My August 2011 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 339.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE
New York in the '70s and '80s. We've heard the stories. It was a crime ravaged rat hole. The city was broke. Allegedly no one wanted to live there. So rent was cheap and a person could get by on almost nothing. It was among this rubble that punk rock bred. Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard and Andy Warhol amateur filmmakers took Super 8 and 16-mm cameras to the streets making films starring their friends. The films were rough and gritty and fortunately some of these friends went on to become well-known musicians, artists and actors.
Blank City tells the story of this New York underground film scene of the '70s and '80s, taking as a starting point Ivan Kral and Amos Poe's Blank Generation. Blank Generation is a soundless film documenting some of the bands playing at CBGBs at the time: Television, Blondie, Ramones, Talking Heads and others. Later Kral and Poe recorded the bands playing live to have a soundtrack to go with the film since none of them had records out at the time.
Once others saw Blank Generation they began picking up cameras and making films. It was a time of experimentation. People did what they didn't know. Musicians doing art. Artists making music. People with no experience and no money making films. There are stories shared of borrowing cameras, stealing film and robbing to get money to develop the film. These are some of the more interesting stories in the film. They are told with a nonchalant attitude because that's what they had to do so they did it. The show must go on.
Of course, the good times never last forever. People outside the group begin to discover the scene. With success comes money. John Lurie humorously (and probably truthfully) blames Jean-Michel Basquiat for changing the scene and making it about success and money. Lurie relates that once Basquiat got some, he felt that if others didn't they weren't worth hanging out with. This attitude starts to pervade things as people try to make it. Some do and the movement shifts directions as it goes into in the '80s.
While the '70s filmmakers were originally less self-conscious, the '80s ones wore their attitudes on their sleeves. They turned toward more harsh subjects and away from the mainstream. Nick Zedd coined the term Cinema of Transgression to announce the current batch of filmmakers. However, some of the other filmmakers quickly grew tired of being part of Zedd's movement or at least that's how they tell it in Blank City.
The lasting effect of these films is that they captured New York at a particular time. You get to see the burned out buildings and the vacant lots. Likewise, the most interesting part of Blank City is the film clips. The clips are interspersed with the usual present day talking head interviews. Blank City gets an interview with every one you would expect and want plus more, but after endless validation of the importance of the time it gets to be a bit too much. No matter how strongly you feel about the subject the constant barrage begins to bore.
In hindsight everything sounds perfect. Perhaps too perfect. While there is occasional mentions of drugs, AIDS and death, one of the more annoying aspects of Blank City is the rosy eyed view that everything that was happening was really fantastic and important. I am sure it was fun and looking back on it you can't help but revel it in. I hope at the very least Blank City inspires others to get cameras and start making films. Equipment is smaller and easier to come by these days. There is no reason people can't take to the streets and make a film. Get to work. Blank City
Fortunately a lot of the films shown in Blank City are available on DVD or on the web. Inspired I picked up Downtown 81. Downtown 81 stars Basquiat as himself. As the film starts Basquiat is released from a hospital. When he returns to his apartment he finds himself evicted for not paying rent. He tricks his landlord into letting him back into the apartment. While there Basquiat grabs a painting that he knows he can sell. Back on the street, he meets a model who wants to take care of him forever.
The remaining story of Downtown 81 consists of Basquiat traveling around New York trying to find the model, trying to sell his painting, spray painting graffiti and stopping by various clubs. There are musical performances by DNA, The Plastics, Tuxedomoon and others. Like all the films of Blank City Downtown 81 captures a very specific time and place. It may not be a documentary per se, but it comes across as one.
Although Downtown 81 was shot in 1980 and 1981 problems with post-production caused the film to be lost until 1999. It was finally released in 2000. Downtown 81
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I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at email@example.com. I will go see it.