New York underground film-making is examined in "Blank City"

I’ve spent the past quarter century being vaguely embarrassed about my brief but passionate interest in the films of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. Friends still tease me about it. Now, however, my predilection has been validated: the new documentary Blank City, opening this Friday June 3rd at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas, shines the spotlight on Kern, Zedd, and their fellow late 20th-century New York-based indie filmmakers, and suggests their work actually might have some artistic merit.

Late 70s New York City was a mess. Parts of the near-bankrupt city were decaying and lawless no-go zones, including notorious Alphabet City, the Lower East Side neighborhood best known for its burned out apartment buildings, vacant lots, and shooting galleries. Rents were low, but paying rent wasn’t always necessary: there were plenty of abandoned buildings in which to squat.

Into this maelstrom came society’s outcasts: musicians, graffiti artists, and filmmakers eager to push the limits as far as they could, and cognizant that Alphabet City was the place they could do it. Underground directors Amos Poe, Beth and Scott B., and Michael Oblowitz plied their trade on the streets of Lower Manhattan and their work collectively became known as No Wave film, while the style developed by Kern, Zedd, Cassandra Stark and others was dubbed The Cinema of Transgression.

Generally shot on 8mm, 16mm or Super 8 stock ends — stock that looked even grittier and uglier when blown up to 35mm — The Cinema of Transgression aimed to explore the furthest limits of human sexuality, violence, and degradation. Such films as Kern’s Fingered and Zedd’s They Eat Scum were designed to push buttons, and push them they did: Zedd himself was even detained by police when he brought his films to ‘liberal’ Sweden for a screening. Even in those pre-Blockbuster times, most video stores were less than eager to stock titles such as Manhattan Love Suicides, Geek Maggot Bingo, and Submit To Me Now.

Though all these filmmakers shared the ‘year zero’ ethos of punk rock, a direct line could be traced back from their work to that of 60s predecessors such as Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Jack Smith. It wasn’t a million miles from Smith’s Flaming Creatures to Fingered, and the Maysles Brothers even rented their editing facility to Amos Poe in 1979 for $40, allowing him to cut his punk classic Blank Generation in a mere 24 hours.

Directed by Celine Danhier, Blank City features a generous selection of excerpts from these and many other films, including such enticing rarities as Oblowitz’s King Blank, Bette Gordon’s Empty Suitcases, and Eric Mitchell’s The Way It Is. Interview footage with most of the relevant artists  many of whom not only survived but remain surprisingly well preserved thirty years on — is plentiful. (Zedd himself barely seems to have aged a day, suggesting he either made a deal with the Devil back in the day or has somehow been chemically preserved.)

Also on hand for comment are several musicians who crossed over to the underground film scene, including Kern’s muse Lydia Lunch, combative saxophonist James Chance, and Contortions bass player Pat Place. And there’s even room for mainstream successes Jim Jarmusch, Ann Magnuson, Susan Seidelman, and Steve Buscemi.

All in all, Blank City is a delightfully scuzzy trip down memory lane for those who take pleasure in the darker side of life. It’s not recommended, however, for children, maiden aunts, or folks who like to sing along to The Sound of Music.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...