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

From Russia With Rock!

Pусский рок (Russian Rock) developed behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960’s. In the Soviet Union people went through great trouble to illegally import Beatles albums and roots music, avoiding the harsh gaze of the KGB. Russian rock music has as it’s roots music that came from America and the UK but it would soon take on forms of it’s own that would exhibit a slavic temperment and cultural asthetic. The phonetic sounding of the word rock (рок in Russian) has itself a connotation different than what Cleveland disky jockey Alan Freed had in mind when he coined the phrase. The word (рок means “fate” or “doom”. The mostly poetic term embodies the sense of somber earnestness in the music that is often political or about serious issues.

Things have undoubtedly changed and diversified with Russian exports of groups like T.A.T.U. who are a manufactured project intended for creating pop friendly dance music. However, many Russians view this music to be popsa, a term that is connected with the type of “safe” music that was released under Melodiya, the only authorized state run music distribution outlet in the Soviet Union.

The “Golden Age” of Russian rock music was during the 1980’s. Artists that had existed mostly underground and only able to play in other musicians apartments and other low visibility outlets were able to take advantage of the changes with perestroika to get wider audiences.

I am going to go through a brief history of various artists that have gained vast appeal amongst Russians but due to the cultural and political barriers have little to no ground in the western world.

In 1986 4 bands served as ambassadors of the Russian sound. The Album Red Wave highlighted bands from then Leningrad. It was brought to the U.S. through the efforts of Joanna Stingray, a native of L.A. who developed a strong relationship with underground Soviet bands and Boris Grebenshchikov, of the band Aquarium, an important band in the formation of Russian rock. The project was done without commercial profit and had to be smuggled by Joanna Stingray to the United States with final production done by Big Time Records in Los Angeles.

One of the bands on this album, Aquarium started out in the 1970's during a time when unauthorized musicians held apartment concerts, usually unplugged in intimate quarters so as not to alert the neighbors to call the police. They were a part of the folkish bard style of Vladimir Vysotsky but had as their muse the prog rock from the U.S.