Céline Danhier’s “Blank City” uses conventional documentary methods — talking-head reminiscences intercut with clips from the archives — to explore the work of a group of aggressively anticonventional artists. This is not a criticism. The movie is about the iconoclastic filmmakers clustered in the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The chaotic, fast-moving, hazily remembered scene they created deserves and benefits from the scholarly consideration Ms. Danhier offers. A dogged journalist and a careful, enthusiastic cultural historian, she illuminates a hectic and fascinating place and time, bringing it back to life and tracing its continuing influence.
It is easy to forget — and also to romanticize — what New York was like in the decade after the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Ms. Danhier’s interview subjects testify to the danger and desolation and also to the bohemian energy that they experienced and made into the basis of their work. There were punk bands, poets and artists-without-portfolio milling around the blocks below 14th Street east of Broadway, and at a certain point some of them decided to start making movies. They shot with Super-8 or 16-millimeter cameras, sometimes with synchronized sound and almost never with professional actors. Their acknowledged precursors included John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, but they also wanted to make something new.
Some went on to achieve a measure of fame, respectability and mainstream acceptance. A viewer with no background in the downtown avant-garde is likely to recognize Steve Buscemi, Deborah Harry and Jim Jarmusch, and maybe also Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Wojnarowicz. Someone with deeper knowledge — or, say, a secondhand memory gleaned from reading The Village Voice as a teenager in the provinces — will be gratified to see stalwarts of the era like Scott B and Beth B, Lydia Lunch, Fab 5 Freddy and Amos Poe, in their youthful vigor and their sturdy middle age. But the point of “Blank City” is neither to celebrate the ones who made it big nor to scold the sellouts. The movie aims, rather, to evoke a moment in as much detail and with as much insight as will fit into 95 minutes. In this it succeeds beautifully.
The tricky thing about artistic scenes and movements — as opposed to the particular works that outlast them — is that you kind of had to be there. For those who were not at legendary music spots like CBGB and the Mudd Club, or the short-lived cinemas that popped up to show underground and experimental film, “Blank City” provides a vivid, vicarious tour. And it also features a generous sampling of films made by mostly self-taught auteurs like Mr. Poe, Eric Mitchell and Daze.
“Nobody was doing what they were good at,” John Lurie recalls. “The painters were in bands. The musicians were making films.” Technique, polish, professionalism — all of these were suspect. What emerged in their absence, under various names (No Wave and Cinema of Transgression are two that stuck), were films that were at once rough and sophisticated, cynical and passionate, jaded and hysterical. Kind of like New York itself.
Documentaries on the history of film often work best as guides to future research, and “Blank City” is no exception. Some of the movies it samples have carved out niches for themselves — Mr. Jarmusch’s supercool “Stranger Than Paradise,” Charlie Ahearn’s splendid and sprawling “Wild Style” — while others are clearly in need of rediscovery.
Starting April 14, New Yorkers will have the chance to rediscover the work of Bette Gordon, subject of a timely and welcome retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. Her career started before the period covered in Ms. Danhier’s film and extended beyond it — “Handsome Harry,” her most recent feature, was released last year — but her “Variety” remains a vital artifact of that time, as well as a permanently unsettling and intriguing glimpse at a world in which art and sleaze collide and commingle.
Creative groupings are often boys’ clubs, with women serving as muses, models and mothers, and American film, independent or not, has traditionally been a macho undertaking. The New York of “Blank City” is a notable exception, a hotbed of feminism, glamour and sexual provocation whose resident geniuses included Ms. Gordon, Ms. Lunch, Patti Astor, Lizzie Borden and Susan Seidelman, among others.
There was a toughness in the downtown aesthetic that inoculates its survivors against nostalgia, and somehow Ms. Danhier manages to conjure a glorious and grungy bygone past without fetishizing it as a golden age. A bunch of people got together and did some stuff, and this is what it looked like.