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February 24, 2012

Movies You Missed 27: Blank City

BlankCity_06This week in movies you missed: Take a trip back to lower Manhattan, late 1970s. Rents are cheap, rats are plentiful, hippie optimism is over, Talking Heads are playing CBGB, and a bunch of young arty types are experimenting with skinny jeans, pills and movie cameras.

What You Missed

If you think ultra-cheap DIY filmmaking started with the digital age and YouTube, or even with VHS, you're wrong. Back in the 1970s and early '80s, in a low-rent, crime-ridden New York that no longer exists, a bunch of young people grabbed Super 8 and 16-millimeter cameras and started filming their neighborhoods and friends. Many of them were also musicians and artists, and icons of the scene such as Debbie Harry and Lydia Lunch appeared in their films. Some of them called it the "No Wave" movement.

First-time feature director Celine Danhier explores the scene with clips from the films and interviews with the participants, who include (at least tangentially) such famous figures as Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Thurston Moore and John Waters.

The film also introduces us to more obscure (today) directors such as Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell (pictured is Patti Astor in his Underground USA), Nick Zedd, Vivienne Dick and Lizzie Borden, who talks about how she now regrets blowing up a model of the World Trade Center for the climax of her feminist film Born in Flames (1983).

Why You Missed It

Widest release for Blank City in the U.S.: three theaters.

Should You Keep Missing It?

In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson wants to live in the city's supposed heyday in the 1920s. Me, if I could time travel, the milieu of Blank City is where I'd go. (But only for a week or so, because roaches ruled NYC in those days. I was living on the Upper West Side at the time, albeit too young to check out CBGB, so I know.)

So I enjoyed Blank City for its grimy atmosphere and samples of raw punk/New Wave fashion and music in the years just before MTV and malls across America started hawking them both. (Interesting to think that the movement commercialized in the early '80s is now back, being recommercialized at your neighborhood Urban Outfitters.) Also, on a superficial note, those New Wavers/No Wavers were a photogenic group. I don't think I've ever seen an underground art movement with as many amazing cheekbones.

Would I want to watch any of these No Wave films in their entirety, though? Probably not, with the exception of Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation. The clips we see are full of striking images, but also pretentious, would-be Godardian dialogue and stilted acting. What is endearing about them is that they were made on the fly (one director reminisces about editing a film in 24 amphetamine-fueled hours) and simply shown to the filmmakers' friends at a local arthouse, with minimal guerrilla marketing.

Back then, no one was trying to get to Sundance, attract Harvey Weinstein's attention and go Hollywood. No one was using Kickstarter to collect a big budget; no one was talking up films that didn't exist yet. These filmmakers just did their thing, and the proof was in the pudding, even if the pudding wasn't always that good.

I wouldn't normally link to a review on IMDB, but the one spotlighted here (from "Hannah Brown" in Israel) is an incisive critique of Blank City from someone clearly more knowledgeable about No Wave film than I. She thinks it's a superficial overview that doesn't confront the reality that "the films are enjoyably [sic] merely as bratty novelties," and she notes that Danhier doesn't cover the subsequent careers of these filmmakers, some of which were far from illustrious.

I, too, would have liked some updates and discussion of how some of these filmmakers eventually did go Hollywood (or at least attained international indie success, like Jarmusch).

Susan Seidelman is interviewed about her early film Smithereens, but we don't learn how her career changed after she directed Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Madonna, which put "the scene" in terms 10-year-old girls could relate to and helped launch a fashion trend. How did Lizzie Borden go from filmic feminist anarchy to directing episodes of "Red Shoe Diaries"? I'm curious about this stuff. But Blank City presents the movement as if it were frozen in amber, divorced from the individuals who eventually developed as artists, compromised or sold out.

Verdict: Still absolutely worth seeing if you love the place and period. I want to rewatch Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise now.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • American Teacher (This doc presents the pro-teacher side of the controversy.)
  • London Boulevard (Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley play an ex-con and a movie star finding love amid crime.)
  • The Jazz Singer (Rare Jerry Lewis TV version from the 1950s)
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene (Star Elizabeth Olsen was robbed of her Oscar nod. Now, see what the fuss about the other Olsen sister was about.)
  • Pianomania (Music nerd alert! Steinway piano tuner chases perfect pitch in this doc.)
  • Retreat (Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton find themselves trapped on an island during the apocalypse.)
  • The Son of No One (Channing Tatum somehow costars with Al Pacino and Juliette Binoche in this cop thriller.)
  • The Sons of Tennessee Williams (Doc about the history of wild drag balls in New Orleans)
  • The Space Between (9/11 brings strangers together in this drama with Melissa Leo.)
  • Sweet Little Lies (Trailer-park teen takes a road trip in this indie.)
  • The Way (Martin Sheen makes a pilgrimage in his dead son's footsteps. His real son who isn't Charlie Sheen directed.)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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