Posts Tagged ‘Eric Mitchell’

Blank City ’69

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Blank City premiered last week at the IFC to such success that the theater already has extended the film’s run.  The documentary focuses on the filmmakers of the East Village epoch, a period that has continued to demand the attention of artists, especially those living and working in New York.  Is the East Village era second only to “the 60s” in the art world’s hierarchy of heritage?  At least for recent history?  In the last five years, the East Village has surfaced in exhibitions such as East Village USA at the New Museum (2005) and The Downtown Show at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (2006).  Of the artists featured in Blank City, John Lurie had his first museum exhibition at P.S.1 (2006), and galleries regularly show new work by East Village pioneers John Waters, Richard Kern, Kim Gordon, and James Nares.

According to its producers, “Blank City weaves together an oral history of the “No Wave Cinema” and “Cinema of Transgression” movements through compelling interviews with the luminaries who began it all.  Made on shoestring budgets in collaboration with the pioneering musicians, visual artists, performers, and derelicts that ruled Downtown, the films surveyed in Blank City are fitting documents of an exhilarating and unique cultural moment. This same legendary-but-fleeting period likewise birthed punk rock, hip-hop and Madonna, and brought New York City to the forefront of the international art world. Unlike those noted luminaries, this era’s underground film movement has never before been chronicled.”

“John Lurie and Arto Lindsay,” photo by and courtesy of Marcia Resnick from Blank City

Blank City reports on events that its director, Céline Danhier, is too young to have experienced.  Is this a liability, that she relies on subjective oral history recounted from minds that may still be recovering from the cheap drugs of that era?  Or is it a guarantee of impartiality, that she works free of an agenda, with no reward for misrepresentation?  To address these questions and more, I got in touch with Blank City’s director, Mademoiselle Danhier, and producer/editor Vanessa Roworth (C&V).

MB: Blank City, produced and directed by young filmmakers, features many young filmmakers.  Does Blank City explore whether East Village auteurs consulted mentors or other elders?  Did they have gurus?  Or was “Kill Your Idols” already their established m.o.?

C&V: We don’t believe anything comes out of nothing. History and especially the history of cultural expression are always present even in the process of rejection. And there was certainly an attitude of rejection during this period – rejection of the status quo, rejection of a political nature, and also rejection of prior art and film movements; but in that, we think you can see there is also a very conscious awareness of the inspiration culled from those who came before. For example, James Nares in Blank City says “The attitude was quite similar to the Warhol films…but we purposely alienated ourselves from the avant-garde cinema, we wanted to make narrative films instead of art films because it seemed like you could reach more people…”.

We think it is actually a very important idea because breaking down what came before opens you up to new forms of creative expression.

On another note, although we can’t speak for the filmmakers as to who their personal mentors were, there were some obvious mentors in the neighborhood at that time such as the filmmaker Jack Smith or Robert Frank or even William S. Burroughs who was very present on the Bowery during that period. And of course Warhol was ever-present in the New York art scene, as his legacy still is today. You can see a lot of obvious reference and inspiration from Warhol in these works but it is also important to note that there was a strong reaction to the over-indulgence and celebrity that the Warhol and Factory machine had become by the late 70s/early 80s. As Ann Magnuson notes in Blank City, people in the Downtown art world were dying left and right from AIDS and getting lost to drug addiction, but here was Andy Warhol sitting up at Studio 54, drinking Dom Perignon and being photographed with celebrities. There was an obvious contradiction there yet you have a lot of great film, and art and expression that on some level came out of a rejection to that.

Patti Astor in Eric Mitchell’s film "Underground USA," featured in Blank City

MB:  That leads to my next question.  Did the artists you feature share a relationship to Andy Warhol and the Factory?  Or were they divided?

C&V: We don’t think anyone can deny the importance of Warhol to any New York art movement that came afterwards. Part of what we love about Andy Warhol was that he did create such an omnipotent presence in all aspects and truly embraced that idea of “art as life.”  So yes, everyone making art or film during this period in New York had to have some relationship to Warhol, especially as he and his Factory were all the more present at that time.

Rob Pruitt, The Andy Monument, 2011

We can’t speak for each filmmaker’s personal opinion of the Warhol Factory but we do know there was definitely also a sense of division amongst a lot of the Downtown filmmakers. Some people drew a lot of inspiration from Warhol’s art and particularly his process of filmmaking in shooting spontaneously, with your friends and the people around you and also in rejecting a lot of notions of cinematic form. There were a lot of filmmakers who did very much look up to Warhol and drew inspiration from his ideas. But, as mentioned above, there was also a certain anti-Warhol sentiment or at least distaste for what the Factory had become. For some filmmakers there was a real rejection to the over-blown, sometimes vapid social scene Warhol had surrounded himself with by the late 70s/early 80s. For some filmmakers, such as Manuel Delanda, it was important to reject that culture and return to a form closer to German Expressionism in film. And for others it was maybe a desire to bring back some sense of narrative or politics or emotion to their work as a rejection to that Warhol Factory machine.

MB: Though Blank City concentrates on underground filmmakers and artists, most of those featured are now well-established and well-financed.  Briefly, what were some of the events or conditions that brought these artists into the mainstream?

John Lurie, "God Watched Betsy"

C&V:  This is a complex question to answer because there are a lot of factors here. Firstly, we don’t think it is the case that most of the filmmakers featured in Blank City are now well-established or well-financed. A lot of people have moved on to other professions, teaching for example. Then you have people like Nick Zedd who are still very much making low-budget films on their own terms. And as for “well-financed” that is also relative. Even when we interviewed Steve Buscemi, who of course is Internationally well known and established, he stressed that it is still quite difficult even for him to raise the financing to make the films that he wants to make.  For Jim Jarmusch we think it is the same.  And we really love Jim’s attitude because he mentioned when we interviewed him that no matter what kind of budget, however big or small he has to work with he will still always find a way to make his films. Because at the end of the day, even when you have the success of Jim Jarmusch, in this period we are in now you just aren’t going to easily find funding to make your films unless you are doing a Harry Potter sequel or Transformers. Its just the way it is.

But briefly, some of the factors that propelled some of these filmmakers and artists to become well established were perhaps first through some of the bands. People started to take notice of the Downtown scene when some of the early bands like The Ramones and Blondie got record deals and started touring internationally. Then very quickly people started to latch on to the tremendous flurry of creativity Downtown and it coincided with the economic boom in the early 80s.  You suddenly had a bunch of stock brokers getting very rich and wanting to “buy” a little piece of that “Downtown” lifestyle – whether it was a painting for their house in the suburbs or financing a film to put their name on it. But also, of course, it was also because of the great creative energy and talent of that period. There was a lot of new and very interesting work being created and people just took notice of that and so it inevitably led to the filmmakers and artists being able to get more financing and becoming more established.

For Blank City, though, the idea that some of these people might be well-established or not well-established is not important. We really wanted to capture the scene and the moment and include everyone and not inject any social notion of anyone being more important then anyone else. Yes, you need to include in the narrative that there was some level of success because it is what happened, but it is not the ultimate point of the film, we hope.

MB: You found a goldmine in the archive once held at the legendary Kim’s Video, now in Sicily.  The archive was so thorough that it held many films that they artists themselves didn’t have.  Were there any surprises in your research, such as “long-lost” footage?

C&V: Kim’s was truly an amazing resource to have in making this documentary.  We feel very lucky that it was still there in the East Village when I started.  Initially, we learned a lot during the research phase using Kim’s as a resource and it was probably the only place in the world where you actually had a bunch of these films accessible, even if it was only on one VHS that was falling apart. We were able to see films like Black Box from Scott and Beth B, Kidnapped and Red Italy from Eric Mitchell, and a couple films there by Tina L’Hotsky who very sadly passed away while we were in the process of making Blank City. We are glad that there are copies of her films that exist out there.

AFA NYC

We did have a bunch of other resources in addition to Kim’s: The Filmmaker’s Coop here in New York and Anthology Film Archives, for example. And Alan Moore was an invaluable help as he had collected a lot of films over the years direct from the filmmakers for his MWF video club that was a part of the group Colab. I remember meeting with him at a café in the East Village and one of his colleagues said, “Oh, you know; I think I have a film print of Michael Oblowitz’s ‘King Blank’ in my closet.”  And King Blank is such a great film so we were thrilled to be able to include it.  Then later, Michael Oblowitz said that he had made another film called Minus Zero but didn’t know what ever happened to it. Through much effort we found the film in a collection in London and got it digitally transferred so it was a great thing.

Installation views of Colab, A More Store at White Columns, 1981. Photo: Lisa Kahane

Also, at the Downtown Collection at the NYU Fales Library we found one of the only copies of John Lurie’s film with Eric Mitchell, Men In Orbit.  And Lurie’s other film Hell Is You we were lucky to track down through the artist Christopher Wool. So in the end it is great because now The Anthology Film Archives as well as the Warhol Museum are working to preserve a lot of the films and keep a collection together so it will be more accessible for others in the future. If nothing else comes from Blank City, we are happy that we perhaps helped to get that process moving.

MB: A question for Céline: Initially, I felt skeptical about young filmmakers “documenting” a scene they are too young to have observed.  But then I concluded that as “outsiders,” you have nothing at stake, no special interests in sorting out that scene.  Were you conscious of these issues while working? Did the subjects you interviewed make you conscious of this?

C&V: In the beginning, I don’t think I was really so conscious of these issues because I just knew I was really interested in the topic and that I wanted to make this film. But yes, as I was getting in touch with people and when I would show up for interviews people were a little surprised at first that I was young and in fact I also had a younger crew with me. We were also a lot of women and sometimes people would be surprised that there was this strange crew of young women coming in with camera and sound gear. But it worked and I think in some ways maybe it eventually made people feel more comfortable because they saw that I was coming from this other generation and also being French, from this “outsider” perspective and that I wasn’t there to exploit any issues from the past or play up one story or another. And you’d have to ask the people I interviewed how they felt speaking to me, but I do agree that in a way it was good because I had no personal connection to anyone or anything about the scene and no real pre-conceived notion other then what I heard or read about. I just was very curious and of course with documentary it is always difficult not to inject yourself a bit, but I really wanted to allow people to just say what they wanted to say and tell their own story. For me, I hope that my coming from a younger generation as the filmmaker of Blank City will also allow a generation even younger then I to be able to connect with Blank City and the people in it and I think that the people I interviewed understood that as well.  As much as I was inspired by the people in the film and the work that they created, I hope that it will inspire for generations to come.