With Blank City, first-time director Celine Danhier offers a celebration of the influential art scene of New York City during the late seventies and early eighties, which explored everything from music to movies to art with an almost nihilistic attitude. The movement earned the name “No Wave” because it went against the notion of art. It was the perfect complement to the attitudes in London that spawned the punk scene headed by the Sex Pistols during the same time. One of the many denizens of run-down East Side NYC Danhier interviews notes that her peers of the No Wave movement had felt art had ceased to exist in a “culture of blandness.”

Among those Danhier interviews are: Amos Poe, Ann Magnuson, Becky Johnston, Beth B, Bette Gordon, Casandra Stark Mele, Charlie Ahearn, Daze, Debbie Harry, Eric Mitchell, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O’Brien, Jack Sargeant, James Chance, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, JG Thirlwell, John Lurie, John Waters, Kembra Pfahler, Lizzie Borden, Lung Leg, Lydia Lunch, Manuel DeLanda, Maripol, Michael McClard, Michael Oblowitz, Nick Zedd, Pat Place, Patti Astor, Richard Kern, Sara Driver, Scott B, Steve Buscemi, Susan Seidelman, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Thurston Moore, Tommy Turner and Vivienne Dick.

Danhier assembles quite a colorful cast characters from the scene, and the film never falls short on illustrative anecdotes that typified the aesthetic of the No Wave scene. Lurie, a saxophonist credited for founding the Lounge Lizards in the late seventies, notes his contemporaries held disdain for any artist who did anything with any skill. Technical proficiency at anything was “not cool,”  he says. If you were a musician, you tried your hand at acting. If you were a filmmaker you played in a band. Lurie even expresses his embarrassment about his ability to play the saxophone, saying he felt so ashamed of his skills he hid it from others. He instead tried directing films and acting, famously starring in Jarmusch’s breakout feature Stranger Than Paradise (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com).

Though Blank City touches on musicians like the Ramones and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Danhier focuses on the filmmakers of the era and offers tantalizing clips of an array of historic and obscure films featuring Buscemi and Vincent Gallo that are hard to find on DVD, if at all. The films of the No Wave scene, which are mostly shot in back and white, are best described as primitive. Danhier does an illustrative job at getting into the directors’ processes: from what equipment they used (more often than not rented Super 8 cameras) to a glimpse at their scripts, which invited improvisation from the actors and sometimes had child-like drawings as directions. Not only did these filmmakers shoot their movies without permits, they often trespassed into unoccupied buildings. Lurie noted how he set out to fund one picture by staging a robbery at his apartment and collecting the insurance money on his saxophone to budget the picture.

Blank City is filled with many great anecdotes like that, and anyone with an interest of a snapshot of the milieu that spawned the No Wave scene will delight in the information packed into this documentary. The only fault I might find in this exploration is that Danhier seems so fixated on the era, she fails to ask the deeper questions of how it fits into the expanse of art history. There is one point where she touches on the appearance of art galleries everywhere, including someone’s bathroom, and how it seemed to bring money into the scene but offers no further detail.

At least she spends a good chunk of the movie highlighting another art movement spawned from the scene. After Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise began appearing in the movie theaters to much critical praise, it seemed like the alternativeness and independence of the artists was over, as they had seemingly sold out. Then comes the sub-underground movement of the “Cinema of Transgression” where drugs and sex take center stage. The directors of these films usually eschewed story lines in favor of offering shocking scenes where some actors would act out their sexual fetishes and/or get high on camera. The filmmakers of this scene emphasized a desire to shock and repulse more than anything.

This post-No Wave scene featured filmmakers like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern whose movies are hard to find nowadays possibly because of their lack of relevance in today’s post-torture porn culture, a commercial Hollywood movement lead by filmmakers like Eli Roth and his Hostel series. Kern has a compilation of his short films from the era covered by Blank City simply titled Hardcore Collection (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com). Zedd’s compilation, however, Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd, seems out of print but seems to be going for a hefty price on the secondary market, at least on Amazon, so there still might be some curious interest in these films, but it would have been interesting to see Danhier explore the relevance of these filmmakers now. Supposedly Kern is still working mostly as a photographer but he also directed some erotic voyeur pictures. Zedd, meanwhile, seems to still be at work in the same lo-fi aesthetic that defined his films, but, from what can be gleaned from the ratings and information on his filmography on the Internet Movie Database, still seems to be working for a small audience with little appreciation for his work.

Danhier sums up the demise of this counter-culture movement with the rise of MTV and its “co-modification of downtown.” If these guys thought MTV was bad in the early eighties, I would be curious what they think of it now. Lord knows I have bemoaned the hypocritical dictates of MTV and its role in the stupefying of today’s youth (see this post). It is for that reason that it would have been interesting to see how the No Wave aesthetic fits into today’s world. Blank City ends with Jarmusch declaring filmmaking has become more democratic now with the Internet and affordable digital cameras. But it would have been even more interesting to explore the “truthiness” of that notion further instead of end the film at that.

In the end, Blank City indeed offers an exuberant look at artists who can care less about culture while creating vibrant works of art. For these people to have existed in the gloom of late seventies, run-down New York City, nonchalantly dealing with routine, sometimes violent muggings and battling rats for a place to sleep, while still producing vibrant art that celebrated living in the moment, offers a testament in itself.

Hans Morgenstern

Blank City has one last screening at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday (June 19), at 8 p.m. It then opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 24) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where it will play through June 15. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check Blank City’s website for its screening schedule.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Well, besides the fact this blog celebrates the Independent Ethos in music and occasionally film, it should come as no surprise to read my endorsement for Arcade Fire‘s Grammy win for album of the year. They are the only truly independent band on an independent label (Merge Records) to win the honor.

I had not planned to write about the Grammys at all, as it usually celebrates the contrived dreck that is pop music: from rock to disco. But the voters got my attention this morning.

Arcade Fire deserved the win for many reasons, and to those who call them “upsets” to crap like the music of Lady Antebelum, Lady Gaga and such: get some culture. They are true musicians making creative music with real instruments. Their energy live is unmatched and forgoes the distracting trappings of theatrics. Their music is creative while strongly rooted in rock (especially the progressive kind). Hence they have fans that span the ages from the current hipster youths, to respectable rock elders like David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.

So good for them. The Suburbs is a great album, as seen in my top 10 albums of 2010. OK, so it was not a personal fave of the year, as the exuberance of first hearing Arcade Fire via Funeral is a tough act to follow, but Arcade Fire are good enough to only measure against themselves. It’s all downhill from here. 😉

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Disco Inferno DVD cover art

As DVD dies away to make way for an array of new visual new mediums from downloads to on demand HD to even a revitalized interest in 3-D movies in theaters, I’m afraid we’ll be seeing less of mass-manufactured oddities like the now long out of print Disco Inferno. I may hate disco, but this DVD entertained beyond expectations.

This is an amazing throwback to the 70s. Some if it’s pretty damn hilarious in its horridness and speaks to the idiocy of many popular music trends that too many swallow without any aesthetic consideration. Kelly Marie, Imagination and Baccara are particular travesties to pop music featured on Disco Inferno that are obviously forgotten for a reason. Now, 30 years later, these performances are heightened by their dated qualities.

Most of the stuff on the DVD is lip-synced, but who cares with all of the dated eye candy. The audience can be freaking amazing to look at. Yes, some are bored (these are a bunch of white Europeans mostly, and as many of these performances are indeed from the Musikladen show, then that means they are Germans, so what would you expect! [I’m half German, so I can make that joke]). But the dated style of what was cool in the discotheques is extraordinary. Dancing behind Donna Summer, on one track, there’s a guy dressed as a farmer and another guy in a running outfit and a trucker’s cap! Also, I must admit it’s cool to see the bra-optional fashions seen in clips by the Gap Band and Lipps Inc. (the actual band in the latter is never seen in the video, however, as a white girl lip synchs to the music and another dances along). Then there are the skimpy outfits on the girls in the Imagination clip that paved the way for the style of Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and Peaches.

The production on the DVD is slap-dash effort, as a lot of the songs are cut short, but what does that matter when most of them are not even live, so there is no loss there, and you get enough of the songs as not to get sick of them because, let’s face it, disco is dated for a reason. However, James Brown is only guy who performs live because he has a real, plugged-in band, and his track grooves with nature and strong energy. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, gets carried away with his dancing and even gives up trying to lip synch, which is cool in its shamelessness. There’s nothing like it when the singers get into it: Boney M’s singer is downright scary, but, man, is he into performing (plus, their track is one of the few complete ones).

There are some great moments of music history captured here. Check out Sugarhill Gang with their pioneering hip-hop track “Rapper’s Delight.” Back then, rap seemed like a gimmick that would soon fall out of fashion, like disco did, but who would have thought that song would have paved the way for the leading form of pop music of today. On the other hand, you have “Mariana” by the Gibson Brothers, black guys doing a hybrid of soul and Latin music that, of course, failed to catch on with the same fire.

In the end, Disco Inferno is a thoroughly entertaining piece of pop music history, even for someone like me who preferred the post punk and prog rock of the time. Though DVD has ceased its run, you can still find it from secondhand sellers here. Even YouTube has some, so check them out here:

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My representative at EMI has informed me that for the second time, the David Bowie LP reissues of Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, and Young Americans for its “From the Capitol Vaults” series, have had their release dates pushed back once again to an as yet unknown date. 

The 180-gram vinyl reissues, which were supposed to replicate the original packaging of the early to mid-70s releases, were first announced to come out as part of the Nov. 3 series of Vinyl Vaults reissues. Then I was told they would be out on Jan. 26. The reason for this first postponement was never made officially clear, except for the explanation that logistics had delayed their release.

 Now, as Jan. 26 approaches, this second delay is even more vague, as I was told I will be informed of any new information when it is available. So, for now, the reissues have been postponed to an unknown date. Let me note: I was not told they were cancelled, just postponed once again.

 So, we are left to hope that maybe, just possibly, the label will go out of its way to find something other than the digital sources that were first supposed to provide the music on the wax. This series is not known for going back to the master tapes for its reissues, but we can hope. You can read about the planned original sources for these Bowie reissues here.

 I leave you with the stark image of the Aladdin Sane album cover: Bowie looking spent and sad, with the iconic “Ziggy bolt” splitting his face in half and a single tear laying in the nook of his clavicle, a metaphor for the difficulties he suffered while maintaining his alter ego of Ziggy Stardust to wide acclaim during the early 70s. Don’t be misled by the likes of Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, glam rock is never all glitter and good times, kiddies, especially when you are as sincere an artist as David Bowie putting on an act.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)