Punk Flicks (Old Tricks)

Clash in the Cannes (Film Fest)

It took almost too long to squeeze the punk rock rationale through the multi-million dollar movie needle.

When punk finally did raise its little pointed head on the whore-worn streets of the Cannes Film Festival this year, most of the new rock movies arrived outdated, blaring examples of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hopeful eyes were fixed upon Dennis Hopper's new film, Out of the Blue, expecting it to do for punk what Hopper's Easy Rider had done for communes and cocaine. Unfortunately, Out of the Blue keeps slipping back into country flowerhead basics with New Wave trim. It takes its title from Neil Young, dresses up Linda Manz (Days of Heaven) as a rebellious punkette who alternately sings Supertramp songs and punches safety pins through her face, and it glaringly dates the death of Elvis Presley incorrectly, somehow linking him with Sid Vicious.

Hopper also stars in the film as Linda's father, whose alcoholism and sexual perversity have contributed to Linda's spiraling decline, obviously. Linda, suited for the part but laboring under the random references to last year's chart listings and a script that forces her to embody a homicidal punk metaphor, finally snuffs her folks while singing "Teddy Bear."

Although it was filmed in Vancouver, someone at Hopper's flippant press conference had to ask where the film was supposed to take place. Was it a contemporary Western, an urban melodrama in cowboy drag, or just another Canadian tax shelter project?


Breaking Glass was given tuxedo reception at Cannes, confidently announced as a "post-punk" tale, with stereo Dolby treatment, and followed by a blow-out reception, dubbed "event of the year" by some hyperbolic press bulletins. The film details the rise and fall of a London band (bearing many resemblances to X-Ray Spex), with street-found star Hazel O'Connor as leader of the idealistic group. She self-promotes on subways, takes on gigs at skinhead pubs and political rallies, and ends up with record contract and sold-out laser light shows. Phil Daniels, star of last year's Quad-rophenia, plays the little manager who gets squeezed out by the big label but retains his integrity. Breaking Glass gets the dynamic concert finish, with electric costumes and tight-tuned music (penned by O'Connor), but it is unfortunate that the flashiest, most appealing part of the picture comes at the narrative moment of the heroine's greatest moral and psychological decline, casting doubt on the purpose and impact of primal rock's message. The movie also charts the rise and fall of the original punk movement, if one allows some metaphorical leeway. It's The Rose of a revolution.

An even greater contradiction is Telephone Public, the hottest ticket among French locals in Cannes. French New Wave group Telephone, in stark contrast to the espoused ideals of the band in Breaking Glass, relishes its role as supergroup, spreading itself thinly across the Cinemascope screen. The members give opinions on any and every subject, frequently flaunting their new wealth. Female bassist Corine Marienneau even lets her mother be interviewed. The "what is your favorite toothpaste?" dialogue is interspersed with the roguish posing and extended amplification of this lightweight heavy metal band in New Wave drag.

Although director Paul Verhoeven (Soldier of Orange) has a certified hit with Spetters in his native Netherlands, this Dutch version of Saturday Night Fever would have to cross many cultural barriers to be accessible to American youth. Riding motorbikes with glee, munching french fries and mustard, and wrangling with Calvinist consciences, the Spetters (translated Aces) are rebellious youth who "live like there's no tomorrow." The soundtrack consists of second-rate juke box numbers from the Johnny Rotten timevault, but it is probably the flaunted flesh in Spetters which has made it a box office success. There are masturbations, erections, girl-swappings, older women, and a penis-measuring contest, all apparently dear to international punks.

Cha Cha, another Dutch film, combines phoney detective dramatics with comic violence and political protest, but impromptu performances by Lene Lovich and Nina Hagen more than compensate for lapses in the story. When they sit together at a bar, spontaneously crooning up lost melodies and inhuman sounds in deadpan seriousness, they win the "Lucy and Ethel of the Eighties Award" hands down.

On the spare aesthetic side are Radio On and Union City, two story films with rock references. Radio On (title signifying the primary mechanical function for properly operating a motor vehicle) was financed by Road Movies, the Wim Wenders film company. It comes as no surprise that the film is the British equivalent of the early Wenders movies, Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and others. Punctuated by songs of David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich and more, the black-and-white film follows the odyssey of a man in search of his brother's house, where an unexplained suicide has just taken place. After a confrontation with a psychotic lower-class hitchhiker, an encounter with a German woman searching for her daughter and asides for pinball and pool, the conclusion of Radio On strands the roving philosophical boy on a precipice where the car refuses to budge. Dedicated to the electronic age and Fritz Lang, the film also offers Sting, the Police singer, in a brief cameo, crooning tearfully as a garage attendant in love with Gene Vincent.

Union City has the chic punk sensibility of New York fashion. Starring Deborah Harry in a non-singing role, the story is based on a cheap thriller, The Corpse Next Door. With garish Fifties sets and color, astutely overacted in Eisenhower-era soullessness, the psychological disintegration of a jealous husband is slowly depicted. The husband thinks he has accidentally murdered a milk thief and hides him in the empty apartment next door, a plot mechanism which allows the actors and actresses to camp up their roles to the limit, while dressing up in fashionable rags as well.

Debbie Harry's performance is an analogue for the psychological violence of the cold war days, all pouty and conformist. She invests her love in new shoes and a blonde bleach job. The soundtrack is credited to Chris Stein, the other Blondie personage, but his electronic accompaniment resembles a melodramatic mix of Robert Fripp and Bernard Herrmann, not the band's dance beat.

The Clash steered clear of the Festival, unlike the Who, whose appearance the year before sold out a Roman coliseum. Perhaps the philosophy embedded in Rude Boy kept the Clash at an ideological distance from Cannes' party-hopping.

Rude Boy, filmed in 1978 at the peak of punk, uses an extreme of European minimalist filmmaking technique, allowing little storytelling. The film offers, also, the most accomplished interaction between documentary footage and staged events since Medium Cool, although Clash fans aren't likely to care much. The band members fought distribution for a while, sensing that they might be revealed in an awkward stage of their career.

Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon are shown living their day-to-day lives, doing things like standing trial for shooting pet pigeons and discussing the Red Brigade ("It's a pizza parlor, isn't it?"), while their fictitious counterpart, played by Ray Grange, wanders from concert to concert, drinking heavily and prying comment from the band. More than once, it seems that the filmmakers have intruded upon Clash concerts in order to beef up the action in the film, including the taunting of an unruly Rock Against Racism crowd. Late into the rambling film, a racial element is pasted on, but the real meat of it is in the (spontaneous?) dialogue coming from Strummer, as he talks politics or introduces the song "I'm So Bored with the USA," dedicating it to Freddie Laker, "the man who made it all possible." Later, Strummer sings lyrics a cappella on a studio dub of "All the Young Punks," undermining his own lyrics with harmonic "c---s" on the final rhyme. One senses validity and importance in this early version of the Clash; one also imagines Clash Muzak in some future elevator.

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