Cult doco Blank City is screened in Melbourne this month. Director Celine Danhier recalls New York's No Wave art movement and what's lacking in filmmaking today
Céline Danhier was always drawn to New York. “Its history, its culture, the energy that comes from it,” she says. “It has this incredible power – the pull of the city.” And she found herself fascinated with a specific time and place: the East Village in the late '70s and early '80s.
This was the birthplace of what came to be known as the No Wave movement – a name borrowed from the post-punk music of the same era. Some of those involved in these underground films will be familiar, like Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, and Lydia Lunch. Other might not but should be, like Amos Poe, Nick Zedd, and Beth and Scott B.
Danhier was amazed no one had made a documentary about this scene before and – along with producer Aviva Wishnow and editor Vanessa Roworth – decided to do something about it. She’d never been to film school; laughing, she says she knew nothing about making a film at all. She gave up her law career in France, moved to New York, and began Blank City. “We didn’t wait to find money, or a production company. We just had a credit card. We bought everything we needed with American Express.”
Only later did it occur to her how the documentary’s genesis was in the spirit of No Wave, too. Those men and women set aside the usual concerns about skill and technique, seeking something more truthful and raw, crossing haphazardly between different art forms. “The scene was a mix of filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians, who all made work that inspired each other, and inspired them all to work together. It was a creative explosion brought on by collaboration.”
Danlier wonders if that risk taking lacking today, when so much is tied up tight with economic realities. “You have to be very conscious of what you’re doing, because you don’t want to waste your time or money.” Still, she never wanted Blank City to be an exercise in nostalgia. “At that time, you had to be in New York,” she says, “because New York was where it was happening. What’s great now, with new technology, is that you can do whatever you want and upload it and show it to the world. It’s amazing.”
Blank City is a love letter to New York, but it’s the city as seen through what Danlier calls her “outsider eyes”. She wanted to make something “right and strong”; something that captured the spirit of both No Wave films and the provocative, abrasive, boundary-pushing Cinema of Transgression that followed it.
Sadly, many of the 80-something films featured in Blank City are now almost impossible to see. Danlier sings the praises of Michael Oblowitz’s King Blank from 1983: a movie about an unravelling, destructive relationship set in a New York airport hotel. She’s been working with Oblowitz to find a way to present it to audiences again. “And if a theatre wants to show it in Australia,” she suggests, “they should contact Mike!”
Blank City screens as part of Speakeasy presents Moonshine Cinema on Tuesday, 26 Feb.