By Jack Sargeant.
There were (and still are) many manifestations of punk. While for some the term simply describes the youth subculture that existed in the period circa 1975 – 1977, for others it evokes an unrestrained affirmation of personal creative freedom that both continues onwards into subsequent subcultures and started prior to this brief period. For some punk refers to a rapidly codified stripped back form of fast paced garage rock and roll, for others it includes more experimental music that emerged simultaneously and alongside this primitive rock and roll. Although sometimes performed by the same people, often for the same audiences, this less constrained musical form is now commonly (and perhaps erroneously) referred to as post punk. But, however punk is defined, it represents a moment in which everything appeared to be up for grabs, where the idea that anybody could do it was realised not simply through music, but also via self-published ‘zines, independent record labels, fashion, and other forms of creativity.
Like most youth subcultures punk made the media, with outraged headlines and shocked editorials in papers, and punk characters appearing in TV shows and movies. In Hollywood movies punks were primarily generic figures glimpsed in the background, noticeable because of their ‘weird’ appearance or because their presence could signify dystopia, violence, or danger. But in genre cinema, b-movies and indie film punk found a more sympathetic cinematic representation.
In genre film punk and science fiction appear as a natural combination, while there was a street-level authenticity in many punk songs there was also an element of difference in punks that appeared to the mainstream as the embodiment of the alien, as anybody who had “weirdo” shouted at them will attest. More importantly dystopian quasi-science fiction elements played at the cultural fringes of punk, William Burroughs was described as the ‘Godfather of Punk’ and JG Ballard’s near-future works were read by many punks. Bowie’s science fiction infused Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs albums were on many punk’s turntables.
There were numerous representations of punk in genre movies, such as the 1982 cult favourite Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, which told its story of aliens that consumed ecstatic victims against a background of New York new wave fashion and electronic music. Other films such as Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1977) play on alternate realities and a punk fantasy slipstream present day.
Alex Cox’s 1984 Repo Man combined hardcore punk with the style and attitude of nervous, conspiratorial science fiction. The film tells the story of Otto and his mentor Bud, who work repossessing cars from debtors and non-payers. Primarily set in the sunburned streets of downtown Los Angeles, the repo men are pursuing a car with a mysterious cargo in the trunk: aliens. But the vehicle is also being pursued by mysterious agents. The perfectly pitched dialogue, which never takes itself too seriously, is propelled by a soundtrack of classic hardcore bands and the punk scene forms the backdrop to the movie’s action. The film’s climatic sequence features a glowing, luminescent 1964 Chevrolet Malibu flying high over the city, a pure affirmation of the potentialities of science fiction and punk, a mix of speculative futurity and nihilism. Simultaneously, Repo Man makes references to previous generations of pre-punk punks, with an opening song by proto-punk Iggy Pop and a blink-and-you-miss-it nod to William Burroughs’ Dr Benway.
The most recent punk science fiction movie – How To Talk To Girls At Parties (2017) – is set in suburban Croydon during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, an unusually hot British summer which mixed royalist street parties and punk frustrations. Croydon serves as the architype for suburban British punk because of its location / non-location at the fringe of London. The genre mixing coming of age movie follows awkward teenage fanzine illustrator Enn (Alex Sharp) and the mysterious Zan (Elle Fanning), who meet at what Enn believes is an after-show following a local punk gig. Enn is firmly committed to punk, while Zan is an extra-terrestrial from a rigidly stratified society. These aliens have come to observe seventies Britain, but Zan wants to break the rules and experience what the Earth really has to offer, through Enn’s introduction to punk culture she finally has the opportunity to truly rebel.
Alongside aliens, imagined technologies, and geo-temporal dislocation, a common theme of science fiction is sex. From the inter-species sex depicted in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) to the monstrous reproductive cycle that underpins Alien (1979), the nature of future sex has played across the genre, As a film about youths in love and lust sex emerges as a theme in How To Talk to Girls At Parties. (Spoiler alert) The film features unique sexual encounters that play on a cyberpunk styled, quasi-Cronenbergian sense of bodily transformation. A pleasantly unsettling concept in a film that is also a late-teen-romance, and a nod to punk’s inherent shock value. The plasticity that some of the alien’s rubber garbed bodies experience contributes a fetish infused tone to the film’s punk aesthetic, a nod to the rubber and bondage underground that played into punk style via Sex, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique where numerous punk musicians bought items of clothing.
The version of punk presented in How To Talk To Girls At Parties is neither fashionable nor simply alienated and nihilistic, instead it is experienced as a positive change. Enn and his friends want to create fanzines, write about music, search out records, and enjoy themselves. The biggest criticism of films featuring punks or set against the punk milieu is their potential for inaccuracy, and while punk can still be seen as pure possibility it also exists as a moment passed. How To Talk To Girls At Parties navigates this with the presence of an older MC introducing a band: “In the world of quantum mechanics punks are everywhere at the same time until observed!” With punk subsequently set up as a geo-temporal instant anything becomes possible.
Which is as clear of a definition of science fiction and punk as you are likely to see.
Jack Sergeant is the author of the book NO FOCUS: PUNK ON FILM.
Jack wrote this piece in celebration of HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (a genre mash-up of a shy teenage punk rocker who falls in love with a girl from another world) – out now on Blu-ray and DVD.
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