Catching a Wave

Left: Maripol, Patti Astor. Right: Marcia Resnick, Underground ‘B’ stars of the No Wave – Filmmakers Scott B. and Beth B., artist Diego Cortez, Lydia Lunch, Johnny O’Kane, Bill Rice and Adele Bertei of the Contortions. New York City, 1980. Both images from Céline Danhier, Blank City, 2010.

“YOU WOULDN’T EAT, you’d buy a guitar or a Super 8 camera.” Musician Pat Place’s recollection of the urgency that drove New York’s underground auteurs in the late 1970s and early ’80s encapsulates both the scenesters’ fiercely do-it-yourself ethic and their— perhaps inevitable—tendency to self-mythologize. Blank City, director Céline Danhier’s document of the rough-and-ready style of filmmaking that emerged in conjunction with punk rock and ultimately ballooned into big-budget indie cinema, gives Place and friends plenty of time to indulge this long-nurtured romanticism. But it also packs in so much detail that people and places central to the story soon begin to acquire an odd equivalency with rather more tangential ingredients. The final effect, while not actually misleading, can be slightly numbing. Still, if there’s a feeling of being rushed through too much interesting stuff, at least the interesting stuff is there.

“It was an explosive moment, a meeting of minds.” Blank City begins with Jim Jarmusch characterizing the birth of what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “No Wave” cinema, a no-holds-barred filmic rejoinder to the grittiness of ’70s Manhattan that acknowledged but played fast and loose with the influence of the French New Wave. That Hoberman’s term was also applied to a fleeting but similarly influential subgenre in music is no accident; Danhier’s film describes two worlds in a state of continual overlap. Ivan Kral’s The Blank Generation, 1976—made, according to its director, on a budget of a hundred bucks—features performances by the Ramones, Television, and the rest of the CBGB’s gang. But it was bands of the more dissonant kind gathered on 1978’s No New York compilation that were the real sonic counterparts to the filmmakers featured in Blank City.

Chief envoy of this group from Danhier’s perspective is James Chance, of James Chance and the Contortions. The film’s only interviewee (with the exception of John Waters) to still look something of an oddball, Chance also gives a beautifully concise account of his first encounter with actor-director John Lurie: “[He] used to follow me around on the street. Then one day he came over and knocked at my door and gave me some speed and we went to his apartment and we made a movie.” Lurie himself is an entertaining source throughout the film, discussing the then au courant emphasis on de-skilling—“Technique was so hated [ . . . ] no one was doing what they knew how to do”—and remembering having to fake a break-in at his apartment to claim the insurance money that he used to fund 1979’s Men in Orbit.

And so the film goes on, ranging across a downtown topography that, while appearing strikingly desolate in numerous atmospheric clips and described ad nauseum as dangerous to life and limb, was seemingly packed with radical innovators. En route, guerrilla cinema is cited as a response to everything from political conservatism to the AIDS pandemic, the indomitability of the cockroach to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The self-celebration is interrupted only late in the game by director James Nares, who slams Jean-Michel Basquiat for making it cool to have cash. From here, it’s the fast track to something like mainstream success for a select few, and a digging in of heels for others. Most notable among the latter is Nick Zedd, whose 1985 manifesto stakes out a more lurid and confrontational territory in the form of the Cinema of Transgression.

Zedd, who still cuts a youthful (one might even say adolescent) figure, is a riot. Still sulky after all these years, the uncompromising director maintains an admirable poker face as he outlines an ongoing quest to offend. “I was elated to get this kind of attention and this kind of outrage,” he says of the appalled critical reaction to 1979 anti-masterpiece They Eat Scum, his face steadfastly expressionless. Waters describes Zedd’s production Fingered (1986) as “the ultimate date movie for psychos,” and former partner and collaborator Lydia Lunch remembers of the young Zedd, “Even when he did nothing, people hated him. It was amazing!” If Blank City has a star, it’s not the more critically lauded and commercially successful likes of Jarmusch or Steve Buscemi, but this pouting man in black, a stubborn iconoclast who doesn’t wanna grow up.

Blank City opens Wednesday, April 6, at the IFC Center in New York.