If you like your cinema extra-awkward and incoherent, Blank Generation (1980) is the film for you. Not to be confused with the ragged and ultimately better documentary of the same name from a few years earlier, this narrative feature was helmed by future horror-schlock director Ulli Lommel, who at the time was most famous for being a member of the circle surrounding ultra-prolific German auteur Reiner Werner Fassbinder. Starring Richard Hell and Carole Bouquet, Blank Generation suffers from an extreme lack of focus — at times, 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.
With that in mind, the release of Blank Generation on DVD, after many years of unavailability, is a thing to celebrate. For all its shortcomings (take your pick), the film stands on its own as a crucial document of Downtown New York, in all its death and destruction. The streets of the East Village resemble bombed-out Berlin or a post-apocalyptic warzone, full of crumbling buildings and trash-heaped sidewalks; each block cold and empty, beautifully photographed by Ed Lachman (who would later shoot films for Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh , and Todd Haynes). The photography creates an interesting juxtaposition with the rest of the film — the subtle, patient cameramoves and interesting uses of light (especially in a goofy scene featuring a spiritual guru) are often too composed for the film, which at any given moment appears to be falling apart at the seems. You can’t help but think that something more watchable could be produced out of the raw footage with a good editor.
Richard Hell, the reluctant star of the film, discusses this as well as many other aspects in an informative, in-depth interview featured on the disc. Interviewed by writer Luc Sante, the musician/actor is candid in his dislike for the film, the filmmaker, and many of his fellow actors. Hell is also able to see through much of the pretension the film is constructed around, including the blank quasi-Godardian rhetoric and floating ideas, dangling with no meaning or intelligent attachment or relation to the film on the screen. During a period when many felt that Hell had the potential to rise out of the ashes of the downtown music scene, Blank Generation proved to everyone, including Hell, that he wasn’t cut out to this type of performance. His few performances in the following years presented him in a better light, but he soon stopped performing almost all together, wisely focusing his time on his extraordinary writing.
And if none of this floats your boat, you can fast-forward toward the performances by Hell’s amazing band at the time, The Voidoids. Under-appreciated and under-documented, the film presents a nice showcase for what made the band great, especially the exceptional talent of Robert Quine, whose nervous and energized guitar work would see him working with Lou Reed, Brian Eno, and John Zorn throughout the next decade. They get a full performance in the film, and a few of the tracks from their legendary debut Blank Generation (1977) are repeated in the background of various scenes.
But the question must still be asked: is any of this really worth it? The film falls short of even reaching any kind of campy, so-bad-it’s-good levels of excellence. It is curiously watchable, though, even if you’re shaking your head most of the time; its cultural significance outweighs its cheesiness. Hell is one our greatest living artists, one who rarely gets the respect he deserves. Start here. It only gets better.