Home

The Blank Generation: American Indie #9

Leave a comment

Blank Generation 1976

I’m likely atypical on this one. I’m guessing we’ve all heard people speculate about the period of history and place that they would most like to witness if a time machine existed that could transport them back. Suggestions tend to involve grand events, being able to see the first Olympics in ancient Greece or getting a gander at Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel.

Me? I’d like to be able to see some shows by the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash in London in 1976. Or take in early appearances by the New York punk acts just a little earlier at iconic venue CBGB.

Luckily young film school student Julian Temple had the nous to take his camera along when he had the chance to document the Pistoleros and Clash live before they’d ever issued even a single, so at least I can get a flavour of events.

Over in NYC, Amos Poe was already doing something very similar along with Czech born musician Ivan Král.

Amos Poe had been born abroad too, in Tel Aviv. In the States, he got to know guys like Richard Hell and Terry Ork while working for New Line Cinema, when it was an independent film distribution company. He hired Král as his assistant and, in their spare time, the pair began filming a number of new bands together.

Choosing Král was an inspired choice. This was a young man with an intersting backstory. As a teenager he’d scored a hit in Czechoslovakia with a band called Saze (translation: Soot), but this success came just after his family relocated to America, where they had to be protected by the FBI as the Communists regime there were desperate to imprison his father for publicly condemning the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia at the UN. Ivan became involved with glam rockers Luger, who played Max’s Kansas City and often supported Kiss in their early days. More significantly, he briefly joined an embryonic Blondie and then the Patti Smith Group, two bands at the heart of the burgeoning New York punk scene. On his own accord he’d already recorded some footage of Iggy and The Stooges on his dad’s Yashica Super 8, before teaming up with Poe.

Actually, Král partly shot live bands as aide memoirs of his stay in New York in case he was ever deported back to Communist Czechoslovakia. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

When he and Poe had filmed enough bands, the pair decided they could assemble it into something that might do the rounds of America’s often lucrative midnight movie circuit.

The Blank Generation title still

The Blank Generation is mostly shot at CBGB but The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village and Max’s are two of the other locations utilised.

The handheld camera is restless throughout, swish panning around. Shot in 16mm black and white, it opens with two Patti Smith tracks. There’s Gloria followed by her take on the Velvet Underground’s We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together. Not the whole songs, a chunk of the former and just a snippet of the latter. One minute Patti’s in a biker jacket, the next in some kind of poncho dress, then she’s in a T-shirt. At one point, book in hand, she’s obviously giving a poetry reading. The sound is not synched, and no effort has gone into attempting to make it appear as if it might be.

Patti Smith - The Blank Generation 1976

This is because Poe, who did the bulk of the editing in the space of 24 hours, wanted to reference Jean-Luc Godard, who’d been keen to make viewers very aware they were watching a movie back when he was directing Nouvelle Vague classics like Breathless and Bande à part. Think of that famous dance scene in the latter when the jukebox music is repeatedly faded out to make way for some narration.

Next up is Television with Tom Verlaine displaying the kind of sunken cheekbones that suggest he could have been doing with a decent plate of scran. Heroin chic before that term had been coined. We get Little Johnny Jewel and Mi Amore (and then some more Little Johnny Jewel for no easily identifiable reason).

Again snippets only and out-of-synch sound. Which is becoming more and more disconcerting the longer I watch.

Time for some salvos of speed bubblegum in the shape of The Ramones. LoudmouthShockTreatmentIDon’tCareBlitzkriegBopLoudmouth. Hell, yeah. We’re then treated to a young and preppy looking David Byrne and Talking Heads looking suitably tense and nervous as they perform Psycho Killer. At this point Tina Weymouth could still be termed a beginner on the bass but this bassline is one of the most perfect you will ever hear.

After these CBGB superstars, we have a stream of bands that mostly might be called CBGB Division 2.

The Tuff Darts play down n’ dirty rock’n’roll. And it strikes me that it might have been an idea to flash up the band names along the way rather than leaving it to the end to let us know who some of these people are. Wayne (now Jayne) County is certainly recognizable enough, though, as he/she puts his/her own spin on Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?

Wayne County - The Blank Generation

In among the Division 2 bands like The Marbles, The Miamis and The Shirts are Blondie. This might seem surprising, but the band were initially not thought of very highly by many. When Charles Shaar Murray crossed the Atlantic to cover the burgeoning scene for NME at the tail-end of 1975, he predicted that ‘Blondie will never be a star because she ain’t good enough.’ We all get things wrong, CSM.

Debbie loves the camera but not as much as the camera loves those cheekbones and that pout of her’s. Here she wants to be platinum blonde, just like Marilyn and Jeane, Jayne, Mae and Marlene. This sequence with some live footage and some messing around on a fire escape and three of the guys pushing a car down a road could work as a video in its own right, albeit a particularly scuzzy video.

deb_1

Rather than anything remotely punk, Harry Toledo’s Knots sounds like ominous psych. So ominous that you could imagine it having been written and recorded in the immediate wake of some awful late 1960s event like Altamont or the Tate-LaBianca murders. I like it a lot. According to the booklet that accompanies the Max’s Kansas City 1976 album, Harry had disappeared from the music world by the start of the 1980s, leaving only one EP produced by John Cale. A shame.

New York Dolls track Funky But Chic isn’t one of their strongest and maybe they just look too respectable as they perform it. By the Doll’s standards anyway. They no longer look like the future but The Heartbreakers, who end the film do. This is when Richard Hell was part of the band and the song that would become the anthem of New York punk was a highlight of their set.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux & Richard Hell

Backstage, Lizzy Mercier Descloux poses moodily with Richard Hell and we also see glimpses of the CBGB New Year’s Eve party of 1975. Oh look, there’s Tina Weymouth. Wow, a smiling Debbie’s partying too. Is that John Cale in the festive paper hat? It sure is.

The film premiered at CBGB on a night that also saw The Heartbreakers play live. Since then Poe has made many films and even had a shot at writing for Hollywood. It wasn’t for him. He’s been described as ‘the titan of the No Wave Cinema Movement’ and ‘the progenitor of punk cinema’.

In her new autobiography Face It, Debbie Harry writes about how she and Chris Stein once planned to produce a remake of Godard’s Alphaville, with Debbie in the Anna Karina role and Robert Fripp playing Lemmy Caution. Godard thought they were crazy but sold them the rights anyway. Although he didn’t own them. Their record company resisted the idea of them taking time off to pursue such a project anyway, and not too surprisingly, the Poe, Harry and Stein Alphaville never got off the ground. Probably for the best.

Today Amos spends much of his time painting and teaching film.

Ivan went on to compose music for some other Poe films including Subway Riders. After playing with Patti, he joined up with Iggy Pop.

A sometimes frustrating but utterly fascinating watch, The Blank Generation remains a crucial document of the emerging mid-1970s music scene and I am very grateful to Poe and Král for chronicling so many of the key players in an age before concert-goers had the chance to spend most of their time aiming iPhones at the stage.

I would have liked to have seen Suicide but hey, they didn’t play CBGB at all in 1975 when most of The Blank Generation was shot. A wee bit of research tells me they did play in the summer of 1974 in a support slot with The Fast and didn’t return until three nights in December 1976 in a support slot for The Ramones. This ended with a show on the night of the 25th. How Christmassy that must have been? Yo ho ho.

Come on inventors, get a move on. I want a time machine ASAP and if I ever get one you can bet I might just set those controls to the Bowery on that particular Christmas night.

For more on The Blank Generation: https://theblankgeneration.com/

For more on Amos Poe: http://www.amospoe.com/

For more on Amos Poe, Ivan Ivan Král : http://www.ivankral.net/

Wanda: American Indie #8

2 Comments

Wanda (1970)

This week saw the final ever episode of The Deuce, one of the best TV series of the decade. The show also featured one of the finest television performances in recent memory, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen Merrell, aka Candy Renee.

Wry, conflicted but business-headed, Candy Renee was partly based on Candida Royalle. Like Renee, this former porn star made the move to behind the camera and started shooting ‘erotic’ pornos aimed more at females.

At its end, The Deuce fast-forwarded almost three and a half decades to a coda where Vincent roams around the soulless, corporate and Disneyfied Times Square of today. Here he was to find out that his old pal had not only shot 89 pornos, she’d also made a film with real artistic merit called Pawn in Their Game.

Rather than anything in Candida Royalle’s oeuvre, though, the idea of this film was inspired more by a little known independent movie by Barbara Loden called Wanda.

Wanda_(Barbara_Loden)

Born and raised in North Carolina in 1932, Loden later described herself as a ‘hillbilly’s daughter’.

She started out in the business as a model and chorus-dancer and performed at New York’s Copacabana. As an actress, Loden commenced her career in theatre and was a lifetime member of the renowned Actors Studio. She played Warren Beatty’s sister in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in 1961 and later married the director. In 1970, she directed her one and only feature film Wanda.

She also took on the role of the titular character, as well as writing the screenplay.

Barbra Loden

Silently an old woman prays, rosary beads in her hands. A baby sobs angrily despite some attention from a woman who is presumably its mother. The mother’s partner (again I’m guessing) slams the door as he leaves the house. This is likely to wake a woman lying asleep on a sofa in the living room.

This is Wanda.

Set in a working-class town in Pennsylvania, the house she’s staying at overlooks a coal quarry. This could be some bleak town in the Soviet Union of the time.

Wearing curlers on her blonde hair, she slips out and borrows some money from an old-timer scavenging for coal, not that he can afford to give her much. The pace is slow and has a real cinéma vérité feel.

Loden cuts to a court room where a man, Wanda’s husband, is explaining that she detested him and their children and walked out on them. She would lie around all day, drinking and paying no attention to their young boy and girl.

He now wants a divorce and custody of the kids. ‘That’s just like her,’ he observes, when her name is called out and she’s nowhere to be seen.

Wanda does finally arrive. Curlers still on and smoking, she freely admits that her kids would be better off staying with their father, and that he should be granted a divorce.

This is not someone who would ever imagine where she’ll be in, say, five year’s time. She’d be lucky if she planned anything five minutes in advance.

Wanda isn’t going to be an easy character to root for. She even fails to acknowledge her kids in the courtroom. No question, she’s a negligent mother, living a numbed existence although Loden isn’t interested in spelling out any reasons behind her attitude.

Wanda_in_court

She drifts around town. She sleeps with a man for money. She goes to see a melodramatic musical in a Hispanic cinema. She falls asleep and wakes up to discover that somebody has thieved the money from her purse.

This isn’t her day. It’s safe to assume it’s never her day.

Wanda then inveigles her way into a bar which is already closed. She goes to a dingy toilet and washes. She asks for a towel, and we see that there’s a barman lying gagged on the floor behind the bar. The man she thought was a bartender is cold-hearted robber.

Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins) rushes her out and buys her some spaghetti in a late night cafe. The messy way she eats it annoys him. Most things annoy Dennis. He doesn’t like nosey people. He doesn’t like friendly people. He ends up in bed with Wanda in a cheap hotel room, barking out demands when they both wake in the middle of the night. Please and thank you don’t appear to belong in his vocabulary.

Mr. Dennis, as Wanda always refers to him, is what in Scotland might be described as crabbit – mean and cantankerous. Clyde Barrow, he ain’t, and Wanda and Mr Dennis are not going to be a match made in heaven.

Wanda_with_Mr_Dennis

Loden chose to examine the lives of those with no real talents, no great ambitions, and no advanced education. But people like this can be fascinating, just as films about enormously successful or inspirational people can be borefests.

‘She’s trapped, Barbara Loden explained in a contemporary interview in the New York Times, ‘and she will never, ever get out of it and there are millions like her.’

If you were to compare it with another film, it would likely be something by John Cassavettes. And at one point I did imagine Cassavettes’ wife Gena Rowlands in the central role.

Wanda premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, and won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Despite this boost, it was little seen afterwards. According to the New York Times, it ‘failed to create excitement at the box-office’. It wasn’t given much of a chance to. Only one cinema in New York screened it, and it was never given any kind of run in the rest of the country.

Pauline Kael derided it as ‘an extremely drab and limited piece of realism’ and described the character of Wanda as ‘an ignorant slut’. Writing for Criterion, Amy Taubin noted that when she first showed it to the feminist film classes she taught in the mid-1980, the reaction of her most students was similar.

Wanda would remain the only feature-length work directed by Loden. She didn’t disappear, though. She directed theatre productions and made two short films.

The Edinburgh Film Festival had attempted to revive the film’s fortunes in 1979, when it was featured in its Women and Film strand.

Since then its reputation has slowly grown. It’s even been called a feminist classic although Loden didn’t see it as feminist when she made it and if you’re looking for strong female role models here, you’re going to be very disappointed.

It’s a film that is more of an interesting watch than an enjoyable one, although Barbara Loden is superb as Wanda. I much preferred the first half, which is more of a character study. The second half is more plot driven although nothing in the plot will surprise anyone.

It’s a little too long and I would have ditched the final five or so minutes but I would recommend you seeing it without hesitation.

Loden did look like she might direct a second film, based on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but illness prevented this happening.

She died of cancer in New York City in September 1980, aged 48.

For more on Wanda, click here

Finally this week, it’s back to the aforementioned Candida Royalle. Candice Marion Vadala as she was christened, wasn’t just a porn star and porn director. She also performed with hippy avant-garde theatre group The Cockettes, played Divine’s daughter in a play, and in 1975 collaborated on some tracks with Patrick Cowley (who himself supplied the soundtracks to a number of gay porn flicks).

The Royalle and Cowley recordings were eventually released in 2016 by Dark Entries Records as a 5-track EP titled Candida Cosmica. Not really my thing although they were way ahead of their time.

Here’s a taster: