Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 20 May 2011
Source DVD screener
Director Céline Danhier’s Blank City resonates nicely with Beautiful Darling, James Rasin’s fine new documentary about Warhol superstar Candy Darling. Both films take place in a bygone New York City, the rundown metropolis that acted as a magnet for outcasts both during Warhol’s time and at the dawn of punk rock. Blank City focuses mainly on so-called “No Wave” cinema (a term coined not by the No Wave filmmakers themselves, but by Jim Hoberman of The Village Voice), a punk era movement consisting of knowingly amateurish films from directors like Beth and Scott B, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, and – perhaps most famously – Jim Jarmusch. Yet while cinema is the main focus, Blank City acknowledges the incestuous relationship of the art, film, and music worlds in New York at the time, and works hard to evoke the spirit of the entire era.
There are two main drawing cards here. First of all, there are the stories. The film features standard talking head interviews with many of the movement’s key players, and they share highly entertaining tales of the sometimes-criminal lengths that they would go to get a movie made. There are multiple references to purchasing hot cameras – or stealing equipment outright – and there was certainly no one shooting with a permit. The young filmmakers were fueled by drugs and ambition – Amos Poe casually notes that he and Ivan Král “took some speed” and spliced together The Blank Generation, a 1976 music documentary featuring a wealth of live footage from CBGB – and they vividly describe a time when they were making art under intense budgetary restrictions but with limitless artistic freedom.
Secondly – and perhaps more exciting to many – Blank City offers access to a wealth of clips of hard-to-find films like James Nares’ Rome ‘78 or Vivienne Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast. Highlights include sightings of a very young Steve Buscemi in his first feature, Eric Mitchell’s The Way it Is; and New Wave Opera star Klaus Nomi (himself the subject of a compelling documentary in Andrew Horn’s The Nomi Song) brandishing a gun and a sneer in Anders Grafstrom’s The Long Island Four. For casual viewers, Blank City may trigger an interest in the more easily accessible titles that are excerpted: Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise, Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown ‘81. The film stuffs its relatively brief running time (just over ninety minutes) with a dizzying array of clips and perhaps too many laundry lists of key names, but the overall effect is more intriguing than overwhelming.
It’s true that there is a certain irony intrinsic to projects like Blank City, those that document and indeed institutionalize movements that sought to bring down institutionalized ways of thinking and creating. I recently gazed at the shelves in the music section of one of my favorite bookstores, and they were filled with chronicles of punk rock and other rebellions long since past. I wasn’t sure whether to pick one up or back slowly away. But while some viewers may fret over Blank City’s contradictory nature, others will surely find it a welcome primer in a magnetically disreputable and influential corner of American film, and still others might see it as a call to action. Blank City is the kind of film that could make a viewer want to pick up a camera—stolen or otherwise.