Volume 21, Number 49 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 17 - 23, 2009

Photo by Godlis

From “Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB”

When punk & indie film ruled NYC
Two tales recall long bygone era of East Village edge 


The East Village had edge then — so it’s not surprising that two new documentaries, set to world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, take on the punk subculture of the late 70s/early 80s East Village arts scene.

The era had a mythic allure for two filmmakers who were in diapers at the time.  “Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB,” directed by 34-year-old Mandy Stein, follows of the history of the club that launched the careers of Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and Patti Smith.  “Blank City,” directed by 30-year-old Celine Danhier, looks at the underground moviemakers of the period such as Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Amos Poe, and Eric Mitchell (as well as the performers in their milieu).

“The Ramones and The Talking Heads were my lullaby music,” says Stein on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.  “They were what my parents were listening to, what was playing at my house all the time.”  Stein practically grew up in CBGB’s, where her father signed bands to his record label, Sire.  Her mother was also a regular on the scene, as co-manager of The Ramones.  CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal, became a family friend. He founded the club in 1973 and named it for the country, blue grass, and blues music he originally featured.

“I remember being there, and being really young, and Johnny Ramone was scolding my Mom and saying, ‘What the fuck did you bring your kid to?’” says Stein, recalling her early memories at the gritty venue.  “There is so much flavor in the East Village; but when I was a younger, it was scary.  There was a sense that you had to be aware and watch where you were going,” she says.

The family lived on the Upper West Side and Stein left to study art history at Occidental College in Los Angeles.  Film production work kept her on the west coast until she got word that CBGB’s was in jeopardy because of a rent dispute.

“Oh, my God, can you believe what’s going on?” Arturo Vega, a member of The Ramones’ entourage, emailed Stein in early 2005.  At that point she flew back to New York to document the battle for the landmark club.  She collected clippings of all the news reports.  She filmed every live performance in CBGB’s waning days, until it closed on Halloween, 2006 — with a performance by Patti Smith.

Stein was heartened by the many generous supporters of the club, including Deborah Harry, her lifelong fashion icon.  “She showed up for every rally and was there on the last night,” she says.  “Making the film has been a lot of pressure because a lot of people are so passionate about the legacy, including me. I’m a fan. I’m an Über fan.”

Stein (currently putting the finishing touches on her new film) describes the style of her CBGB project as a “hodgepodge” that includes live footage, interviews, and archival photography. “It’s a total collage.  The throughline is that the club is in a precarious situation and we watch all these efforts to try to save it,” she says. “We have to reflect on the past and its great history because that’s why we care enough to save it.”

After CBGB’s closed, the space remained empty for a year before John Varvatos moved in with a men’s apparel shop in 2008.  He preserved as much of the original club as possible, with walls covered in graffiti and flyers, and rock memorabilia all around.  “Thank GOD for John it’s not a Duane Reade,” Stein says.

From across the Atlantic Ocean, “Blank City” director Celine Danhier was forming her own vision of New York, long before her move here in 2006.  “I first discovered New York when I saw Martin Scorsese’s ‘After Hours,’ when I was a kid, living in Paris.  The city seemed so strange and so dark and also so attractive,” she says via email from her apartment in downtown Brooklyn.

Danhier went to law school at the Sorbonne with the intention of becoming an entertainment lawyer.  Before she graduated, her focus turned to filmmaking.  “I realized I didn’t want to assist a director or be a struggling actress.  I wanted to direct a film,” she says.  “Blank City” is her debut feature.

Danhier had long been familiar with punk rock and the atonal “no wave” bands that were formed in response to the more pop oriented “new wave” bands of the era, so she sought out underground movies that exemplified the style.  A chance screening in Paris of work by Jarmusch, Poe, and Mitchell whet her appetite for more.  “The films captured the time so well; the music, the spirit and the attitude. They had such a brutal sincerity that I loved,” she says.

According to Danhier, her film reveals the emergence of New York underground filmmaking from 1977 to 1987.  She interviewed over thirty people and went on a hunt for artistic examples that represented the times. “What was so unique about these films and the music is that even though there might have been a shared aesthetic or a do it yourself / lack of technique, they were all very different,” she says.

“I met a lot of people from that time, who were generous to share with me their stories and each person would lead me to the next.  Sometimes I would interview somebody, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you should talk to Bette Gordon or James Nares,’ and then they’d give me a phone number or email address.  I let the documentary unfold in that way, kind of organically,” she says.

“We had one American Express card and a lot of determination while also working full time jobs during the week,” Danhier continues.  “We kept to the film’s philosophy as much as we possibly could to make our movie, doing everything very collaboratively and on the fly with no money.  Now, though, the ‘Do It Yourself’ sensibility is completely tied up with the economic factors of living in New York, so filmmaking is much more of a struggle.”

In Danhier’s view, the East Village today is, “Construction, construction, construction. It feels strange because a lot of the new constructions don’t seem to fit with the landscape. I do think it’s very tame now. That feeling of being on the edge of something is gone. But, then you find other parts of New York to go to — areas of Brooklyn or a new place in Manhattan will open up — and you’ll feel that energy once again.  It just is always shifting around,” she says.





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