Blank Generation

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Blank Generation (1980) is Ulli Lommel’s unlikely love letter to the New York Punk scene. Along with Cocaine Cowboys (1979), Blank Generation marked the beginning of Lommel’s career as a filmmaker outside of West Germany and away from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s shadow. In some respects, when watching these two films, it feels as though Lommel simply traded Fassbinder for Andy Warhol (who appears as himself in Blank Generation).

Blank Generation opens with its titles on a marquee running along side of a building, evoking the title sequence to Paul Morrissey’s film Trash (1970) which Warhol “produced”. The formal structure of the film also recalls some of the Morrissey and Warhol films since it isn’t so much concerned with narrative as it is with exploring characters. Morrissey and Lommel were both essentially making films about worlds that were foreign to them.

By 1980 Punk was already giving way to New Wave and the title song was already three years old. The Punk World of Blank Generation is anomalous in its lack of social and political anger. Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982) builds on Blank Generation but with a focus on the toxicity of living within a close knit community. Seidelman’s version of Punk New York is one of a kingdom whose very own hierarchy is responsible for its demise while Lommel sees Punk as a utopia unmade by romantic delusions. It’s curious that both Smithereens and Blank Generation cast Richard Hell as a character that is basically himself and use a female protagonist as a means of exploring his world.

In Blank Generation it is French actress Carole Bouquet (playing Nada) who is literally investigating Hell and Punk as a whole. Her character is an investigative journalist working on a special piece that attempts to define the allure of the Punk movement. This literal use of a character to investigate or expose a kind of subculture aligns Blank Generation with the kind of anti-Beatnik drive-in shockers of the late fifties and early sixties; an aesthetic that is wholly antithetical to Punk.

Yet, the focus of the film from a dramatic standpoint is the love affair between Richard Hell and Carole Bouquet. The issue here is that Lommel treats this relationship as if it were a soap opera. Grand gestures and some campy choices delude the otherwise “fly on the wall” sensibility of the films aesthetic. It muddies the film so that one isn’t sure what it is that Blank Generation is trying to do or to say.

Ulli Lommel’s strengths as a filmmaker have always been within the realm of the genre picture. Blank Generation is a curio from a distant time and place made by a filmmaker still struggling to define himself. The cult status that Blank Generation enjoys is due exclusively to the cast, including Warhol’s cameo as himself. The Richard Hell song from which the film has taken its name will forever be timeless as one of the greatest early Punk Rock anthems.