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Cinematography by Ryo Murakami and Peter Szollosi
Edited by Vanessa Roworth
USA, 2011, Insurgent Releasing, digital, color and B&W, 94 min.
Celine Danhier’s groundbreaking BLANK CITY chronicles the rise and collapse of the Super 8 cinematic movement known as No Wave. In the mid-1970s New York City was bankrupt and the streets were overrun with crime and drugs. President Ford refused to fund a bailout for the city, and nihilism seemed to rule the night. The cheapest area for apartment rentals in Manhattan remained the East Village (Alphabet City westward to the Bowery, 14th St. southward to Houston St.). It was there that young artists began fashioning new ways of creating music, art, theater, literature, performance, and finally film. Angry proto-punk music was thriving, quickly joined by the chillier New Wave and a myriad of New York-centric jazz and sound explorations. The aesthetic was simple: play something even if you don’t know how to play an instrument, sing even if you can’t carry a tune. Just do something, create something, and show it/play it in a storefront or basement. Paint, write, have a band – all seemed possible for each individual.
With the same sensibility, artists picked up Super 8mm cameras (sometimes stolen or bought on the black market) and began filming 3-4 minute scenes, the length of a cartridge of film. Unlike the traditional Avant Garde cinema of the 40s and 50s or the endless Warhol explorations of boredom, these younger cineastes wanted to make narrative films. They were influenced by the works of Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Jack Smith, all of whom “told stories” of a sort, but these newer films would be edgier because of the darkening times. Following Godard’s example of using available lighting and handheld cameras, they created mini-narratives about events in their lives, starring their friends and using local settings. They shot without permits and without restrictions in subject matter or imagery. Super 8 film cassettes were relatively cheap (cheaper, if stolen) and available at (legitimate) drug stores. It was also a time of “better (illegal) drugs,” and lots of creative ideas were exchanged at Max’s Kansas City (midnight headquarters of the Warhol crowd), CBGB, and the Mudd Club as the decade wore on. The early films were sometimes edited in 24-hour sessions with the help of appropriately named “speed.” With no thoughts of posterity or ambition, these filmmakers showed their films to like-minded artists before rushing on to their next venture.
Many of the prolific No Wave filmmakers remain virtually forgotten today: James Nares, Beth B and Scott B, Michael Oblowitz, Manuel de Landa, Sara Driver, Anders Grafstrom, Vivienne Dick, and Eric Mitchel. Others, who started with Super 8 shorts, eventually became better known as 16mm feature filmmakers, such as Amos Poe (UNMADE BEDS, 1976), Jim Jarmusch (PERMANENT VACATION, 1980), Susan Seidelman (SMITHEREENS, 1982), Bette Gordon (VARIETY, 1983), and Lizzie Borden (BORN IN FLAMES, 1983). Actors such as Steve Buscemi and Vincent Gallo started in No Wave shorts and eventually moved into the independent and mainstream film world.
As Ed Koch began his relentless war against the poor in Manhattan in 1978, followed by the devastation wreaked by Reaganomics in the 1980s, the entire Downtown cultural scene shifted and then teetered. Landlords moved junkies into rent-controlled buildings to drive out the elderly and poor to make way for expensive condos. If that didn’t work, then the buildings were torched for insurance and the rubble replaced by high rises. HIV/AIDS was the final blow, which killed off many so many creative people.
In response to all the horror around them, Nick Zedd and Richard Kern developed the next phase of the No Wave with the Cinema of Transgression. These were more politically radical, more sexual, gorier, even angrier “in your face” films, best described by the title of Zedd’s debut film, “They Eat Scum.” A positive counter-balance to their end of the world nihilism were films by Charlie Ahearn, who explored the burgeoning hip hop scene of the Bronx and Harlem, eventually culminating in his feature narrative/doc WILD STYLE (1983), which revealed the temporary marriage of Downtown and Uptown – when galleries started showcasing graffiti on canvas and inviting b-boys, deejays, and emcees to provide entertainment.
The art world exploded as Wall Street took off on a coke-fueled roll. Street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by then a Warhol protégé, proclaimed: “If you don’t have money, you’re not cool.” Celebrity, glamour, and wealth provided the new mantra. Actor/composer/musician John Lurie says that after that statement by Basquiat, everybody who had been in the No Wave Downtown scene began looking for success, too. Former friends and collaborators began moving in different directions, literally as well as aesthetically. Former values and sensibilities were dropped in favor of a lust for money and fame. MTV arrived on America’s TVs and co-opted many of the styles (visual and editing) of the No Wave. As Jim Jarmusch states that from its inception New York City, as a Dutch trading post and port city, was built on hustling, commerce, trade, and figuring out what can be stolen and resold for a profit.
The No Wave Downtown art scene was a fruitful period. Right in the midst of poverty and desperation, 500-600 young artists created an entirely new sensibility and aesthetic which continues to influence the arts worldwide. Perhaps with the sober economics of the 21st century, a new No Wave is being created, but this time it will be on the Internet. Still, there was something magical about hundreds of young artists all living within walking distance of each other’s apartments, clubs, theaters, and bars, and finding ways to collaborate. Celine Danhier has done a wonderful job of presenting/preserving the history of that era through selections from a host of films and interviews with the survivors. – Chale Nafus