Now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, Blank City is a documentary chronicle of the ‘70s New York DIY art underground, featuring charming and loquacious appearances from an all-star lineup of social malcontents including Lydia Lunch, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, Debbie Harry, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and cult filmmaker John Waters. The movie chronicles New York’s punk-congruent, boundary-smashing No Wave movement, which originated in the city’s derelict musical underground, and mushroomed into a media-transcending viral campaign that encompassed live performance, street art, and – as Blank City chooses to most prominently emphasize – film.
Beginning as a mutated, hybrid outgrowth of the disaffected New York punk underground, and the explosion of conceptual innovation in the fine art world that characterized the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, No Wave began its life as a roughly defined generic music label, but evolved quickly into an infectious and many-faceted transmedia event, with the seedy exhibition galleries and after-hours clubs of crime-ridden Downtown New York as its nexus. No Wave’s emphasis on spontaneity and non-professionalism influenced a disparate range of artistic aspirants to plunge suddenly into fields of expression they might otherwise never have considered. For film in particular, the result was a highly varied, slapdash new wave of low-budget movies that combined punk aesthetics with those of narrative Hollywood melodrama and the experimental avant-garde. These films were typically quirky, often shocking, sometimes totally incomprehensible, but compelling and expressive enough to allow many of their creators and stars to gradually achieve international reputations.
No Wave wasn’t confined to music and film, and in addition to exploring the specific contributions of participant filmmakers and musicians, Blank City details the bleed-over into the early hip-hop scene, chronicling the genesis of seminal projects like Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, one of the first movies to introduce mainstream audiences to hip-hop, breakdancing, and graffiti culture. The corruption and commercialization of graffiti and hip-hop that soon followed Wild Style’s release would unfortunately parallel the commodification of New York DIY, with the triumphantly broke, unpolished, inexperienced approach it championed being undermined, and ultimately snuffed out, by the rise to fame and power of certain key figures, resulting in a breakdown of the movement’s solidifying value system that emphasized willful rejection of such extravagant accouterments.
Blank City is a culture snob’s wet dream of rare interview footage and mind-bending obscure film clips, and even if you’ve never heard of No Wave before, the film’s interview subjects are so personable and funny that you’re bound to find them entertaining. Most of the films cited are unfortunately not widely available, but the excerpts Blank City includes are hilarious, bizarre, and intriguingly unsettling. The movement was so interlaced with early punk, hip-hop, and Pop Art that it’s difficult to separate them, and directors like Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, who are loosely associated with the movement’s aesthetics, continue to exert creative influence on outsider filmmaking to this day.
Blank City is a nice, concise introduction to the late ‘70s DIY scene, and its engaging presentation and anecdotal, illustrative quality makes it highly approachable for newcomers, while the abundance of interviews and rare film excerpts makes it noteworthy even for preexisting fans. Special features on the disc include extended interviews, a short reel of outtakes, and an interview with director Celine Danhier explaining how the project originally got started. Unfortunately, the disc does not include any of the highlighted films themselves, some of which are available online at sites like UbuWeb, but most of which remain sadly unreleased. Blank City is an informative document of a crucial period of growth in the American art, and perhaps most importantly, of the moment when aural, visual, and cinematic disciplines first began to merge into a single, self-propelling popular entity.