The Rise of Punk Civilization
When We Play for Real
Coffman Memorial Union Great Hall University of Minnesota, Saturday at 7:00 p.m.
Every aging punk singles out a metaphor for the underground's passage into "alt"-hood. My usual choice is Everclear, whose '90s interactions with Twin Cities culture shifted within a few years' span from drunken nights in a dirty South Minneapolis basement to lip-synching in pristine Gap ads crafted by local filmmaker Phil Harder. These days, as someone remarks in Jem Cohen's new straight-to-video documentary on Fugazi, it's nearly impossible to examine the American scene that spawned Everclear and countless others without looking at the music through an industry lens. But, to its credit, a new independent documentary attempts to do just that.
The ornately pierced, spiky-haired subjects of Patti Rhodes's hourlong video-film on the local punk underground, Debasement Video Fanzine, Vol. 1: When We Play for Real, seem almost nostalgic for a time when punks at least received the recognition of shock. But if this primitively shot, meticulously edited slice-of-punk-life one day brings the bands it features to the attention of, say, PBS viewers, the subjects and filmmaker alike seem less than fazed by the prospect.
True to the pun in its title, Debasement barely identifies its bands (and sometimes neglects to do so) before lunging into hand-held concert sequences shot mostly below ground. The vid feels less like a booster-shot for this hidden world than a fascinated self-portrait, with just enough interspersed Q&A to delineate the (sort-of) anarchist politics informing the players.
Minneapolis's lefty discourse sets our punk outpost apart, so I gather, and when two unidentified teenage girls talk about bringing the revolution to punk rather than vice versa, you get the feeling they've had this conversation many times before. "If you don't expect punk to change your life," says one, "and you just have it be part of your life, then you don't get sick of it as much." These high-schoolers aren't the desperate gutter-punks of Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III (due here later this year), who use the culture as a way out rather than a way in. They want a community, but on their terms, and they don't have to rack their brains to describe how they feel.
Rhodes also introduces us to bands and activists that have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into "our little soap opera," as one punk calls it. "We're in a space that is a material proof that punk ideologies work," says punk activist Dan Siskind in the offices of the nationally known punk fanzine (and distribution company) Profane Existence. And though the zine has folded since Rhodes wrapped shooting, the videographer sees no reason not to take his word at face value. When she shows us Felix Havoc's self-admittedly money-losing record operation and T-shirt mini-factory--or drops by the democratically run meetings of the Minneapolis volunteer record store, Extreme Noise--it's not to glamorize the process or even to raise the likelihood of breaking even in the non-Everclear punk market. This is just what we do, the subjects say, and their reasons are left as open questions. (Extreme Noise, by the by, just marked its fifth year of not going under.)
Having shot, by her estimation, some 30 tapes' worth of footage between late 1995 and early 1998, Rhodes is undoubtedly connected to the scene. But she also maintains an objective, if nonjudgmental, tone, with bands ranging wildly in styles from the Clash-like, clean-cut mods of the Strike to the goateed, beer-swilling hardcore heads in Quincy Punx. Rhodes isn't big on context, but she manages to keep her camera rolling when the red-haired Bob Murderer of the Murderers incomprehensibly picks a fistfight with a younger bandmate during an interview. She doesn't ask anyone to explain this behavior--or the different mini-fragments of the community ("emo," "straight-edge," "pop-punk")--and the film feels almost too cropped as a result, leaving out a level of interpretation that might help orient cultural outsiders.
Still, Debasement holds interest, if only because the 24-year-old director has captured a vital, hidden part of '90s American life, one with its own laws of gravity drawn from hardcore punk's heyday. In Basementland, the modes of production take on extra weight, while the means of melody are feather-light. When the Quincy Punx scream the line "This is my America" over and over in concert, you realize they're making a point of pride, not just staking out territory.
Performances by five bands featured in Debasement--Dillinger Four, the Quincy Punx, the Strike, the Murderers, and Misery--will follow the screening at Coffman Memorial Union; (612) 624-8638.
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