It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Blank City" seems almost to argue that poverty is of great assistance to artists. Caeine Danhier's documentary revisits an era--actually, more of a moment--when the bankruptcy of New York City coincided with a no-budget flowering of film and music on the Lower East Side, which by then had already been giving birth or shelter to artists for most of a century.
In "Alphabet City," below 14th Street, rents were low and sometimes optional. The streets were dangerous, but artists could live there on little income. They could buy cheap Super 8 cameras, some of them stolen. They could sometimes scrounge editing facilities for as little as $10. Their screenings and the performances of their bands could take place in spaces that were cheap, free, or appropriated.
Some of those who began there are well known today: Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, John Lurie, Deborah Harry, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Others were only briefly effervescent. A fierce democracy ruled, in which qualify was secondary and simply doing it was the whole point. Willpower was more important than skill. Lurie, remembering the time, muses that talent was beside the point: Film people started bands, musicians made films, and there was a time when he feared to reveal he could actually play the saxophone because it might count against him. In London at about the same time, Punk Rock stars like Sid Vicious couldn't play the guitar and it was an open question whether he could sing.
The documentary does a formidable job of sampling countless films now mostly forgotten (and a few, like Seidelman's "Smithereens" and Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," that stood the test of time). It gathers many of the artists, now middle-aged, to recollect a time of heedless youth.