SLC Punk and the Art of Selling Out

I was a punk. Back in high-school, that is (and I guess for a little bit in college). It started off with a growing interest in the fast-paced, not necessarily talented music, starting with hearing Blink-182’s Enema of the State when I was 12'ish. From there I slowly learned more and more about the culture, and I grew more and more immersed in my particular view of what punk was. Punk can be considered a DIY mindset but, for the majority, punk is largely an emphasis on a particular fashion and aesthetic. When I first got into it, I was more into the pop-punk style (thanks to ma boy’s, Blink!) but after (what can now be considered) a momentous occurrence in my life, I slowly turned form the loudly colored, somewhat manicured pop-punk look into a look that can be considered a homeless, hippie chic, with a largely black colored wardrobe. The momentous occasion I allude to: the day I saw SLC Punk


While I was in my quasi-homeless looking phase of punk (to be clear, this wasn’t gutter punk. I wore a green army jacket from Vietnam adorned in patches, and some black cargo pants that tore up to the point where a slit went from the bottom of my pants leg, all the way up to my ass (that was the point I finally let the pants go)) I considered myself one of the true believers. I was a DIY punk, making my own metal hoop pants from materials I bought at Home Depot. It was all based somewhat on Steve-O/Heroin Bob from SLC Punk, though. I remember renting this movie from Blockbuster for the first time when I was 14. It became a window into the world that I wanted to live in. A place where everything is boring and stupid, so you try to take it all apart by eschewing typical social mores but replace them by cobbling together a more tribal set of ethical standards (if I had had any friends at the time to call a 'tribe'). There was a sense of community that permeated the very film that SLC Punk was shot on. There didn’t seem to be as much of a plot as a slow progression through the life of the narrator, Steve-O (Matthew Lillard) and his best friend Heroin Bob (Michael A. Goorjian). 


The formless nature of SLC Punk doesn’t only apply to the story, though. The editing of the film is frenetic to the point of being maddening. Sentences are cut up into pieces, so any sentence spoken may be from 3 different takes of the person talking, all from the same angle. It is the hyper-editing styled by MTV taken to its extreme conclusion, taking the attention deficiency that the editing is meant to attract and placing that ADD in the editing process itself.  After all these years I can finally see the brilliance in this technique, as it makes all the nonsense spewing out of everyone’s mouths seem that much more urgent and profound. And most every idea that this movie espouses (and it largely revolves around the characters espousing random ideas) are, at best, half-baked, but, more than not, they are simply non-sensical. What is striking, though, is how much you believe everything the characters are saying. Take for example a scene where Steve-O seems to be hanging out at the mall and is discussing posers. It jumps from talking about the strange fixation on Britain within punk circles (“Anarchy in the UK”), to the accent these 'posers' put on to sleep with girls, to how British bands don’t respect Americans, to how he’s not a hick ("I've never fucked anyone in my own bloodline"), to who started punk music and how he doesn’t care cause it’s just music, to his Exhibit A (“It’s my only exhibit, but, you know what? I think it’s pretty fucking good.”) which is a punk show. This all takes place in the span of a minute, and the odd thing is that the movie makes you believe everything he is saying. It all feels so earnest and passionate that you follow along, despite the ramble making little-to-sense within the context of...well, anything. But the point isn't to follow along, it is to get lost and live life with these characters. SLC Punk is just taking you along for a ride. 


As irreverent and nihilistic as this may all sound, there is a real pathos to the film. One of the great performances of all time takes place within the film (and I’ll take on any comers that say different) when Heroin Bob dies of an accidental overdose (his name is ironic because he won’t take drugs, but a drunk girl gives him Percocet at a party telling him they’re vitamins). Steve-O finds Bob in bed in the morning, trying to wake him to go get some breakfast. As it slowly dawns on him that Bob is dead, Matthew Lillard has one of the most heart wrenching break-downs ever captured on film. For a minute, you are in that room with him, and you are losing the same friend that he is.  As snot and tears coat his face and he screams at Bob’s corpse “What am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do for a friend now? You were my only friend, you asshole!” it rips strait to your soul in a way that only a sociopath would not be able to empathize. You can see through the anarchy and nihilism that Steve-O has been espousing, and see the lost youth who was really only trying to figure out his place in the world. It takes something real occurring in his life to realize that his nihilism is really a front for a more existential fear of life, time, and being responsible for himself as a person. 


SLC Punk was written and directed by James Merendino. He assembled an amazingly talented cast before any of them were famous, like Dazed and Confused it would become an amazingly prolifically casted film (Devon Sawa and Jason Segal are also featured). He would go on for the next ~15 years to make one apparent comedy and 4 or 5 horror’ish films, none I have seen or even heard of, and none with the same pedigree or cult status that SLC Punk now enjoys. Then the wave of Fan Funding started with the advent of Kickstarter. Merendino took to Indiegogo to help raise funds for Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2, promising he had already written the script and that he was going to bring back some of the favorite characters. In the end, you can say he delivered that much. 


Punk’s Dead… is dire. Simply dire. It follows Heroin Bob’s son, Ross, as he goes through a raucous day which sees him taking a mini-road trip with his gutter punk friend, Crash (Machine Gun Kelley) and Crash’s tom-boy friend Penny (Hannah Marks), and as these movies are want to do, they pretend that Penny isn’t gorgeous as Crash ribs her for being such a ‘boy’. As this is going on, there is a second story  where we follow his mother at her novelty/goth store as she airs her worries about her wayward son. Devon Sawa and James Duval return as their minor characters from the first film and simultaneously seem to have not talked to Trish in years, but are also ‘Uncles’ to Ross (a running joke that apparently everyone is that involved in Trish’s life…it’s confusing). Also Heroin Bob narrates the movie with a returning Michael A. Goorjian who speaks from a dusty, dirty room with heavenly lights streaming through the windows. He wears the worst mohawk wig I have ever seen and it quickly becomes apparent why Goorjian never went on to much more than supporting role status in films. It is borderline unneccessary to have him in the field except to mimic the narrative device of the first (with Steve-O constantly interjecting into his own story), without really understanding why it worked (which is a microcosm of the problem with this film...well, one of the problems, at least). 


It is strange to imagine that Merendino was the one who actually wrote SLC Punk, as it becomes apparent that either he was making a cash-ploy or strived through a serious case of writer’s block with the most generic of ‘How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Easy Steps!’ books as reference material to make Punk's Dead... The frenetic, loosely connected but passionate heart of the first film is gone. In its place is a series of (what can generously be described as) ‘skits’ in its place, that seem to think that SLC Punk was a proto-version of a Farley brothers movie, or even worse a spiritual successor to the Marx brothers (neither of which describe the first, and neither of which the second ever comes close to approaching). The cut-up editing technique from the first movie is still in place, but without the context that made that editing scheme seem earnest and contextual. Now it seems like a first draft script with a film school freshman trying to make an experimental comedy, without necessarily understanding experimental films, or comedy for that matter. 


I have very little to say about Punk’s Dead…, it is truly that bad. The best comparison I can give is to take the first punk show scene I referred to earlier. In SLC Punk the scene takes place in a run down building, with a group of people gathered around the center of the stage, but also groups lining the walls, as if there just for the social aspect. From my experience, this is exactly what a punk show is, only the number of people and the venues ever change. For Punk’s Dead, the crowd appear to be inside a large concert hall, with a lineup pulled straight from last years Warped Tour (not the big names on the bill, mind you). There is no sense of community, comradery, or even personality at this big show (which was a promise straight from the Indiegogo campaign, apparently). Where SLC Punk showed what little difference there is between the band and the people attending the show, how those walls are easily torn down by the easily accessible stage, Punk’s Dead went to great expense to make the crowd and bands seem as disconnected as possible. (Also, on a quick note, the same band, Extreme Corporal Punishment, plays in the second film, and it serves as a strangely sad reminder that nowadays these punk bands never grow up, so old men play to this large collection of teens, whereas punk used to be about inexperience and largely run by snot-nosed kids. Just more of a general observation about a subculture I have left behind.) If Punk's Dead... is arguing for that titular thesis, it at least accomplishes displaying that much. 


SLC Punk is special to me. It spoke to me at a time in my life when I didn't feel connected to anything or any group. I was a step above a loner and with one film I felt like I had an identity and true friends. In turn, the film led me to the real life version where I made some of the best friends I could have ever asked for (some to this day, many more fell off along the way, but if SLC Punk taught me anything, then that's just life). The film ends with Steve-O going to Harvard Law School and marrying the normal girl, Sandy, lastly seeing his wry smile on his newly shaved head (to purge himself of his blue hair) while the voiceover exclaims "Fuck you if you were already thinking it, but in the end, I was just another poser." It's an important reminder that for all the espousements of it being a lifestyle, for the most part punk is an identity, and a disposable one that you use for the time that you need it, but discard when you are ready to move on. If Punk's Dead... has anything to say (and I very much doubt it does), it's that we aren't just all posers, in the end we're all going to sell out, too.


April 8th, 2016