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Compared to today, you wouldn’t recognize New York City in the ’70s. Back then, drugs, poverty and urban decay ruled the streets, especially in the economically depressed Lower East Side. This gritty environment gave birth to an underground group of experimental filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, Charlie Ahearn and Nick Zed, whose bizarre GEEK MAGGOT BINGO (top) featured former Fango editor Bob Martin. These transgressive films, dubbed No Wave, took no prisoners just from some of their titles alone (GO TO HELL, SUBMIT TO ME NOW, THEY EAT SCUM, etc.) and soon began gathering a cult following in grungy dive theaters and through VHS bootlegs.
This Cinema of Transgression is celebrated in filmmaker Celine Danhier’s exhaustive and fascinating documentary BLANK CITY (opening April 6 at NYC’s IFC Center from Insurgent Media), which offers revealing interviews with Jarmusch, Kern, Zedd, actor Steve Buscemi (who made his acting debut in these movies; see below), John Waters, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch and many more. Fango spoke with Danhier about her debut film.
FANGORIA: What inspired you to tackle this documentary?
CELINE DANHIER: I was still living in Paris then, and I happened to see this film called ROME 78 from James Nares during a No Wave film retrospective at Beaubourg. This film was starring Lydia Lunch, James Chance, John Lurie, David McDermott, Eric Mitchell, etc. I thought, ‘Wow, what a cast!’ I was familiar with the No Wave music like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and the Contortions, and I knew the movies of Jim Jarmusch, but was not really aware of the No Wave films or many of the other filmmakers from NYC in that period. Seeing this film made me curious what else was out there. I realized there were almost no films available or accessible in France. I had this idea that I wanted to try to track down these filmmakers and find out what they were up to now.
When I later moved to New York, I realized that it was the same in the U.S., and these films or even information about these filmmakers was difficult to find. In 2006 in New York you did have Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place where you could find a huge selection of films on VHS. Sometimes local filmmakers would even just put their film in the rental collection themselves. But there were few copies and often the tapes were damaged and eventually Kim’s actually closed completely. So I really felt that it was a great idea to make this documentary before these films disappeared.
FANG: Do you think these filmmakers have received the recognition they deserve?
DANHIER: No, I don’t think so, and there are actually a lot of reasons for that. It was a different era for sure and you did not have the Internet or other ways of putting your work out there for a wider audience. It was not easy to get exposure outside of New York. Also, the film world in general was different. Indie film as a genre didn’t really exist in the way it does now. But also, at the same time, it was part of the attitude of that period in New York. No one was really thinking about “making it” or starting a career. It was more about the energy or the passion and the creative process.
FANG: Was it difficult to track some of the people down and was everyone receptive?
DANHIER: It sort of unfolded organically and it helped that so many people were still in New York. You met someone, who connects you to someone else who makes a call to someone else, etc. What was amazing was the help that we got from the whole community. It was our first film, we did not have any real connections or experience and we were just driven by our enthusiasm and a sense of the adventure. And maybe that helped because we never heard the word “no”—when we got a “no,” we heard “maybe” and we would work until that “maybe” turned into a “yes.” In the end, I am so happy and thankful to everyone in the film and that we were able to interview so many people from the period.
FANG: Would this movement been possible in any other era and place than NYC in the 1970s?
DANHIER: Well, it is possible, but there were definitely a set of factors that all fell into place in New York in the late ’70s that set the scene. The city was very rundown and a dangerous place then, especially in the Downtown area. Landlords were burning their own buildings to collect the insurance, and drugs were everywhere. In 1975, President Ford refused to bailout New York from its debts and the city was [almost] bankrupt. And then in ’77 you had the infamous blackout with the looting and riots and also the Son of Sam murder case. James Chance explains it well in BLANK CITY when he says, nobody wanted to come to New York except freaks and crazy people.
So it was a combination of having a very raw place that was cheap to live in with that explosive anarchistic energy of the city at that time. There was this struggle to survive and out of that came an energy to create, to fill that empty space; New York was like a Blank City. And it was great because you could shoot your film out on the streets, anywhere you wanted with no restrictions and you had this whole pool of collaborators and co-conspirators to work with. All of that in combination with the rich cultural history New York already had with Warhol, the Beats plus other filmmakers like Robert Frank and Jack Smith or Jonas Mekas. In that sense, it was also a natural artistic progression toward something more radical.
FANG: Some of these films are so raw that they are almost unwatchable.
DANHIER: Well, of course, it’s all a matter of personal preference, but what draws people to these films is that they really encapsulate this moment of New York when energy and creativity had no boundaries. The films were made fast and loose and did not follow any rules of form, or really, any rules period. So there was a great spirit and energy behind the making of them that I think comes across strongly on the screen. The approach was perhaps naïve and it seemed very romantic in a way, but it was really a kind of “pure period,” and the way that they are shot is very specific and inspiring. That’s definitely what people take from it.
FANG: Have the No Wave films remained relevant and inspiring today or are they merely a curiosity?
DANHIER: They do remain relevant and inspiring because of what I said before. You really do feel inspired by the raw, do-it-yourself creative energy and passion in the making of the films, which still comes through on screen today. Especially in this time in particular where we are coming through a recession and where we have had such an overabundance of Hollywood and TV culture. There is definitely a space to be filled with new types of homegrown cinema.
As a filmmaker, it’s very inspiring for me, the DYI spirit, to just go for it and to fight to get your film made each step of the way. The way we shot BLANK CITY was certainly inspired by that. We started with zero and built up from there. It was a huge amount of work, and there were plenty of really difficult days, but in the end it proves you can still get a film made with that spirit.
FANG: Why haven’t more of these directors gained Jim Jarmusch-level success?
DANHIER: I absolutely love Jim’s films, but I don’t really like to speculate about that. I will say that I do think distribution is one factor. A lot of filmmakers didn’t find the same opportunities for getting their films out to a wider audience. Also, as it was such a fluctuating period and most of these filmmakers were quite young, a lot of people went on to find successes in other areas. Like, for example, James Nares who turned his focus to painting and is a great painter, or Richard Kern who switched his focus to photography.
FANG: How much do these films owe the punk music scene that they fed off of?
DANHIER: The punk scene started slightly earlier and you had Amos Poe’s BLANK GENERATION with the New York Dolls, Blondie, and the Ramones, which sort of launched the film movement. It was shot without sync sound, on the fly with very little money and it showed a lot of other people that it was possible. As for the punk music scene, I’d say the films didn’t directly come out of it, but they shared a similar philosophy and attitude. In retrospect you can say punk really broke open a whole lot of cultural movements. It’s part of that natural progression of culture in New York and of art in general. With BLANK CITY, we wanted to do a film like PLEASE KILL ME, the book from Legs McNeal. Let everyone tell their story and from these stories put together a documentary. So in a way, the punk scene inspired us as well.
And as for the success of the New York punk scene, yes, it did play some part with the films. With the success of bands like Blondie and Patti Smith, it suddenly brought attention from people outside of the small Downtown community. Eventually the whole scene changed when New York started to become the center of the art world in the mid-‘80s. That initial success and recognition the punk bands and CBGB gained played into that.
FANG: How important was genre, specifically horror, to these movies?
DANHIER: You can see influences from a lot of different genres in the films like noir, New Wave, etc. With horror you could see some connection to the Cinema of Transgression group of filmmakers as well. There is a fantasy and gore element in a lot of those ’70s horror films that was an influence, that expressionistic visual style.
Also, the genre of midnight movies plays a role with these films. Especially in New York where you had a lot of the theaters playing late night movies of the horror or cult variety. When I am thinking about horror movies, it’s cliché, but I am thinking about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. This film was one of the first midnight movies. Today, the “midnight movie” label signifies outsider cachet and transgressive chic. The No Wave and Cinema of Transgression films have some of that cachet as well.
FANG: What’s next for you?
DANHIER: First thing is to take a rest for a moment! It has been a great up and down ride with BLANK CITY, and I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me next. Otherwise, I am working on some new ideas, more in the narrative and experimental vein, but still in the beginning creative stages.
After BLANK CITY opens in NYC on Wednesday 6, the film will platform out to Denver, Boston, LA, San Francisco, Philly, DC, Berkeley, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio from May to August. Learn more here at BLANK CITY’s official website.
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