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Pity the Punk Historian: How to Capture a Moment Designed to Self-Destruct?

A spate of new films propose a reckoning between punk artistry and documentary portraiture

The punk artist resists portraiture more violently than most. The punk artist, in fact, exists in opposition to all traditional forms, but perhaps especially to that of biography, a genre rooted in the dogged, earnest imposition of shape and meaning on a life and its work. The punk artist’s prerogative is disavowal, the biographer’s, reclamation – and never the twain shall meet. Except, of course, when they do – which is often and to mostly awkward effect. One exception stands out: like the movement it documents, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, the 1996 book compiled by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, succeeds to the extent that its raucous, choral form privileges chaos, dissonance and contradiction.

A spate of recent documentaries – including Bad Reputation (2018), a portrait of Joan Jett, and Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits (2017) – confirm the predicament of the punk historian: how to tell a story about the rejection of story? How many talking heads might it take to capture the cataclysmic energy of a moment designed to self-destruct? How might traditional means honour a movement pitched against tradition?

In Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (2018), director Lorna Tucker examines the career of Vivienne Westwood – the fashion designer best known for distilling punk aesthetics into a luxury brand – and attempts to re-assert her, per the title, as the real thing: a true-blue punk. Her case got an inadvertent boost from Westwood herself, who this past winter disavowed the film on the eve of its Sundance premiere.

 

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Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Finished Films

In telling a coming-of-age story of thwarted ambition, creative erasure and self-mythology, Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (which premiered at Sundance in January and will be released internationally by Netflix this month) proposes a reckoning between the punk artist and documentary portraiture. As a teen in late 1980s Singapore, Tan saw in movies a vehicle for her belief that ‘you found freedom by building worlds inside your head’. Soon, she was seeking outlets for this belief: first, in a self-published zine called Exploding Cat; then, by making a movie of her own – one that might have pioneered the indie film movement in her home country.

By 1992, 18-year-old Tan and a small DIY crew of pals and locals had mobilized to shoot her script for a film called Shirkers, a neon fever dream starring Tan as a young girl who wields finger guns with the power to kill. ‘The plot was almost immaterial,’ Tan’s friend observes. Shirkers was less interested in telling a story than generating a mood, an energy: a joyous, creepy, punk catharsis. It was an offering at the feet of Diane Arbus, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, whose meticulous balance of the ordinary and the uncanny anticipated a work like Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson.

We know this in part because Tan tells us in her intimate, sometimes overblown narration. But the viewer can also judge for herself: raw footage is strewn throughout Shirkers and it appears rich with promise. The images are odd, mesmerizing and impeccably composed. The mystery they impart is manifold: Tan never completed her film; in fact, the footage – dozens of reels of 16mm film – vanished as soon as shooting was completed, without her having viewed a single frame. The experience seemed to confirm the young Tan’s fear that leaving childhood entailed not just disillusion but a creative death – the loss of unimpeded vision and of the freedom to rampage through the world on its power. 

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Sandi Tan, Shirkers, 2018. Courtesy: Netflix

Sandi Tan, Shirkers, 2018. Courtesy: Netflix

Framed as a sort of elegy for the punk phenom Tan might have been, Shirkers finds a shadow for its protagonist in Georges Cardona, her high school film teacher and the putative director of her debut. ‘A man of unplaceable age and origin’, Tan tells us, Cardona was a genuine mentor, a shady pied piper and a world-class bullshit artist. He claimed an outrageous history and fancy connections: he saw Jayne Mansfield beheaded; he was the inspiration for the lead character in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989); he watched his brother bleed to death in his mother’s lap.

‘Time and place and truth became porous in his stories,’ Tan says, which made Cardona the irresistible embodiment of her fluid, quixotic sensibility. At one point, Cardona, who was married, took a road trip through the US with Tan. When he made what seems like the inevitable pass at his student, she shrugged it off and they both pretended it hadn’t happened. The trip inspired Tan to write her first feature-length script.

It is Cardona who held the Shirkers footage captive, for reasons we are left to ponder. Almost 20 years later, in the wake of Cardona’s death, his widow found the purloined film – in perfect condition – and sent it on to Tan. By then, Tan had spent the bulk of her adult life ‘in the wilderness’, working as a critic and eventually writing her first novel, a fantasy epic called The Black Isle (2012). In making Shirkers, which bristles with anger and pulses with melancholy, Tan seeks to reclaim not only her film but the story she has told about her own life and work, what she lost and who took it from her.

In one version, Cardona is a vampire and a saboteur, a bitter failure who held back those who threatened to surpass him. In another, he is a sort of punk id to Tan’s ego, an anarchic prankster playing a very long game. Both things may be true, in a balance it is not possible for Tan to settle or resolve. ‘Georges’s ghost will never truly leave me,’ she says, ‘and that’s okay.’ His is the voice of encouragement and doubt, ambition and stagnancy: he is the demon every artist must destroy, over and over, and on whose revival their creative life depends.

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Bad Reputation, 2018. Courtesy: Bad Reputation LLC

Shirkers finds a companion piece in Madeline’s Madeline (2018), Josephine Decker’s wild, arresting study of the madness of the creative process and the chaos of creating one’s self as an artist. It stars Helena Howard as 16-year-old Madeline, a mentally unstable New York City kid with an overwhelmed mother (Miranda July) and a cool, controlling acting teacher, Evangeline (Molly Parker). The adult women in Madeline’s life radiate need, if not predation, and a porousness to which she responds as a child would – alternately getting lost in the relationships and rebelling, testing boundaries. Evangeline, in particular, feeds on her student’s crude and frequently astonishing energy, claiming it and Madeline’s larger struggle as her own, and as fodder for her art.

‘In all chaos there is a cosmos,’ Evangeline tells Madeline, quoting Carl Jung. ‘In all disorder a secret order.’ As the director of an experimental theatre company, Evangeline is a sort of cliché, overseeing animal-play exercises and turning emotional breakdowns into dance routines. She seeks to extract from Madeline what is missing from her art and Decker derives from this pursuit a psychodrama that pits raw, risky authenticity against its cultivated likeness. More than describing or depicting the triumph of the former over the latter, with its distinctively punk, deeply impressionistic style, Madeline’s Madeline enacts it. Madeline’s ultimate reclamation is more bloody than genteel, more chaos than cosmos. The birth of an artist, in Decker’s rendering, is an act of self-creation, a riot in the bones.

Main image: Bad Reputation, 2018. Courtesy: Bad Reputation LLC

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (2013). She lives in New York, USA.

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