Blank City: New York No Wave

Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds
“There was a place on Rivington Street where you could rent cameras really cheaply, and people buying dope would line up and they’d yell at me like ‘What are you doing? Get in the line!’ I’d have to fight through the junkies to get the equipment.” – Jim Jarmusch
“Nobody was doing what they knew how to do, cuz if you knew how to do something it was kind of like, ‘No no no, you can’t have any technique.’ The painters were in bands, the musicians were painting or making films … ” – John Lurie

Those are just a few choice quotations from interviewees in Celine Danhier’s 2010 chronicle of the No Wave movement, which stretched from roughly 1975 to 1985. No Wave had two components – film and music – and both are nicely represented in Blank City, though the emphasis is primarily on the films.

When I first watched Blank City, I hadn’t heard of most of these people, since No Wave tends to get overshadowed by the CBGB punk scene and the hip hop scene, all of which were happening at the same time in NYC. No Wave, both musically and cinematically, was actually kind of a bridge between punk and hip hop, even though it was much more related to punk.

Actually, it’s impossible to totally separate any of these art movements. We hear filmmakers Amos Poe, Michael Oblowitz, Jim Jarmusch and others talking about how they met each other at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City or the Mudd Club, which is where everybody hung out in the evenings. Some of the actors in the No Wave films are musicians from those places, such as Richard Hell and Debbie Harry. The bridge between them all is probably best personified by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who in addition to being a hugely successful painter, also played in a No Wave band called Gray (along with Vincent Gallo and Michael Holman) and starred in a No Wave film (Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81) alongside Fab Five Freddy. Basquiat also designed the album cover for an influential early hip hop record, Rammellzee and K-Rob’s “Beat Bop.”

But if Basquiat bridged the gaps between the various NYC art scenes, he may have also helped to destroy them, at least according to John Lurie:

Jean-Michel Basquiat was this kid who slept on my floor.  We used to have fun – and then he got really rich.  And he, almost single-handedly, turned it into, ‘If you don’t have money, you’re not cool.’  Whereas before it was like, if you had money you weren’t cool.  I hate him for that to this day, because that attitude ruined a lot of things.

Well, each man kills the thing he loves. But while it lived, No Wave was remarkable.

As with punk, the story begins at CBGB. Amos Poe made a film collage of the bands who were playing there in ’75 and ’76, and that became Blank Generation, the first punk rock film. Poe then went on to make his “underground trilogy,” beginning with Unmade Beds – his remake of Godard’s Breathless – in 1976, The Foreigner in ’77, and Subway Riders in ’81. All three films were shot in NYC on a minimal budget, starring many of the same people from the No Wave scene, such as Patty Astor, Eric Mitchell, and John Lurie.

Another prominent interviewee, and one of the most successful directors to emerge from the No Wave scene, is Jim Jarmusch. His 1980 debut Permanent Vacation is a priceless document of New York City at that turn of the decade. Jarmusch tells an amusing story of Basquiat being asleep on the floor during the filming of some of the scenes, and being pulled off into the corner, out of view of the camera.

There are also interviews with Charlie Ahearn, director of the classic hip hop film Wild Style, and before that, the vastly under-appreciated Deadly Art of Survival, about kung fu fighting in the projects (the true origin of Wu Tang Clan?) and with Glenn O’Brien, host of the pioneering cable access show TV Party, which is now available on DVD and on YouTube.

One surprising interviewee was the philosopher Manuel De Landa, who I had no idea was involved in the No Wave scene, as I first heard of him as one of the premier expositors of the maddeningly difficult thought of Gilles Deleuze, in such books as A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. Then, while checking out an old clip of an Eric Mitchell film from 1980, what did I see but a virtual blueprint for that book’s cyber-psychedelic cover art and design. (It’s here at the 3:00 minute mark for those who are interested.)

Blank City is a one-of-a-kind film that stands as a the definitive documentary about No Wave. My only regret in watching it is that it made me want to see a lot of films that are simply not available anymore, if they ever were available outside of selected theater showings in NYC.

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