the tidal pool reveals its treasures: Blank City film

what most people were doing in the 1980s


Blank City review:

It’s interesting how the cultural history of the recent past is interesting to young film makers who seek to unearth the hidden history of the counter cultures and bring them forth. Such as Suzanne Tabata’s Bloodied But Unbowed (2010) investigation of the unique Vancouver based punk music scene in the late 70s – early 80s, which I have ordered but not yet seen as it’s not released yet in the UK (like most Canadian films).

Now we have Blank City also 2010, by Celine Danhier a young French film maker fascinated by the New York “no wave” scene and particularly its film makers. Blank City did get a UK release and the DVD is due out in April. And its well worth a viewing.

Both films uncover a specific period when music, film and art were resolutely uncommercial: that cusp between the “hippie” counter culture’s morphing into stadium rock and the super-commodification of all art forms which happened during the 1980s. The “no wave” films of Irish artist Vivienne Dick (always worth seeing), Beth and Scott B, the transgressive films of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern … I remembered them from the 80s, from the magazines, and the occasional showing in grimy screening rooms and parties, on crappy VHS tapes.


Blank City shows us clips of a decaying New York, a city that in the 70s was slowly falling apart, and in the nooks and crannies of ruin were growing the green shoots of a new creativity. Yet that isn’t actually the narrative. These artists for the most part just did their thing, and didn’t go all commercial, they just kept doing what they did and sometimes made money from it. Even the biggest “stars” to emerge from the “no wave”, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch, are still industry mavericks, fully independent and continuing the do what they want. (I say this now, hoping Jarmusch does not sign to direct Ocean’s 21 next week). Instead, the narrative is of a vibrant art scene in a derelict city, getting pushed aside when the city discovers money. Yes, “regeneration” another word for development and financial hubris caused by real estate prices.

And when I saw the film I wondered why the same rebellious creative energy when it existed in Canada went really only into music and not really into art or film. Aside from Ed Mowbray’s atmospheric 1985 doc Not Dead Yet about the Toronto punk scene, I can’t think of any really underground films coming out of Canada in that era. We had a lot of artists, so what happened? Maybe the stakes weren’t high enough? We weren’t pissed off enough? I was pretty involved with photography in the late 80s early 90s, doing a Nan Goldin kind of schtick, but my friends and me just weren’t very messed up!

Watching Blank City, it’s interesting to imagine what might have happened if the same crew of young artists hit NYC today, full of dreams and spit and vinegar. Within a few months they’d have been famous. Nick Zedd would have got a modelling contract. Lydia Lunch would have her own chat show. Scott and Beth B would have been enroute to Hollywood before you can say “Sundance.” Vivienne Dick probably would have not bothered, and gone to Berlin instead. Richard Kern would have been shooting fashion and celebs – actually that is what he does now, but really well, with style and – dare I say it – some integrity. Basically they would have been recuperated in the blink of an eye and resold to us packaged neatly and with the rough edges smoothed down. And if they could not handle that, hounded by the press until they died, à la the beautiful and wondrous Amy W.

Danhier lets the subjects do the talking, and cuts together a series of remarkable and fascinating and apparently very open honest interviews with al the key players of the era. It’s aided by some clever editing and design that updates the film, and counterpoints the imagery of the original films which were made on super 8 and VHS.

Blank City was joy to see in the cinema, the images big and glorious, the full splendour of the crude super8 clips showing us why HD is just not mysterious enough …

It made me dig out my own old underground flicks, made before I got into the whoredom of “artist-film” (I am recovering – more on that later) and give them a look. The sheer fun of badly made, spirited, energetic cinema. (sneaky peeky: )