Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

I didn’t feel at all great about our collective distaste for John Roecker’s stop-motion animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not only is picking on a microbudget, D.I.Y. art project the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was somehow the first animated feature we’ve ever tackled as a Movie of the Month, so it was a huge letdown that we couldn’t say much in praise of one of my favorite artistic mediums on that platform. Rocker’s film felt like a morally offensive letdown by design, however, so I can’t feel too bad that we took the aging punk scenester edgelord’s bait. The South Park-era satirical brand of “Nothing’s offensive if everyone’s offended” shock humor has not aged especially well in the decade since Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release and Roecker’s own version of mall punk aesthetic has grown just as stale in tandem. The tastelessness of staging a Charles Manson-themed musical in a medium traditionally aimed at children isn’t what offends me about Roecker’s directorial debut; after all, my favorite filmmaker of all time, John Waters, was making comedies inspired by Manson’s real-life crime spree weeks after the Sharon Tate murders that I find hilarious & worthy of discussion. What’s offensive is that Roecker seems to believe his dweeb edgelord audacity is in itself a subversive act, when the work has no particular political ideology or purpose beyond the juvenile desire to offend. John Waters was politically angry; John Roecker was an apolitical clown who just wanted an excuse to show off as a Politically Incorrect subversive with friends & collaborators among the L.A. punk scene elite. Rocker’s crudeness in craft and disregard for moral decency aren’t what’s offensive about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!; what offends is the intellectual laziness of his aimless “satire” & his sycophantic need to attach his name to mall punk collaborators in high-profile bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI.

Roecker’s ideological laziness & punk-royalty sycophantry can only be further evidenced by his follow-up feature, the documentary Heart like a Hand Grenade. Presumably filmed around the same time that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was in production in the early 00s, Roecker’s follow-up is a document of the band Green Day’s recording studio sessions while making their hit 2004 album American Idiot. What’s remarkable about that timeline is that Heart like a Hand Grenade wasn’t completed & distributed until 2015, more than a decade after American Idiot’s release. That delayed release does not feel at all intentional either, as the film plays like a promotional ad for an upcoming creative project, describing at length what the album is going to be and what Green Day fans should expect from the band’s mid-career shift into politically-charged art, when it should feel like a look back at a past accomplishment. American Idiot ultimately did not need Roecker’s promotional help, as it rode the aughts’ anti-George W. Bush political rhetoric to the greatest financial success of Green Day’s then already decade-long career. Roecker would have to strive pretty hard to justify releasing a feature-length promotional ad for that record a decade after its success was already solidified, then, and Heart like a Hand Grenade fails to accomplish that on any count. Padded with full-length music videos, live performances, and studio downtime shittalking, the decade-late documentary struggles to justify its own existence beyond shrewdly cashing in on mall punks’ continued interest in the album and allowing Roecker to show off his friendship & collaboration with the band. Roecker mythologizes a phone call lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made to him about documenting the album’s production and films himself mugging in a recording studio mirror, inserting himself into a supposedly iconic moment in mall punk history. Heart like a Hand Grenade was too late to do Green Day any promotional favors; if anything, it muddles the band’s reputation of being political instigators at the time by associating them with Roecker’s apolitical non-ideology.

2004 was a lucrative year for anti-Bush protest art. Agitated by the War on Terror, unexpected successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Daily Show, and Team America turned cultural unrest with the US’s empirical response to the World Trade Center attacks into major profits. Even pop-country darlings The Dixie Chicks got in on the anti-Bush sentiment, despite operating far outside traditional counterculture circles. Green Day’s American Idiot album was one of the many benefiters of that political unrest, leading to the band’s greatest period of popularity to date & even a Broadway stage musical inspired by the album. Heart like a Hand Grenade completely undermines the perception that the album was a deliberate act of anti-Bush political protest, so it’s probably best (for the band’s profit margins) that Roecker’s film arrived long after the album’s success was solidified. Multiple times during studio sessions, band members boast to Roecker’s camera “Politically on this record, we don’t really have an agenda, not against a particular politician […] The song ‘American Idiot’ isn’t really saying, you know, this politician is wrong, this is wrong. It’s saying I want to think for myself.” The band tries to have it both ways, crafting a concept album about “a lower middle class American adolescent anti-hero” named “Jesus of Suburbia”, but also keeping its “anti-establishment” politics so vague & aimless that it means nothing beyond juvenile posturing. Roecker attempted the same spineless bullshit with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, claiming in interviews that the film had some vague sentiment about blindly-followed political leaders that likens Bush to Charles Manson, but including no actual anti-Bush satire in the work itself. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! didn’t manage to ride that vague anti-Bush protest sentiment to the heights of American Idiot’s commercial success (thankfully), but both conceptual musical pieces share a common mall punk non-ideology. They exploit a privileged position of performative subversion that looks like politically pointed satire, but actually has nothing to say once you look past the punk-costumed surface. Green Day was just slightly better at promoting their ideologically empty non-provocation to great commercial success, with no substantial help from Roecker’s camera.

I will concede that empty political non-ideology & self-promotion as a noteworthy L.A. mall punk scenester are not the only signifiers of what makes a John Roecker film. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! & Heart like a Hand Grenade share enough overlap in art direction & mall punk aesthetic to suggest that Roecker is somewhat of a visual auteur. The crude hand-drawing collage of Heart like a Hand Grenade’s intro & its mid-film sci-fi skit where Green Day is interviewed 1,000 years in the future both recall the general aesthetic of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Heart like a Hand Grenade also opens with a title card command to “Play this movie fucking loud!,” recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s similar title card warning that it is “Not for the easily offended.” The Green Day documentary even includes a tangential anecdote about a studio fire reenacted by dolls, recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s stop-motion medium. This shared mall punk aesthetic looks like a preteen’s middle school notebook, just short of hand-drawn “Anarchy” & Dead Kennedys symbols being scribbled in the margins. The middle school mall punk is the perfect target demographic both for Roecker & for his Green Day cohorts, as deliberately vague political rebelliousness & desire to shock The Masses are the source of punk’s attractiveness to that age range. D.I.Y. ethos & more focused anarcho ideology are something punks grow into as they learn to look past the safety pins & hot pink mohawks that signify the culture to those outside it looking in. Roecker’s version of punk, as evidenced by his two feature films, never dug any further past those surface signifiers to achieve any of the substantial ideology or political action punk offers outsider artists & alienated youth. Maybe his mall punk ideology has deepened & gathered nuance in the 15 years since his two features were initially in production, but Heart like a Hand Grenade’s 2015 release date suggests there hasn’t been much change at all, if any. It’s a release that not only reflects the worst assumptions about Roecker you can infer from Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, but it also damns mall punk staples like Green Day through association with his brand.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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2 thoughts on “Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

  1. Pingback: Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry | Swampflix

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