Rock around the doc

U Film's "Sound Unseen" festival projects our mythologies of music onto the screen

As smaller mortals took the stage after them, the popular imagination, trained to expect greatness from celebrities, dutifully feigned interest. It didn't take long for us, erstwhile obedient masses, to convince ourselves that celebrity alone could transform a dullard into an interesting figure. So just what are your political views, Mr. Frampton?

You could say that punk's DIY ethos assaulted this culture of celebrity--the punks never stopped saying it. But punk's ideology also preserved certain assumptions about its non-stars, namely that talented folks with guitars necessarily have great insight into the human condition. As punk turned into indie rock, people began to expect that artists, as the representatives of a subculture of decency, should be decent folks themselves. All this, years after Don't Look Back--where Dylan demonstrated that you could be both a genius and a mush-mouthed, twerpy little prick.

Even as wary a film as Penelope Spheeris's definitive L.A. punk ethnography The Decline of Western Civilization(Sunday, October 8; Bell Auditorium) winds up reinforcing the notion that the smartest offstage interviews are also the best onstage (and on-record) bands. And so X are personable, inquisitive bohemians who make personable, inquisitive bohemian music, while Black Flag are politically astute, even if their antiauthoritarian skepticism borders on paranoia. Just as true, sometime Slash-magazine pundit Claude Bessy is exactly as pigheaded spewing, "Zere is no such zing as new wave" into the camera as he is fronting the très précieux Catholic Discipline. And the pathetic Darby Crash grows harder to laugh at each year, just as his band the Germs grows harder to listen to.

Spheeris's film lays out a simple relationship between performer and offstage individual that's too good to be true: The people whose music we like turn out to be the people we like. The punch line, of course, comes in The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (Monday, October 9 and Tuesday, October 10 at Bell Auditorium), in which we learn that even the coolest punks from the previous flick seem less fun to hang with than the guys from Poison.

 

If the Northwest indie-rock scene and L.A. hardcore set alike hold that there are no stars, the New York punks who predated both were rooted in a Warholian ethic: Everybody is a star. Given this conceptual background, CBGB alums Talking Heads would go on to become the subject of the finest concert film ever, and downtown hanger-on Madonna would star in a masterful subtext-diddling tour doc of her own. And it's no surprise that 1991: The Year Punk Broke (Sunday, October 8 and Thursday, October 12 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) finds itself trapped between the older ethos of trash-glitz punk style and the anti-glamorous self-effacement of Kurt Cobain. When Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon parodies Truth or Dare, we're treated to an encapsulated history of New York bohemia's infatuation with celebrity. When Cobain and pals flounder around backstage trying not to draw too much attention to themselves, we're presented with a no-less-striking demonstration of indie rock's distrust of celebrity.

Art school dropouts before they're anything else, Sonic Youth can always be trusted to provide a typically downtown New York response to any question. And so The Year Punk Broke, the record of their 1991 European tour, suggests a formalist way out of the old backstage-banter-plus-live-footage routine. To put it kindly, the film attempts to puncture linear film narrative the way Sonic Youth shred pop form. That doesn't mean it's any fun to endure the hectic interspersal of near-random quick-cut footage into ferocious live performances (which should have been left alone). Meanwhile, Thurston Moore parodies himself, like a proto-Tom Green, or an Allen Funt wannabe.

The visual collage/barrage of Sonic Outlaws (Monday, October 9 at Bell Auditorium) is more successful at tweaking the formal aspects of the documentary, if only because it's more expert. The film begins by retracing the genesis of Negativland's "U2," in which the jokers mix a pirated tape of Casey Kasem spewing obscenities with the Irish band's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It's a masterly prank--all the more culturally resonant because they got busted for it, landing in an endless battle with Island records. Again it's always a mistake to let artists outline their aesthetic with the camera running. Negativland prove themselves capable of pontificating as tiresomely and smugly as U2. You're probably not watching this if you don't already have some notion of culture jamming, right?

But visually, the film's video bricolage matches the band's sonic process, mimicking commercial products even as it distorts them. And guess what? It looks a lot like MTV, which has already internalized and neutralized that sort of irony. How, then, do you jam a culture that thrives on its own ironies?

 

Maybe the answer to that riddle lies not with those artists who take it upon themselves to create the culture, but among the viewers and listeners who decide which cultural myths should be believed. Or, as noted field sociologist Alice Cooper declares in Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2, when it comes to rock 'n' roll, "It's all about the fans."

Of course, to argue that fans are always best at outlining their motives is reductive at least and romantically deluded at worst. (Quick--give me an objective rundown on the breakup of your last relationship.) But after decades of adult media condescension so intense it deserves a more militant youth rebellion than we've gotten to date, I'll gladly embrace the stumbling inarticulateness of the ravers in Better Living Through Chemistry (Friday, October 13 at Bell Auditorium) over the latest tabloid Ecstasy scare. These fans display a kind of utopian esprit and escapist desperation that's as central to the rave ethos as glowsticks and 808s. By its own transcendent definition, a rave is an experience that can't be duplicated or explained, as these interviews sometimes make tediously clear. But that doesn't mean there isn't something to be learned from those who attempt to describe that ecstasy (with a small "e").

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