WHILE THERE HAVE BEEN numerous films celebrating the musical class of ’77—beginning with The Blank Generation, Amos Poe and Ivan Kral’s 1976 New York punk documentary that lends Blank City its name—the concurrent eruption of underground cinema (often made by and with the same downtown artists) has remained unexplored in its own medium. French first-time director Celine Danhier—former Sorbonne law student and member of La Compagnie Vapeur, an avant-garde theater group—seeks to fill this cinematic lacuna with this thorough, entertaining doc. Sampling liberally from little-seen No Wave and Cinema of Transgression films by Poe, James Nares, Beth and Scott B, Bette Gordon, Eric Mitchell, Lizzie Borden, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn, Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Richard Kern, and Casandra Stark, among others, and constructing an oral history using recent interviews with all relevant living participants, Blank City effectively evokes the bombed-out SoHo and Lower East Side of the late ’70s and the pungent, scummy artistic ferment that spawned both punk rock and what has come to be know as “independent film” in this country.
French New Wave, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Warhol’s films, and the early films of John Waters all laid the groundwork for No Wave cinema, in which artist-hipsters armed with cheap Super 8 cameras launched an incestuous, collaborative, creatively promiscuous movement based on DIY resourcefulness, proud amateurism, and arty attempts at narrative. As musician/actor/director John Lurie puts it, “No one was doing what they knew how to do. Painters were in bands; musicians were making art or films.” The young Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are frequent cast members in the films, all part of the glorious social-aesthetic cluster-fuck of the era.
Responding to the reactionary mood of Reaganite America, Zedd, Lunch, Kern, Stark, and others began in 1984 to make more brutally confrontational gutter films that trafficked in extreme sex and violence, dubbed the Cinema of Transgression after a pseudonymously penned manifesto by Zedd. The merits of some of these films are dubious, but recalling the cultural repressiveness of the ’80s, they seem in retrospect a necessary corrective. Beyond fueling the “mondo video” tape-trading network of the ’80s and early ’90s, one of the lasting legacies of the Cinema of Transgression is, for better or worse, alt-pornography. No Lydia Lunch, no Suicide Girls—or American Apparel.
Also on offer at the Tribeca Film Festival is a rare screening of Variety, a 1983 narrative feature by Bette Gordon that may be the first cultural artifact of “sex-positive” feminism. Scripted by experimental novelist Kathy Acker, Variety exposes the limitations of No Wave aesthetics when given proper equipment and something resembling a budget. Often ploddingly dull, the film is a ham-handed attempt at making a moody ’70s noir in the mode of The Conversation with (mostly) amateur actors and uninspired color cinematography. Following midwestern nice girl Sandy McLeod’s sexual self-discovery after she takes a job as a box-office clerk at a sleazy Times Square porn theater, the film is occasionally enlivened by the young Luis Guzmán (playing the theater manager) and the presence of photographer Nan Goldin (in a no-nonsense role as McLeod’s friend). I’m willing to bet that the abrupt, plug-pulling ending was due to the producers running out of funds and thinking they could spin it as some Antonioni-esque narrative strategy. As Blank City proves, sometimes the legend of the underground scene plays better than the work itself.
Blank City plays Monday, April 27 at 1:30 PM and Friday, May 1 at 6 PM at AMC Village VII in New York; Variety plays Wednesday, April 29, at 5 PM at the SVA Theater in New York. For more details, click here.