EIFF 2010 Film Review: Blank City

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Anger Is An Energy

Blank City (Celine Danhier, USA, 2009, 94mins)

“Anger is an energy” hollered John Lydon, once upon a time, and right he was. The question that ricocheted around my cerebellum following Celine Danhier’s suitable scratchy visit to the New York of the mid-seventies and the so called “No Wave” cinema that grew from the dilapidated tenements of Manhattan’s lower east side, was did this energy go anywhere or was it eventually subsumed into the dominant culture from which it came?

Danhier’s title is an allusion to Amos Poe’s King Blank, but the city in question, New York, is blank with good reason. Fascinating talking heads, Jim Jarmusch, the disturbing Nick Zedd (who in middle age looks like Tommy Wiseau’s stunt double) and Steve Buschemi amongst them, suggest that the Lower East side of 1976 was a blank (they resist saying canvas) ; a soulless, spiritual necropolis onto which a group of disparate and penniless artists, of which more in a moment, pooled their imagination and cunning to make movies.

Onto this wasteland, armed with just a bunch of cheap Super 8 cameras, they projected their angst, libidinous desire, social and political grievances and ironically, given the community dynamic and locality of it all – a few blocks at best – sense of dislocation.

Hannah McGill’s notes for the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening posited that the film asks “is deprivation a necessary component of untrammelled creativity?” With both No Wave and its nihilistic spin off, the Cinema of Transgression, spearheaded by Zedd amongst others, now set in amber, a modern audience can cast its magnifying glass over the period and challenge the movements pretensions, as well as the cult of the down-at-heel creative.

These filmmakers were drawn to a romantic idea; pouring art into society’s empty vessel. Listening to Poe, Richard Kern and later, Zedd, talking about the cheat of conformity and molestation of art by genre, you’re drawn to the irony that all of this ostensibly rebellious filmmaking and associated punk music scene; the nihilism, the filth and the fury as the detested branding would have it; is just another cultural production built on sentimentality and the need to belong to something larger than ourselves. Without the sentimental notion that art elevates and, as Nick Zedd had it, transforms the individual to allow transcendence, there’s no creativity, at least none of value. The imperatives that drove Jarmusch, Richard Kern and Eric Mitchell are identical to those that form the commodified culture the group despised.

Zedd’s Trangression manifesto told its audience that if a film didn’t shock it was worthless. One wonders what Zedd would have told the conformist who suggested that if every film shocks then none shock. There lay the problem with the No Wave; as soon as a culture of exclusion was embraced, it was no longer exclusive and therefore became just another rite of passage rung on the ladder to comfortable and socially conservative middle age. The trailblazers, who’d staked their entire identity on the enterprise, were left to calcify as living breathing anachronisms.

Danhier’s bricolage makes you nostalgic for a cultural experience you never had. You feel the zeal and the counter-cultural optimism in low-rent agitprop like Kern’s Fingered,“a date movie for psychos” and Zedd’s wonderfully bleak They Eat Scum, which imagines a life-hating youth movement who cause a nuclear reactor core meltdown to kill the indigenous population. Yes, there’s levity alright, so why the encroaching sense of disillusion, not dissimilar to the dread that one contributor recalled, haunted the metropolis as the underground movement buckled under Reagan’s sweeping social changes?

Perhaps it’s the notion, intoxicating to my mind, that there’s no such thing as individualism. The one disadvantage to aged wisdom, maybe, is the realisation that any counter-cultural or anti-authoritarian tendency only gains accreditation through peers uniting behind a null ideology. It is, in itself, a type of conformity; group think, as rigid in its conventions as the mass culture it imagines and loathes, but conformity nonetheless.

Lydia Lunch, in a revealing exchange, noticeably grimaces as she remembers the term “No Wave” being coined in the Village Voice. She rejects any kind of label of course, because labels are attributed by those external to the art, it’s fatuous branding, but this one was a necessary evil as it allowed the media, that old establishment warhorse, to get a hook on what was happening and make it accessible to the kind of people, the feckless herd, who needed labels. Now middle aged, Lunch has gobbled up the cult of the individual and clings to it like a comfort blanket. “No Wave is okay I suppose because it says NO. Wave. It’s not a wave, so what the fuck is it?” This made me chortle because here was a movie which needed a narrative and was postulating the opposite of that sentiment, that there was a movement, there was a “wave” and it lasted so many years and it can be said to include x and y and Lydia Lunch is part of it and yet, despite her willingness to participate in such a retrospective, there was still a reluctance to accept that there was a thread, or a common aesthetic, though the film shows it very clearly, or that the pliable brains of the mainstream, so soggy and heavy with received wisdom, couldn’t hope to understand the student politics or the inverse-elitism or the internal set of clichés which characterised the rebellion. Blank City takes the movement’s pronouncements as self-evident, without recourse to dissenting voices.

It’s fascinating social history and essential for any would-be film historian, but the truth, as ever, is an undiscovered country for the audience to explore. No filmmaker, however familiar they profess to be with the route, can take you there.

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