a fill-in-the-blank location. Perhaps Kansas City. Or Mexico City. Who knows? The momentum and passion for film or art or music can happen anywhere around the world -- just as long as there's that sense of urgency.