Sound Unseen screening no wave documentary Blank City tomorrow night at the TRYLON
"If you could be anybody, who would you be?"
"An outlaw, a film director, a rebel, a rock star!" yells a '70s gangster shooting a gun at the Super 8 camera, cutting to a rapid-fire Mars punk song over a killer montage of '70s film clips of punk and no wave musicians and actors.
Such is the beginning of riveting, no-holds barred documentary Blank City. It was New York City, 1970s, and a crew of artists, newly armed with hot Super 8 cameras, began shooting their lives and the punk and no wave musicians around them with no permits, no restrictions.
Blank City, a film directed by French newcomer Céline Danhier, tells the story of the group of renegade filmmakers emerging from a bankrupt, debauched, and dangerous time in New York City. Over 35 interviewees are featured in this punk-rock-paced film, including renowned directors Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, actor-writer-director Steve Buscemi, Blondie's Debbie Harry, musician/performance artist Lydia Lunch, hip-hop legend Fab 5 Freddy, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, the Bush Tetras, photographer Richard Kern, and filmmakers/innovators Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Vivienne Dick, Beth B and Scott B, and Nick Zedd.
It begins at a time when people felt like they were reaching the end of a cycle, doing something new. "It felt like our lives were movies, it was very cinematic," Debbie Harry noted of the era.
It was a time of major turmoil in America -- of the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, said filmmaker Amos Poe, the pioneer of the next wave of independent filmmakers post-Andy Warhol. Photographer-at-the-time Poe felt personally lost. He actually became lost in a Czechoslavakian countryside while the Russians invaded overnight. Consequently giving up photography, he received a surprise gift of Super 8 cameras from a friend. He immediately fell in love with filmmaking.
Poe first filmed Night Lunch featuring the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Patti Smith. Then for easier distribution, he decided to make a 60-minute feature-length film of Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and more. He and a small crew made the film in 24 hours on a $100 budget, recording live music on cassette tapes, as the artists had no recordings. This film, The Blank Generation, screened at CBGBs.
"Everyone showed up, it was a big success," said Poe. The new generation of narrative films and no-wave cinema was born.
The punk scene grew rapidly. Several people were inspired to buy Super 8 cameras with sound, which were available at a low cost. They experimented, shooting films of the New York City punk and no wave musicians they saw regularly and of each other's lives, living in financially bankrupt and burned out neighborhoods of New York City, all cockroach and rat-infested run-down palaces.
Within months, numerous films by several new filmmakers such as James Nares, Eric Mitchell, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch and Vivienne Dick emerged, screening their films underground wherever they could.
New Cinema was soon created, and would be packed for weeks for various films. Hundreds of artists, musicians, filmmakers, theater people and more -- who all knew each other -- would all attend each other's film and music events. The scene exploded.
The Lower East Side was like a film studio, a departure from mainstream music and movies, where there were no limits. Most of the people didn't have money, so they improvised with next to nothing. They had nothing to lose, so they dared to be different, creating narrative films, a departure from the avant garde and art films prior. It was dangerous times, the danger exciting them and fueling their filmmaking. Pretty much everyone was broke. They went without food, stealing scamming and swindling in order to get the equipment and means to make films.
No wave music -- more dissonant, loud, and nihilistic -- soon followed the fast and furious punk period. Technique was hated. Everyone was in a band regardless of whether they knew how to play an instrument. It was a time when everyone had the idea to make art, music, films, write and often all the above. Even filmmaker Jim Jarmusch had a band, Del-Byzantines that often opened for Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order.
Blank City spirals into increasingly dark territories as it depicts New York City filmmaking and the Cinema of Transgression during the '80s -- Reaganism, AIDS, and cultural shifts toward commodification and decadence. It's a rather unsettling and yet gripping section of film to watch -- filmmakers grew yet more nihilistic and cynical, making films to simultaneously shock, horrify and humor people, even risking jail for these films.
"No one was holding back, they were telling the ugly, naked truth as they lived it. That's why the Cinema of Transgression and No-Wave had this power," noted Lydia Lunch.
Blank City is beautifully paced, well-balanced and structured. It ends with key interviewees reflections on the methods and impact of their filmmaking of that time, and paving he way for independent films as we know them today.
As Debbie Harry reflects, "the whole period was a filmatic period. It was not concocted. It was people struggling with a purpose. They were taking chances. There was a lot of death. It was a volatile period."
The brilliant Blank City begins with a bang and ends with a bang, with a 1,000 beautiful, crazy moments in between. It's a fascinating film for anyone interested in the New York City 1970's and '80s music scene, filmmaking, music documentaries, and more.
Sound Unseen, TRYLON Microcinema and 89.3 the Current present BLANK CITY on Wednesday, September 14, at the TRYLON Microcinema (3258 Minnehaha Ave S, Minneapolis). All ages. $8. 7 p.m.
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