In the early 1980s, the Lower East Side of New York — like the Bronx, or Harlem, or Hell’s Kitchen — could have made an easy film double for Berlin circa 1946. The city, facing bankruptcy, was populated with burned-out and ransacked old brownstones interrupted by overgrown vacant lots. New Yorkers fled to the suburbs and were replaced by rats and cockroaches. It’s easy to forget in the post-Seinfeld, post-Giuliani New York, that there was a time when the only people who were left in parts of the city were criminals, lunatics, or the eccentrics crazy enough to seek out such neighbors.
Blank City, Celine Danhier’s documentary about the “No Wave” cinema scene on the Lower East Side during that period, is an homage and portrait, like so many of these kinds of movies tend to be. It is the kind of film that fuels the romantic imaginations of people like the star of Woody Allen’s latest movie, Gil (Owen Wilson), who are inclined to long for more ideal times and a more ideal places to live.
As a bohemian paradise, Danhier’s New York fits the bill, a cluster of creatives living hard, extreme lives full of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and art. Everything they did feels fresh, brash, and hard hitting even these 30 years later. The ensemble of extras — from Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch to Basquiat and Deborah Harry — drives home the ferocity of the cultural ferment incubated by this environment. New York was a hellhole, we are told, but hell holes are bliss for the young, penniless, and ambitiously spirited.
As a portrait of this world, Blank City is chuck full of footage and interesting anecdotes, which make it engrossing and deeply appealing. Stories of dragging a sleeping Basquiat out of shots, or avant-garde Hungarian acting troupes, or breaking into decrepit buildings to shoot guerilla movies that use New York as a backdrop for ancient Rome, abound. Yet these vignettes are shown with the bias of fanciful remembrance. There is a point when one filmmaker recalls the hungry, drug-fueled conditions of making his first film as the best and worst time of his life, but Blank City — like memory — has trouble creating too clear a picture of the bad times. Life on a thin, moth-eaten mattress in a New York winter in an apartment crawling with cockroaches inspired one filmmaker to make a movie that cast cockroaches as the main character. But we hardly get a sense of what it was like to live with them every day.
And why should we? Blank City is not out to debunk the myth that hard conditions foster creativity, and from the mountains of material unearthed in the film, there’s hardly an argument against it. New York circa 1981 emerges as a bohemia that rivals Paris in the 1920s, even if its cultural output is patchy at best. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise naturally holds up, and James Nares Rome ’78 persists as a exemplar of the kind of movies these post-punk nihilists were seeking to create: minimalist, extreme, poorly acted, choppy, and deliberately unpolished. As an aesthetic movement, No Wave drips with cool, and its lasting artistic impact is more about finding a sweet spot in creative expression, the cultural — and psychological — conditions that need to be present to create a movement. Art can be made under a great variety of social and economic conditions, but Blank City proves most exciting and inspiring when it is forged by fire.