Went to see this last weekend and was pleasantly surprised. Truth be told, I went in with somewhat fairly low expectations -- what, having seen any number of anemic documentaries in recent years, and not exactly having my doubts assuaged by the fact that the film poster prominently sported an image of Lydia Lunch. Turns out the filmmaker Celine Danhier did a very, very nice job on the thing. Pulled in a proper number and selection of people to interview, managed to hunt down untold amounts of rare and nearly-lost footage, and kept the whole thing tight, briskly paced, and deeply interesting and engaging. And when all was aid and done, the bits with Lydia Lunch were not only surprisingly unannoying, but also quite funny at times.
The thing kicks off with New York City in the 1970s, in all its glorious decrepitude and economic blightedness. This was, of course, the NYC that had attracted a broad array of young aspiring artists, writers, and assorted dilettantes since the late '60s, a fair number of whom made up the creme of the CBGB's crop. Among this crowd were a number of people who made up the new generation of D.I.Y/No Wave filmmakers who took the ball that the likes of Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Jackson, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes got rolling in previous decade and running with it. Inspired by the films of Godard and Fassbinder and others, they made films however they could; usually working in 8mm, always using friends, acquaintances, local characters, various and sundry scenesters and nonprofessionals in their work. The pioneer for all of this being Amos Poe...
Amos Poe, Unmade Beds, 1976
Soon to be followed by James Nares, Eric Mitchell, Scott & Beth B, Vivienne Dick, Michael Oblowitz, and (eventually) Jim Jarmusch. Danhier tracks all of these people down, each of whom were generous with their time and recollections. Of this bunch, I'd say it was Scott & Beth B that I remember hearing about in the early '80s, and whose work most intrigued me. One item of theirs that I was interested in was Letters to Dad, a short film in which they get a group of friends to play the roles of member of the People's Temple, offering talking-head readings of letters written to the Reverend Jim Jones. And as luck would have it, someone recently uploaded it to Youtube. Technology works, technology delivers. Tsk....
Of this bunch, I'd say it was Scott & Beth B's work that I remember hearing about in the early '80s, and whose work most intrigued me. One item of theirs that I was interested in was Letters to Dad, a short film in which they get a group of friends to play the roles of member of the People's Temple, offering talking-head readings of letters written to the Reverend Jim Jones. And as luck would have it, someone recently uploaded it to Youtube. Technology works, technology delivers. Tsk....
Scott & Beth B., Letters to Dad, 1979
The films of Scott and Beth B. (particularly Black Box and Vortex) and those of other No-wavers (Eric Mitchell's Kidnapped) often returned to certain nasty and unsettling themes, the sort that helped sets the tone for a number of films that would issue from the NYC underground film movement in the years thereafter. Abduction, torture, interrogation, and death. Such stuff, one of the interviewees explains, was inspired by recent events -- the Baader-Meinhoff, the SLA, recent revelations about the variety of atrocities performed by C.I.A. operatives and agents -- that were still weighing heavily on the cultural imagination and which seemed to reflect the turbulence of the times.
Among those interviewed in the course of the film, John Lurie and Ann Magnuson offer some of the best accounts, providing both detailed and broad-swath descriptions of the bygone scene. Each had their reflections on how the scene and city changed during the 1980s. Lurie recalls when Jean-Michel Basquiat became a big art star, saying, "And suddenly he was acting like you weren't cool if you didn't have money. Up to that point, we'd all had the attitude that having money was something that wasn't cool." Magnuson, on the other hand, tells of how real estate speculation drove rents up and flushed artists of their enclaves, and how extensively the arrival of AIDS in the middle of the decade affected the arts community. Having lost a number of close friends, colleagues, and her own brother to the disease, she chokes up as she recounts, "It was like seeing all your friends and loved ones being lined up and sent off to their doom."
With the 1980s came the "Cinema of Transgression" movement, which Blank City covers in length, dealing with the films of the movement's instigator Nick Zedd, as well as the work of Richard Kern, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, and Kembra Pfahler. Kern, in turn, speaks of the work of his late friend and former roommate David Wojnarowicz, the artist of recent posthumous notoriety who appeared in several of Kern's films...
Richard Kern, You Killed Me First, 1985
Admittedly, it was this latter batch films that I was always dubious about. Back the day, much of the attention they received came by way of underground music fanzines, meaning that discussion was usually pretty short on substance and long on highlighting the varied shocks and sorditities of the films' controversial content. Supposedly it was all somehow subversive, but subverting what exactly was never said.1 Blank City manages to resituate these films in a broader context. As the various filmmakers assert, much of their work was initially intended as toxic reaction against the Age of Reagan -- be it the nuclear-armed antagonizing of the Soviets, or the malignant hypocrisy of the politics of "family values."2 The other neglected aspect of this body of work that Blank City helps foreground is its inate humor -- the borderline camp of the over-the-top manner in which the sex and violence play out.
Amidst the montage of all these rarefied, marginal, and cultish fare, the movement's bigger-budgeted, breakout films like Smithereens, Wild Style, Stranger Than Paradise, and Downtown 81 make an appearance -- films that pointed the way toward the resurgence of American independent film in the latter half of 1980s. Yet these films first emerged when the American cultural landscape was in a state of flux. The 1970s, after all, had started with the Hollywood studio system in the midst of a crisis and deep recession. In their scramble to find new films and fresh talent that would bring audiences into theaters, the studios allowed a number of younger filmmakers their chance behind the camera, thus ushering in a short-lived era of American auteurism. As George Lucas, then an underling to Francis Ford Coppola, stated in 1973: "The studio system is dead. It died...when the corporations took over and the studio heads suddenly became agents and lawyers and accountants. The power is with the people now. The workers have the means of production. The future is going to be with independent filmmakers. ...We’re all forging ahead on the rubble of the old industry." Irony, then, that it would be Lucas who would help kill of this same phase in American filmmaking and help bring about the return of the Hollywood blockbuster. Yet, at that same time, somewhere in New York, a number of loosely associated people decided on other ways of going about it. As one of the filmmakers in Blank City put it, "We decided to make a film that'd be something we'd want to watch."3
1. I suspect this was because, at the time, dragging politics or sociological specifics into something was the most uncool thing a person could do. But I'm also certain that it was also the people who usually published and contributed to these sorts of fanzines often weren't all that bright to begin with.
2. As Richard Kern suggests in the film, this latter aspect connects more deeply with the work David Wojnarowicz. For those that don't know the story: Wojnarowicz had some to New York at the age age of fourteen, having run away from home in New Jersey, where his alcoholic and ex-Marine dad had regularly terrorized the entire family while in the throes of his frequent drunken rages. Wojnarowicz survived on the streets of New York as a teenage prostitute before finally meeting up with Kern and made the gradual transition into a career as a self-taught artist. Wojnarowicz's father would later hang himself in the basement of the family's home.
3. The topography of the NYC art scene of the era had its varied factions and subdivisions. Those that are associated with the art boom of the 1980s are usually consigned to one of two camps. First, there was the "uptown" set, which sported many of the big names and overnight successes that were represented via the Mary Boone Gallery and other such outlets – Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, et al. These were the more "serious" artists of the lot -- focused and professional. Then there was the "downtown" set that centered around the East Village scene -- dilettantish, drug-addled, eclectically dabbling in multiple disciples (performance art, making films, starting bands, etc.), and operating through a series of short-lived, makeshift galleries, this was the scene that produced or attracted the likes of Basquiat, Keith Haring, Wojnarowicz. It was to this latter bunch that the filmmakers featured in Blank City belonged. Not that it makes much difference, in the end. When the art bubble burst at the end of the 1980s, the whole kaboodle became the brunt of a critical backlash. Viewed as being fueled by an excess of hype and novelty and speculation, the unanimous tendency for years thereafter was to write the whole scene off with a baby-with-the-bathwater dismissal; regarding the whole matter as irreparably tainted by hyperbole and feckless bullshit. Of the two, it was the downtown East Village scene that took the more thorough trashing.