City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

EIFF 2010: Document

By Euan Andrews - Posted on 18 June 2010

Blank City

Documentary film-makers love the outsider. They love to probe around the fringes of real-life, picking up rocks and seeing what detritus is burrowing underneath, whether by design or choice. This is perfectly displayed by some of the films being presented in this year’s ever exemplary Document strand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Celine Danhier’s directorial debut, Blank City, dwells on the denizens of the underground No Wave scene in New York during the late seventies and early eighties. An amazing selection of footage shows Manhattan of the seventies as resembling a punk-strewn bomb site, populated by wandering crazies who seem to have escaped as extras from a certain John Carpenter film. 

Although flirting with music from the contemporary likes of Sonic Youth, Mars and Bush Tetras as well as the graffiti art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Blank City is most concerned with the films that were produced in the downtown lofts and squats by a motley rabble of wannabes’, gonnabes’ and neveroughtabes’. The likes of Jim Jarmusch (dapper, perma-fagged and silver haired as ever), John Lurie (sadly increasingly resembling Bernard Bresslaw), and Lydia Lunch (your scary auntie) discuss a time of partying, drugs, and keeping what money was left to buy old film stock.

The film also documents the demented “Cinema of Transgression”, as perpetuated by no-budget directors such as Nick Zedd and Richard Kerd, which ramped shock tactic levels up to extremes. While Blank City is occasionally unfocused, a parade of concise “We-Were-There-Man” interviews combined with some mind-boggling clips of the films produced, seemingly located from old VHS tapes, make for a fairly indispensable guide to a little known cinema movement.

More widely renowned and acclaimed is the cinema produced by the central protagonists in Deux de la Vague aka Two in the Wave . Emmanuel Laurent’s film follows the tangential careers, and occasional partnerships, of La Nouvelle Vague’s most celebrated directors, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

Taking in their times at Cahiers Du Cinema followed by the plaudits and prizes given to their respective first features, Les Quatres Cents Coups and A Bout De Souffle, up until the seismic destruction of their friendship following Godard’s 1968 conversion to radical politics, Deux de la Vague does take a somewhat dry and didactic approach to a fascinating and ground-breaking revolution in French cinema which still has an impact today. Still, it’s all worth it for the vintage footage of Godard, sunglasses clamped firmly on and waving his cigarette around while proclaiming how merde everything is.

The sad subject of Corinne van der Borch’s Girl With Black Balloons is Bettina, a reclusive old woman living a hermit-like existence within her over-cluttered apartment inside New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel. Bettina has overwhelmingly devoted her life to creating a massive body of artwork, never put on public display, which takes up every nook and cranny of her maze-like living space. Whether any past trauma has forced this life upon her is never made clear. She speaks wistfully of moments from her past and occasionally seems all too aware of the fact that she may have painted her entire life into a corner.

Her artwork, which covers various medias including sculpture, video and word montages, seems to involve attempting to find patterns in everything, as though Bettina has spent her years desperately trying to see meanings and signs around herself. Ultimately, the patterns have broken down and have splintered into the fragmented chaos which now surrounds her. It’s a moving portrayal of someone’s troubled inner life and worth remembering next time you see strange aged eccentrics muttering to themselves on street corners.

Finally, the outsiders of Road to Las Vegas are most determinedly trying to get within the system, but the system seems to be doing the utmost to make sure they don’t. Maurice, Vanessa and their five children have attempted to relocate from Alaska to Las Vegas, inspired by a dream from God and utter faith in the American dream. Having arrived in 2005, with little more than $20 to their name, they are reduced to sleeping in their car while Maurice attempts to find some labouring work in, what is at the time, the USA’s fastest growing city. 

Director Jason Massot returns to visit them over the next few years to find their troubles then were only starting. Maurice’s ongoing crack addiction, Vanessa’s infidelity, and the repercussions of the global credit crunch on the poorest people in American society all mount obstacles in their way. The film becomes almost relentlessly bleak viewing, as deaths, addictions, and plain lack of money begin to take their toll on a family already clinging onto the world by their very fingertips. 

It’s powerful stuff, quite beautifully made in its portrayal of America as still this vast wilderness being slowly constructed and built upwards by the lowest caste in society, surrounded by crack pipes and gambling debts. The final scene of Road to Las Vegas attempts to convince us that Maurice and Vanessa do have some kind of future in each other, but by this point it is too easy to believe that only more struggle and pain awaits them.

Further coverage of Edinburgh International Film Festival