INTERVIEW: Blank Cityby Jonathan Doyle
In the late seventies, a group of New York artists, musicians and filmmakers -- most of whom resisted those titles -- launched a strain of startling, unconventional art broadly categorized as the No Wave movement. Major actors (Steve Buscemi), directors (Jim Jarmusch) and musicians (Sonic Youth) emerged from this movement, but it also spawned a second, more harshly confrontational wave known as the Cinema of Transgression. While many of the filmmakers who contributed to these movements are forgotten today, their films are resurrected in all their shocking vitality in director Celine Danhier's lively, detail-packed debut, Blank City.
More than just a routine talking heads history lesson (though the Talking Heads do make an appearance), Blank City provides abundant evidence of the raw expression that propelled these artists to international acclaim and/or notoreity. Danhier also provides persuasive evidence of the films' enduring impact and continued relevance, both as provocative works of art and triumphs of no budget filmmaking. One of the great achievements of these filmmakers was their ability to thrive creatively, in spite of their complete lack of resources. Danhier and her collaborators skillfully capture the creative excitement that made this possible, pouring a similarly cash-strapped passion into their own work.
Blank City gives much-needed shape and clarity to one of most chaotic periods in New York's storied history of indie filmmaking. Names like Amos Poe, James Nares and Nick Zedd may not ring a bell, but that's all the more reason to consider this passionate argument for their place in film history. Once you've processed the story of these transgressive cinematic renegades, you have no choice but to continue the journey. It really is that addcitive. Rating: 9.1/10
I spoke with Danhier and producer Aviva Wishnow about their inspiration, their process, the filmmakers they interviewed and the unlikely No Wave resuscitation that their film may have already inspired.
Media Party: I saw the movie last night with some friends and we all came out of it feeling really inspired. Is that something you had in mind when you made the film? Did you think it might have this potential to inspire people?
Celine Danhier: I think the first thing is we were very inspired by these films and the movement and the way that they did the films at the time. The way that we did this film is we basically kept the exact same philosophy: just do it. It's great because it worked and it still works.
Aviva Wishnow: We were inspired by a lot of the films in the documentary. To us, that's kind of like the best thing, that those films and then our documentary inspires other people to make films. I think we were hoping to show that, no matter what's going on -- and the economy's going downhill -- you can still be creative and sort of find a way to do it.
MP: But the material you shot doesn't seem as gritty as the films you're showing onscreen. It seems like you had some resources to work with.
AW: Well, we had, I guess one... credit card. And...
CD: A lot of energy!
CD: No, but it's true.
AW: Eventually, we got another credit card. We pulled-in a lot of favors. A lot of people we know work in various parts of filmmaking, so they were very useful, like "I know a sound person who would be really good and they'll do it for very little." Also, we were working full-time jobs, so that was partially how we funded the film. But it was definitely intentional to maximize our very limited resources -- it was shot in HD -- to just broaden the audience.
MP: It's also kind of nice to have some contrast between the contemporary interview material and the clips from the films. But could you ever see yourselves making a film more along the lines of the films in Blank City? Could you imagine making that kind of raw fictional cinema or do you think of yourselves as documentary filmmakers?
CD: I think when you're working on something like this, it's driven by an idea, so the idea can be translated to a documentary or a [fictional] movie. I just like the idea. For the next project, I want to do a long feature film.
AW: I have a couple projects that I'm working on as a producer. One's a documentary and one's fiction. I feel like I don't have to be limited to just working in documentary or just working in fiction, kind of like the filmmakers in Blank City, who were kind of crossing those genres. I'm not necessarily doing that, but I feel like if I'm going to do a documentary that I feel passionate about, I'm going to do it. And if I want to do a fictional film, I'm going to do it.
MP: So what are your day jobs?
CD: I was working as a fashion designer, so this was something completely different. During the day, it was fashion and on the weekend and at night, it was Blank City.
MP: Do you have a preference?
CD: No, I don't think so. You know, it's great that we did it, but it's a lot of energy. For like three years, you have to spend your time just working, working, working. I think you can mix, but sometimes you need to evolve and sometimes you need to be one hundred percent focussed on one direction because otherwise something can be lost.
AW: I've been working in film, but more on the distribution end and I was working in international sales. This was sort of my first move into production.
MP: I'm curious, how did you get interested in No Wave films? Celine, I read that you saw a retrospective in Paris.
CD: Yes, but it was small. It didn't have a lot of films, it was just like the most successful films. So with Aviva, we met in New York and we were listening to the same kind of music, No Wave music.
MP: So when you met each other, you both already had an interest in this topic?
AW: In the music for sure. I remember Celine putting her headphones on me. She had her iPod and was like, "Listen to this." I was like, "Yeah, I know this song."
CD: I was like, "Oh, you know it?"
MP: It's a real litmus test because a lot of people cannot deal with that kind of music at all.
AW: Yeah, I know.
MP: Had you guys seen the film Llik Your Idols, which also deals with the Cinema of Transgression?
AW: No, I never saw it.
CD: Did you see it?
MP: I haven't seen it. I actually didn't even know about it until I started doing research about your film.
AW: I guess when we started, because it seems like a topic that there already should have been a documentary about in a way, we definitely asked the first filmmakers that we talked with, "Has there been any other documentary about this?" And I guess that one was shot like six years prior and nobody knew what was going to happen with it, so we kind of took that as the like, "All right, I guess we're free." You know, it's like this hidden film and I don't know if it was shot on VHS or hi-8, but it was shot on some older camera. And the people who we interviewed who were in that didn't feel very positive about what that would be, so we felt like okay, there are a lot of documentaries that never get finished and it's probably going to be one of those. And then of course it came out.
MP: Yeah, it looks like it came out on DVD right as you were finishing your film.
AW: Yeah and we were way too far along to stop. But we still haven't seen it.
MP: One of the things I really liked about your film is that people like Nick Zedd -- I had never heard of him, but his films look really fascinating -- you sort of treat him like he's no less accomplished than, say, Jim Jarmusch.
CD: You know, basically, the Cinema of Transgression was a different movement from No Wave and Nick Zedd wrote this manifesto and he created the name: the Cinema of Transgression. So we had to show and explain Nick Zedd and why he's important.
AW: The Cinema of Transgression was really a response to the No Wave films. To not show Cinema of Transgression films felt like we're sort of excluding this part of filmmaking history of New York and it didn't feel right to us. Who's to say who's a better filmmaker or who's a better this or a better that? As a documentarian, you kind of want to be unbiased, you want to attempt to show the story and I think that's what we tried to do. It was really great to hear Jim or...
CD: ...Steve [Buscemi] speaking about Nick.
AW: And being supportive of his films.
CD: And John Waters.
AW: Yeah. That was something we didn't anticipate. We had no idea.
CD: And they gave more credibility to the Cinema of Transgression because otherwise No Wave is a lot of very-well-known filmmakers and Cinema of Transgression is more underground. You have Richard Kern, he's very famous, but to have Buscemi or Jarmusch or John Waters speaking about Nick Zedd, it gave the Cinema of Transgression more credibility.
AW: But it's funny because a lot of people have a preference for either the No Wave films or the Cinema of Transgression films, so we usually hear about that at festival screenings. A lot. "Why'd you do this or why'd you do that?" Well, we're trying to document something.
MP: In films like this, I find that they tend to zone-in on the most well-known filmmakers or musicians, but those are the last people you want to hear about because you already know about them. I like that we're actually learning a lot while watching your film.
AW: Yeah. And also we didn't want to focus too much on specific filmmakers or specific films because so much of that moment was almost more about the energy of making films and how they were making it and the passion they felt. In a way, we felt that was almost the most exciting part in doing this documentary, just to realize that it was so much about this movement and this momentum, rather than a specific film.
and Michael McClard at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
MP: How have the filmmakers in Blank City responded to the film? Several of them were at Tribeca, right?
CD: Yes, but at Tribeca it was a work in progress. The film was not completely done. Two days before Tribeca, we were still editing, so we had no idea how audiences were going to react. It was just like, it's going to be a big surprise.
AW: We were just happy that we could sit somewhere for two hours.
MP: And not move.
CD: I was a little bit terrified. For the premiere, everybody came. I was sitting in the theatre and I remember I had Amos Poe and Steve Buscemi beside me. Charlie Ahearn was behind me. I stayed with them for like forty minutes and I was just terrified. When Amos Poe was laughing, I was like "Oomph." At the end, we had the Q&A. Just in front of me, James Nares was watching me and he was very quiet with no smile. I was like, "Oh my God, he doesn't like the film." And then the Q&A finished and he was waiting patiently to speak to me -- to speak to us -- and he said, "It was really, really great. Very good job." And I was like, "Oomph."
AW: Yeah, I think he came to see the other screenings too.
CD: And then we had this party and everybody said, "Oh, it's great. Good job," even some filmmakers that were difficult with us just before Tribeca, in terms of dealing with films.
AW: We really have had amazing support from the people we interviewed, almost moreso after they saw it. It was really great to hear that, I can't remember who it was, but I know they said that we captured New York at that time better than any other film that they had seen.
CD: Yeah, like Pat Place and Sara Driver. A lot of people. For us, the most important thing is that the people in the documentary like it. And so now a lot of people are behind us.
MP: You were saying at the screening that The Auteurs is going to do something with these films.
AW: It's still in the planning stages, but yeah, we're talking to them about doing a No Wave online retrospective and then... I don't know what I'm allowed to announce, but there are other things in the works.
MP: Are there DVD plans?
AW: There's interest. I'm not sure for which films, but for multiple films, at least in the U.K. and France. Possibly in the U.S. too. None of it's final, but that's definitely a hope that we always had, so it would be really great if that happened.
MP: And what about Blank City? How can people see it?
CD: We have a sales agent, so right now we are working on it. I hope something is going to happen soon.
MP: [laughs] You have to be careful what you say.
AW: Yeah. But we are working with Celluloid Dreams internationally and we had our international premiere in Berlin and yeah, it seems... we're definitely okay. It will be available to view soon. Before the end of the year. We hope.