“Blank City” Sure Ain’t Hollywood
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
I used to eat lunch in a little café just south of New York’s East Village where filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and the Demme brothers hung out. I admired Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” and “Night on Earth.” Every now and then I’d nod to them.
After high school, Jarmusch enrolled in Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, but was asked to leave for neglecting to take any journalism courses. He relocated to New York’s Columbia University with the intention of becoming a poet. Instead, he did an exchange program in France where he was introduced to the Cinémathèque Française. He came back to America and entered New York University’s Film School. Unimpressed with his work, NYU did not award him a degree. His first feature-length film was “Permanent Vacation,” an outgrowth of his NYU final-year project, filmed for about $12,000 using misdirected scholarship funds.
Some critics credit Jim Jarmusch with igniting the American independent film movement with his “Stranger Than Paradise.”
His films along with those of his friend Amos Poe are the basis for the so-called No Wave filmmaking movement on New York’s Lower East Side.
That gave way to the Cinema of Transgression, an underground film movement noted for its shock value and humor. This loosely knit group of filmmakers included Nick Zedd, Beth B, Lydia Lunch, and Richard Kern, among others.
French director Céline Danhier captures these two underground film movements in her new documentary, “Blank City.” It’s currently poking audiences in the eye at the Tropic Cinema.
You’ll meet Jim Jarmusch and Alan Poe, Lizzie Borden and Charlie Arhern. Also featured is Steve Buscemi, John Lurie, Thurston Moore, Ann Magnuson, John Waters, and Richard Kern.
Back in the ’80s I met filmmaker Richard Kerns (“The Right Side of My Brain,” “Fingered”) at my friend Eric Kroll’s New York photography studio, a large room plastered floor to ceiling with erotic photographs of models in corsets and ten-inch heels or defiantly nude. Kern was a lanky guy, just starting to do still photography in addition to his short avant-garde films. Eric loaned him some models, one being a pixie-haired blonde named Susan Smith, a do-anything girl who served as a muse to both men. I remember when Kern and Eric Kroll went to Russia together to do a photography book for Taschen, but barely escaped the country without being arrested.
Also featured in Danhier’s documentary is Deborah Harry of the band Blondie. I met her in Eric Kroll’s studio too. I have a framed photograph of her dancing madly on his roll-paper backdrop, one boob bouncing out of her low-cut black dress.
My East Village apartment was located on the edge of the bombed-out landscape that provided the backdrop for many No Wave and Cinema of Transgression films. Their style was minimalist, with stark images and gritty cityscapes, starring alternative culture characters in loosely told semi-true stories. These low-budget films were often shot using cheap 8 mm cameras.
The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto states (in part): “We openly renounce and reject the entrenched academic snobbery which erected a monument to laziness known as structuralism and proceeded to lock out those filmmakers who possessed the vision to see through this charade. We refuse to take their easy approach to cinematic creativity; an approach which ruined the underground of the sixties when the scourge of the film school took over. Legitimizing every mindless manifestation of sloppy movie making undertaken by a generation of misled film students, the dreary media arts centers and geriatric cinema critics have totally ignored the exhilarating accomplishments of those in our rank – such underground invisibles as Zedd, Kern, Turner, Klemann, DeLanda, Eros and Mare, and DirectArt Ltd, a new generation of filmmakers daring to rip out of the stifling straight jackets of film theory in a direct attack on every value system known to man. We propose that all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again. We propose that a sense of humor is an essential element discarded by the doddering academics and further, that any film which doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at.”
While Céline Danhier’s documentary may not qualify as No Wave or Cinema of Transgression in itself, it introduces those films of the 1970s and 1980s that do.
[from Solares Hill]