Verite Film Magazine had a regular ‘top 5’ feature. While some people see a tyranny of listicle overtaking film blogs and turning everything into one long Buzzed article, but as with all things there’s nothing wrong with a list in moderation and with these features Verite tried to get past the usual list of film/comic geek favourites and find less obvious themes without lapsing into first year film student seriousness.
This was my first such feature inspired by the release of the documentary The Punk Singer. Top 5 North American Punks…
5. Peter Stegman – Class of 1984 (1982)
We’re pissed, we’re tanked, we’re smashed on all the glut
Canada is pissed – NoMeansNo
‘Do you feel lucky… punk?’ Until grunge stormed the mainstream and inadvertently spawned a strain of frat-house friendly, politically illiterate, upskirt picture taking, Jackass watching, pop punk goons, North American punk rock was music from the margins, isolated in distinct regional scenes that variously attracted intellectuals, art school rejects, misfits, screw ups, and anyone interested in giving a middle finger to Ted Nugent.
‘Hollywood’ is a deeply conservative industry (ironically mostly run by liberals) that often demonises marginal sub cultures. The most hilariously objectionable punk in the exploitation canon is Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patton) in Mark L. Lester’s Class of 1984. A violent updating/rip-off of The Blackboard Jungle, this Canadian film sees a high school terrorised by a gang of delinquents. Leader Stegman is a bad boy cliché, middle class, spoilt by an indulgent mother, no father figure.
Despite being a right wing fantasy that wants to bend the kids over its knee and administer a spanking, Class of 1984 is actually pretty entertaining, gave Michael J. Fox an early role, and managed to get banned in the UK.
4. Derek Vinyard – American History X (1998)
Ten guys jump one, what a man / You fight each other, the police state wins / Stab your backs when you trash our halls / Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls
Nazi Punks Fuck Off – The Dead Kennedys
Californian punk runs the gamut from country tinged troubadours X, to the frenetic chaos of The Germs, to B-movie horror punks 45 Grave, but during the eighties and nineties the neo-Nazi skin became a regrettably popular onscreen representation. Edward Norton’s scorching performance in Tony Kaye’s brutal issue drama American History X tackles racism and hate with a blunt and earnest directness that is rare. In an extraordinary act of physical transformation the slight Norton plays Vinyard as the ultimate neo-Nazi alpha male (only rivalled by Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper).
Vinyard is smart, charismatic, filled with terrible conviction and utterly terrifying. However after serving three years for voluntary manslaughter (a truly hideous scene), Vinyard leaves prison a changed man, shorn of his racist beliefs and determined to stop his brother (Edward Furlong) from following his self-destructive path.
If punk is about rejecting and questioning authority, then it is the older wiser Vinyard who wears long sleeved tops to hide his Nazi tattoos who represents its true spirit.
3. Cebe – Out of the Blue (1980)
I have no desire / I can’t feel a thing / I just want to make him happy / Daddy’s little girl
Daddy’s Li’l Girl – Bikini Kill
It is ironic that one of the best ‘punk’ movies of the eighties should be directed (and largely written) by Dennis Hopper one of the iconic figures of the sixties counter culture. In fact it makes perfect sense; Hopper was never really a comfortable fit for the wide-eyed naiveté of flower power, even whilst starring in his own Easy Rider Hopper was an anarchic presence next to Peter Fonda’s Zen master. Originally Hopper was hired solely to act in Out of the Blue, but took over directing duties early in the shoot and extensively rewrote the screenplay.
Hopper plays Don, a trucker with a chaotic and destructive lifestyle who is sent to prison after crashing his rig into a school bus. This leaves his Elvis obsessed daughter Cebe (a brilliant Linda Manz) deprived of a father figure and marooned in small town nowheresville with her drug addicted mother. Leather jacketed and hair slicked back with boot polish Cebe is a study in adolescent alienation, and Hopper’s remarkably cynical film is a pure blast of cold nihilism applied to the myth of freedom that underpins the American Dream.
2. Richie – Summer of Sam (1999)
So messed up I want you here / In my room I want you here / Now we’re gonna be face-to-face / And I’ll lay right down in my favourite place
I Wanna be Your Dog – The Stooges
One of Spike Lee’s most finely rolled joints, the sprawling Summer of Sam is multi-layered portrait of a South Bronx Italian-American neighbourhood terrorised by the ‘Son of Sam’ murders over the summer of 1977.
Although the lead character is ostensibly John Leguizamo’s slick lothario Vinnie, the greatest impression is made Adrien Brody in one of his breakthrough roles (after the non-starter of The Thin Red Line where his lead part was reduced to a near walk-on in editing). Brody is brilliant as Richie, a neighbourhood kid who has returned from London affecting a British accent and dressed in classic Carnaby Street punk-rocker garb. Richie’s new look and radical ideas (in particular his rejection of Vinnie’s misogyny) ostracise him from his former childhood friends. The only person who gives him the time of day is Vinnie’s half sister Ruby (Jennifer Esposito, great) who forms a band with him, eventually playing CBGBs. Ruby’s rejection of the strict social order of the neighbourhood is clear when she finds out Vinny is working as a gay hustler but does not ridicule of reject him.
1. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1986)
I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax / I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire / Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire
Psycho Killer – Talking Heads
Travis Bickle did a lot more than just introduce the Mohawk haircut to the punk rock style guide via fan Joe Strummer (The Clash repaid Scorsese by appearing as extras in King of Comedy), he is the ultimate marginal character of the New American Cinema. Bickle was birthed in the mind of destitute former film critic and screenwriter Paul Schrader invented when the writer was homeless, sleeping in his car, clinically depressed and realised he had not spoken a word to another human being in weeks.
Bickle is an example of what Thomas Wolfe called ‘God’s Lonely Man’ but taken to a nihilistic conclusion. This kind of character is a staple of American film, think of Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers (Bickle wears cowboy boots for a reason). He has fallen through the cracks in society’s basement, with a brain fried by post traumatic stress induced insomnia. Despised, misunderstood and marginalised by every strata of the social spectrum.
Bickle eventually finds a violent outlet for his alienation, if only someone had given him a guitar and three chords instead.
Article originally published in the June 2014 issue of Verite Film Magazine