Saturday, July 23, 2005

SLC Punk! (1998)

So, having posted recently about Punk: Attitude and Brigham Young, it seems like a fitting time to finally post on SLC Punk!, seeing as it combines both the repressive religious regimes of punk rock and the paradoxical anarchy of Mormonism.

Working my way backwards from the critical commentary, in the spirit of the intellectual anarchy of the good Internet-era post-post-post-mo era, where no opinion goes unrecorded, I'm totally laughing my ass off. The first comment I picked up off the IMDB comment board on this film ranted about how a real punk would never become a preppy lawyer. Well, my reaction, having been in the "scene" exactly in the era described in the film, is that all the punks I knew either (a) became preppy lawyers, or did some equivalent adaptation to age and circumstance, or, (b) died (or even worse, got stuck at being a 'punk' for the rest of their meager lives). But the very fact that somebody out there is still arguing about whether something is "punk" or not just goes to show exactly how dead "punk" is. There's a misconception that punks hated hippies, in part because they were, in the early 1980s, so busy becoming establishment mainstream yuppies, etc. Nope. The reason we hated that generation was nostalgia. Worship of the past kills the future; it kills hope. True anarchy and nihilism are so close to one another mostly because neither sees a path to a future; they're philosophies of the moment, not of history nor planning. Anyone who wants to understand the fine line between being completely Straight Edge and being devoted to drugs needs to remember the fear of historicity and the sense of having no future are intimate. Or take a look at Iraq.

Anyway, thanks to IFC I've finally seen SLC Punk! a buncha times after completely missing it when it came out. The first viewing I was just annoyed by the artifice -- I hate voiceover narration as a rule -- and the second through fifth times I watched it I became increasingly entranced with how perfectly, perfectly, the filmmakers got it right. Not out of a sense of nostalgia; out of a sense of truth amidst the bullshit, and a clarification through fiction of what it feels like to have lived through a similar period in my life.

Of course, it's kinda bourgeois to personalize a film commentary, but what the fuck.

I get it from the biography of the director that there are autobiographical elements mixed in, notably that he lived in SLC during a part of the period depicted. Whatever. One thing I like about this movie is how he managed to get what seemed like the flavor of every punk scene in America epitomized crossed with this strange otherworldly feeling that's bordering on the mythic. In a flick all about, on its face value, being an "individualist" in a dominant, oppressive culture, there's actually very little of the Mormon church and culture per se evident. You hear Steve-o's whines about it, but you hear a lot more than you see. There's a certain condescending reductionism to simply saying, "teenage rebellion is always the same", and as a sort of coming of age story it's nice to see the movie thoroughly grounded in mid-1980s America, caught between greed and nuclear holocaust. Yep, I sure remember feeling exactly the same way: too bad about the kids, that they have no future. SLC Punk sets this little scene in a hospital waiting room - immediately preceeded by a visit to a fast food joint. Intentional or not, what great framing: the epitome of civilization, of organization for the common good, and the epitome of rampant consumerism. Steve-o and Heroin Bob take advantage of both of those things which 'anarchy' stands against, and that's the paradox they have to survive, or, as with the case with Heroin Bob, not survive.

I liked the reduction of the whole punk thing, ultimately, to just two characters/archetypes in Steve-O and Heroin Bob. More on the other scenester characters in a bit. But those two guys are the fulcrum for the movie, and the narration makes it plain that it's their story (right down to the 'where it all started' flashback that ends the film.) Steve-o, of course, through all the first-person narration about poseurs, shows himself to be both a poseur and an intellectual, which in turn is clearly the point of view of anyone who's survived the period to become an award-winning filmmaker, Indy or otherwise. (I've said this before, but this is why there can't ever, ever be a punk or anarchic filmmaker: film-making is the ultimate corporate act, requiring cooperation from the crew, cast, producers, financiers, distributors, technical producers of equipment, caterers, you name it. If you want to be an artist and an anarchist, become an unpublished novelist, just like me. You don't need shit from anyone to write an unpublished novel.) That's the triumph, the paradox, the oxymoron: to record the spirit of punk, you have to survive it long enough to show everybody that you never were one, by the strict standards of the day. It's perfect to the point of simplicity. They make Steve-o into the rich kid, Heroin Bob into the poor kid. The rich kids take drugs, the poor ones drank beer. Steve-o thinks his Dad is fucked up and his values all askew, but really, he loves him and his Dad loves Steve-o back. Heroin Bob's Dad is just fucked up -- crazy in the head, still wearing his Army uniform from Korea and convinced the CIA is sending messages to his brain via satellites, so far done in by the institutions that shaped his life that he doesn't even recognize Bob. Tries to kill him, in fact. Now that's punk rock, baby. Bob is the one who plans to get married and has a future, so of course is the one who dies. The sacrificial aspect of Bob's death -- clearly done to save Steve-o, as Steve-o readily recognizes right away by shaving his purple hair to a respectable Reagan-era crewcut -- is surely more Jesus-like than erecting a mighty temple in the middle of a desert. Duty trumps self-absorption in the end.

I like the honest way the film showed the more superficial aspects of the scene back then. Like, the way the 'scene' included various overlapping circles of fashion and music, including some characters who seemed to have no real fashion stance (like Mike or Marc in the movie) but who just seemed to fit. The unity was ultimately in the mosh pit, where if you liked the music it didn't matter whether the kid next to you was some hardcore asshole from University City, a high schooler from Ardmore, a skinny hip-hop-hardcore crossover destined for stardom from North Philly, or some dumbshit wannabes from Swarthmore. Who the hell am I to label us, then or now: we enjoyed the music, one another's company, the sense of compagnie of being there and then. That's youth for ya. No wonder the hippies were nostalgic.

And the way it showed the self-destructiveness, ultimately, of trying to mix being faithful to your self-appointed philosophy with living in the world. The scene where the "hardest of hardcore" English bands got the shit kicked out of them and complained about America being too violent? Man, I was there! Or of what was once a cool scene being marred by the violence, which attracted nazis and testosterone cases and the police and which scared off the potential to become a cool self-feeding cross-cultural fermentation pot. Mistaking the sentiments behind anarchy and true anarchy was a dangerous thing, and that's why the scene splintered off into nothingness, future lawyers, and corpses, depending on which fork in the road you decided to take. That was a true thing from this movie.

The thing I hated most about this movie when I first saw it was the kind of smug first-person narration by Steve-O. But after repeated viewings I think that's what really makes this movie. Going third-person would just take the story arc and try to make it into something more than it is, as if it were trying to tell a single truth, as if it were truly trying to be a documentary. The breaking-the-proscenium style of the narration, in which Steve-0 picks up the voice-over narration in the middle of a scene makes it very clear that this is a personal reminscence, a sorting-out after the fact, and just one guy's version. Honestly, having seen Punk: Attitude recently, I think this is the only way you can come close to capturing the feeling of what that was like -- a straight documentary just becomes another nostalgic hippie masturbatory fantasy about the good old days. I mean, what could be more DIY than saying, my memory is what counts, not somebody else's filter? Of course, there's that paradox again -- I say this having had my memory filtered and reprocessed by having watched this film, maybe a few times too often.

Maybe there's a difference between the class of '77 (Pistols, Clash, et alia) and the class of '81 (Minor Threat, Husker Du), the same as there's any difference in one's experience depending on when you joined and left the timeline (how far back would you go to be authentic? Television in '74? The Dolls in '72? The MC5 or Iggy in '68? The Velvets in 1966? How far forward can you go before you're talking about something else?) The punk label, like all labels, is bullshit. I used to wonder about how critics could cream themselves over American Graffitti, when, being produced in 1973, it was being nostalgic about events being depicted only a dozen years or so before. Oops: SLC Punk!, 1998, set in 1985. (I just hope to god it doesn't turn out Reality Bites was authentic.)

OK, so, sure, this film belongs in the coming-of-age drama genre when it gets filed into the critical bins, and as that it's pretty good. And it will get field into the music/punk/history section. More labels. Not that I would've quoted Peter Schickele back in 1985, quoting in turn Duke Ellington, but I will now: if it sounds good, it is good. So much of the time and breath I wasted as a punk/poser could've been saved had I figured that one out back in the day. If you accept that premise, so much else follows. Tolerance for others, notably, as long as they tolerate your own tastes. Co-existence of a system with individualism. Security and tranquility and freedome and peace. The past and the future, happiness with death. If it sounds good, it is good.

So: good film.

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