Most documentaries recounting the glory days of a bygone era always run the risk of becoming curmudgeonous dirges that directly lament the facile present. Blank City‘s account of the No Wave and transgressive movements in music and film in late 1970’s New York avoids these punji pits–but do we care?
New York City’s late 70’s East Village looks like a bombed out city from World War II, but this was the playground for a community of eccentric young artists who would experiment with music and filmmaking through till the 1980’s. Toss on a dollop of social unrest, growing conservatism under Reagan, and the fear of crime and AIDS, and it’s no wonder art in the area was so shocking, entertaining, and fresh.
The film is interesting in an informative way, but it lacks a strong arch to pull us through. With most of the highlighted films still unavailable on DVD or even VHS, there is a very narrow audience to reach (mostly those who know the music scene of the time). With such a niche and the absence of a consistent entertaining or emotionally appealing element to fuel the entire ride, it hits flat.
I will say that this film opened up a history of American cinema I wasn’t aware of and will dig around for more info. However, Blank City is unable to invite the uninitiated. Rabid fans of No Wave alumni (Steve Buscemi, Amos Poe, John Waters, Debbie Harry, Jim Jarmusch), hardcore film nerds and paper writing students will enjoy this like a flashy Wikipedia article, but that’s about it. An interesting and well made film for first time director Celine Danhier, it just needs to display the same filmmaking vitality it discusses.