By Less Lee Moore
Any marginalized subculture bristles at being misinterpreted on film. Then again, the punk subculture is by now so fragmented and unrecognizable, one hesitates to even attempt to define it, much less depict it on the screen.
Yet best friends Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly spent five years documenting each and every appearance of punks on film. They were inspired to undertake this monumental task after re-watching Penelope Spheeris’s quasi documentary Suburbia and then shortly thereafter, seeing Joysticks, a video arcade comedy from 1983, for the first time.
As they admit in the opening of the book, “Punk isn’t tangible, and those that flaunt its standard fashions are by no means intrinsically linked to the movement.” So they decided on two major criteria: visually identifiable punks, and/or characters expressing “a strong dedication to some variation of the punk lifestyle.” They also narrowed the search down somewhat to only include movies released between 1974 (when the term “punk rock” was first used) to 1999, since the 21st century is seen as a “lost cause.”
Carlson and Connolly utilized the vast resources of Seattle-based Scarecrow Video, one of the largest video stores in the country, as well as enlisting the help of several friends to trudge through over 1,000 movies. Thus Destroy All Movies was born.
The graphics and layout are in a word, awesome, particularly the full-color section at the end of the book. Destroy All Movies also boasts some insightful and sometimes-hilarious interviews with filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other cult figures like Allan Arkush, Allison Anders, Eddie Deezen, Jon Gries, Richard Hell (who provides the foreword), David Markey, Ian MacKaye, PJ Soles, Penelope Spheeris, Mary Waronov, Nick Zedd, and many more.
But you want to know about the other stuff. Destroy All Movies is an addictive, ambitious, behemoth of a book and it’s funny as all hell. There are too many sidesplitting takedowns of bad movies to list in this review, but if you enjoy bad movies (and especially if you enjoy stuff like Mystery Science Theater 3000), you will love this book.
Another outstanding aspect of Destroy All Movies, one less comical and more thought-provoking, is the overriding, ongoing concern the various reviewers have with punk being used as a lazy, inappropriate metaphor for the nadir of society, instead of what is really is: a much needed kick in society’s crotch.
As an example of the authors’ understanding of the spirit of punk, as opposed to a poseur’s slavish devotion to punk under the letter of the law, they include a few likely unexpected films which they feel epitomize the essence of punk (Vice Versa with Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold and Tough Guys, with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, are two great examples of this.)
And as everyone’s definition of punk is slightly different, often according to which sub-subculture you feel kinship, there are a few inexplicable reviews. There’s an over the top adoration of Spheeris’s Suburbia (which I never have and still don’t understand), not to mention not nearly enough criticism for the practically abysmal Blank Generation (directed by Uli Lommel), a film which is only saved by the Richard Hell bonus commentary feature.
There is also a rather disappointing dismissal of Fight Club as well as one of Pretty in Pink. Now I’ll admit that the latter is a mostly crappy film (“coffins falling into each other” is a nice turn of phrase to describe the romantic leads). And I’ll agree that it is only truly saved by James Spader’s performance as Steff, but the writer totally harshes on poor Duckie, and that just makes me sad.
Although there is no love lost for scuzz punk GG Allin in the book (I will NEVER understand why anyone still gives a shit about this talentless idiot), one writer refers to Nancy Spungen as Sid Vicious’s “tumor of a girlfriend.” I’ve read And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, and the poor girl had some serious problems, but I feel for her. Besides, she’s not Courtney Love or anything. However, these are pretty minor quibbles and probably boil down to age, taste, and the passage of time. They do not detract from the overall wonderfulness of the book.
Destroy All Movies truly shines as a lengthy love letter to cult cinema, punk pride notwithstanding. The writers absolutely nail, in both synopsis and deserved praise, such staples as Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (all of Dave Markey’s movies get full treatment), the films of Richard Kern, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . the Fabulous Stains, Repo Man, Rock & Rule, Rock and Roll High School, and Valley Girl, as well as more unexpected, but equally deserving fare, such as Back to School, Basket Case, The Last American Virgin, Savage Streets, and my favorite cult movie of all time, Tuff Turf. They have a genuine love of and appreciation for fringe films and it shows. Hell, they’re even gracious about Adam Ant’s somewhat failed acting career, and for that I am grateful.
Destroy All Movies retails for about $35 and is worth every cent. You will want to refer to it and reread it over and over. It’s got that much good, not-so-clean, fun packed into its 500-plus pages. I even have a list of over 20 movies that I want to watch right now, based on the glowing descriptions of them featured in the book. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to update my Zip queue.
Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide To Punks On Film, was published on November 12, 2010 from Fantagraphics Books. For more on the book, check the official website. The authors, in conjunction with Fantagraphics Books and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, have a book tour planned for Spring 2011. Email them and tell them to come to your town!