Paul Morrissey (Flesh, Blood for Dracula) is not the only filmmaker alpha-pop-con-artist Andy Warhol worked with during his somewhat passive, if not singular, filmmaking career. Aside from his amateur filmmaker boyfriend Danny Williams, who the artist pushed into suicide as disturbingly depicted in the rather incriminating documentary A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007) directed by Esther Robinson (Williams’ niece), Warhol also had his boyfriend Jed Johnson (who was an interior designer and protégé of Morrissey and would later die in the TWA Flight 800 explosion) direct the final Factory film, the Waters-esque black comedy Andy Warhol's Bad (1977), yet there is another auteur he worked with that is often forgotten. Undoubtedly, the most seemingly unlikely filmmaker Warhol worked with was German actor turned auteur Ulli Lommel (Haytabo, The Boogeyman), who started working with the poof pop-artist after receiving acclaim for his dark arthouse horror masterpiece Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973) aka The Tenderness of Wolves, cutting his ties with his longtime collaborator Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and moving to the United States in 1977. Apparently, Warhol was a fan of The Tenderness of Wolves and offered to produce Lommel’s next film, or as the Teutonic auteur stated himself: “When the New York Times wrote in 1977 that “Tenderness of the Wolves” reminded them of Andy Warhol’s work, only better, Andy attended the next screening and after the movie we met and he asked me what my plans were. I invented a love story at dinner with Warhol, Truman Capote and Jacki Kennedy called 'Blank Generation.'” Indeed, for a moment during the late-1970s/early-1980s, Lommel was Warhol’s “soup du jour” and produced two of his films, Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980), which would ultimately become two of the most nihilistic and idiosyncratic cult rock films ever made, as unintentionally damning documents of post-counter-culture American youth movements as seen from a voyeuristic Teutonic gaze. Needless to say, neither of these films are masterpieces, but they are certainly among Lommel’s most interesting and experimental works, with Blank Generation being the most ambitious and artistically successful of the two films. Mixing Richard Hell & The Voidoids with Mozart and Beethoven and featuring a love story between punk rocker Richard Hell and French arthouse actress Carole Bouquet (That Obscure Object of Desire, Day of the Idiots), Blank Generation is a curious and then cutting edge mix of high and low kultur (aka European and American culture) that reminds one how absurd American cultural hegemony is considering krauts were creating great symphonies for European royalty centuries ago while American punk rockers were composing two minute songs with three power chords riffs for urban sub-prole rabble during the late-1970s/early-1980s. Named after the debut 1977 Richard Hell & The Voidoids album of the same name, Blank Generation has been routinely attacked since its release by its star Richard Hell—a mischling Jew who grew up in Kentucky and was a major influence on punk (non)fashion—who once stated of the film that, “there’s not a single authentic, truthful moment in the movie.” Personally, I could say the same thing about Mr. Hell’s music, but that is beside the point, as punk rock is merely a background to a dejecting arthouse romance directed by a man who was then in a relationship with the lead actress, Carole Bouquet, who personifies what one might describe as a mentally perturbed woman of the hysterical, detached and hopelessly scatter-brained sort who does not know what she wants. Lommel’s most ‘Godardian’ work (the director even goes so far as name-dropping the frog commie auteur), Blank Generation is like Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974) meets Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) with a tinge of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), albeit set in a fashion-obsessed and emotionally and culturally vapid punk world where no one has a soul.
Opening in Times Square with a giant glowing billboard featuring the film's title (Lommel would also use this somewhat alluring technique for Cocaine Cowboys), Blank Generation immediately attempts to give an almost mystical feel to New York City, as if one is about to enter a magical fantasy world not unlike The Wizard of Oz (1939), yet the film ultimately attempts to blur the line between fiction and reality, as a sort of punk rock equivalent to Godard's Masculin Féminin (1966), albeit about the children of Sid Vicious and poorly painted Campbell's Soup Cans instead of Marx and Coca-Cola. Overly emotional proto-emo-fag Billy (Richard Hell) has just started a relationship with a French filmmaker named Nada (Carole Bouquet) that he met while she was filming a documentary for French TV about him and his punk band. Right from the get go, it seems like Nada is quasi-possessed by some kind of frigid frog demon that hates men, as she almost instantaneously starts fighting with him, thus causing him to complain, “We're together for 5 minutes and you start fighting.” Meanwhile, Billy is getting fed up with being a popular punk frontman and decides to walk off stage during the middle of a performance, fire his manager Jack (Howard Grant), and complain that he is “fed up” with the whole rock star lifestyle. Billy’s manager later gives him the following ultimatum: “You got two choices: life with a French girl or platinum records. I’ve also got to remind you that you signed a number of contracts.” Needless to say, born loser Billy chooses the French girl and moronically sells all the rights to his lyrics/songs for a measly $5000. Nada calls him stupid for selling his music rights for such a pathetic amount and subsequently dumps him in a cold and antisocial fashion by leaving a ‘video letter’ where she states that he is “driving her crazy” and she is “not the right woman” for him, concluding the tape with the following words: “forget this tape…it shows the beginning and end of an impossible dream.” Indeed, Billy's punk rock dream is degenerating into a lovesick nightmare. Meanwhile, a German journalist from Hamburg named Hoffritz (Ulli Lommel) arrives in NYC to interview Andy Warhol and Nada immediately goes to him and they start a less than romantic relationship, thus siring a more banal than bizarre love triangle. One day after a show, Billy is followed around by an annoying punk would-be-filmmaker named Lizzy Liebenfeld (Suzanna Love), who claims to be making a pretentious documentary on “episodic film on chance.” Since Lizzy looks vaguely like Nada, Billy somewhat humors her company, though he embarrasses her by taking her wig off and smearing her makeup in a pathetic attempt to make her resemble his French ex-girlfriend. Billy also describes to Lizzy how cold and whimsical Nada was during their brief relationship, complaining, “When she was really interested, she would never say so […] it was like it had nothing to do with us personally…she’d make the most intimate moments look like business […] When she finally left, she didn’t talk to me…she said goodbye on a tape, in close-up on herself, and just vanished.” Lizzy speculates that Nada might still be in NYC, so Billy goes looking for her and soon finds her, symbolically giving her a blank tape for her birthday. Meanwhile, Nada’s kraut journalist boyfriend Hoffritz is about to conduct an interview with Warhol, but a goofy queer guy with flashing goggles who calls himself “Andy’s Assistant” shows up instead and begins playing discordant melodies on an electric violin. When Warhol finally does show up, Nada interviews him for TV, asking him in sub-literate English, “I’d like to know what you think about the sentence of Godard who says that cinema is a place for crime and magic,” to which the pop-artist replies while tripping over virtually every word he says: “Ummmm…Well, I still don’t understand the crime part of the question but, uh, I always think it…about the magic part of the question is when, uh, it really it shows, uh, magic, you know? And when, especially people…some people have that magic that when a camera goes on you…there’s an extra energy or something…for some people, you know, beautiful people…it makes such a difference and when they can get that extra magic on the screen, I don’t understand it but it happens.” After mumbling out his answer in a marvelously mundane and monotone fashion, Warhol asks to take a photo of Nada so he can add it to his growing Polaroid collection. In the end, Nada decides to leave NYC with Hoffritz, though she gets Billy to drive her to the airport. At the last minute, Nada decides to leave Hoffritz and stay with Billy in NYC, but the punker is already gone. In the end, chance and mere unfortunate circumstances dissolve a passionate, if not destined to be doomed, love affair.
For anyone familiar with Blank Generation and its history, it is well known that star Richard Hell absolutely loathes both the film and director Ulli Lommel, with the punk rocker confessing in an interview featured in the book Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2010) that he more or less tried to sabotage the film with a poor acting performance, stating: “I got so disgusted that my method of dealing with it was just to kind of go passive. Like passive resistance. I just would not let any expression into anything I did. And it all really was just completely inappropriate. Nothing that happens from one minute to the next—including the dialogue—makes sense. Again, it’s all non-sequiturs. It’s ludicrous […] None of it has any relationship to anything that could ever happen in real life.” Apparently, Hell was originally very interested in starring in the film after seeing Lommel’s masterpiece The Tenderness of Wolves, but he ultimately found the director’s European style of filmmaking intolerable, complaining: “The only thing I could see that he brought from Fassbinder was this bitchiness and this glory in getting petty little feuds started, playing on people’s insecurities on the set. That was something Fassbinder was famous for…this queeny, bitchy cliché gay world. It may not be politically correct to say that, but it’s just a face. And in Fassbinder’s hands, it resulted in some amazing movies, but it’s pretty ugly to me as a world. I didn’t like being part of that way of dealing with other people, insulting them all the time and playing them against each other. It’s kind of like the Warhol Factory world a bit. I felt pretty immune to it because I just thought it was annoying and I wouldn’t buy into it, but that was his style.” When the interviewer of Destroy All Movies!!! offered to edit out what Hell said about Lommel, the resentful punk responded by stating, “I don’t think I’d edit anything out about Lommel, though…he’s a real low life.” When Lommel was interviewed for the same book, he only had good things to say about Mr. Hell, stating regarding his interest in making Blank Generation and the NYC punk rock scene: “I spent lots of time at CBGBs with Andy Warhol, watching the Ramones and Blondie. And then came Richard Hell and I fell in love with his poetry. And I was a big fan of the Sex Pistols and I also hung out with William S. Burroughs, the first punk of them all. I lived at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, the punk rock hotel.”
Personally, after watching the film for the third time (it is certainly more enjoyable on subsequent viewings), I have to side with Lommel, as he may not have depicted Hell in a totally realistic fashion, but he certainly did a decent job portraying the emotional and cultural bankruptcy of the moronically nihilistic scene Richard Hell & The Voidoids belonged to, as a work that demystifies pre-hardcore NYC punk. Indeed, as someone who grew up on hardcore punk groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat, I find Hell’s contribution to the genre to be little more than a superficial (and rather degenerate) fashion statement. You know a guy is not too interesting when a borderline autistic fellow like Andy Warhol, who only makes a mere cameo in the film, shows him up in terms of charisma and intellectual depth. Additionally, while I found the songs by Richard Hell & The Voidoids to seem more like terribly degenerate traditional rock music than revolutionary and truly subversive punk rock, I must praise Elliot Goldenthal, who would later earn an Academy Award for his contribution to Frida (2002), for his rather ethereal and angelic musical score. A work of vaguely melancholy meta-cinema where a young female frog filmmaker literally lives her life through a camera because she lacks the emotional courage to deal with real-life love and romance, as well as a playful piece of cult cinema history featuring arguably the greatest screen performance ever given by Andy Warhol as himself and director Ulli Lommel playing an arrogant kraut, Blank Generation is pretentious self-reflexive cinema at its least pretentious, as an uneven, if not sometimes intriguing and curious, marriage between Godard and punk rock. Somewhat recently, auteur Lommel wrote, “The two movies that keep me company to this very day are “Tenderness of the Wolves” and “Blank Generation”. The first one brought me to Warhol and the other one celebrates my collaboration with him.” Indeed, it was only natural that there would be a link made between Warhol and Fassbinder, as both men mastered the art of celluloid Superstars and Factory style communal filmmaking. Of course, no one would ever suspect it would be a rampant heterosexual (who not only shared carnal pleasures with Carole Bouquet, but also Godard's muse Anna Karina, Margit Carstensen, and countless other screen beauties as well) that would establish the historical link between the two revolutionary filmmakers.