It’s hard to know sometimes what constitutes an historical movement. You would think there should be some sense of cohesion or at least commonality. But there probably should be an actual movement or an attempt to progress via a defined set of principles or ideals. The so-called No Wave film-makers who emerged in New York’s lower East Side in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s may or may not make the cut in these terms. A documentary about them suffers by assuming they do.
Well-known figures like Nick Zedd, Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie all started off in the fairly anarchic world of No Wave cinema (aka The Cinema of Transgression). The basics of No Wave were a super-8 (often hand-held) grainy imagery, bad acting, worse props and scenery, marginal themes, street-wise sensibilities, taking the piss and lots of drugs. Narrative was often eschewed and many standard models for conventional movie-making were discarded. These were kids, we are told, responding to crisis at the cutting edge of culture.
Sure. Maybe they were. But they were also kids who, as with any generation, were looking to challenge their older peers and progenitors, just because they were kids. Because that’s what kids do. Not every generation gets away with with taking on the status quo of course, but these kids had technology on their side. The relative cheapness and portability of super-8 cameras and, later, video camcorders, gave them an edge and provided a fillip to their microcosm of marginal society in the worm holes in the formerly shiny Big Apple.
But, the equation is surely bigger than kids + technology = movement, at least one worth making a feature film about. It’s hard to find a narrative thread that holds in this collection of now aged and somewhat wasted figures from this era. It’s too easy to see them as boring old farts talking about their wild days, and most are of course more than that. But the flimsy line that ties them all together, apart from their friendships and their tiny whorl of artistic activity that spread outwards, seems to falls short as a subject for a feature doco, without better grounding.
What did this movement aim to achieve? If it was just about making B grade splatter, zombie flicks and snuff movies, then does this raise them to the level of a movement like say, Expressionism, Cinema Verite or Film Noir? Sure, it was fun. Sure there emerged some truly fine talent and even a few good movies like “Downtown 81”, but if they weren’t all pretentious smart-arses from the centre of the universe, would anybody give a flying Roger about some kids throwing together rubbish movies just to piss off their parents and city authorities?
To answer this, we need to look more at the context of No Cinema. At the time, New York, hitherto the world’s most prosperous city, was deep in debt. Mayor Abraham Beame had to rely on a union super fund to pay the city’s obligations as the then President Gerald Ford told the city he wouldn’t bale it out. Crime was rampant. The 1977 blackout was a low point as darkness unleashed the city’s fury against corrupt and bumbling officials and a city out of control. It was also the era that marked the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan through California state politics to the national stage and of a new era of social conservatism characterised by the attempts by authorities to turn a blind eye to the spreading horror of HIV/AIDS, largely because it was only killing “marginals” like gays and artists.
In No Wave’s reactions to all this, their applied antagonism and their railing against power gone horribly wrong and bordering on the comical, perhaps we can say a movement was born; one of reaction and the search for new boundaries, or perhaps old ones.
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But, Blank City, while touching on these issues, rather skirts the more compelling details and links between them in favour of the more salubrious details of the lives and times of the drug-addled, angry young souls of No Wave, or those that survived at least.
For Film buffs and fans of B Grade, this film may be a perfect genuflection to an era and a style of movie-making. Fair enough. But for someone coming at this cold, without much knowledge of film culture (in my case not extending beyond a communications elective at uni that was largely spent in the campus bar), Blank City lacks the depth and context to offer much of real interest.
Title – Blank City
Makers – Insurgent Media
How to catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 91 Mins.
High Point – Jim Jarmusch’s wall of hair
Low Point – Fragmented narrative
Extras – Yes