For anyone who thought that the United States never had Third World characteristics, Celine Dahnier's Blank City proves that Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1970s and early 1980s closely rivaled the apocalyptic conditions of Ethiopian living. However, born out of this generally fetid and unseemly lifestyle came the desire of Lower East Side denizens to create films using the most minimal methods possible. The directors, actors, and musicians that make up the documentary aptly called Blank City (due to the movie Blank Generation and the overall clean slate provided by an abandoned area of town) survived through a period of time when just getting by was considered an unattainable feat. Such notables as Amos Poe, Lydia Lunch, Debbie Harry, James Nares, Patti Astor, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kern, Beth and Scott B, Vivienne Dick, and Steve Buscemi were able to turn poverty into profit as their careers progressed, but in the beginning, it was all about the art.
A strong basis for an artist community was formed in the ramshackle buildings that the city of New York did not have money to renovate or repair. The city's bankruptcy was ignored even by then president Gerald Ford (made extremely evident in a New York Daily News headline, printed in October 1975, that read "Ford to CITY: Drop Dead"), leaving L.E.S. ragamuffins with the pick of any vacant building they desired.
Soon, a coexistence between the mediums of film, music, and art were melding into a single cauldron of inventiveness and ingenuity. The availability of Super 8 cameras (often borrowed or stolen) gave the residents of the Lower East Side a YouTube-esque power in that, suddenly, film was democratized--available to anyone who had the inclination to make one.
From this knack for functioning amid chaos and destruction, a number of unprecedented films were released, films that were shockingly candid and reflective of an era when everyone felt as though this year could be their last--drug addiction, AIDS, and poverty all being chief contributors to this feeling. Eric Mitchell's The Way It Is, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Beth B and Scott B's Vortex, and Nick Zedd's They Eat Scum were all indicative of the nihilistic, yet somehow hedonistic, lifestyle that New York had adopted.
And then, as quickly as the No Wave movement had descended upon the Lower East Side, it was gone. With Reagan and the mid-80s came gentrification and wealth, leaving no place for those who had previously embraced the independent spirit that goes hand in hand with being broke. In Nick Zedd's 1986 short, Police State, the horror of being kicked out of an apartment building to make way for those who could afford to pay an obscenely overpriced rent fee marked the demise of the Lower East Side as these seminal artists had known it.
While many of the L.E.S. filmmakers were able to achieve commercial success (Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan being the most overt example), that period from 1975 to about 1983 was an inimitable blip. And while we can try to liken it to the tools that are available today (video cameras on iPhones, iMovie, and the whole fucking iLife gamut), what is missing from the current age is the struggle to survive, to create something out of a fierce need to actually exhibit a meaningful message to the world.