Fans of bratty New York punk-turned-serious writer Richard Hell or schlocky German horror director Ulli Lommel or---why not---both, will likely know of Lommel’s 1980 Blank Generation, a film unremarkable except for its casting of Hell and his excellent Voidoids as feature players. (Their debut 1977 album and single are also called Blank Generation.) The movie, as a reviewer puts it, “seems as if each member of the production was under the impression they were working on a different film than the rest of their collaborators…. You can’t help but think that something more watchable could be produced out of the raw footage with a good editor.”
One might approach an earlier film, also called Blank Generation---the raw 1976 documentary about the budding New York punk scene above---with similar expectations of coherent production and narrative clarity. But this would be mistaken. The first Blank Generation is a film that rewards no expectations, except perhaps expecting to be constantly disoriented. But that would seem to me a given for a genuine document of what Lydia Lunch christened “No Wave,” the deliberately tasteless 70s hybrid of punk, rock, new wave, noise, free jazz, and jarring combination of amateur and professional experimentation that came to define the sound of downtown for decades to come.
Shot and directed by frequent Lunch and Patti Smith collaborator Ivan Kral and pioneering indie filmmaker Amos Poe, the documentary features Smith, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, The Heartbreakers, Wayne/Jayne County, and pretty much everyone else on the CBGB’s scene at the time. The Austin Film Society sums it up well. Kral and Poe’s Blank Generation
exemplified a punkish attitude toward film structure with handheld zooms, angled compositions, floodlight lighting, extreme close-ups, elliptical editing, flash pans, and a general in-your-face and “up-yours” stance. Sound and image purposely do not synch. In many cases music and image were recorded on separate nights---more economical because of the high cost of raw film stock with sound, but also an aesthetic nod to Jean-Luc Godard who had slashed the umbilical cord uniting sound and image. Out of the French New Wave came the New York No Wave.
The influence is evident, though it's not particularly useful context. Really, all you need to know is contained within the frame: in the lilting rasp of Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” in close-up shots of Joey Ramone’s crotch and filthy sneakers, in the youthful David Byrne’s jangly acoustic guitar and the sleazy lounge-punk of Television’s tribute to Iggy Pop, “Little Johnny Jewel.” Of course later No Wave stalwarts like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Swans, Sonic Youth, John Zorn, DNA, and Mars don't appear---but some get their due elsewhere. And while the Hell/Lommel film might be worth a watch for curiosity's sake, the first Blank Generation is a truly incredible historical document that deserves repeated viewing.
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