Only the die-hardest cinephiles have heard of, much less seen, most of the films mentioned in Blank City, a primer on the No Wave movement that dwelled, penniless, in the downtown N.Y.C. of the mid-to-late ‘70s. That’s by design. Even moreso than the scene’s music, the films were self-cannibalistic, made by friends starring friends for friends, designed to wilt when exposed to an outside gaze.
The grandfather of this movement is Amos Poe, whose The Blank Generation (1975) lensed obscure CBGB acts like the Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, only without synch sound. (The soundtrack was recorded on cassette.) Poe moved to self-conscious homages to Godard, bringing a wave influenced by America back to America, as it were; Unmade Beds (1976) was made while he was on welfare, his wife in a mental hospital.
Soon all his neighbors were doing it, and a “Little Hollywood” was birthed out of cheap tenement buildings, its members documenting New York at its most dangerous. James Nare recreated Rome in Central Park and filmed himself trashing an apartment from which he had been evicted, one hand filming, the other hurling objects. Glimpses of the young Steve Buscemi and Vincent Gallo can be seen, while Jim Jarmusch reminisces about filming Permanent Vacation around a sleeping Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Technique was so hated,” John Lurie confesses. “No one was doing what they knew how to do.”
That makes for a lot of homogenous-looking work, despite assertions of variety. Director Celine Danhier rushes through dozens of films, rarely slowing down for diamonds in the rough, save a tantalizing segment on the ‘80s “cinema of transgression” (whose memorable titles include Nick Zedd’s They Eat Scum and Richard Kern’s Fingered).
Unlike their forefathers—Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith—the No Wave filmmakers decided storytelling (or attempts at same) would be more accessible. But the avant-garde hides non-budgets while narratives exacerbate them, and the irony is that the former films have remained timeless and the others have mostly faded into oblivion. It’s telling that the most successful No Wave films (Bette Gordon’s Born in Flames, early Jarmusch) boast ambition and craft. Blank City doesn’t convince that these wares are more than time capsule curios, but that doesn’t make it any less vital a document. After all, it’s information you likely don’t already know.