Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Blank Generation (1976)

by on January 13, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Jan 19 at 7:00* at Museum of Arts and Design [Program and Tix]
*Director/editor Amos Poe in-person


MAD kicks off its “No Wave Cinema” series, Thursdays and Fridays thru February February 10, with local punk elderstatesmen Amos Poe introducing and discussing his legendary punk documentary – made on a pawn shop 16mm camera.


Steve Seid for the Pacific Film Archive program notes:

Sometimes a filmmaker has instincts aligned perfectly with the moment. Such is the case with Amos Poe, a downtown denizen who entered the New York punk scene as it was just rearing its howling head. With camera in hand, Poe began capturing this new wave of bands at dank venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Poe had a great guide: Ivan Kral, bass player for the Patti Smith Group. Together, they made the prototypical punk portrait, The Blank Generation, mating a slapdash style of zooms and shock lighting with starkly original stylemockers like Television and Blondie. A babyfaced David Byrne sings “Psycho Killer,” Joey Ramone electrifies with “Shock Treatment,” the ever-wiggy Wayne County holds court with “Rock ’n’ Roll Enema,” and, at the center of it all, Patti Smith drones with acid tongue a wily cover of “Gloria.” The “blank” in this Blank Generation would be short-lived. It was soon occupied by a music that was anything but vacant.



Victoria Large for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

a grainy, black-and-white Super 8 chronicle of the nascent New York punk scene. Viewers with an interest in this era in New York’s history, and particularly lovers of the music featured in the film, could find themselves bewitched by The Blank Generation’s dreamlike tour of a now-bygone, then-burgeoning scene. Some concert films have a welcome demystifying quality. It can be a relief to see live, humanizing footage of legendary performers if we’re more accustomed to seeing posed photographs on record sleeves. By contrast, The Blank Generation’s no-budget tactics lend its subject matter a notable sense of unreality. The performers look iconic in black-and-white, and iconic they are: there are appearances from Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers, and Wayne (now Jayne) County. Almost any still from the film could be mistaken for a famous rock and roll photograph.
The film is unique in its status as a punk document that is entirely of its time and place. What’s more, The Blank Generation was a key film in New York’s emerging No Wave cinema, making it a particularly potent meeting of cinema and punk rock. It screened as the final feature film in the HFA’s “American Punk” rep series, and in that sense it offered an interesting feeling of ending at the beginning. The Blank Generation features New York City sounds that would resonate across the country and across the pond, and in some ways make all of the other films in this series possible. In that regard, The Blank Generation is an indispensable piece of film and music history.


Glenn Andreiev speaks with Poe for Films in Review:

What was the no wave cinema movement?

I came to New York as an untrained filmmaker. I didn’t go to film school. I had a Nizo Super 8mm camera, which I think I still have somewhere. I shot with that for many years. I was making these kind of music videos, usually to a song and the song would inspire me to create a visual story or some quasi-narrative. Then I would edit the film on this little super 8 editing thing and bring it to the Millennium Film Workshop on 4th street. On Friday nights they had open screenings for a handful of people. Then I would go for the next film, and I would do that constantly. The Millennium came from the experimental filmmaking 1960′s approach, you know, like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, and I liked some of that experimental film-making but thinking more towards narrative film-making. Then I got a 16mm camera and started hanging out at clubs more, so by 1975 I was shooting more bands and more of my own stuff, so it was getting more expensive. Ivan Kral and I shot a lot of footage, so we decided to edit it all together and we came up with The Blank Generation.


I wanted to do something that approximated the French Nouvelle Vague movement in New York. I had this attitude then that I didn’t know how to make a film, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me, which was kind of like the aesthetic of punk in a way. So, I figured if I couldn’t make a film, I could make a film movement, predicated on the idea of “do it yourself,” and if I could do a feature film for let’s say, under $4,000 in black and white reversal, and get other people to make films like that, maybe we could start a movement. I put an ad in the Village Voice for actors and crew and made Unmade Beds, which was a remake of Breathless, maybe not a remake like the Jim McBride (and Richard Gere) film, but more like a philosophical or theoretical remake in the post modern sense. Unmade Beds started the whole ball rolling. It was like the French New Wave, but we couldn’t call it the French New Wave, so we called it the No Wave. And that played into the punk aesthetic


I remember those days of shooting in super 8mm. Sending the little cartridge of super 8 film out to be processed, then kind of biting your nails waiting for the film to come back, and wondering “Oh, did the shot come out right? Did I have enough light? Was the focus right?”
I was going into CBGB’s with a silent camera shooting rock bands and who the fuck is doing that? You might as well shoot stills. People there saw me shoot and would say “Why are you shooting that band silent? Are you out of your mind? If you add sound it will be out of sync!” I think that adds to the success of Blank Generation. If it was in sync, it would just be a documentary. People would say “Next week, I’ll get you a sound 16mm camera, and I’m thinking “What am I going to do? Shoot the 20th performance of the Ramones or be the first? I mean the whole No-Wave movement was something like Rube Goldberg, like Godard, with a Warhol approach, making the mistakes work. The polished professional is boring compared to the insane amateur.


Director of Programming Chale Nafus, for the Austin Film Society:

CBGB, the small Bowery Avenue club that spawned and nurtured American punk and New Wave music in the mid-70s, closed earlier this fall after a three-decade run. Fortunately, New York filmmaker Amos Poe was hanging out at CBGB in its early days and began filming performances by many of the musicians who would become the stars of the late 70s/early 80s as the rest of America embraced punk and New Wave music and style. Taking his silent 16mm footage and separate audio cassette recordings, Poe and co-director Ivan Kral (guitarist for Patti Smith) put together a documentary, “Blank Generation” (1976), that 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. Neither a collection of music videos nor a straightforward documentary.

In the film the Patti Smith Group performs a rousing version of “Gloria” that makes you want to jump, scream, and run around the room/block/world. With her androgynous looks, thriftshop clothing, snarling voice, biting lyrics, and middle-finger attitude, Patti Smith is obviously well on her way to becoming the intellectual godmother of punk. Television (with Tom Verlaine) performs “Little Johnny Jewel,” complete with an insert of a portable TV being tossed off a building (a forerunner of music videos incorporating performance and dramatic recreations). The Ramones come on with “Shock Treatment” and “1,2,3,4, Let’s Go,” providing a sad moment while realizing 1,2,3 are already gone. Their leather jackets, sunglasses, pageboy haircuts, and plenty of proto-punk attitude helped establish one style for male punks. Looking very art-school, almost preppie, David Byrne and The Talking Heads perform “Psycho Killer” and bring their soul-stirring rhythms into the mix. The outrageous Wayne County with his big hair wig, high heels, and shapely legs in fishnet stockings (obviously influenced by Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous, John Waters’ films with Divine, and the New York Dolls in their gender-bender period of 1973) sings the lovely “Rock ‘n’ Roll Enema” while brandishing a toilet plunger. Not a pretty sight but not meant to be. And then there is Blondie, with the deadly gorgeous Deborah Harry and her perfect cheekbones, artful makeup, and blonde superstar hair. A complete antithesis of Patti Smith, Harry harkens back to the era of the chanteuse and the Hollywood siren of the 30s.


“The Blank Generation” suggests that in 1975-1976 it was still a [fill in the blank] generation with no definition, self-imposed or media-determined. That was a post-Watergate, post-hippie, post-activist time of new possibilities, all clearly championed and captured in Amos Poe’s film.



Jonathan Buchsbaum for Film Comment (May/June 1981):

A new independent film movement has sprouted in downtown New York. As structural film consolidated its position and attracted its academic exigetes in the mid-Seventies, younger filmmakers pursued other interests springing from their immersion in the punk-new wave music scene, concentrated in rundown New York spots like CBGB and the Mudd Club. Just as punk music rejected commercial music and commercial marketing, the filmmakers reacted against Hollywood formulas – and against the institutionalized avant garde. Their films stud the soundtracks with new music, recruit band members as actors, take artistic risks. Unlike the structuralists, they are not illustrating theoretical ideas about film, but discovering cinema by doing. The results may be uneven, but their work deserves exposure, for it resurrects a fertile form of filmmaking and provides a glimpse of the new counterculture. The early films of Amos Poe express one aspect of this sensibility: anomie. Born in Israel in 1950, Poe came to America when he was 8, and began making super-8 films in Buffalo and Vermont. He moved to New York in 1972 and rented an apartment on the Lower East Side, an area still relatively unsullied by high rents, gentrification, and designer chic. Working in a film distribution company, he met a Czech musician, Iva! Krall, who introduced him to the new wave clubs, and in 1975 they decided to film the bands. Two 16mm films resulted: Night Lunch and The Blank Generation, the latter title taken from Richard Hell’s song, “I Belong to the Blank Generation.” Poe’s films indicate that such a characterization indeed applies.
Most of The Generation (as the titles have it) simply shows the most prominent bands playing, including names that survived for a time (Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie) as well as some that dissolved (New York Dolls, Wayne County, Television). Poe shot his first films without sound, adding tracks later, and the absence of synchronization certainly contributes to the rawness of the film, a cinematic analogue to the primitivism of the music. Patti Smith opens the film with “Gloria” – an appropriate choice, for the song derives from Them (with Van Morrison), and Smith is a transitional figure linking Bob Dylan and Lou Reed with the newer groups. Poe provides few views of the audience, although one close shot toward the end frames two pale faces against a white wall with impressively bland expressions.
Apparently the ambiance attracted him less than the groups, and the nonperformance footage supplies “candid” cavortings of some of the groups offstage, such as Blondie climbing up fire escapes, or the members of another group attacking each other with their instruments. A feeble wit gasps from time to time: multiple dissolves of a man running down streets with a television in hand introduce the Television performance. It documents a nascent moment in the movement and communicates a feeling for its rawness.


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