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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

PUNK: Attitude

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PUNK: Attitude
2005 (2005) - IFC (Capital Entertainment)

Program Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Writer/director/musician Don Letts - director of The Clash documentary Westways to the World and member of Clash guitarist Mick Jones' post-Clash project Big Audio Dynamite - has been a longtime fixture since the earliest days of the UK punk scene. With such bona fides, it'd be natural to expect great things from the documentary Punk: Attitude, but despite including interviews with a veritable who's who of the genre, it ends up being a maddeningly incomplete portrait of the music that defined a defiant generation.

Part historical overview and primarily oral history, the show traces punk's proper origins in not England or New York City, as the accepted legends would have people believe, but Michigan with garage bands like ? and the Mysterians, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the MC5. As a musician from the Detroit-area, it's always been an annoyance that our contributions to this genre have been ignored, so it was nice to see us get our props. (Overrated hype act The Strokes stole more from Iggy than they ever did from Television, but because the music press was based in NYC and seeking to regenerate their past glories, it wasn't likely that they'd mention someone outside the 212 area code, was it?)

Clipping along in just under an hour-and-a-half, Letts zips quickly from the early Michigan days to New York City, and bands like the Ramones and New York Dolls, before skipping across the puddle to Old Blighty and the bands that typically get credited as founding punk, the Sex Pistols and The Clash. After the early-Eighties, when punk started to break down and be supplanted by New Wave, it leaps ahead a decade to briefly laud Nirvana before jumping up to rap-metal hybrids like Limp Bizkit. While I suppose Fred Durst may be considered (wrongly) to embody the titular punk attitude, it diffuses the focus as much as if they'd covered crunchy granola artist festivals like Lilith Fair for their gyno-centric anti-punk attitude. They also use a Beastie Boys clip from 1986 and Public Enemy from 1988 to represent early-Eighties rap and how punk melded with it. Huh?

What hampers the show the most is the missing persons, like members of Blondie or Talking Heads, who were just as much of the CBGBs scene and too much coverage of acts that are barely remembered footnotes today, like Suicide or Agnostic Front. While they played their part in the big picture, the bias toward arguably less-important cult-grade acts is unfortunate. What is likely needed is a longer-form approach to the subject (think of what a 10-hour-long Ken Burns' Punk doc would be like) because in the limited time he has, Letts lets a lot of important acts go undiscussed. Whether it was due to his choice or inability to get participation from these figures is unknown, but it weakens the overall effect.

Though it's incomplete in its guest list, the vast majority of those featured are very good talkers, though Letts tends to run on and on at times, getting multiple opinions about minor acts while bigger deals go wanting. New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane died shortly after his session along with Sylvain Sylvain was taped, and former Black Flag frontman and solo agitator Henry Rollins simply dominates every second he's on screen with his pungent and often-hilarious comments.

Considering its origins, with interviews shot on videotape and live footage shot on who-knows-what, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks pretty good, though the interviews show some aliasing on the angles. As for audio, the only option is plain old 2-channel stereo sound which is fine because punk ain't about surround poofiness, oi! Loud and clear, allowing for the source material, it gets the job done with no greasy kids stuff.

The two discs come in a tri-fold Digipack and sleeve, and a nifty extra is a reproduction of issue #7 of the Sniffin' Glue zine - neat. The extras kick off with Where Are They Now?, a pack of 73 text updates ranging from a sentence to a few paragraphs for people either interviewed or mentioned in the film. It really needed an option to chapter advance through them all instead of requiring going back to the list to select the next one. Similarly, the Family Tree section is a branching text system that allows you to navigate 31 bands and see how they were as interrelated as West Virginia mining towns.

Jumping to Disc Two, the slam dance continues with L.A. Punk (1976-1980) (21:44) - a talking head oral history of the scene from participants like Brendan Mullen (owner of The Masque) and John Doe of X. While it's necessarily abbreviated, what really hurts is the tactic of frequently not identifying who's talking until several minutes into the film, leaving the viewer wondering who the hell they're listening to.

Henry Rollins Interview (9:58) is outtakes from his contribution to the feature and frankly I would've preferred to listen to him talk for an hour-and-a-half because Hank's a witty cat. I actually had to hit pause to stop laughing when he discusses the Steve Miller Band in this piece. (Definitely check out his spoken-word cum stand-up comedy albums, particularly the two-CD Think Tank, which includes a bit describing Marilyn Manson playing in daylight as looking like "a bunch of zombies having a barbeque.") However, a lot of this reappears in later features, so prepare for déjà vu as you watch onward.

Dave Goodman Feature (15:12) leads to an interview with The Sex Pistols' sound man and producer. It was pretty dull stuff and didn't hold my interest.

Fanzines (10:48) is an expanded version of what was briefly referenced in the film about 'zines like Sniffin' Glue in the UK and Punk in New York. It's a good piece, if only for the fact that we learn what Legs McNeil's real first name is. (It's Eddie.) Likewise, Fashion (8:54) is more about the finer points of safety pins and bondage pants.

Women in Punk (9:05) is a letdown because while it goes on about Patti Smith and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and the empowerment they felt as musicians, there isn't a single mention of L.A.'s The Go-Gos - who were bigger than all of them combined and arguably more influential - despite having deep roots in their punk scene, nor Debbie Harry, likewise the biggest thing to come out of New York.

Record Companies (5:43) attempts to discuss the DIY movement of self-releasing records, but suffers from not having a single label owner interviewed to explain why they decided to put out music from this scene.

The Attitude/Spirit of PUNK (8:33) are random interview excerpts abut what punk means to the subjects. A lot of this is drawn from the end of the film and the Rollins interview, so it's a bit redundant and has a bit of an air of obituary about it. Jello Biafra's anti-George W. Bush/anti-War on Terror rant is ironic considering he's wearing a B-2 stealth bomber bolo.

The Influences/Origins of PUNK (12:16) is more interview outtakes about what inspired these people. Boredom with bloated Seventies rock and lack of musical alternatives along with some social alienation are common themes.

PUNK on Culture and the Arts (7:16) is a more erudite selection of clips about the natural cultural cannibalism and reintegration of art. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch gets the lion's share of time and credits his career to the inspiration from the punk ethos.

UK Versus the US (11:07) isn't as confrontational as the title sounds, but focuses more on how each nation influenced and competed with each other. Rollins makes another lengthy reappearance, but there are some good stories about the connection between Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood and the New York Dolls.

PUNK Evolution (9:25) has a good anecdote about the origins of the term "No Wave" by Thurston Moore that should've been left in the feature because it's better than the Jello Biafra material that did make the cut. Moore also goes on to explain how New Wave was viewed askance because it was too commercial and acceptable to the mainstream. This is one of the better extras.

The Gigs/Performance (9:56) discusses first gigs and shows they saw, including the night Led Zeppelin came to a Damned show, and The PUNK Sound (8:03).

A lot of the material on this second disc is somewhat redundant, and if the main feature had been two hours long most of it could've been absorbed into that and the leftovers used to fill out a single disc.

The collected live clips are also impressive, for they capture the raw intensity of the music before it became corporate and watered-down for consumption at Hot Topic. It's not that Letts doesn't dig deep enough, but that he chose to dig in places that are less relevant and less interesting. While not a replacement for dedicated docs about the Ramones and Sex Pistols like End of the Century and The Filth and the Fury (respectively), it's another piece of the punk patchwork to be safety-pinned into the big picture. The show itself ran on the IFC and despite the hefty batch of extras included in this set, their drawn-out redundancy combined with the incomplete nature of the film itself leads me to recommend catching it on the tube first.

The Day After

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The Day After
1983 (2005) - ABC Television (MGM)

Program Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/F

Every generation seems to have a mutual touchstone of entertainment that was meant to scare the bejeebers out of them, as a cautionary tale against whatever horrifying eventuality may lurk in the cultural subconscious. For members of Generation X growing up in the Eighties, our Reefer Madness was The Day After, the movie that made nuclear war look like a bad thing because it... like, you know... made your hair fall out and stuff. Like, oh my God!! Nuclear war is such a bummer! Better get a t-shirt that expresses your snappy philosophy and desires for peace! (The best ones had the "FRANKIE SAY" prefix.)

Looking back at this depressing hunk of Cold War-era, Ronald Reagan paranoia-mongering from the distance of 22 years is a bipolar experience in cheesy nostalgia and somber misery.

The structure spends the first 45 minutes introducing us to an All-Star pack of Red Shirts - including JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, Amy Madigan and Stephen Furst - before the bomb drops on Lawrence, Kansas. We're supposed to get to know all these terrific people who are about to find out how "one nuclear bomb could ruin their whole day," but the banal buildup just let my girlfriend and I whip up an impromptu MST3K-worthy heckling track predicting the trite dialogue in between our shouted declarations of "You're all gonna die!"

Then the missiles fly; the power of splitting atoms lays waste to the land; hair falls out, blisters form and our catty commentary stopped dead in its tracks along with the human race.

The balance of the movie is a steady decline into depression, as the overwhelming hopelessness consumes everything. While no one ever thought that a nuke war was going to be a picnic, the unrelenting grimness of this portrayal begs for some sliver of hope to be glimpsed amongst the fallout. (I seem to remember Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert commenting that there would be at least one wise-ass goofing on the end of days.) But, there is no relenting in the dour message: War bad! Disarm now!

An ending title card says that this movie was meant to inspire the world leaders to avoid nuclear war - because the real thing would be much worse - but though I was just a junior in high school and not particularly savvy in a political sense, even then I could spot a peacenik sell job. As wise university doctor Jason Robards talks with his wife about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how it didn't happen, all that was missing was a guy kicking us in the ribs and shouting, "GET THE POINT?!? Reagan's gonna screw it all up!!!"

The process of how news of the escalating world tensions were digested by the people then are weird to watch now in the Age of the Internet. Compare seeing people clustering around TVs and radios for news about escalating tensions and lining up to use pay phones to what happened on 9/11 as people supplemented the TV with web sites, chat programs and cell phones to assemble a comprehensive picture of what was happening in (un)real-time. Of course, it's even more ironic to hear one girl say, "We aren't going to nuke the Russians to save the Germans. Now if they were talking about oil and Saudi Arabia, I'd be worried," and to watch panic-buying of food and batteries and preparations for evacuations after hurricane Katrina showed that no amount of warning may be enough time when there's no organization on a local level.

The gritty pseudo-documentary realism of the missile silo crews and the Air Force command planes contrast to the mundane melodrama of the character's pre-nuke lives, but it only adds to the dissonance of the story - is this about the military or the citizens? With the maker's clearly-evident dovish stance, it's a wonder that it didn't play out like a sequel to Dr. Strangelove.

The fullscreen transfer on MGM's DVD release shows its source's age with a consistent layer of grit and grain. Nighttime scenes are murky, and black levels and shadow details are weak, but overall the detail level is respectable. The mono audio soundtrack is clean and free of hiss, but the sound is frequently marred by a metallic echo on interior scenes.

The only way this disc could be more bare-boned would be for it to come without a case. While I'm not sure how much more could've been added for this TV movie, some sort of commentary track putting this show in perspective may have been nice. One annoying detail is the anachronistic case copy which synopsizes the story as being set "against the real-life backdrop of the US deployment of WMDs in Europe during the escalating cold war (sic)." (We're lucky that we never got a chance to push those Ruskies over the edge with our belligerent behavior, no? Please.)

While The Day After was the water-cooler and cafeteria discussion event of its time, today it is little more than a kitschy artifact of a simpler time when the enemy was easier to pick out on a map, armed with rockets and technologically-advanced warheads, and able to be defeated without a shot fired. When cataclysmic carnage is more likely to come out of a clear Tuesday morning at the point of a box cutter wielded by a twisted and medieval belief system, it's almost reassuring to revisit an old fairy tale meant to scare the children into behaving.

Peter Schorn

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