Drawing a blank
HOW DO YOU make a movie about New York’s fiercely DIY, down-and-dirty school of No Wave art? By adhering to a fiercely DIY, down-and-dirty No Wave methodology, of course. Just ask acclaimed, Nantes-born documentary director Céline Danhier.
“The No Wave philosophy was ‘go make a record, go make a movie, go make something’,” says the filmmaker. “The fact that I am here with my movie shows that this is still possible.” Six years ago, Danhier graduated from the Sorbonne with a law degree only to discover that “office life at a law firm was not for me – but it was a good training for working with stories”.
Living in Paris, she turned to the arts as a member of the avant-garde theatre group La Compagnie Vapeur and as an experimental short filmmaker. A chance viewing of James Nares’s Rome ’78 – screened as part of a retrospective of No Wave films at the Centre Pompidou – changed everything for the budding artist.
“When I was living in Paris I was listening to a lot of No Wave music like the Contortions and Lizzy Mercier Descloux,” she explains. “But I did not know that this label existed in cinema as well. When I saw some of the films at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris I was amazed that so many of the people I was listening to at home – like Lydia Lunch and James Chance – were in these movies. And I was amazed by how crazy and free the films were. And I immediately set about trying to track down the people who made them.” Within months, Danhier discovered that she could only get so far from her Parisian base. She soon relocated to New York, determined to chronicle the lost generation of Blank movie pioneers, including Amos Poe, Bette Gordon, Patti Astor, Nick Zedd, Vivienne Dick and Jim Jarmusch. In keeping with the original No Wave spirit, she had no formal training, one maxed-out American Express card and “not great English”.
“I had to go to New York to complete the project,” says Danhier. “I met Aviva Wishnow (producer) and Vanessa Roworth (editor) soon after I got there and we started working on a documentary in the style of Legs McNeil’s book Please Kill Me. We wanted to let the story unfold through the interviews and anecdotes, in the words of the people who lived it. And that was our Blank City.” All told, Danhier spent four years viewing experimental period films and chasing down the architects of the No Wave aesthetic.“At the beginning I had a naive proposal and a list of people I would like to have in the film,” she laughs.
“And it was lucky I was naive because I do not think it could have happened if I had known what I was doing. But once we started to meet people it snowballed. News travelled. Everyone I interviewed always seemed to have the contact information of another artist I was looking for. People were very helpful.
“I wasn’t personally familiar with anyone from that generation. I was younger. I was French. And I was very, very pushy. If someone said ‘no’, I always asked if it was because they were busy. Because I could clear my schedule and wait.”
The soundtrack of the Blank Generation who inhabited the crumbling blocks of NYC’s Lower East Side during the late 1970s and early 1980s has formed the spine of any knowing music collection for almost three decades.The films, however, are less well known. Blank City, in addition to tracing a more familiar trajectory between Blondie and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, unearths the grainy, pointedly crass visuals of Richard Kern, Cassandra Stark Mele, Eric Mitchell, Scott B and Beth B.
“I was so curious about the films,” says Danhier. “They were so raw, so wild. New York was such a different place then. It was run down and almost bankrupt. But because there was no economic support there were no economic restrictions.” Did spending all that time in the archives make her sorry she missed out on the poorer, freer East Village of yore? “Well, because I missed it I am not nostalgic,” she says. “It is true that if you were making a documentary about New York now it would have to be called the ‘clean city’. Every day the last traces of the old city are disappearing and are replaced with new and clean things. CBGBs is gone. Even the Chelsea Hotel is gone. I don’t know what kind of city will emerge from this period. But there is still an incredible energy about New York. I still have this idea of it as a place where everything is possible. I still love it.”
STEVE BUSCEMIThere’s plenty of footage from the archives featuring the young Buscemi horsing around with the soon-to-be-famous. Even on big Hollywood paydays, says the actor, he sure misses the freedom of being blank.
LYDIA LUNCHThe influential chanteuse is a key figure in the transition between No Wave films and the even more outré Cinema of Transgression. Think: Rip it up. Start again. Add more sex and violence.
From Madonna to Julian Schnabel, there are plenty of youngsters who got their start in or around No Wave. But only a few, namely Sonic Youth, continue to proudly plough the furrow.
FAB 5 FREDDY
Blank City extends the traditional No Wave narrative to include Fab 5 and Charlie Ahearn’s seminal Cannes entry Wild Style, the earliest chronicle of the style that would grow up to be hip hop.
The Donegal-born filmmaker behind Beauty Becomes the Beast and She Had Her Gun All Ready is, according to J Hoberman, the “quintessential No Wave filmmaker”. She currently teaches film at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
If it isn’t illegal to make a documentary about New York in the late-1970s without referencing Blondie and interviewing Herself, then it ought to be. And yes, John Waters pops up for a chat, too.
The filmmaker behind movies Down by Law and Ghost Dog: The Year of the Samurai pops up in Blank City with an amusing tale of stolen cameras and how No Wave cinema got started.
Many of Danhier’s interviewees talk about the authorities moving on the once swinging East Village. Others cite AIDS and Ronald Reagan. But Lurie blames commercialisation and particularly painter Basquiat for seeking out wealthy friends once his art started selling.
The brilliant director of Sleepwalk and As Pigs Fly has frequently been overlooked in favour of her more famous domestic partner, Jim Jarmusch. But plenty of critics, notably Jonathan Rosenbaum, rank Driver above any of her contemporaries.
* Blank City is out now on DVD and iTunes