For those who already know the works of Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Lizzie Borden, John Lurie and Nick Zedd, Blank City is an insider’s trip down memory lane, akin to listening through a box set of CDs from your favorite obscure rock ’n’ roll band. For the uninitiated, however, Celine Danhier’s vivid doc about the No Wave urban film scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s is far too stingy with cinematic or personal context to intrigue.
Lacking a narrative backbone, this chronicle of New York avant-garde filmmaking revels in a crumbling and crime-ridden Manhattan, a place alien to today’s Millennial generation. There, among the city’s glorious ruins, music and film came together to form a DIY aesthetic that scorned legitimacy. While each filmmaker’s work was different, they all shared an anti-establishment credo that sometimes crossed into the transgressive. The movement was anti-technique, anti-culture and most definitely anti-actor. Such artists as Amos Poe, Richard Kern and Charlie Ahearn captured their angst, disgust and anti-social tendencies on scratchy, black-and-white Super 8 and 16 mm film, all while celebrating the bruised and burnt-out dystopia of New York City.
Danhier trots out an impressive array of forgotten No Wave footage, shuttling the audience through cinema micro-movements that responded to post-Vietnam anger, Reagan-era nihilism, AIDS and even hatred of New York mayor Ed Koch. But by straddling the line between insider name-dropping and a collage-style introduction to the scene, Blank City ends up feeling like a parade of “wasn’t it cool back then?” sound bites.
While it’s fascinating to see these artists in their creative infancy — including Debbie Harry, Vincent Gallo and Steve Buscemi — and some of the anecdotes are entertaining, there’s little personal connection to what it was like to be immersed in a culture that actively disdained recognition and resented Jean-Paul Basquiat for selling out.
Like most love letters to outsider art scenes, Blank City spends too much of its time wearing its anti-establishment crush on its sleeve, never questioning the desires and underlying motives of its subjects. Drug and alcohol abuse and cockroach-infested apartments are certainly part of the mix, but Danhier seems to view them as low-rent merit badges rather than the depressing underbelly populated by artists who spent more time defining themselves by what they weren’t than by what they were.
Showing at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, July 1-2, at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 3, and at 4:30 p.m. July 10, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.