Tales from the Blank Generation

| September 20, 2008 | Comments (0)

Anecdotes from the foundation of legends, and one such tale, recounted in relation to the emergence of the No Wave underground film movement in New York in the 1970s, tells of a dozen hot Super 8 cameras that one Nick the Fence got hold of, selling them off for $60 (when their retail price stood at $600) to everyone who was anyone on the East Village scene. While this camera transaction pinpoints the advent of the No Wave movement, and illustrates the era’s whimsy and willingness to experiment, it does not define the movement’s raison d’être. This bunch of young artists, congregating in New York’s East Village for the sake of creating art – be it music, painting or film – would have got involved with filmmaking regardless of camera opportunities. What ensued was a period of nine years (the exact duration is a moot point, with several dates quoted by various sources [1] of creative collaborations and cinematic experimentation with a wide range of form, content, tone and style. The glue that held this cache of relatively disparate projects together is to be found in the shared counter-establishment punk attitude, budget constrictions, the locale, irreverent humour, and most crucially, the community of artists who all participated in each other’s projects, providing a supportive and encouraging atmosphere in which to create.

No Wave was originally known as New Cinema, after a small screening room on St. Mark’s Place run by a number of filmmakers from the scene, until it grew into the New Wave, in a nod to the French Nouvelle Vague. However, it was Brian Eno who finally coined the term ‘No Wave’ in an attempt to dispel any confusion with the New Wave musicians. The No Wave films were never intended for mass distribution, nor were they ever part of a masterplan to attract the attention of Hollywood (as is increasingly the case with Sundance competitors). Instead the filmmakers, whose approach to developing their artistic talents was Renaissance in its diversity (they were musicians, performance-artists, poets, painters and actors) showed their work in small film clubs, lofts or in between music gigs. This was independent filmmaking at its most independent, as the artists were never under duress to find distributors or bow to producers’ demands. Viewed from our jaded and materialistic perspective, this anti-commercial aspect of the scene lends it a distinct charm.

The significance and cultural impact of the No Wave has in turn been lauded and belittled by film critics and art historians. While the underground Cinema of Transgression and Remodernist film owe their dues to No Wave, Jim Hoberman, film critic for their one-time devotee The Village Voice, lambasted No Wave (in ‘After Avant-garde Film’) as a postmodern repetition of prior art movements such as pop art and the underground cinema of the 1950s. However, art historians and curators have revised their opinions, recognising the movement’s seminal value and influence on today’s independent film scene. One thing is certain, each generation will absorb different messages from the films, and discover different points of relevance. The recent free screenings at IMMA offered an excellent and rare opportunity to view films that are not readily available through regular film channels. Perhaps the only disappointment was that the programme didn’t include Ireland’s own No Wave feminist filmmaker, Vivienne Dick. What is essential to point out for those unfamiliar with the No Wave is that the works are not exercises in obscurantism for the sake of being avant-garde; the films on show have distinct narratives, albeit the narrative takes a back seat to the exploration of mood and characters.

The film that kick-started the No Wave era is Amos Poe and Ivan Kral’s music documentary of the punk scene, The Blank Generation (1976), featuring live performances by Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, and Television among others, with most of the footage captured at the cult hang-out, CBGB’s. The documentary title is taken from the legendary song by Richard Hell, and it went on to wield a wider significance as a moniker for the generation that frequented the 1970s New York scene. Also revelatory is Hell’s explanation of the meaning behind ‘The Blank Generation’; it is not, as it might appear at a superficial glance, a nihilistic view of a generation, but rather denotes an unwillingness to settle for society’s labels, opting, instead for a freedom to be whoever they want, whenever they want. This definition sums up the essence of No Wave a sense of unencumbered freedom of spirit. The energy of The Blank Generation is still unmistakably raw and full of urgency, although its unpolished, collage style of intercutting the performances with quirky and comical snapshot scenes of the city and the musicians may seem quaint to an MTV generation weaned on slick and glossy music videos. The most outrageous performance unquestionably belongs to the pre-op Wayne County, brandishing a plunger to his privates during his/her ‘Are You a Boy or Are you a Girl’, and engaging the audience in an amusing and risqué interaction. There is one big drawback to the viewing, and that is the ill-matched synching due to the nature of the shoot; as Kral’s 8mm camera wasn’t equipped with sound, Poe and Kral tacked on live tracks afterwards, with a discordant effect – it’s not just a matter of a two-second delay, but of a whole chorus line delay. Even if you don’t manage to adjust to this lack of synchronicity, you may begin to perceive the performers, eerily detached from the sound, in a different light, which, if nothing else, makes for a unique experience.

Poe went on to make his first feature Unmade Beds (1977), a playful and wry re-imagining of Godard’s À bout de souffle, set in the East Village. However, this is the least accessible of the films on show, at least for those unfamiliar with Godard’s breakthrough film. Unmade Beds‘ meaning is derived from its interpretation of Breathless so, for instance, the protagonists’ affecting touching of lips means nothing without the knowledge of Belmondo in the same provocative act. This is also one of the films to feature Debbie Harry, whose billing suggests more screen time than she’s actually allocated, a trend noticeable in some of the other films. This may be ascribable to a desire to attract a wider public, as Harry is one of the few household names from the No Wave gang. Nonetheless, Harry’s cameo performance is charming and, incidentally, this is her first foray into cinema, just as it is for most of the cast, who include the No Wave regulars Patti Astor and French filmmaker Eric Mitchell.

Another’s of Poe’s features on show is The Foreigner (1978), with a platinum blonde Eric Mitchell in the title role. Having arrived in America on a secret mission, he fails to glean any support from his underground contacts, and alternates his time between sheer survival and being chased by an unnamed group. While the film explores loneliness in the big city and the impersonal cruelty of an urban jungle such as the Big Apple, its inspiration is drawn from pulp B-movies, with characters such as Patti Astor’s femme fatale private investigator trying to help Mitchell. The Foreigner‘s persecution is at times Kafkaesque in its mystification, but underpinning the story is the narrative pattern of a straight thriller. The theme of a foreign secret agent infiltrating the States is also the subject of Anders Grafstrom’s Long Island Four (1979), inspired by a real life event in which four Nazi spies land on Long Island and are instructed to plant bombs. However, they are bedazzled and increasingly become enamoured of the American way of life. Devoting themselves to rampant hedonism, the foursome forget all about their mission until they are arrested by the FBI and duly executed. Above anything else, Long Island Four is a humorous and ironic examination of the corruptive aspect of American capitalist society; one line in the film notes that American pastimes consist solely of drinking and shopping. At the same time, songs from Berlin’s Weimar cabaret years, such as Marlene Dietrich’s Falling in Love Again, serve as a reminder that Germany has its own decadent past. From today’s perspective one can imagine a similarly witty exploit with four Taliban members becoming seduced by the consumer excesses, and willingly forgetting all about their suicide missions. Like The Foreigner, Long Island Four is filmed in black and white, which benefits both films, as it successfully disguises the low budget aspect that the colour films seem to accentuate.

To watch James Nares’s Rome 78 (1978), a parody of historical epics, after Long Island Four (they are shown together), is somewhat disorientating, as not only does it feature the same set of actors, but also includes the same spot in Central Park as one of the locations. The film follows several characters plotting to kill the Caesar, and is peppered with comical anachronisms, such as the coexistence of togas and punk outfits or grape-eating and cigarette smoking. The wickedly hilarious David McDermott portrays Caligula as a bitchy queen with an ear-piercing nasal whine and blithe cruelty. he parallel between ancient Rome and 1970s New Yorkers works unexpectedly well, as one is struck by the common trait to be discerned in both sets – a strong streak of self-indulgence.

The film with by far the highest production values (a staggering budget of $250,000) and a beleaguered track record is Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 (1981), a fictionalised day in the life of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was then still largely unknown, although he was about to be propelled to stardom before being cut short by his untimely death in 1988. In terms of genre, Downtown 81 can be almost described as a road-trip movie without the driving, with Basquiat making the journey from a stint in a hospital through the streets of his neighbourhood as he attempts to sell a painting and find digs for the night after being evicted. Along this trip he bumps into, meets up with, or pursues various random characters, and the film is book-ended with two car trips, the first one getting him downtown and the second one getting him out of there. Debbie Harry gives a wonderful turn as a fairy-tale princess, providing Basquiat with a happy ending that he was to be denied in real life. In a bizarre turn of events, Downtown 81 never got to see the light of day nor was its post-production completed. The Italian production company Rizzoli, who provided the funds, faced corruption charges, and the film was locked in the company’s vaults with the ensuing legal disputes blocking its release. It was only after Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat that Glenn O’Brien, Downtown 81‘s co-producer and scriptwriter, felt compelled to buy back the film’s rights, as he disliked Schnabel’s portrayal, and wanted the public to see the genuine Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Although Jim Jarmusch recorded the sound for Underground USA (1980), the film shown in tandem with Downtown 81, Downtown 81‘s sound is more evocative of his style (especially of Ghost Dog the Way of the Samurai). Eric Mitchell’s Underground USA is the most self-referential of the lot, as it uses the art scene for its setting and story. The voluptuous Patti Astor plays a deluded actress whose star is on the wane. She remains blissfully oblivious of her fall from grace as she swans about the city’s hippest hangouts and too cool Soho art galleries, dancing, drinking, spending, and all the while retaining a disquieting look of vacancy. Mitchell plays a hustler who attaches himself to her like a leach, much to the chagrin of her other hustler, the gay best friend. The film casts a dark look at the corrosive nature of celebrity and the remoteness it imposes on all personal relationships. The self-conscious nature of the film is hard to take in places, and lacks the irreverent irony at play in the other works. Perhaps Mitchell intended the film to be a cautionary tale for where the No Wave might be headed, but its message of the destructive power of celebrity status and the vapid world or art poseurs is lacking in originality. Compensating for the unsatisfactory storyline are the dance scenes, which are shot to great imaginative effect.

Running concurrently with the film screenings was a continuous showing of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, the cable TV chat show notorious for its off-beat satirical tone and featuring all the No Wave artists as regular guests, with Blondie’s Chris Stein as O’Brien’s co-host.

A number of factors contributed to the end of No Wave. In an interview Glenn O’Brien cites burn-out, rehab and moving onto new and different projects as being the main reasons. The times had changed, too – downtown Manhattan was no longer the haven of low rents and cheap living. In an ironic twist, the hip status No Wave had garnered imparted an equally hip status to the area, which meant it was no longer possible to get by on next to no money. Some of the No Wavers went on to reach wider acclaim, such as Jim Jarmusch, Vincent Gallo and Steve Buscemi. While the films should prove inspirational to a new generation of film buffs, they may also incur feelings of envy, as such an insouciant existence devoted to the pursuit of art without any thoughts for financial return seems unthinkable in our age of rife materialism.

1. According to different sources, the No Wave movement lasted from 1976-1984, 1978-1987, 1976-1985, 1978-1985, although the first film of the movement seems to be unanimously recognised as Amos Poe’s The Blank Generation (1976) which began shooting in 1975.

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