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Blank City

A doc about the gritty Lower Manhattan film-and-art scene of the late 1970s

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Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, rundown parts of lower Manhattan were home to angry, creative types: artabouts who variously painted, played in bands, shot movies, acted in movies, created public spectacles, published manifestos and railed against the fusty conformity of America seguing into the corporate go-go of the Reagan years. Among them: filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Richard Kern and Amos Poe; and such assorted players as John Lurie, Debbie Harry and Lydia Lunch.

Céline Danhier's doc presents this unique time and place using plenty of rose-colored lenses. Even the old rabble-rousers and professional nihilists interviewed can't help but recall fondly the rat-infested squats; the feuds; the sea of drugs; the lack of money; the lack of talent (actually, considered a plus); and the free-floating anxiety that defined the times. But it does stand that a fair amount of work -- later pegged No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression -- was generated. (If the hippies forever rhapsodize about Woodstock, the punks have the gritty Lower East Side of the 1970s.)

What's less clear to casual observers is whether the scene was really as influential as the participants claim. There's very little archival footage of the bands, and the many films excerpted are presented in fragments and without much context; one is left attempting to sort out whether each might have been an unwatchable avant-garde short or a fully realized narrative feature. Only those in the bubble are interviewed, and there's a noticeable lack of follow-up: What did this sub-generation committed to radical art lead to? But most interviewed are worthy raconteurs, and if Blank City still feels like a bit of a private club ginning up its own hype, then at least it's an entertaining stop. Thu., July 28, through Sun., July 31. Melwood (Al Hoff)

 

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