Blank City (2010)
Directed by Celine Danhier
Starring Amos Poe, Ann Magnuson, and Becky Johnston
Cinematography by Ryo Murakami and Peter Szollosi
Whether or not there was a real “manifesto” associated with the no wave movement, and whether or not the media scrutiny associated with the label “no wave” destroyed the movement itself, there is a sensibility that clearly links the films made in 1970s downtown New York. Blank City attempts to probe that point of intersection, while at times neglecting the various divergences. The fact that the artists lived nearby, knew each other, and frequently collaborated is an essential part of what made these films unique, along with the political mood of the time. However, what probably defined the films more than anything else was their lack of a budget. What makes Blank City so inspiring is that it portrays a world in which artists were willing to do whatever they could to make a movie, typically using unpaid non-actors, natural lighting, and improvised performances. We often associate no budget with a compromised artistic vision, but these films subvert that notion. When the directors reflected in interviews that they didn’t care about their audience, and that they made movies for themselves, I actually believed them.
That said, there was a kind of nostalgic idealization that seemed to infect most of the interviews in this documentary. They casually alluded to swarms of rats, roaches, muggings, crimes, deaths, AIDS, and other horrific tragedies as though they were mildly humorous aspects of a glorified whole. New York in the 1970s was just as chaotic as it was creative, and although the questions were edited out of the interviews, I got the sense that they never delved beneath the surface. Perhaps these filmmakers are so venerated that they would have left the interview if presented with a challenging or personal question, because they never seemed to reflect on what the experience honestly felt like. Instead it seemed that they had bought into an image of the period created by those who had never lived it. That honesty, and the ways in which each directer distinguished him or herself from the “no wave” movement, were largely missing from an otherwise fascinating documentary in which the humor and charisma of the subjects shined through effortlessly.