In the 1970s, a strange nexus of art, film, drugs and rock and roll thrived in the burnt out neighborhoods of New York's Lower East Side. Celine Danhier's Blank City revisits the film scene and her documentary is buoyed by some of the filmmakers and performers who survived the scene's rougher edges. The interviewees include filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, actor Steve Buscemi, Debbie Harry, Lydia Lunch and John Waters. The film opens at Zeitgeist Friday.
Blank City is another project touching on a strange and chaotic period of change in New York in the 1970s. Patti Smith (who appears in the film) released her memoir Just Kids about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and New York's art scene in 2010. The 1970s might be the last time artists could find cheap apartments in lower Manhattan. The Lower East Side was gritty and mean, and music clubs like CBGBs and Max's Kansas City thrived. New York was on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-70s, and the power blackout in summer 1977 exposed the chaotic underbelly of the city. The film captures a scene before many of its members realized financial success and drifted uptown to Studio 54 and others fell victim to the AIDS epidemic.
Among the burned out buildings downtown, artists found cheap places to rent or squat. Filmmakers produced short features with Super-8 and 16mm film in less than a month for almost no money, and a film scene developed. (It was in many ways the opposite end of the spectrum of a great era of artistic and popular achievement in filmmaking in California at the same time). Many of the filmmakers took on rough and vulgar subjects, nihilistic perspectives (especially Nick Zedd) and the movement was sometimes referred to as the Cinema of Transgression and/or No Wave film. It's probably worth revisiting some of the films, including Eric Mitchell's The Foreigner, a feature involving the punk scene and starring Debbie Harry, and Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise.
In some ways, the scene was a post-Beat Generation urban nightmare: a bohemian cluster coping with harder drugs, urban blight and a punk-like rejection of aesthetics. There is an unavoidable air of pretension in the way many of the filmmakers and musicians pursued art with indifference to technique — or having training or experience. There's also something very positive about the way they set out to make their own, new art. They don't proclaim that they made great works, but they were all drawn to the bubble of raw creativity that grew below between Avenue B and the Bowery. Blank City puts that scene under the microscope and its an interesting look at a peculiar social scene that helped produce some notable talents and underground legends if not lasting works (in film — the music scene produced more lasting works).