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Blank City

Celine Danhier's documentary Blank City is an invigorating love letter to a bygone era, a time when guerrilla filmmakers ran wild in the streets, freely shooting their cinematic visions without the hindrance of Hollywood extravagances like permits, budgets and stars. It is the kind of film that inspires not only nostalgia, but also a forward-thinking desire to follow in the footsteps of its many sometimes deranged but always passionate and interesting subjects. It is a lively documentary, one that celebrates life and manages to revel in nostalgia without ever getting sappy about it.

Blank City follows the rise and eventual fall (or, at least, evolution) of the so-called "No Wave" independent filmmaking scene of New York City in the late 1970s and beyond. A few of the renegades seen in the film went on to become famous and successful - perhaps the biggest names interviewed for the film are John Waters, Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi (Vincent Gallo is also seen in archival footage) - while others remain noteworthy cult figures, highly respected in some circles, but far on the fringes of mainstream renown - Lydia Lunch, Richard Kern, John Lurie. Many of the rest faded completely into obscurity, but the legacy of their approach to filmmaking can be seen in some of today's indie cult success stories made on extraordinarily low-budgets; the DIY approach advocated by this film's subjects can easily be seen in the making of films like Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi (1992), Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994), and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999), to name just a few.

Manhattan in the mid-1970s was a far cry from the consumerist and tourist capital that it is now. Many of the filmmakers and musicians (including Blondie's Deborah Harry and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore) interviewed in the film were living in utter poverty and total chaos at the time. Indeed, much of the city was in the same state; then-president Gerald Ford famously told the practically bankrupt metropolis to "drop dead." The streets at that time were dirty and dangerous in a way they have never been before or since, and this feeling pervades both Danhier's documentary and the many films made by its subjects.

There is a strong sense of anarchy at work here, both in the way these strange, unusual films were made and in their content, which has a liberating effect; when everything is chaos, anything is possible. Thus we have James Nare's Rome '78 (1978), a historical epic about the Roman Empire shot in 1978 Manhattan, and the films of Nick Zedd, with titles like Geek Maggot Bingo or The Freak from Suckweasel Mountain (1983) and War Is Menstrual Envy (1992). Of course, more celebrated and sophisticated films such as Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984) also came out of this movement, but most of the films excerpted in the documentary are unlikely to have been seen by anyone who wasn't a part of the scene at the time.

However, Danhier avoids the pitfalls of making a documentary only for its subjects, as well as those of the "talking head" doc, largely by virtue of the interesting archival footage and still photographs she interweaves with the interview segments that make up the narrative thrust of the film. She also uses modern film techniques to bring some of these old images to life, using computer animation to make snow fall on a 1980s Manhattan street scene, or to make smoke drift dreamily up from a young Jarmusch's cigarette in a still photo. Danhier's love for the spirit of the time is obvious, and it is infectious, making Blank City a lot more fun than a movie about a bunch of movies most people have never heard of probably should be.