"Blank City" director Celine Danhier. (Insurgent Releasing )
A group of like-minded young people pool their resources, make use of new, inexpensive technology and begin to make movies that capture their particular time and place. From the French New Wave to the recent American micro-budget movement, filmmakers have often come together just so. The documentary "Blank City," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, explores the independent filmmakers of New York City's downtown scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Though the New York musicians from that era — the Ramones, Blondie and Sonic Youth, to name but a few — have been well documented, the filmmaking of that period has been less examined, even though directors such as Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise") and Susan Seidelman ("Smithereens"), as well as performers such as Steve Buscemi, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch and Ann Magnuson, have gone on to long and varied careers.
"Blank City" is the filmmaking debut of 31-year-old Céline Danhier. She had begun a career as a lawyer in France when she saw a museum-screening series on "No Wave" films — the name comes from a New York City-based, post-punk music style — that would eventually lead her to make her own movie.
"I knew this label 'No Wave' more for the music part," Danhier said in an interview. "I didn't know that the No Wave was also a name for some films, or that Jim Jarmusch came from that scene. It made me very intrigued, and so I started to work from France, but it was very difficult to find all the films and almost everybody was still living in New York. So I was like, it's the perfect excuse to move to New York."
Once Danhier arrived in New York, she met producer Aviva Wishnow and producer and editor Vanessa Roworth. Together they would conduct more than 40 interviews over two years for the project, and "Blank City" includes clips from about 80 films, tracing a progression from the spare, early No Wave pictures on through the hallucinogenicly grotesque movies that later made up the self-declared "Cinema of Transgression."
The documentary focuses not only on players like Jarmusch who rose to prominence but also on more obscure ones, such as Amos Poe, the team of Beth B and Scott B and Nick Zedd, directors of films with titles such as "The Foreigner," "Vortex" and "They Eat Scum."
"Seeing the movie actually put it in a line for me," said filmmaker and photographer Richard Kern, director of such shock-sleaze curios as "Fingered," on how Danhier laid out the development of the scene. "I thought she did a really good job of that, putting us in a place that made perfectly good sense. We were aware of the people right in front of us, really Beth B and Scott B, and they were in line from the previous ones."
Despite the gritty, big-city subject matter of many of the films — a noir-inflected paranoia and a milieu of drugs and kinky sex are frequent thematic tropes — there was an almost small-town innocence to the collaborative spirit that held sway at the time among these denizens of New York City's artistic enclaves.
"You just ended up meeting everybody in the scene because it was a pretty small scene," Magnuson recalled. "There couldn't have been more than 300 quote-unquote hip people around at the time. You knew who everybody was because they all wore black or pointy-toed shoes. We all had a lot of the same things we loved and hated a lot of the same things too — Squaresville, I guess.
"There were no rules, and that's what was wonderful about being in downtown New York at that time," she added. "For me it was a land of yes. If you had an idea you just did it, you made it happen and you did it on no money."
Among the footage in "Blank City" is a young Buscemi with Mark Boone Junior and Vincent Gallo in Eric Mitchell's "The Way It Is" and Debbie Harry in Poe's "Unmade Beds." Less than half the films featured in "Blank City" have been available on video, with even those slipping in and out of availability.
Kern noted that "Blank City" includes many films, notably the work of James Nares, that even he had never seen before.
Danhier said her detective work gained momentum as she realized she didn't have to act entirely cool and in-the-know when conducting interviews.
"People would ask, 'Have you seen that film?' and in the beginning sometimes I would lie and I'd say, 'Yeah I saw it,'" she said. "And then they'd ask, 'How did you see it? It's impossible.' Sometimes even some filmmakers didn't know where to find their own films."
So Danhier tried hard to turn her inexperience into an asset, which seemed to resonate with her subjects.
"When we started 'Blank City,' we really started with this same attitude — just do it for yourself," she said. "We just had an American Express card and were working jobs on the side the whole time. We really kept the same kind of spirit: When you have an idea, you just need to be strong and struggle and fight.
"It's my first documentary, so I really was a big outsider. Some of the people were reluctant — who is this French girl who's never done a movie before? But I was lucky and got everyone I wanted."
Danhier hopes her film will not be seen as just some sentimental look back but will inspire others to seek out the films of the period, enriching its legacy.
Despite tough talk and the occasional nod to nihilism, the No Wave filmmakers and those who followed in their wake ultimately had a forward-thinking attitude.
As Jarmusch puts it at the conclusion of "Blank City": "Forget about the past; bring on the future."
"I didn't want this to just be a best-of; I really wanted to create a kind of need to see these films," Danhier said. "I think I hoped to get a certain picture of how New York was at that time and what it was like among this community."