Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Code To Live By

Simon Reynolds, whose blog, blissblog, I somewhat grudgingly follow, has an interesting article on Pitchfork, entitled The 20 Best Punk Movies. As he explains, it's a somewhat misleading title: "Framed as the 20 Best, it was originally conceived as "from the worst to the best", which explains the insulting tone of the early entries."

He then goes on to royally roast a movie that didn't make the cut, CBGB, directed by Randall Miller. As it happens, I watched that film only a few weeks ago and I have to agree. It's not very good. Didn't stop me enjoying it, all the same.

There's something about watching fictionalised versions of real-life stories you vaguely know. It's disorienting but in a good way, like being mildly stoned. I watched the National Lampoon creators' biopic A Futile and Stupid Gesture a while back and that was much the same: a parade of actors you feel you ought to recognize, playing public figures you mostly do.

It doesn't pay to think too hard about reality or authenticity. The meniscus between fact and fancy is soap-bubble thin. About the best you can hope for is to have your pre-existing impressions confirmed. At least when that happens it's easy to go along with the narative. It's when people you celebrity-know begin behaving in ways you never imagined they would that doubt crawls in. Best not to take any notice. Who knows what's real, anyway?

All of which goes a good way towards explaining why all the really good films on Simon Reynold's are pure fiction, not rock docs or biopics. Of the twenty, I've seen eight and of those eight, three are on my all-time favorite movies list. (A list I really need to compile, some day.) 

There are two Alex Cox movies in Reynold's twenty. One is the very obvious choice, Sid and Nancy. I saw that one at the cinema on release, more because it was directed by Cox than because it was about either of the two title characters. 

I became a punk in 1976, when I was eighteen. By 1977 the scene was already tribal. You either liked the Pistols or the Clash. It was just like the 60s with the Beatles and the Stones or the 90s with Blur and Oasis. You liked one or the other. You didn't like both. 

Of course you could like both. Lots of people did. You just kept quiet about it. In public, you picked a team and stood on their side of the room. I stood with the Clash, something that seemed embarassing even by 1978, although fortunately not as embarassing as standing with the Pistols would have been.

I have never re-watched Alex Cox's version of the doomed love story that turned out to be all about doom and not at all about love. I remember it as being grim and depressing yet somehow still overglamorized and fanciful. Sid and Nancy is not the Alex Cox film on the list that I venerate.

That would be Repo Man. I saw that one at the cinema on release, too. I've also seen it on TV and I own it on DVD. I think I've watched it three times, which is a lot for me. It's a freewheeling, spiralling, speed-infused rush that replicates the feeling of punk much more succinctly than if it was a film about punk, which it patently is not. 

It was made in 1984 for a start and the punk in the movie is US Hardcore, which I don't even think of as punk at all. The film itself is definitely punk, though. I particularly like the way Cox borrows from the past to invent the present by way of the future, which is exactly what all the better punk bands did.

Also from the '80s, a couple of years earlier, comes one of my favorite, forgotten films: Smithereens. If it's remembered at all, it's as the first Susan Seidelman movie, although I'm not sure who remembers Susan Seidelman any more. 

This one I didn't see at the cinema. I can't remember if I saw it first late at night on TV or whether I ran across it on VHS at the great Twentieth Century Flicks video store. I used to rent a lot of movies from there, chosen on title and cover alone. I was rarely disappointed.

The thing I always remember about Smithereens is the mesmerising opening sequence, one of the best I've ever seen in any movie, almost entirely because of the sublime, driving soundtrack. The other thing is Richard Hell, who is not an actor. He doesn't need to be. He's Richard Hell.

You can watch the entire movie for free on YouTube at time of writing, in considerably better quality than the above clip, although I suspect the clip will be up for longer. I'm not sure "fair use" covers posting whole movies online but I guess it is very punk, for a given definition of the word.

The three films I've picked as my own favorites come in fourth, fifth and sixth in the list, which goes some way to explaining why I persist in reading Reynolds' blog even though most of what he chooses to write about interests me not in the slightest. When he goes near things I care about he does tend to get it right, by which, of course, I mean "agrees with me".

Repo Man is at #4, Smithereens at #5 but the main reason I'm writing this post is because it gives me a rare opportunity to mention one of my true, all-time favorite movies, Times Square, which comes sixth in the list. I was delighted and astonished to see it there at all, let alone so close to the top five.

Times Square is the epitome of a movie that should never feature in any list of this kind. It's a bandwagon-jumping exploitation pic, dreamt up by an uber-commercial Holywood producer. The story is fatuous, the writing is embarrassing, the acting varies from amateurish to prime ham and the whole thing was an unsurprising disaster at the box office.

I love it beyond reason. I loved it the first time I saw it, which was on late night TV, when I watched in delirious disbelief as Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson) and Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado) as the self-styled Sleez Sisters somehow convince first DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry, enjoying himself far too much) and then the greater New York area in general of their genius. 

The songs are toe-curlingly naive, the performances even more so... until the girls fall out and Nicky forces her way into the late-night radio studio to try and fix things with a heartbreaking, acoustic confessional apology, at which point everything becomes too real to bear. Happy endings, there are none.

This movie saved my life later, which is why I love it so much. It's always an exaggeration when people say things like that but exaggerations are only bigger versions of the truth. It got me through a bad time. Let's say that. 

It was a revelation to discover a few years ago that, far from being a forgotten failure, Times Square is now "a touchstone for latterday punks like Kathleen Hanna and Manic Street Preachers" and "a staple at gay and lesbian film festivals". All that stuff I said about the writing and the performances? You can forget all that. I knew I was right all along!

Once again, you can watch the full movie on YouTube for nothing. I recommend buying it. I recommend buying all three. I did and I'm glad.

Now I just need to watch them all again. 


  1. Man, it's been ages since I saw Repo Man. "Speed, huh."

    1. I am definitely going to watch it again. It looks even better than I remember in those clips.

  2. Best damn car in the lot.


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