New York City has seen its share of artistic revolutions, though any kind of positive revolution might have seemed impossible in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The city was crippled by massive debt with no help from the federal government, and whole neighbourhoods were urban war zones as countless buildings were left abandoned or left to decay. Those who dared reside in areas such as the Lower East Side took their life into their hands just leaving their apartments. But out of this came the No Wave film movement, documented in Celine Danhier’s Blank City, an exploration of the films and filmmakers who managed to create a cultural revolution, one Super 8 film at a time. Artists such as Jim Jarmusch, Beth B, Debbie Harry, John Lurie, Amos Poe and Susan Seidelman share their stories of strange and exciting years of poverty and creativity, and how in many ways the poverty fueled that creativity. They shared equipment, skills, and worked on each others’ films, found venues to exhibit them, all the while living in cockroach-infested apartments for $200 a month (an incredible price for NYC). At this time, cities did not require films to pay for filming permits, so the directors shot anywhere, anytime, and worked around public and traffic issues. They found abandoned building to shoot in, scavenged for set pieces, or sometimes didn’t use any set pieces at all.
These filmmakers were in many ways picking up where Hollywood independent film left off when it moved on to high concept blockbusters. It was also before the late 1980s push to financially justify the work, which turned the art and cinema scene in New York into a more commercial arena. Unlike later film and art movements, this one was called “No Wave” for a reason. While the work was linked by the people, the attitudes, themes and aesthetics were different. Each helped each other along their own path, This hand-to-hand style of filmmaking was also the route of Danhier’s investigation; as she found one subject to interview, they would give her the next contact, and so on. Despite the influence it had on American independent cinema, many of these artists have not had much attention, perhaps because they were subsumed by bull market of late 1980s art scene (populated by artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat, once a part of the No Wave scene until he began to make money). The film is brilliantly edited, cutting between interviews, clips from the films, and archival footage of clubs and parties. The aesthetics reflect the strange world she is examining. Danhier finds a connection between the No Wave revolution and today’s increasingly accessibility of technology and broadcasting. All the No Wave artists needed was a cheap camera, some friends to perform, and a cheap venue to screen. Today we have relatively affordable cameras, and YouTube. Certainly, New York is no longer cheap, as with most major cities; but modern technology perhaps can permit a new kind of No Wave revolution.