Punk and the City

Susan Seidelman’s first two feature films as a director serve as a loving, warts-and-all portrait of women’s lives in 1980s NYC. Both Smithereens (our current Movie of the Month) and its major studio follow-up Desperately Seeking Susan portray New York as a romantic (even if dangerous) alternative to a milquetoast life of domestic labor in the suburbs, wherein the survival-based life of a starving artist in the Big City is vastly preferable to the safe, sheltered alternative. They idolize the day-to-day struggles of the liberated Bad Girls of city life who bested the system by shedding their suburban safety nets to risk harm daily as free spirits in the busy streets of NYC. It’s initially surprising, then, to learn that a director so rooted in punk transgression & rejection of normalcy was later involved in the early beginnings of a much more mainstream depiction of New York femininity: Sex and the City. Seidelman directed the pilot episode of the hit HBO comedy series, as well as two additional episodes in its pivotal first season. She was by no means the main creative force behind the show (that would be series creator Darren Starr, of Melrose Place & Beverly Hills 90210 fame), but she was still a foundational element in helping the series get its footing. When you return to her three episodes that first season to consider how they communicate with her early No Wave beginnings, there’s certainly a jarring shift in sensibility (and wealth) that makes the transformation surprising, but that initial shock soon fades away and Seidelman’s DNA feels absolutely essential to what Sex and the City set out to accomplish – no matter how far it may have strayed from the desperation & grime of punk.

Sex and the City opens with Sarah Jessica Parker’s editorial columnist decrying in voiceover that she is living in an Age of Uninnocence, that her generation has seen The End of Love in Manhattan. She draws battle lines between the Unmarried Women and the Toxic Bachelors of NYC, explaining, “There are tens of thousands of women in the city. We all know and love them. They’re all alone.” This snapshot of modern NYC femininity already intersects with Seidelman’s wheelhouse in a way, at least with enough overlap to hint why she may have been considered for the project. The director does know and love the women of the city. They’ve been her auteurist obsession since the start of her career in the grimy run & gun days of No Wave. No mater how much the pilot episode (or Seidelman’s second contribution to the show, “The Power of Female Sex,” in which the series’ protagonists experiment with the power of transactional sex) complains about the lack of genuine romance in modern city living, these characters still represent a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the audience – especially for people watching from outside the confines of NYC. They traipse around gaudy nightclubs, drunken drag-brunch meals, designer clothing stores, and art galleries stacked with abstract paintings of giant vulvas in a modern-living whirlwind. No matter how much romantic ennui they experience in the alone-in-a-crowd anonymity of the Big City, their lives are far more enticing than the milquetoast suburban alternative – a trade-off you can see explored in Seidelman’s work all the way back to Smithereens. Maybe they can’t afford to pay their rent because they’re addicted to designer shoes rather than the more immediate, survival-based desperation of Seidelman’s early punks, but the sentiment is largely the same.

The most direct example of how Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City overlaps with the themes of her No Wave era is in her third (and final) episode of the show: “The Baby Shower.” In that episode all four leads of the show make the perilous journey to Hell on Earth: the suburbs. There they reconnect with an old friend who married a Wall Street banker (when she “was supposed to marry Sid Vicious”) and who is transforming into a suburbanite homemaker before their very eyes. They mock the woman for “using a child to validate her existence” rather than pursuing the “normal” comforts of casual sex & overpriced cocktails. As unfulfilling as their hedonistic lives in the Big City may feel on a day-to-day basis (the central conflict of the show), the suburban alternative is presented in the baby shower episode as far, far worse. In Smithereens, characters lament the dying days of the punk scene because it means being forced to return to the milquetoast doldrums of the burbs. In “The Baby Shower,” we get a painfully clear picture of what that shameful fall from urban grace looks like. It ain’t pretty. Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City may be stripped of the No Wave era punk & grime that flavored her early work as a young, energetic filmmaker in works like Smithereens. On a thematic level, though, the show still details the romantic allure of women pursuing defiantly selfish lives in the Big City despite their social training to raise children & support their husband’s careers from the relative safety of the suburbs. That defiance is in itself an act of punk transgression, whether or not it happens to be accessorized with designer shoes. Besides, it’s not like punk & fashion aren’t irrevocably linked anyway. If nothing else, the premise of Desperately Seeing Susan is essentially “The clothes make the woman.”

It’s also worth noting that the main rich-guy romantic interest in Sex and the City, Mr. Big, is played by character actor Chris North – who appears late in Smithereens as a teenage prostitute. That’s about as concise of an illustration of the wealth & aesthetic differences vs. the unexpected overlap between the two productions as you’re likely to see.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city, and last week’s comparison of the film to its big-budget follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet

From the Suburbs to Smithereens

In Susan Seidelman’s 1982 No Wave classic Smithereens, our current Move of the Month, a milquetoast life of privilege in the suburbs is treated like a looming threat. The film chronicles the dying hours of the NYC punk scene after its CBGB heyday, as the few characters who’re foolishly trying to keep punk culture alive bottom out in dwindling numbers. The city’s promise of cheap living & punk rock infamy is proven to be unsustainable, which for the film’s prickly protagonist might mean a reluctant career in survival-based sex work, but for her privileged peers more likely means a return home to the artless monotony of suburban lives in their parents’ homes – almost invariably in the Midwest. It’s somewhat unsurprising to learn that the film’s director, Susan Seidelman, has more in common with these reluctant suburbanites that she does with the Bad Girl protagonist that she’s gawkingly fascinated with. However, you can’t infer much about Seidelman’s feelings towards suburbia in the film other than a defeatist reluctance to return there, as it’s a story entirely confined to the grimy concrete walls of the big city. Still, the implication that the threat of suburban living could be any worse than the rot & decay of the No Wave scene is pretty damning in itself, especially in now privileged a lot of punks were to have such a secure safety net waiting offscreen.

For a more direct, succinct rumination on the menacing privilege of suburbia from Seidelman, look to her 1992 documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl. Produced for BBC Scotland as an anthropological examination of suburban American culture, the film finds Seidelman speaking in frank, self-critical terms about her privileged childhood in a cookie-cutter “instant neighborhood” outside of Philadelphia. She paints a picture of white, almost invariably Jewish women living a life of sheltered privilege in the counter-culture era of the 1960s, interviewing a sample group of her childhood friends about their experiences in The Suburbs. At first, their complaints about growing up too loved & too protected outside the more bustling culture of The Big City rings like a shallow topic for a feature-length documentary. Eventually, though, it really digs into the Patriarchal limitations & sinister apathy of that insular world in a genuinely fascinating way. These are women who were raised to go to college specifically so they can attract a successful husband. The thin line between the pressure to be glamorously beautiful but not too sexualized and the stark contrast between the conservative community nearby & the changing world outside are maddening. Of course these pent-up young women idolized the Bad Girls & go-go dancers who were meant to be seen as cautionary tales instead of heroes who bested the system. Of course they saw living a starving-artist’s life in NYC as liberation from a life sentence to homemaking. Of course prickly, uncooperative bullies like Wren from Smithereens fascinated them as a window into a more dramatic life.

Confessions of a Suburban Girl isn’t especially relevant as a companion piece to Smithereens so much as it’s a roadmap to Seidelman’s pet obsessions across her entire career as an auteur. Clips from She-Devil, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Cookie are peppered throughout as if the documentary were produced as an extra feature for a Seidelman box set. The only clip from Smithereens featured among those more widely seen studio pictures is of the movie-within-a-movie gag where Cookie Mueller plays a fictional scream queen in a drive-in creature feature. Still, no matter how much it’s buried among the documentary’s interviews, dramatic reenactments, domestic stock footage, and clips from better-known films, the subtext of suburbia’s milquetoast menace from Smithereens is greatly enhanced by getting familiar with Seidelman’s artistic & demographic origins in Confessions of a Suburban Girl. It’s also cool to see that Seidelman had maintained her run & gun No Wave filmmaking sensibility in the project after years of working in bigger studio pictures, as she has to steal shots of her childhood home after being told by the new residents that she can’t film there. Turning a BBC fluff documentary series into a multi-media art project about the boundaries & philosophy of suburban femininity is also subversive act in itself, and Confessions of a Suburban Girl is totally worthwhile on its own terms even when divorced from the rest of Seidelman’s career, Smithereens included. It’s the kind of forgotten curio you catch on a VHS rip via YouTube (as opposed to inclusion as a proper featurette on the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Smithereens), but that humble status almost makes the film feel even more substantive as an overlooked, underestimated work of political art – like how Seidelman & her peers were underestimated as young women in their sheltered suburban beginnings.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Native Son (2019)

Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.

Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.

Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Empty Metal (2018)

There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.

Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.

I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.

-Brandon Ledet

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

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Blank Generation (1980)

Sometimes you discover a movie you need in your life through the happenstance of a recommendation, a TV broadcast, or a convenient showtime. Other times, you discover an inessential but moderately entertaining picture just because you confused its title with something more substantial. While digging into background context for the Lizzie Borden bomb-thrower Born in Flames, I watched a documentary on the “No Wave” cinema scene that birthed it. Blank City was an excellent crash course in late-70s/early-80s no budget NYC filmmaking, one that credited the film The Blank Generation for inciting the movement. A short documentary compiling footage of who’s-who CBGB regulars like Blondie, The Patti Smith Group, and Television, the film seemed like an essential snapshot of the scene’s early stirrings, something I was delighted to find hosted on the library streaming service Kanopy. Unfortunately, I had gotten a film titled Blank Generation confused with the aforementioned The Blank Generation, an embarrassing mistake for which there is no excuse. Instead of profiling a wide sampling of CBGB heavy hitters, Blank Generation serves as a document of exactly one group from that scene: Richard Hell & The Voidoids. The film is also missing the D.I.Y. crudeness of earlier No Wave productions, instead adopting the European art house genre patina of director Ulli Lommel, a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Still, even without the expected no wave grime and with the documentary value of the picture muddled by its fictional plot, Blank Generation largely delivered the exact historical texture I was looking for in The Blank Generation, a film that’s not as readily accessible at this time. Even with mistaking its title with an entirely different film, I still found a fairly substantial document of NYC’s punk rock hangover.

Blank Generation is for Richard Hell what Crossroads was for Britney Spears, what Burlesque was for Christina Aguilera, what Cool as Ice was for Vanilla Ice. There’s a kind of absurdity in finding an early punk scene version of this kind of pop star vanity project, one the movie barely attempts to conceal with the flimsiest of dramatic plots. Playing the Richard Hell-like rock star “Billy,” Hell has to navigate the crises that trouble any successful rock musician on an ego trip: too much attention from beautiful women, too much pressure from record execs, too much scrutiny from the press, too many adoring fans. Poor baby. A minor romantic plot involving A Beautiful French Journalist on assignment to profile “Billy” emerges, but nothing much comes of it beside a few kinky powerplay exchanges in the bedroom and the value of promoting Hell & his band, The Voidoids. A side plot involving a monumental cameo from Andy Warhol (another collaborator of Lommel’s) functions much the same way, strengthening Hell’s brand by association. As is the case with most of these pop star promo dramas, the only reason the film works at all, then, is that Richard Hell & The Voidoids are genuinely charismatic & worthy of fascination. After being introduced to Hell’s work in The Voidoids through the CD anthology Time in high school, I‘ve always struggled with hearing cleaner, more professionally produced recordings of those same tracks on the band’s proper LPs; so it’s wonderful to hear the band in their live, rambunctious form here while also seeing them in action for the first time. Songs like “Blank Generation,” “New Pleasure”, and “Love Comes in Spurts” frequently repeat throughout the film, with Hell even selecting them on the jukebox of his neighborhood bar in the few scenes when he’s not in the recording booth or preforming onstage at CBGB. He also holds his own as a style icon, sporting his spiked hair & safety pins version of punk fashion that was coopted by Malcom McLaren and then mall punks everywhere. Yes, it’s absurd that there was ever a Richard Hell & The Voidoids promo movie in the first place, especially one this artistically pretentious, but the band is so mesmerizing in look & sound that the indulgence is justified.

Because Blank Generation adopts such a minor, surface-level plot, its staying power rests entirely in its details. The credits’ display on Times Square billboard ads, Andy Warhol’s cameo’s framing as a kind of performance art piece, and the way the journalist’s camera functions as a tables-turning phallic tool are all more interesting in isolation that anything that actually happens in the story. The movie also plays with the cognitive remove of filming videotape displays, something that would later become a huge deal in 80s indie cinema, most evident in titles like Videodrome & Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Above all, Blank Generation is valuable for the details it captures of a pre-Giuliani NYC, something that’s an integral part of Richard Hell’s DNA. It’s not quite the purposeful, all-encompassing documentation I expected from The Blank Generation, but it still navigates the city’s early punk hangover with a useful eye for cataloging the objects & people that populate it. Like in the glam rock hagiography Velvet Goldmine, Blank Generation uses the lens of music journalism as a device for capturing the moods, sounds, and fashions of a very particular arts scene for future posterity. This film’s imagination is far less poetic & lyrical than that Todd Haynes classic, relying heavily on familiar tropes of rock star excess to construct its deliberately minor drama. Still, it’s an essential document of a great, young band in their prime, including the physical & cultural context of their surroundings. Anyone looking for a European art house drama about troubled artists in love negotiating their sexual power dynamics could likely find hundreds of better films to suit their needs. Anyone who’d be interested in seeing Richard Hell & The Voidoids immortalized in cinematic posterity have few (if any) other titles to turn to, however, and that rarity is this film’s greatest asset.

-Brandon Ledet