Rent it now: when artists thrived in a down-and-out Manhattan

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A fascinating documentary, “Blank City,” shows how the terrible financial and physical state of Manhattan 35 years ago led to an incredibly fervent pop music and alternative film scene that continued into the mid-1980s.

Just when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and The New York Daily News was running its infamous headline — “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” — young artists were thriving in bombed-out apartment buildings below 14th St.

They were living cheap in places that middle class folk wouldn’t be caught dead in and they started producing music and then films for next to no money.

Director Celine Danhier shows how the punk music scene at CBGB and other downtown venues pushed some musicians and artists toward film. After all, if untrained musicians could play in clubs to enthusiastic crowds why couldn’t untrained moviemakers start playing around with cameras and film?

The work of pioneering directors like Amos Poe and Nick Zedd (below) were a blend of documentary, Andy Warhol-style bohemian freak show, and improv acting-powered kitchen sink dramas in the vein of John Cassavetes (who inspired everyone with his self-financed 1960s pictures such as “Shadows” and “Faces”).

Danhier includes lots of interview footage with Zedd and Poe as well as those who would emerge from downtown New York with better-known filmographies — Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi among them — but she also gives us many clips from edgy, rough-hewn films that are almost impossible to see now.

The no-budget art scene was edged out of Manhattan by the financial boom of the 1980s — and the attendant real estate mania — but the artists were also hurt by what they showed in their own films.

The downtown scene became a hip commercial commodity — extolled in films such as “Desperately Seeking Susan” made by former bohemians like Susan Seidelman — and suddenly stock brokers and fashionistas wanted to live the lifestyle they saw on screen and started moving below 14 St. in droves.

They wanted to look and sound like bohemian artists, but without making any art. “Downtown” became a wealthy person’s stage set and the real art scene moved on from Manhattan to distressed areas in the other boroughs of New York City.

“Blank City” doesn’t tell us much about how Zedd and Lydia Lunch and some of the other luminaries on view are making a living after their community was largely taken away from them. Danhier wisely focuses on their accomplishments rather than the changing art scene that marginalized them.

Joe Meyers

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