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The film, raw and grainy and shot in black and white, is 54 minutes long. It opens with Patti Smith in silhouette, haloed by her raggedy hair, and the snarling opening lyrics to her anthemic song Gloria.
Jesus died for somebodys sins but not mine.
Made by Amos Poe and his good friend Ivan Kral, a guitarist for Smith, the film compiled footage of Richard Hell, Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones into a feature called The Blank Generation, named after one of Hells caterwauling songs.
It premiered in 1976 at CBGB, where much of it was filmed, to a built-in appreciative crowd and later secured midnight screenings in cities like Cincinnati, San Francisco and Toronto. Although it never rose to cult status, the movie is nonetheless a classic in the punk pantheon, a signature No Wave film that captured a fleeting time when an eye-popping number of future rock stars were lean and hungry unknowns.
So it made sense last fall when The Blank Generation screened at the Roxy Cinema, a jewel box of a theater just off Canal Street in New York, that the cinemas curator, Illyse Singer, invited Poe, whom she calls the godfather of indie cinema in New York, to the event.
But as the film rolled, Poe realized that something was wrong. New segments had been added. Others scrapped. The ending of Lenny Kaye, Smiths longtime bandmate, grinning into the camera as the door to CBGB swings shut behind him had been swapped for a minidocumentary about his partner, Kral, followed by the words, Directed by Cindy Hudson Krals widow.
The opening placard displaying Poes and Krals names were gone. In fact, Poes name wasnt anywhere on the film.
In that moment, Poe realized he had completely lost control of a film that, beyond its role as a chronicle of music history, was very much the pivot point for his entire life.
Im trying to be grown up about it, said Poe, who is 70. But theyre trying to rewrite history.
Hell and Heaven on the Bowery
The place stank of vomit and stale beer. Of course it did it was CBGB but Poe didnt know what that meant back in 1974, when he made his first visit.
Poe, a few years from becoming a pioneering filmmaker in downtowns No Wave Cinema, an underground movement of guerrilla-style films, had been invited by a clerk at Poes favorite cinephile shop to check out his band down on the Bowery.
So one night, Poe found himself venturing past panhandling winos into a club so fetid and grimy his nerves jumped on end. Two dozen souls languished inside, most of them belligerent and drunk. Eventually Poes buddy, the clerk, shuffled onstage. His name was Hell, his band was called Television, and after they started playing, one of the drunks, annoyed at the disturbance, spat at Hell. And to Poes astonishment, Hell spat right back.
Poe was entranced.
It was around that time that he met Kral, a film buff and rock-and-roller whose family had fled Soviet Czechoslovakia. Poe had immigrated from Israel in 1958 and worshipped Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, and he and Kral hit it off. Poe was no edgy punk, though, and Kral was his entry point into the music scene.
Ivan made Amos cool, Krals first wife, Lynette Kral, said.
Kral had already been filming his musician friends, largely because he feared deportation back to Czechoslovakia and wanted his memories preserved. Poe said the pair gathered footage of David Bowie, Queen and Roxy Music into a short picture called Night Lunch, and as glam music gave way to something more aggressive, they kept shooting, at CBGB and Maxs Kansas City, until they had enough footage to rent the editing suite on Broadway where, fueled by amphetamines and hashish, Poe and Kral cut The Blank Generation in 24 hours.
The music was added separately using the bands own recordings or demos, and it was out of sync, which Poe said was on purpose an homage to experimental film. Not everyone got the point.
At midnight screenings in various cities, half the audience kept walking out and demanding their money back. But the people who did stay loved it, which for Poe meant a ton: Nobody was in the middle.
Riffing on Shoots and Onstage
The film was something of a buoy at a time when Poes personal life was falling apart. Among the issues, hed lost a job as a building superintendent. But The Blank Generation inspired him to keep going.
Poe jumped into writing and directing his first movie, Unmade Beds a do-it-yourself picture starring his friends Duncan Hannah, Eric Mitchell and Debbie Harry and followed it with The Foreigner and later Subway Riders, all DIY features shot on the decrepit streets of New York. Along with fellow filmmakers like Mitchell, James Nares, Vivienne Dick, Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara, Poe became a notable in the No Wave scene and seemed poised to make it big.
Amos was really inspiring to me as a guerrilla-style filmmaker, said Jarmusch, one of Poes longtime friends. When I first saw Unmade Beds and particularly The Foreigner, it really inspired me that I could make a film too.
By then, Kral was already living his own dream, playing guitar with the Patti Smith Group. Kral had been enthralled by Smith from the moment he had caught one of her searing poetry readings, and in 1974 he bested some 50 other guitarists for a spot in her band.
He played on the groups first four albums Horses, Easter, Radio Ethiopia and Wave and wrote songs with Smith, including Dancing Barefoot.
He just became one of us, Smith said in a Czech biopic about Kral.
Kral told the filmmakers, At that time, and to this day, there is no woman that could compare to Patti Smith."
But in 1979, as the bands popularity grew a year after its breakout hit Because the Night, Smith abruptly broke up the group on tour in Italy. Kral was heartbroken.
He played for a spell with Iggy Pop and in other bands and later nurtured a solo career in Czechoslovakia but would never regain the career high hed had with Smith.
The Poe-Kral friendship persevered despite some downturns in their own careers. In 1995, when Smith reunited the band, she did not include Kral for reasons that never became publicly clear. The exclusion crushed Kral, and something else niggled him. U2 released their version of Dancing Barefoot as a B-side in 1989, and Kral suspected that he might be owed money. According to people familiar with the matter, sometime after the band regrouped without him, Kral sued Smith, to her great distress. The case ended up settling. (Smiths representatives did not respond to queries.)
He ruined all chances of ever being invited for a reunion, Lynette Kral said.
Yet Kral still wanted to be close to Smith, and in 2006, he enlisted Poe in that effort, asking him to get him on the guest list for the final concert at CBGB. Smith was headlining, and Poe, unaware of the lawsuit, asked the favor of Smith. He remembers her furiously saying no.
Poe went through his own woes as his career as a filmmaker fizzled. In the late 1980s he had signed on to direct a movie hed written, Rocket Gibraltar. It starred Burt Lancaster and was supposed to be his breakout picture, but he was fired from directing because of cost overruns. In the mid-90s he declared bankruptcy.
A Partnership Dissolves
As the years passed, interest in The Blank Generation grew in tandem with nostalgia for New Yorks grittier past. The film was periodically screened. Television productions licensed footage. Rolling Stone anointed it one of the greatest punk rock films.
To the chagrin of Kral, Poe was often credited as its sole filmmaker. And then there was the money. Poe said he and Kral each had a print of the film that they licensed out and that they had agreed to equally split the earnings. But they did not know what the other was earning, and Kral grew angry because Poe wasnt sharing his cut, even after Kral demanded an accounting.
Poe said that Kral wasnt sharing his accounting of his earnings, either, though he concedes that by around 2011 he might have owed his friend up to $8,000 in all.
But Poe said he couldnt pay. He was consistently broke and was also, by his own admission, hitting bottom on behaviors I wasnt very proud of namely, the whole sex, drugs, rock n roll ideology.
For Kral, the tipping point came in 2011 when a documentary about No Wave Cinema called Blank City used licensed footage from The Blank Generation and prominently featured Poe as a No Wave auteur. The film made no mention of Kral, aside from Poe referencing him briefly.
After Kral didnt see a penny from the film, he sued Poe in a Michigan court, claiming, among other grievances, that Poe owed him more than $75,000 and that Poe had been wrongly recognized as the sole filmmaker despite having only edited the film.
Ivan wouldve preferred to work with Amos on friendly terms, said Cindy Hudson, Krals widow. But Amos didnt want to split any of the income that he had over all those years. He did not have any money to pay anything.
Poe showed up for a deposition in Michigan in 2011 but said that he couldnt afford a lawyer and that he believed he and Kral could work it all out over the phone.
I had a real bad attitude. I couldnt get over my own attitude, Poe said. I didnt look at it just like a business thing. I looked at it as a personal betrayal.
When the case went to trial, Poe skipped the court date, and the judge found in Krals favor, ruling that Poe owed Kral $6,500 in profits from The Blank Generation plus nearly $43,000 in lawyers fees and other costs. After Poe didnt pay, the judge ordered that Poes copyright interest in The Blank Generation be seized and sold to Kral. Early in 2012, the judge ordered that ownership of four of Poes films also be sold to Kral (the fee was $10 apiece): Unmade Beds, The Foreigner, Subway Riders and Empire II. They are now listed on Krals website, which credits Kral as the director of The Blank Generation and Poe as co-editor.
That autumn, the judge awarded another $107,000 in legal fees to Kral and issued an order blocking his former partner from presenting scheduled screenings of The Foreigner and Empire II at the New Museum later that year.
Poe, who worked as an associate professor of film at New York University and then Brooklyn College, said he couldnt afford the judgment and didnt pay. In 2018, facing liens and garnished wages related to the lawsuit, he filed for bankruptcy again. Poe also said he offered Kral $35,000 to buy his movies back money a friend agreed to loan him but that Kral turned him down.
Poes old friends were shocked to learn recently that he had lost ownership of The Blank Generation.
What a farce that anyone else should claim his inspirational film, Harry, who had appeared in three of Poes films, wrote in an email.
Richard Boch, a former doorman at the Mudd Club and a friend of Poes, wondered why there had been so much legal wrangling over such a low-earning film. Were not talking about a million-dollar property, Boch said. Were talking about an underground film that shows every now and then at an underground film fest or some hipster boutique cinema. Somehow Amos got screwed out of his legacy here.
Things likely appear very different in the Kral camp. He died this past February, and his widow, Hudson, stopped cooperating with this article after an initial interview.
Poe fears that more changes will be made to The Blank Generation. Hudson had said in the initial interview that Kral had wanted to remove the segments that werent performance footage.
But she has stayed mum in response to questions about whether more edits might be forthcoming, whether Poes name could be restored to the credits, or whether she would consider letting Poe regain a stake in his films.
Her lawyer, Susan Kornfield, said in an email that the revamped version was a new, derivative work and that Poe is not named because, under copyright law, he is not an author.
It was the revamped version that was screened and marketed as The Blank Generation, the 1976 classic, in New York last fall.
As a legal matter, Gordon Platt, Poes lawyer, agreed that the Kral estate can make the changes it wants to The Blank Generation, be it the original or the revamped version, since it now holds the copyrights.
As a practical matter, of course, its not quite that simple. Poe still stews inside about skipping that court date all those years ago.
If I hadnt been as emotional at the time, it probably wouldnt have been the same, Poe said. I wouldve said, OK, let me deal with it, like people do.
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