I’m a sucker for documentary films that show me an outlet for unadulterated and exuberant passion. In and among the poverty of Seventies and Eighties New York, Celene Danhier’s remarkable film Blank City gives us a compelling and well worked out cinematic essay on the politics and artistry of the place and time. Ultimately, it is your basic talking heads documentary, interspersed with footage that redefines cinematic cool. The speakers are far too numerous to list – choice cuts include: Eric Mitchell, John Waters, John Lurie, Amos Poe, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch – and most of them are fascinating to hear.
The city was in massive debt, and without a government handout, most of the occupants of the Lower East Side were fearful to leave their urban dungeon homes. This melting pot of poor, struggling artists – christened “freaks and crazy people” – lead to a cultural revolution. “An explosive movement – a meeting of minds.” A richly cut explosion of iconographic imagery opens the film, and we find it hard to argue with these “Iterian kings”; certainly with the raw, explosive and risk-taking results of their artistry.
These directors shot anywhere, borrowed their friends and jumped into abandoned houses for sets, scavenged for equipment and scrounged materials. Ultimately, their picobudget concerns did not stop them from obtaining the money and equipment – by any and all means necessary. They openly confess to committing “crimes to pay for films – that is what we did.” Setting fire to their property and scamming for insurance money was a particularly popular hustle. Amos Poe is first up in the roughly chronological story. His anecdotes about the gestation of first Super8 picture Blank Generation are amusing and very much of the time, describing the editing process in the Maysles’ Brothers suite while they were off their tits on amphetamines. Also, breaking and entering was not beyond these grunge poets – James Nares’ hilariously high-camp Rome ’78 was largely achieved by madmen in bedsheets, crafty camera angles, and sneaking inside buildings which look like architect’s wet dreams.
Richly observed urban fairytales like Downtown 81, starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, are equally contemporaneous and take the breath away. Blank City also charts the rise of the musical revolution, and shows how it links with the downtown NY film scene; how filmmakers and musicians kept feeding off one another for their next creation. Almost anyone who was anyone was roped into being a punk rocker, the sound aptly described as “trying to make music as though no-one had ever made it”.
Lizzie Borden is another participant who made politically radical films – most potently a strongly left-wing picture featuring the destruction of the World Trade Center, using large minatures and and glitter. Her films included G-Man and the audacious Black Box, sharp satires on the reactions to the threat of terrorism.
Many, many more anecdotes and wild stories await you. (I tried keeping notes, but was swiftly beaten down by the sheer volume.) And yet, Danhier’s film feels organic in its construction, leading effortlessly from one story to the next with very little dead-time between them. It is an outstanding achievement – and for those of us not part of the movement, a deliriously fun ride.