"blank city" is fascinating time capsule of the quasi-bankrupt 1970'a new york city. the documentary focuses on the lower east side filmmakers who, with only super 8 (and later 16mm) handheld cameras, took to the streets and filmed practically anything in a quest to make movies - and, for the most part, they succeeded. the first half of "blank city" documents the emergence of what ulimately became known as the "no wave." the second, much darker half, recounts the self-labeled "cinema of transgression."
it's a testament to some wily urban guerilla tactics that some these films even got made - such as petty theft of film (or things to sell and then buy the film) and a late night building break-in to access a location. the latter exploit, the location for a scene for "rome 78" was visited with a real estate broker who believed he was "showing" the property. during the walk-through the windows were, surreptiously, unlocked. the cast and crew returned late at night, via the windows, set up shop, filmed, and exited via the window when they were done!
editing took on a similar edgy quality. with an incredibly tight budget, the filmmakers managed to secure an editing studio for the pricely sum of $40 - but for only one day. the solution, copious quantities of speed and a 24 hour marathon editing session. it worked, they got the feature lenght film in the can, and thereafter it went up a screen! most of the oral histories recounted by the interviewees focused on this sort of backstory - they did whatever it took to get something filmed and screened.
the "no wave" movement had its birth in the punk rock scene. the overlap of music and film making was pretty dramatic. while there was a gratuitous shots of patti smith and then the ramones in the opening minutes of the film, debbie harry, pre-blondie, was the one shown acting it up in the underground films. there plenty of clips from the vintage clubs, cbgb's, the peppermint lounge, and the mudd club, to mention a few.
the thread that glues together the rare film clips is the string of excellent oral histories. what the documentary lacks in a linear narrative is more than compensated for by the story telling. in image after image of what could easily be a bombed out war zone - but in actuality is the lower east side - there is an overarching positive vibe that permeates what they're doing. especially interesting are steve buscemi's recollections - the totally street character of his performances (including have them call up to his apartment window when ready for his scenes)!
i can't say the same for the last third of the film, the self-described "cinema of transgression." the vibe went from upbeat to creepy almost as soon as nick zedd's soi disant movement was introduced. in what i'd charitably call proto-slasher films, the content was supposedly intended to shock and offend - which it easily managed. john waters commentary was actually on target - if you weren't offended, you probably found those images hilarious (think all the way back to "pink flamingos")!
all in all, put "blank city" on your radar to check out. it opens at the ifc center next week (april 6). while it's played the film festival circuit to great reviews since 2009, it hasn't had widespread release. if you're a new yorker with memories of the "good old day" - don't pass it up.