Scribes Sounding Off: Yeah, Clint, I’m Feeling Damned Lucky

Real punk had always been a cultural slow-ball. A mistimed pitch meant to fumble the normals, it succeeded in flaring up the next cultural generation with anti-authoritarian impulses sending the current one a-scatter. Those who fear ambiguity and irony might get institutional patronage to stomp on its shaved head — the narcs and undercover cops in the second wave of American hardcore scene, for example; or the frantic finks trying to protect society from its own creepy shadow — but punk laughter rang far beyond the gutter.

This is probably the end of the age for punk, something can’t perpetually be the symbol of ultimate rebellion, can it? The recording of its initial era on record and in film is toppling our ability to withstand its presence. According to SST publicist Joe Carducci, it might have been born as a culture when Lee Abrams goose-stepped into radio programming for the straights during the decadent free form reign of FM, about 1973, as LPs by the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and reissues like Nuggets had already been digested by middle America. The sap-suckers would be sold on soft rock, but time looping instant nostalgia gave the kids the New York Dolls, and the raw art rock sounds of DIY Ohio and New York. Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu claims “indie” was all a new corporate marketing trend to get kids to keep buying 45s and keep the “see your favorite shocking band on TV” vibe alive. But the mystery religion of underground music in the 60s had been slaughtered on the altar of arena rock, as downers and booze flowed like communion to pacify those whose nerves had been shaken to bits by Watergate clarity.

Basically, mass media took some snap shots of restless kids cranked up on mommy’s speed and made monsters of us, putting these gruesome caricatures into movie theaters, and signing up most of the first wave of punk bands instantly (into a world where they got no radio play, thus successfully assimilating and destroying them).

“Yeah, I thought it was dumb as hell,” Fugazi’s MacKaye is quoted in a ripping good chat in the slobbery-gorge-mongous new Fantagraphics coffee table crusher and consumer-seducing guide to celluloid anarchy, Destroy All Movies!! “And I’m sensitive about this stuff because I actually don’t think punk is a joke.” MacKaye is specifically referring to his appearing in cult fave Another State Of Mind, which featured Social D., Youth Brigade, and his own salad days unit, Minor Threat. Kids for years have been inspired by the flick, but it wasn’t exactly a heralded movie at the time by those who took punk politics and art seriously, and MacKaye had contempt for its somewhat faux-documentary pacing and scene manipulation. “The idea that a punk is this lazy guy picking his nose or sniffing glue or whatever is just absurd.” (Um, well, Ian never spent any time with me in 1981, that’s fore sure.) On the other hand, “Maybe it’s just as well; maybe having that kind of representation is a little bit like having a totem pole or a gargoyle, just something that keeps the kooks out.”

That accepted if ambivalent use of punk as a dialectical “No Squares Allowed” image, especially in its peak and gone-underground years, is extremely well covered by Destroy All Movies!! Edited by VHS junkies, one-time punk record store owner and movie house curator Zack Carlson and Vulcan Video tastemaker Bryan Connolly, Destroy All Movies!! is a $35 pink-splattered mind-bomb of enthusiastic but not uncritical assessment of high quality films loyal to the cause (Suburbia, Repo Man, Decline of Western Civilization), and annoying to the cause (thousands of Quincy punk afterschool-special type fair).The eagle-eyed authors spent thousands of hours assimilating their assessments by staking camp at Seattle’s own utterly awesome Scarecrow Video. It shows in as much knowledge as passion for the material.

Sure, I’m enraged that Over The Edge (1979, dir. Jonathan Kaplan) didn’t make the cut (?!), but Carlson and Connolly encourage us all to get in touch with additions in the back of the near 500 page beast. Destroy All Movies!! has many pages of colorful VHS covers and movie posters. Its zine-packed but very readable assortment of opinions and facts kicks off also with a typically shrewd introduction by Richard Hell, and the reviews flow around high quality interviews with punk and movie creators and experts Penelope Spheeris, Chris D., Nick Zedd, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles, and many others. These conversations alone make the book worth buying, but Fantagraphics really went all out in the design and production of this compendium as well. Have sushi and don’t pay for it, but buy this book.

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  1. Doug Winners
    Posted October 30, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Over The Edge had bad kids but didn’t have any actual punks in it, did it? Even with Ramones in the soundtrack, I don’t think it qualifies…unless I’m forgetting somebody, I don’t remember seeing any punk or new-wave stylings going on in that movie.

  2. Posted November 1, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Doug. I am arguing for its inclusion mostly due to the era in which the movie was made and what it’s about, and how it is handled. It was filmed in the late 70s, after the height of the first American punk era, and features a sympathetic (though ambivalent) anti-authoritarian spirit, which was more genuinely punk than some of the artier experiments and commercial takes on the image included in DAM!!!

    I probably wouldn’t be as insistent on it being in the book if The Ramones and Cheap Trick weren’t on the soundtrack. Also, the presence of Van Halen’s and The Cars’ earlier, edgier work can contextually be heard as suburban punk as well. I realize to younger people that sounds like a stretch, but strong lines were drawn between nasty, stripped down, “bad for you” rock and the more pretentious album-oriented prog, soft Top 40, and watered down disco that was flooding the airwaves. All four of those bands were hurting for airplay originally for a reason — even if three of them ended up major commercial artists. In retrospect, I’ve also met more hardcore punk guitar players influenced by Van Halen and The Ramones than Johnny Thunders or Billy Zoom.

    Speaking of hardcore, another reason I would include “Over The Edge” is that it was shown on the new suburban cable a lot in the early 80s, and any film which showed kids’ lives from the inside (using non-actor real kids to play the parts, besides a couple of the stars), had such an inspiring non-Top 40 (for the time) “dirty rock” soundtrack, probably had an inlfuence on the rise of homeland punk. The psychic dictatorship of Reagan America was no doubt challenged by the sight of kids taking over a town to The Ramones and locking the authorities in a school, and burning up the cars in the parking lot.

    It’s the pre-80s, non-fashion “spirit of punk” I’m talking about, which the book DOES address in other movies — most notably 1980’s similarly outsider-insider “Out Of The Blue,” but admittedly THAT film does involve the use of the word “punk” and does involve its dialectic in rock-based youth culture. I do question a bit whether or not “Pretty In Pink” or “Dream A Little Dream” should make it into a book called a “Complete Guide to Punks On Film,” and “Over The Edge” would not. I can argue the other side, sure — the latter has a “metal looking dude” wearing the word “PUNK” on his coat. And “Over The Edge” may have inspired punks with its energy, but I am not completely sure the psychotic town sheriff called the soon-to-be-rioting kids “punks” while trying to violently control them (though I’d bet a Ramones pin on it). But if that’s all it takes, “Taxi Driver” should be in the book too, because Travis Bickle has a mohawk! (I would accuse the editors of a post-70s, fully 80s bias, but the presence of Richard Hell certainly challenges that.)

    I think the exclusion of “Over The Edge” does make “Destroy All Movies!!!” a bit less punk, but hey, they wrung their hands over including “Major League” (though probably didn’t need to), and interviewed Sickie Wifebeater of the Mentors. And maybe “Over The Edge” is more teensploitation than punk … but it probably has better music than most of the briefly punksploitation or new wave fashion flicks in the book, and it is set in 1979, and it helped make kids in the punk rock era without a culture become part of the closest thing to resemble it. Some things transcend “stylings.”

  3. Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Hey, Chris n’ Doug! This is Zack, one of the two editors of Destroy All Movies!!! First, tremendous thanks for the review and all. It’s the most thoughtful we’ve received thus far, and shows that you dug deeper into the book than any other reviewer. That means a whole lot to us.

    For the record, OVER THE EDGE and STRAIGHT TO HELL were the two films that were most painful for us to exclude after many bouts of arguing and self-doubt. But, early on in the research for the book, we’d realized that we sorely needed to set a very strict criteria for what we covered, and that had to be a concrete depiction or documentation of punks themselves. That is, physically speaking.

    Admittedly, punk spirit and intent are infinitely more valuable than a Hollywood flub like MAJOR LEAGUE or WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S II. But these same aspects are much more subjective (as we see in this three-way email exchange) and would have been nearly impossible to pin down for the book the same way outspoken and/or “visually apparent” punks are. Imagine the difficulties in trying to have over a dozen contributing writers find a common definition without basic tip-offs. With junkies, bikers, metalheads and OVER THE EDGE-style longhair juvenile delinquents in the mix, it’d get pretty sloggy.

    So, we reluctantly drew the lines and ran with it. And it burned our guts excluding OVER THE EDGE and others, but for the record, we have only the deepest, highest respect for the film. Hope this explanation helps you see the reasons for that decision.

    Anyway, sincere thanks again for even taking the time to read this, much less the book itself. Really!!

    Your pal,

  4. Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the clarification, Zack. And congratulations on a truly awesome book.

    From your argument, I can see that if you were going to let non-punk looking teensploitation movies in (even those from the forming American punk era, and which helped inspire the punk subculture due to fresh cable viewings), it would have opened the book up to a lot of movies that didn’t have actual punk style, based on “influences” on punk. (That’s why I brought up “Taxi Driver” above too — I have the feeling you were tempted on that one was well, if only for Joe Strummer’s eventual mohawk.)

    Someone on my FB page immediately responded to my endorsement of “Over The Edge” as something like, “Yeah, that was a great 70s movie.” I thought that was interesting — “Over The Edge” has a strange, post-glam, pre-punks in the sticks energy that I would think necessary for understanding punks in film. But to others it’s more of a nod to 70s exploitation movies with a lot of verisimilitude (and only one inarguably punk song by The Ramones — which I think spikes my contention but may not bring it home).

    I am really happy you guys put so much thought and care into the book; it’s a hell of a read and awesome to look at. When people come by my apartment it’s the first thing they grab — and the coolest thing is I can spend hours reading and rereading the high quality of the writing. It bothered me “Over The Edge” wasn’t in there, but when I made the criticism I admit I wasn’t thinking of all the OTHER films that would have to be as well. Again, thanks for explaining the omission!

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