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Only a Few of Us: The Changing Narrative of Punk in Film

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Earlier last month, the Oxnard, California hardcore/crust/death metal hatemongers known as Nails released the title track and video from their upcoming album “You Will Never Be One of Us.” It’s everything a Nails fan could have wanted; it’s short and blunt, the riffs are dense with vitriol and the lyrics vocalist Todd Jones spews in violently percussive fashion more closely resemble blood and gasoline than piss and vinegar. In reference to the song’s meaning, Jones states that it’s “about the pain and pride that goes into being involved in hardcore/punk/metal unconditionally… being a lifer,” and the people who “attach themselves to what you do/love and abuse it, with no regard or respect for it.”

In a sense, with this song, Jones and Nails have tapped into how it feels to be involved with the punk and hardcore scenes; feeling misunderstood. Punk and hardcore welcome anyone willing to hear their message, especially the outcasts who don’t feel as though they fit in wherever the trends flow. One may appreciate it from a distance, but two things ring true: you’re either punk, or you’re not, and you either get the scene, or you don’t. As Jones puts it, “Our pain is not your pain. Our pride is not your pride… You will never be one of us.”

Around the same time Nails premiered their new song, Jeremy Saulnier’s latest directorial feature Green Room made its theatrical debut. While many have praised the film as well-acted, unapologetically genre extravaganza, perhaps the greatest thing it does is authentically capture how it feels to be punk. Unfortunately, such a careful depiction isn’t the norm, for there have been numerous other filmmakers who have tried to attach themselves and lend their vision of punks and punk subculture, and all too often they’ve gotten it completely wrong. But what exactly have they gotten wrong, and how do films like Green Room help change the narrative?

Before we address that issue, however, there is another question that should be asked. What makes a film ‘punk’ in the first place? Reading lists about essential punk films, there are a noticeable few elements outside of depicting punk culture that allegedly make a movie punk, including a DIY aesthetic and righteous left-wing or general anti-establishment politics. While these things are associated with punk culture, it’s hard to specifically refer to them as punk.

Members of the punk scene, especially the hardcore scene that grew in the 80s, pride themselves on their DIY mentality. In 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased an exhibit on punk fashion, and while it displayed your typical leather and demin jackets, studded belts and perhaps even some clothing items sporting the iconic Union Jack, you would have seen wardrobes held together by safety pins. In a GQ article entitled “The 11 Essentials of Punk Style,” its last entry ‘Make It Your Own,’ safety pins are featured, and interviewees in the 2005 documentary Punk: Attitude recall safety pins as on of the defining attributes of punk style. But DIY culture in punk extends far beyond fashion, into show promotion with flyers and even the packaging of band’s own releases. In the Washington, D.C. episode of HBO’s Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways documentary series, Minor Threat vocalist and Fugazi guitarist Ian MacKaye talks about using scissors and glue to put together the sleeves of Minor Threat releases.

For these reasons and a subtle connection to the PMA – ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ – first advertised by D.C. hardcore godfathers Bad Brains, DIY culture has strong connections to punk. The DIY mentality can even be found amongst independent filmmakers. Flavorwire’s list of “25 Essential Punk Rock Movies,” including John Waters’ Desperate Living, insists that Waters “rarely gets the punk rock credit he deserves,” partially because “his earliest efforts definitely share [punk’s] DIY spirit” – Waters’ Desperate Living among them. But surely John Waters hasn’t been the only filmmaker to embrace such a DIY spirit, so why does being DIY automatically make a film punk?

While independent filmmaking was around during the studio system era, it really flourished during the 1970s after the studio system’s collapse, and one of the movement’s most recognizable names is John Cassavetes. Just as Waters and his early filmography embody the DIY spirit, Cassavetes did so in a different manner, as well. For example, Cassavetes famously mortgaged his house rather than sought the financial backing of investors to make his 1974 classic A Woman Under the Influence. Although perhaps slightly different from a punk’s interpretation of DIY, it falls in line with a positive means of getting the job done.

But Cassavetes was just a filmmaker intent on approaching a project and telling a story how he and his actors best saw it, not some punk building a camera from scratch. DIY aesthetics may correlate with punk attitudes, but it certainly doesn’t make a film punk. Getting back to John Waters, Flavorwire’s Desperate Living entry mentions that, in addition to the DIY spirit, “all of his films embody punk’s anarchic ethos,” so perhaps it’s the combination of the two, or perhaps just the latter, that makes a film punk. Well, not necessarily.

Punk music is known the world over for its anti-establishment, or even general left-wing rhetoric. Especially with American hardcore growing in the 1980s, a time of growing conservatism under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, it isn’t much of a surprise to see bands like Bad Brains and Black Flag play songs like “The Regulator” and “Rise Above,” respectively, that signal their defiance against a higher power meaning to keep them in line. Additionally, let’s not forget the immediately recognizable punk anthem “Anarchy in the U.K.” by The Sex Pistols, aimed directly at Margaret Thatcher’s rule in Britain. Even Canadian act D.O.A. could get in their say on American politics with the song “F—– Up Ronnie.”

Just because a film expresses similar sentiments, however, that doesn’t qualify the film as punk. In Den of Geek’s list of “30 Must See Punk Rock Movies,” they include Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, referring to Travis Bickle as one of the two key figures, alongside Reagan, that gave birth to punk as it was known in the 80s. Like many other punks, Bickle was “a comparatively young white boy who was alienated, isolated, frustrated, violent, who harbored a brewing anger at the world, he didn’t have friends, had trouble talking to girls, was completely out of touch with mainstream culture, and lived in a cheap and shabby room.” While much of that statement accurately describes quite a few punks in the scene, there’s one thing it fails to take into consideration.

While punk and straight edge, or the abstention of promiscuous sex, alcohol and other drugs, are practically synonymous, the scene is equally associated with drug usage. For example, one of the most popular means of getting high, especially for some punks, was huffing glue. According to The Fix, glue’s peak popularity came during “the mid-‘70s through the mid-‘90s, spurred by easy availability and a punk culture looking for DIY highs.” Of course, there was heavy drug usage outside of glue, as well. If we remember Travis Bickle correctly, those punks are the sort of people he refers to as the trash that need to be cleaned off the streets. Maybe Travis would fit in with some of the more militant straight edge punks, but his own self-induced isolation would keep him away from the scene, so it’s hard to consider him a figurehead for what would be the future of punk.

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Overall, describing a film as DIY and anarchic or anti-establishment in its views or characters means nothing when defining a film as punk. Such overly broad descriptors are what allow some to place The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Josie and the Pussycats in the punk category. They can play a small role, but there must be more important aesthetics at play. So once and for all, what makes a movie punk? First of all, it should be about punks and punk subculture in some way. Secondly, the scene and those within it shouldn’t be reduced to mere stereotypes. Finally, because the punk scene prides itself on its open-minded, progressive views, a punk film is one that rethinks the subculture’s place in history and the people within it.

The most notable aesthetic that most so-called punk films have gotten wrong are their depictions of punks themselves. All that may be seen of these colorful peoples are the most stereotypical aspects of punks, such as dress, hairstyle and juvenile, hyper-aggressive attitudes. By reaffirming the archetypal visuals most outside of the scene have towards punks, most filmmakers have systematically rejected any attempts at humanization and further perpetuated the alienation that many punks feel from the rest of mainstream society.

Perhaps some punks may be fine with their particular isolation, but there’s no doubt these careless depictions of who they are only add to the antagonizing they are subject to from the outside, and therefore the antagonizing some punks have exhibited towards everyone else. Punks can’t be seen as anything but alien, or ‘other,’ and the music that defines their identity is little else than barely-controlled violence and tribalism – especially when that music is being played live. Movies such as Valley Girl (1983) and Return of the Living Dead (1985) are especially guilty of these transgressions, and even pit the punk characters against the, arguably, more normalized new wave characters that only heighten the perceived unpleasantness of punks and punk culture.

Green Room helps bring a new narrative to light by quashing both of these misguided stereotypes. Of the four characters in the fictional hardcore band The Ain’t Rights, only Callum Turner’s Tiger features as explicitly cliché an aesthetic as dyed-green hair, and the most straight-laced looking band member Reece (Joe Cole) is the most aggressive. But beyond these traits, these four young punks are just normal kids in a less than successful band trying to make a tour work, all with a ‘desert island band’ that isn’t who you might initially suspect.

These kids don’t frequently sport the hyper-aggressive tendencies found in ‘punk’ films of year’s past, either. Sure, maybe playing a cover of the Dead Kennedys song “Nazi Punks F— Off” at a club owned by Neo-Nazis wasn’t the brightest of ideas, and yes, maybe Reece is a little too confrontational for his own good sometimes, but whatever the assertive attitudes on display from any of the band, they’re simply a self-defense mechanism – an understandable psychological reaction given the circumstances they’re forced into. In fact, the film’s very premise of pitting young punks against Neo-Nazis amongst violent siege warfare is a deconstruction of punks’ hyper-masculine label. These punks act just as anybody else held against their will by violent Neo-Nazis would; absolutely terrified.

By acknowledging that these people aren’t simply reducible to mere stereotypes, director Jeremy Saulnier and Green Room not only rethinks depictions of punks, but also confronts the preconceived notions those outside of the scene may hold. Another film that rethinks the genre’s culture and the people in it is James Spooner’s 2003 documentary Afropunk, whose interviewees relay their various experiences as black men and women in punk and hardcore. Punk and hardcore, as movements, may pride themselves on their open-minded attitudes, but sexism, homophobia and racism were still unspoken problems, especially during the early years of the movement. When most of the typical crowd at a punk show is a bunch of angry suburban white boys, these problems are more pervasive than one might think.

‘Punk’ is a term tossed about in relation to film more frequently than one might expect. The more it is carelessly mentioned, the less weight it carries. Admittedly, such a title won’t appeal to anyone who doesn’t feel the connection, and in the grand scheme of things, such a label is rather inconsequential. But at the very least, it’s a decent subject of debate for those in the know, so to speak.

If there’s any part of Green Room that leaves a special impression, it’s the closing shot. Anton Yelchin’s Pat and Imogen Poots’ Amber sit by the side of the road in silence, until Pat suddenly says, “I know what it is.” When Amber asks what he’s talking about, he says, “My ‘desert island band.’” He and his bandmates had been asked that question earlier in the film by a punk zine journalist, and they gave typical punk band answers, but Pat couldn’t give an answer. Before one critical moment in the film, however, they reanswered the question for themselves, bringing up names like Simon and Garfunkel. Still, Pat couldn’t answer. Upon this oddly sweet revelation so typical of indie film, Amber shoves it back in his face with a resounding “Tell somebody who gives a s—.” If that isn’t the most ‘punk’ way to end a film, I don’t know what is.


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