Blank City – The Rise and Fall of No Wave Cinema

A midst the economic devastation of late 70’s and early 80’s New York City rose a defiant form of art culture called No Wave. This form spanned all mediums of art and music. Fueled by the abandonment of the nearly bankrupt city, the often rat-infested ruins of tenements on the Lower East Side were taken over, sometimes rent free, by renegade artists taking the spirit of the punk movement to it’s extremes.

Blank City a documentary on this era screened this past weekend at Dead Center Film Festival in Oklahoma City. The film exposes the beginnings of well known directors such as Jim Jarmusch, John Waters and Steve Buscemi during a time when much of the work of the so called “Cinema of Transgression” was being done with stolen Super 8 and 16mm cameras on illegal sets with friends and associates from the drug-rampant streets doing improvisational performances in a script-less Goddard style.

This was raw, visceral cinema about exposing a horrific time in the city’s history when it seemed that all hope was lost and even walking home at night was a courageous feat that could end in tragedy. It was a cinema not made for the hope of fortune but for the sake of expressing the angst of the time. From this place would come the art of the too early departed from this world – Jean Michel Basquiat, the hip-hop movement and early American punk rock.

The gutsy and often very controversial films, especially those done by the likes of Nick Zedd and Lydia Lunch (who would run into legal trouble for their films), would break down the barriers through their honest and cutting style. Some of the barriers destroyed by No Wave cinema would influence independent film for decades to come.

Appearances throughout the movie are made by notable names such as Thurston Moore, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy and others. The music of the Contortions, Richard Hell, Television and other No Wave era bands fill out an appropriate musical dimension to the film.

Blank City is a nostalgic look at a time before the sanitation of New York by big money and the Reagan era. It is a time when CBGB’s was alive with sweat soaked punk rockers and stacks of flyers of the Talking Heads, the Ramones and Patti Smith. This was long before American punk’s legendary birthplace location on the Bowery became a pristine Chase bank. It is a portrait of a time when the horrors of a wasteland never held so much artistic promise.

Watching this film I was inspired by the potential to make art that documents the feeling and expression of a place in time. What would I say about the time and place I am in that is poignantly needing to be said for it’s own sake? I live now in a time when every person has the capacity to become a filmmaker. What is it that we can collectively say that matters and holds some substance about now? Are we in such a fragmented yet global society in today’s digital age that regional scenes cease to have the significance they once had?

This movie looks to be a short run art house engagement. If you are interested in do-it-yourself art films or the punk rock era of New York City this is definitely something worth seeing if it hits a theater near you.

Promotional Poster at Amazon.com

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Jason Webley – Till Long Last We Meet Again

I first learned about Jason Webley about six years ago. Back when Myspace was still the king of social networking. In those days I was playing the Dresden Dolls first major release on nearly constant rotation. Being a huge fan I was intrigued by the artists they supported. Pretty much everything I found through them was amazing. But, the music of one person in particular left a lasting impression that stayed with me from first listen – Jason Webley.

From the first strains of hearing “Dance While the Sky Crashes Down” one of his most beloved songs, I was swept into this one part sinister and ominous world but with the guide of a voice of encouragement and strength. The passion of that song had me hooked. I looked around online for awhile and resolved that since I lived in Oklahoma, a place that often gets missed by artists of an avant-garde persuasion, I would probably never see him unless I traveled a good distance.

Over a year later in 2007 a good friend of mine told me that it was in our local alternative paper that he would be playing at a local coffee house not well known for out of town shows. I almost couldn’t believe it was happening there. I thought it must be some kind of mistake. But, it was indeed happening. He showed up along with his accordian, a beat up guitar that’s seen the world over and his vodka bottle filled with coins from all his world travels used as a percussion instrument.

What I had not expected was that the show would become a communal rite of sorts. A Jason Webley show is not about watching a guy play music while remaining detached from the show. It quickly becomes an involved experience.

Everyone becomes a part of the moment until the show is a group celebration of life’s joys and sorrows. It’s the same the world over – from the United States, New Zealand, Europe, to far off reaches of Norilsk, Russia where he saw the tears of weary miners in Siberia. Even in his home of Seattle, he is known as the guy who lead usually law abiding citizens into public fountains to engage in fun-spirited mayhem.

I got to know Jason after keeping in contact after that first show and helping coordinate bigger and better publicized events slowly helping in developing his fan base here. I looked forward to each time where people would be transformed to dance, to sing, to be like a child again. I will recall one night where all of the crowd that had stayed late after the show created a song together we would all monument for years to come. It was one of the most endearing times I’ve shared with my friends and I know people who still post that video years later to recall good times.

Last night I witnessed this magic again. The show was amazing and as you can see in the videos the crowd was excited. It was one of the best and a good cap to the years of being a part of these shows. I’ve enjoyed participating in these shows as an audience and a impromptu choir and being able to share the stage with some of my bands and projects. Last night I got to share the stage with many friends from Kabaret Falschtanz dance troupe and musicians I’ve enjoyed working with over the years.

The bitter sweet of the night is knowing this will be the last show for awhile. Jason has announced that he is taking an indefinite break from touring as this tour ends. After well over a decade of touring I can imagine it would get tiring. I am glad that he will finally get a chance to rest and regroup and figure out what the next chapter will be in his life. Hopefully for us all he will miss the road as many a musician finds they do. If not then I know what he decides to do he will do with passion.

But I will remember those shows. A gravelly shouting and as often sorrowfully soothing voice commanding the elements of dim lights and dark of a small and packed room. All of us strangers becoming friends for an evening – just a little more connected by this communal rite. In these shows calm faces becoming overcome with emotion as you can see in the videos as the bard in the animated pork pie hat leads people to find that place within them that can feel emotions freely.

I have had an enthusiasm to share what I find to be a person in touch with what raw true performance is about – someone that can truly connect with and inspire a crowd. It became my passion to bring more people into this world and see them be transformed. I would happily spend a tank of gas putting flyers around town, reminding everyone to come. I would proudly scour the venues to find the best place to perform the kind of show that can only be done in a venue that does not take from the magic. I will always be appreciative that Jason appreciated us. He always liked playing in Oklahoma and looked forward to coming back here. That type of open and unassuming nature towards people not on the coasts I admire. Those are the people who know that there is a soul deep in the hearts of places that shallow people never see or experience.