2019 Film Essays

A Waning Arcadia: Early 80s Punk Cinema

Hollywood has always been behind the cultural curve, its glacial mechanisms ill-equipped to keep pace with the public mood. By the time it recognised punk rock, the movement had already crested and congealed into an allegory of its own demise, transmogrifying into a plethora of subgenres like hardcore and ska. The Central Casting punk had already been codified on TV as a disruptive archetype, but it wasn’t until the early 80s that punk filtered in any serious way into film. For all its focus on urban anomie, the second wave of punk — which solidified into an acknowledged social subset in the UK — was a solidly suburban affair, symbolised by the fabled “Bromley Contingent.” It was the satellite kids who were the catalyst for the spread of punk rock orthodoxy beyond the cultural cognoscenti. So it seems entirely fitting that its American cinematic analogue of this period should hinge on a dichotomy between the provincial milieu and the possibility of liberation within a creative Arcadia.

The characters in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), Smithereens (1982) and Suburbia (1983) find in punk rock a convenient shorthand for authenticity, a posture which presages its eventual absorption into the very mechanisms it sets out to oppose. Despite its avowed rejection of fashion, punk was always wrapped up in style and presentation — its genesis in Britain was a clothes shop; even the first-wave punks coming out of New York adhered to a rigid aesthetic to which bands like Talking Heads positioned themselves as outliers. In this regard, it is no different from any other youth movement; the art school sensibilities of punk’s architects were tempered by an astute business sense and a keen eye for trends; a figure like Malcolm McClaren was equal parts Guy Debord and Don Arden.

In Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, the elevation of the punk “looks” to the status of a commodity fetish at the centre of a unifying spectacle, controlled from afar by a hustling agent turned budding svengali (played to oleaginous perfection by Dave Clennon). The Stains are a group formed by three teenage girls (Diane Lane, Marin Kanter and Laura Dern) who find their way onto a tour with up-and-coming punks the Looters and washed-up rockers the Metal Corpses after the tour visits their dying industrial town. Lead vocalist Corinne (Lane) has already achieved a level of local notoriety after appearing in a local news profile in which she quit her fast food job on camera and lambasted the ever-diminishing possibilities her town has to offer. The tour serves to transform Corinne into the latest pop culture deity, as the Stains overshadow the Looters to become a vehicle for a putative movement, and a merchandising machine.

Director Lou Adler takes the arc from A Star Is Born and filters it through Peter Watkins’ scathing pop culture satire Privilege (1967); it is shot through with the knowledge of the horrific power behind stardom, the potential for control and coercion inherent within it. Adler was in a position to know the machinations of the industry firsthand, being ensconced within it as a producer, executive and manager. One can perhaps detect a degree of self-recrimination in its depiction of the means by which such a fetish is fashioned, echoing Marcuse’s observation that “the music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship.” The elevation of the Stains exemplifies what Kurt Cobain described as “integrity to be exposed,” the willingness on the part of the artist to trade one’s authenticity for a stake in the thing it is ostensibly resisting.

The central conflict in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is not between the punks and the industry which seeks to constrain and commodify it, but between second-wave and third-wave punks; it is an internecine struggle for ownership of the punk imprimatur, a charming novelty and lucrative brand. The Looters and the Stains jockey for the approval of the industry, rather than seeking to overthrow it. This is dramatised through the Looters’ song “Join the Professionals,” which begins as a broadside against national service penned by the Looters’ lead vocalist, Billy (Ray Winstone), and becomes an anthem for the professionalization of punk when it is appropriated by the Stains. The army in question becomes one of self-conscripted clones, the “skunks” who imitate the distinct hairstyle of their new idol, Corrine.

The Looters represent the defiant amateurism of early punk, as well as its male-dominated complexion (Winstone’s backing band is comprised of the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook on guitar and drums and The Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass, a second-wave supergroup if ever there was one). By the film’s denouement, the process of co-option is complete; a transition from something approaching a folk upsurge to an industry fixture. The threats of suburban malaise, déclassé rage and conceptual effrontery have all been nullified and enfolded into the lulling, affirmative culture, as the remodelled Stains lip-synch and cavort in a glossy promo for a slick, synth-laden studio version of “Join the Professionals.”

The idea of escaping to an Arcadia of authenticity is one which figures in all three films, but it is particularly germane to Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens. The film captures the lives of Wren (Susan Berman) and Paul (Brad Rijn), who have arrived in New York from New Jersey and Montana, respectively, lured by the promise of something beyond the shrinking vista of possibility their hometowns afford. The film captures the dissipation of the security and prosperity the Baby Boomers enjoyed into a burgeoning Gen X cynicism, and the divergent paths such cynicism takes. Paul sees sleeping in a van on a rubble-strewn vacant lot as the ultimate expression of independence and integrity, while Wren is keen to spread her personal brand in the form of flyers she makes during her day job at a Xerox copy centre (the Xerox being the 80s version of the meme). Wren’s growing attachment to ambitious punk frontman Eric (Richard Hell) seems to signal her rejection of the parlous authenticity Paul and his ilk are pursuing in favour of embracing transactional relationships and solipsistic striving. 

This ties into the professionalization of punk captured in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; a shift has taken place in which “business” is discussed in solemn terms, in which “half the rock ‘n’ roll industry is financed by dentists” and all you really need is money.” It’s a shell game in which everything is for sale, where the line between artist and prostitute is negligible; everyone has a commodity whose market value must be maximised — Paul does portraits, but only for money. The film takes place in an almost post-apocalyptic landscape which represents the rubble of the punk dream. Wren comments that she had a dream in which “the whole world was blown up five years ago,” and since then, everyone had been “floating around” in the wreckage. Five years ago was 1977, the mythic year of punk’s ascension; a time when paradigms were exploded, yet the end was encapsulated in the beginning. Punk may have released Wren from her illusions, but it equally failed to replace them with anything concrete. All that remains is adoration of monosyllabic males like Eric, the last sainted figures in this waning Arcadia.

Paul’s van represents the last vestige of fidelity to ideas like constancy and solidarity. Wren decides not to share the van with Paul and instead pursues Eric, who draws her into a plan to mug a wide-eyed out-of-towner to raise the money for their move to Los Angeles. L.A. comes to be the next frontier, the next Arcadia to chase; Eric and Wren envisage themselves in Malibu “in a swimming pool, eating tacos and signing autographs.” The use of Hell in this context is interesting; he is a fist-wave luminary, yet Eric abnegates the values for which Hell is revered. Eric stands for a shift in the zeitgeist further underscored by a cameo from legendary underground director Amos Poe as a sleazy street hustler, a ghost of punk past. The notion of art as an autonomous realm insulated from the brickbats of fiscal reality had evolved. As with Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, nihilism is eclipsed by ambition, yet this vision is illusory, and leaves Wren cast into the wilderness. For Wren, the Arcadia proves to be a chimera.

Penelope Spheeris was uniquely placed to lend her voice to the dramatic canon of punk, having previously made the seminal L.A. punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). Suburbia is a companion piece of sorts to Decline, taking place in the same milieu and adhering to a similar level of proximity to it subjects, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Evan (Bill Coyne) leaves his suburban home and must integrate himself into the regnant pop culture tribes of LA. He is taken under the wing of Jack (Chris Pedersen), who initiates him into “TR House,” a “boarded up and rotting” municipal house occupied by a variety of young outcasts who have formed their own support network, with skinhead Skinner (Timothy O’Brien) as its de facto patriarch. Suburbia is a remarkable document of punk’s transition from iconoclasm to tribalism; the remnants of the suburban dream serve as a playground, in which TR have constructed a semblance of community. 

Spheeris seeks to equate the kids in Suburbia with feral dogs, symbols of societal neglect, but what is striking is the degree to which TR House mimics many of the structures it professes to reject. There is an oppositional dynamic between TR and Citizens Against Crime, a nascent vigilante movement which seeks to protect the people when the police can’t — but, in many respects, these groups are a product of the same malaise. The primary members of CAC are laid off GM workers who lament that they “can’t work, can’t hunt,” who share TR’s suspicion of societal institutions which have failed them and seek their own remedies. Western motifs run through Suburbia, the idea of setting out into an inhospitable terrain and returning to a hunter-gatherer state of precarious independence be it defending the homestead from invading forces, or going out to forage from provisions on a “garage raid.”

For all its avowed freedoms, the L.A. punk scene is still a male-dominated domain, a fact illustrated in an early scene where a group of skinheads tear off a woman’s clothes during a concert; the club’s spotlight falls on the humiliated woman as a jeering crowd encircles her. Spheeris does not disguise the affection she has for this world, but she is also at pains to make clear that female objectification and sexual domination remain its norms. TR House may vaunt its outré stance and separatist tendencies, placing itself in opposition to every accepted belief, but the attitudes of its characters run towards the reactionary; there is contempt for “homos,” and Jack is more upset about his step-father (Donald V. Allen) being black than his being a cop. The political dimension of punk has curdled into lassitude; TR House has become indistinguishable from the thing it despised; they drink beer in front of the TV, which brings them the spectacle of war unfolding in multiple theatres. The consciousness is not being elevated, there is no animating principle behind the provocation. Suburbia itself seems to have been infected with the same spirit of ennui, seeking as the punks do the cathartic charge of violence to lift it beyond an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. 

Seidelman went on to guide Madonna through one of her few passable theatrical efforts in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), while Spheeris made a name for herself helming spin-off comedies like Wayne’s World (1992), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) and The Little Rascals (1994), but both struggled to find a space within the industry. There is in the fates of Seidelman and Spheeris an echo of the female characters in Smithereens and Suburbia; they are pilgrims in pursuit of an Arcadia in which they will be judged on equal terms, their career trajectories are emblematic of the onerous expectations with which females in a male-dominated domain must contend. Seidleman and Spheeris were articulating in these works their own ambivalence towards the direction punk had taken, that the liberation it promised didn’t come to fruition and merely reinforced the old proscriptions in a different garb.

As the 80s progressed, the “punk director” mantle was assumed by the likes of Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch, both of whom recognised that punk’s aesthetic retained its potency, even if its politics didn’t. The punk moniker came to delineate an approach to form, with the likes of Repo Man (1984) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984) challenging cinematic rather than social shibboleths. This formal affront was pursued with particular gusto and verve by Cox in his subsequent works, culminating in the daring yet doomed Walker (1987), Cox’s ill-starred attempt at synthesizing his stylistic provocation with a renewed political consciousness, challenging America’s many “interventions” in Central America and beyond. By this point, however, it was understood that the Arcadia could not be retrieved. Cox was intrinsic to unpicking the mythology of punk, but as with the sundry runaways and outsiders who inhabit Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, Smithereens and Suburbia, it served as an ideal, a sustaining glimmer of possibility.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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