New York, New Cinema
In one of the opening scenes of Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), a long, slow tracking shot follows a young girl walking through a desolate, empty city street. Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s “I Put A Spell On You” plays on the movie’s soundtrack as the lone girl walks down a series of blocks filled with bleak, run-down buildings and barren alleyways.
The image and setting is ironically depressing and faintly post-apocalyptic. It is as if the setting was in some war-ravaged Eastern European city, when in fact, the film was set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year 1984.
New York can be a magical city. From the neon wonderland that is Times Square to the hip, urban bohemian hangouts of Greenwich Village, New York City has a certain charm and quality that has made it one of the greatest cities in the world. Yet, in the 1970s and early 1980s, a new film movement, known as “no wave,” emerged to depict a not-so-glamorous New York, and showed images that were far from the timeless and classic settings portrayed in iconic NYC-based films.
The movement was a stripped-down, DIY approach to filmmaking that not only revolutionized the art of independent cinema at the time, but doubled as a strong cultural statement for the obscure and revolutionary art and music scene in New York. It was a movement that featured a derelict culture of offbeat and pioneering artists and musicians, and combined a strong sense of collaborative unity, shoestring budgets, unique visions, and DIY sensibility.
As a whole, “no wave” sparked a nuanced, minimalist and wholly original aesthetic for films.
Blank City, a new, fascinating documentary by French newcomer Celine Danhier, documents the history of No Wave cinema and the “cinema of transgression,” a term coined by No Wave director Nick Zedd to describe the sadistic and darkly humorous shock value of much of the latter work of many No Wave filmmakers.
Through in-depth, candid interviews and amusing anecdotes with such notorious “no wavers” as Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, John Lurie, James Chance, John Waters, Beth B, Scott B, James Nares, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch, and many others, Danhier manages to create a rousing and informative documentary that does justice to the spirit of No Wave cinema.
The impetus for No Wave cinema came from the “no wave” music movement. As anyone who was around New York, especially in downtown Manhattan in the late 1970s would tell you, it was not the most glamorous place to be, and was filled with not-so-glamorous people.
According to James Chance (of the bands Teenage Jesus and the Jerks/James Chance and the Contortions), “Straight people were trying to escape New York. The only people who wanted to come to New York were like freaks and crazy people.”
In 1978, Brian Eno (of Roxy Music) curated a compilation album titled No New York, a 16-track compilation of songs by the bands D.N.A, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and James Chance and the Contortions. When the album was released, it introduced the world to an emerging music scene that was born out of the frustrations of dilapidated industrial slums in the Lower East Side.
The No Wave music movement was less of a pinned-down style or sound of music, and more of an unorthodox methodical approach to starting a band and playing music. The art-punk sound of the movement was less of a testament to the reinvention of sound with suspect professionalism or musicianship, than it was of curious
artists attempting to expand into a new medium, whether they were good or not. “Nobody was doing what they were good at,” remarks Lurie in the film. “The painters were in bands, the musicians were making films.”
Thus No Wave cinema was born.
It started as a sort of avantgarde approach for these artists and musicians to try their hand at something that was completely foreign to them. But for these artist-turned-filmmakers, they took that avant-garde approach and found a stylistic niche to create a movement. Above all else, these No Wave filmmakers valued the mood, raw texture, and lo-fi aesthetic of their films rather than trying to string together a coherent narrative or structure.