Berlinale: BLANK CITY – the New York No Wave film scene revisited

     |    Thursday, der 18. February 2010

Céline Danhier’s documentary BLANK CITY uncovers amazing footage of Super 8 and 16mm film gems made in the late 1970s and early 1980s in downtown (Lower Eastside) New York. At that time, New York City was practically bankrupt (the federal government refused a bailout, somewhat comparable to the German Federal Court denying Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s request for financial aid) and in a state of urban decay and social strife. From this despair emerged a highly creative scene of filmmakers, musicians and artists – art as the only way out?

To borrow and vary a slogan, “no budget and high energy” was the order of the day. Numerous works created out of debris – figuratively and literally – explored new forms of visual and musical expression and gave the artists a space to explore and live their identities (in terms of sexuality and otherwise) by ironically reinventing themselves as new personae liberated from the restrictions of mainstream, smalltown America, from which many artists originated before following the siren call to the Big Apple.

Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vincent Gallo, Amos Poe, Susan Seidelman – the New York No Wave scene is where they first burst into cultural (then subcultural) consciousness.

Lydia Lunch, Debbie Harry, John Lurie – respected musicians who used film to expand their possibilities for creative expression and thus contributing to the development of an interdisciplinary artistic practice.

1983/1984 was a watershed, with the Downtown scene crossing over into the Uptown art world. Basquiat’s paintings copped five to six figures, Jim Jarmusch’s films started being invited to A film festivals and attracting bigger stars, even bigger than the ones he helped to create. To stay underground, downtown films became more extreme, with Nick Zedd’s mock manifesto “Cinema of Transgression” inaugurating his and Richard Kern’s steady stream of envelope pushing explorations of sex and violence (often featuring Lydia Lunch).

By the late 80s, this vital cultural moment had run its course. Its legacy is still felt today – the talent that went on to mainstream success, the celebration of outsiders and nay-sayers, the DIY (do it yourself) ethos and the cross-pollinization of different artistic disciplines.

BLANK CITY is visually oversaturated and contextually somewhat undernourished. But it does spark the viewer’s desire to rediscover this seminal body of work. And that might be the best tribute of all.

Watch Amos Poe’s rare early films NIGHT LUNCH and THE FOREIGNER on