Less a movement than a barely unified period of gnarled transitions, No Wave is still best defined by its practitioners’ aggressive nascence. The shrugging cancellation implied by its title—and alternate name, the “Blank” Generation—suggests the awkward cusps inhabited by New York City’s art scene circa 1977; it was post-Warhol and Underground but pre-indie, post-Beat and hippie but pre-punk, post-bohemian but pre-gentrification. The environment lacked a cohesive ethos save for an obligatory disdain for studied mainstream culture. And though it encompassed the first works by artists such as Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, and Glenn Branca, nearly all of its participants would move on and mature by the mid 80s. No Wave was indeed so brief, baroque, and localized that it might be most conveniently considered an amorphous prototype.
Early on in Céline Danhier’s No Wave documentary Blank City, actor/musician John Lurie inadvertently provides a working definition of the anti-movement’s curiously elliptical rebellion. “No one was doing what they knew how to do,” he says, after noting that he hid his proficiency on the sax for fear that he’d be banned from the instrument. “Technique was hated. Musicians were painting, painters were making music and films…” Danhier’s film, which consists entirely of archival footage and interviews without narration or, annoyingly, chronological markers, repeatedly returns to and glorifies this theme of perversely enforced amateurism; Jim Jarmusch, who had dropped out of film school and into the Lower East Side’s slums, remarks that it was as easy to make a 16mm movie and show it in a theater as it was to score heroin. But this accessibility, Danhier subtly argues, was less engendered by creative goals than by the intense desire to document a singularly alarming iteration of Manhattan. Constantly threatened by violence and political corruption in their daily lives, the denizens of Alphabet City half-fashioned No Wave out of self-biographical necessity.
Starting with The Blank Generation, Amos Poe’s Jack Smith-inspired, low-budget paean to CBGB’s most representative acts, Danhier carves a rusty oral-historical path through (mostly) the filmmakers that would come to be synonymous with No Wave: Lizzie Borden, Scott and Beth B, Charlie Ahearn, and Nick Zedd among them. The results are brimming with editorial hiccups—we can especially feel the documentarian overreaching for valedictory material—and the juxtaposition between the studiously aging talking heads and their bleakly youthful counterparts is often jarring. (John Lurie today looks like he’s auditioning to play Danny Aiello’s son.) That Danhier manages to offer the viewer any kind of coherent synopsis of such a protean collective of artists, however, balances Blank City‘s sputtering—even if we’re wondering throughout whether the directors and performers themselves are the most useful resources for commentary on the works discussed. (They do at least refrain from the typical nostalgia: James Nares, in a skillful moment of No Wave deadpan, fondly remembers the bass player from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as the first person he knew who died of AIDS.)
Additionally, many of the same aesthetic issues that plagued the No Wavers have been carried over to Blank City. Just as the school’s closed circuit of production and exhibition proved too reflexive—and, occasionally, too masturbatory—to resonate elsewhere, much of what’s anthologized here seems so viscerally drawn from experience that the biographical asides throughout seem redundant. Sprinklings of factoids give much-needed perspective on the formidable regional success of these films; Charlie Ahearn claims that the box office for his proto-rap portrait Wild Style was second in New York only to Terms of Endearment when released. But elsewhere, the clips can’t help but dwarf the anecdotal context. Even Lizzie Borden’s sci-feminist manifesto Born in Flames has an organic, reportage-like cadence that begs to tell its own story.
Susan Seidelman, later director of Desperately Seeking Susan, eloquently articulates her frustration with No Wave’s lack of legitimacy by contrasting her local appeal with the broader success of street poet and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. After Basquiat’s recognition, she says, “Everyone was trying for a hit.” This, in turn, effectively killed No Wave, the essence of which precluded commercial appeal—and it drags the denouement of Danhier’s film, which is forced to focus on popular but less relevant post-No Wave projects like Stranger Than Paradise and Nick Zedd’s extremist “Cinema of Transgression” efforts. And Jarmusch’s oblivious blathering about the Internet’s “democratizing effect” on the art world in the documentary’s final few moments almost washes everything we’ve just seen in furtive elitism; it’s no easier today for the penurious to get their hands on a Mac than it was for him to weasel time with a linear editing deck in the late ‘70s. But part of Danhier’s point may be that an arbitrary luck, too, helped define No Wave. To have been surviving amid the squalor and crime of Alphabet City was a fortunate fate too remarkable to go un-catalogued.