Sunday, 30 January 2011

Destroy All Movies:
The Complete Guide to Punks on Film
edited by Zack Carlson & Bryan Connolly

Much as I love banging through a good, easy-going music or film book when I should be reading something, y’know, proper (a love reflected in a fact that I’ve got almost a whole bookcase full of the bloody things), it is rare indeed for the publishing industry to cough up a book quite so uncannily specific to the crossover zone between my cultural interests as this one. Issued in a handsomely appointed and competitively priced large format edition by venerable indie comic book magnates Fantagraphics, an immediate purchase was, needless to say, mandatory.

To get straight to the point: this book is brilliant. Everyone I’ve shown it to so far has said “um.. great” and sort of looked around nervously waiting for me to change the subject, but I don’t care – this tome’s authors and publisher have taken a risk in betting that there is an audience out there for this sort of thing, and I am proud to raise my hand and say I am it. “Destroy All Movies” is is a near-inexhaustible well-spring of obsessive pop cultural nerdery, brain-eating trash satori and immaculately hip film writing. It has been my number # 1 favourite thing ever since I acquired a copy and it is unlikely to leave by bedside table any time soon.

To my knowledge, the phenomenon of ‘punks’ in the cinema of the 1980s and 90s has never really been given much attention, serious or otherwise, despite being one of the most ubiquitous inclusions in the era’s cultural short-hand, not to mention one of the most consistently hilarious and ridiculous misappropriations of a genuine youth movement ever undertaken by popular culture.

You may think that beatniks or hippies had it bad in their day, but, as is exhaustively chronicled here, their gradual transformation into drive-in caricature pales into insignificance compared to the veritable tidal wave of leather-clad, mohawked ‘goonbags’, ‘wastoids’ and ‘manimals’ (all valuable additions to the ‘80s/’90s film crit lexicon inaugurated by this book) that exploded from video store shelves, capering across screens in every genre under the sun, perpetrating multi-coloured mayhem, either comedic or tragic, as and when required. Whether invoked as anarchic party animals, villainous sub-human scum, post-apocalyptic warriors, all-purpose barometers of urban decay or simply as wacky ‘all walks of life represented’ crowd extras, these inexplicable lunatics (together with their attendant legions of new wave harpies, vampiric leather-goths and other mixed up trendsetters) cut a bloody swathe through the era’s cinema, usually exhibiting precious little resemblance to any creature actually found on earth.

(Intrepidos Punks)

Frankly, any book on this subject would have been a home run for me. Carlson & Connelly could easily have just thrown together a few humourous essays on the subject, write-ups and interviews concerning films of major punk significance and called it a day, and I would have been perfectly happy. But no – “Destroy All Movies” is so much more than that. It is a project whose scope is little short of insane, executed with an uber-geek attention to detail that should see movie and music obsessives alike bowing in praise before the monolith of the finished work for years to come.

Basically: “Destroy All Movies” is an A to Z compendium of reviews of (to the best of the authors’ knowledge) every single film that has ever featured a punk.

No, really - Carlson in his introduction talks about how he and Connolly began their quest by visiting their (apparently quite vast) local video library and compiling a master-list of every film released between about 1977 and 1999 “that wasn’t an opera or a western” (and indeed, they found punks in one western), initiating a programme of screening all of them, in search of punks.

The results speak for themselves – over 400 wide format pages, and over 1,000 movie reviews, tracing the complete history of the cinematic punk. The small cadre of fictional films that have treated punk with any kind of authenticity or intelligence (“Repo Man”, “Suburbia”, “Ladies & Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains” etc.) are of course allotted plentiful attention, with additional cast & crew interviews slotted in as appropriate, whilst much space is also given over to the surprisingly large number of punk documentaries, underground films that emerged from punk scenes and the like, again with much interesting interview/archive material thrown in. But the real meat of the book is coverage of the innumerable bizarre representations of punk culture found within production line exploitation and studio films. Knuckleheaded sex comedies, action flicks, teen dramas and family films, horror, sci-fi and hardcore porn – all are exhaustively mined for punk content, their worth as art and entertainment assessed along the way.

This chasm between these two branches of investigation is acknowledged by the fact the book is jointly dedicated to Penelope Spheeris (director of “Suburbia” and “The Decline of Western Civilisation”) and actor John Gries (who played goof-punk overlord King Vidiot in the ’83 arcade comedy “Joysticks”), and if there is a certain awkwardness in seeing serious-ish interviews with Ian Mackaye and Richard Hell juxtaposed with capsule reviews of “Earnest Saves Christmas” and Sergio Martino’s “The Fishmen and their Queen”, well, let’s just say that’s the kind of awkwardness I can get down with.


At first I was a little sceptical regarding the book’s implied function as a Maltin-esque movie guide. I mean, it’s hard to imagine many people scanning the TV listings, thinking “I say, I think there is a slight chance that movie might have a punk in it, I’ll see when Carlson & Connolly have to say on the matter” any time soon right? But as I work my way through “Destroy All Movies” (I’ve been at it a month and I’m currently on ‘R’, not counting occasional flips ahead), the real intention behind the book becomes clear.

Beyond the punk-based conceit, what we have here is a gargantuan, heartfelt tribute to the popular cinema of the 1980s, as filtered through two guys’ obsessive trek through the VHS wastelands. What Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic Film Guide” did for the drive-in/grindhouse golden age of the ‘50s-‘70s, “Destroy All Movies” effectively accomplishes for the video era. Appropriately, it is Weldon’s dry wit and hipster suss that helps set the tone for the writing in “Destroy All Movies”, even if Carlson and Connolly choose not to replicate the vicious concision of Weldon’s three sentence critical KOs, instead letting their bottomless enthusiasm get the better of them, routinely dedicating several lengthy paragraphs to even the most wretched hunk of cinematic driftwood. Which needless to say is fine by me – by and large, the writing in DAM is really great – the reviews flow beautifully, are packed with info, and rarely less than laugh out loud funny.

You’ll note I said “the 1980s” rather than “the 1980s and 90s” preceding paragraph, and that’s simply because, whilst the latter decade is extensively covered, the authors’ true preference and spiritual home is made abundantly clear from the outset. Rarely has the low budget / low brain cinema of the ‘80s been so lovingly hymned in print, with Carlson’s reviews in particular communicating an infectious enthusiasm for the chaos and buffoonery of the ‘80s comedy, delivering unexpected raves to “Kindergarten Cop” and “Police Academy III” whilst striving to rescue such lost party-hard masterpieces(?) as “Surf II”, “Oddballs” and “The Last American Virgin” from the jaws of landfill oblivion. And indeed, he is pretty convincing – reading these joyous descriptions of motion pictures powered entirely of foodfights, aimless nudity, drunken property damage, kamikaze fashion statements, toxic sludge and monkeys dressed in human clothing makes me wonder why I don’t have a whole bookcase full of ‘80s boner comedies to stick next to my bookcase of music/movie nerd books, further endangering whatever vestiges of meaningful human interaction remain in my life.

(Rock n' Roll High School)

By contrast, the ‘90s are routinely denounced by DAM’s authors, lamented as an era of darkness in which the magic died, the music sucked and everything started to go wrong. The death-of-our-way-of-life despair that can be glimpsed in their review of 1990’s sub-culturally confused “Pump Up the Volume” is pretty heart-rending, and the self-aware slacker comedies and limp indie dramas of the decade that followed are tirelessly savaged at every opportunity, whilst instances of mall-punk or alterna-grunge fashion are set upon with unprecedented venom.

And, hey, fair enough - at the time of writing, I can’t deny that this approach suits my own prejudices pretty well. I’m fascinated by the ‘80s, and the dire banality injected into American pop culture by the Hollywood/MTV/record industry during their post-Nirvana/Kevin Smith feeding frenzy should never be forgotten. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that this generational schism is sadly going to date the book pretty quickly.

For guys whose cultural knowledge is evidently so sharp, Carlson and Connolly seem to have failed to take account of the way this kinda stuff changes over time. I mean, I remember a time maybe ten years so when myself and my friends treated fashion and mainstream culture of the ‘80s as an almost unspeakable anathema, a fortress of everything inauthentic and hateful in which (ironically) only punk and the nascent indie rock scene flew the flag for the stuff we cared about through our upbringing in the benighted ‘90s. And going back further, I recall the now-canonical golden age of the ‘70s being soundly ridiculed by people slightly older than me, and so on. Tricky though it may be, I think such notions need to be borne in mind if a volume like “Destroy All Movies” is to take its deserved position as a timeless, essential and regularly updated reference work. I dunno quite how you’d achieve that, other than pumping current teenagers for their views on ‘90s movies or something, but, er, yeah – whatever. It’s only a minor reservation. Minor.

Above all, I repeat: this book is incredible. Buy it, read it, love it, and long may boggle-eyed, mohawked VHS-fogged crazies rampage through our dreams.


JohnBem said...

Very nice write-up. This sounds very much like a book I need to get. That Western in which they found punks is Straight To Hell probably. I enjoyed that movie, Strummer and MacGowan in particular. Thanks for making me aware of this book.

The Goodkind said...

I've been teetering on the edge of buying this book for a couple of months, placating my consumer lust by reading my good friend Paul's copy. Your effusive and justified gushing has pushed me over. Consider it bought.

a fog of ideas said...

It's the best Christmas present I've received since the Beat Happening box... 'Destroy All Movies' brought to my mind Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Video... yup, that good

P.S. Heads up, you refer to the book as 'Destroy All Monsters' a couple of times

Ben said...

Oops - thanks for pointing that out Andy! Guess I've just got monsters on the brain...

John: no, 'Straight To Hell' officially has NO PUNKS:
A controversial decision, but there ya go.

Jenn said...

I bought this for Sam for Xmas, but was really buying it more for myself! Like you said, nothing so perfectly captures the crossover of my interests. I've already ordered several titles and have tried to hunt others.


JohnBem said...

Thanks for the link Ben. The criterion makes sense: they're actual punks, yes, but they're playing non-punk roles. Very cool that the authors went straight to Cox for a ruling. What then is the Western in which punks were encountered? My curiosity burns. Yet another reason to purchase the book.