What We Do Is Secret (2007)
Director: Rodger Grossman
Penelope Spheeris features three times in this list—here it’s not as the director but as a historical character, played by an actress, and seen approaching Darby Crash about appearing in her documentary. In the Germs singer’s case, the unreal thing surpasses the actual icon as captured in Decline: Shane West is hunkier and more magnetic than Crash ever was. Much the same applies to Rick Gonzalez as guitarist Pat Smear and Bijou Phillips as bassist Lorna Doom—it’s a prettified version of an ugly story, but that makes it watchable.
A chronic Anglophile, Crash emulated Bowie, then Vicious, then finally, absurdly, Adam Ant. Here, Crash is presented as a Nietzsche-reading “Jim Morrison for our generation,” a self-martyring poet-visionary. The film’s other intellectual and ideologue is Brendan Mullen, the promoter behind L.A. punk haven the Masque, whose spiels about “medieval filth therapy for teenagers” are delivered in a thick Scots accent and, in a witty touch, given subtitles. All’s fine until the fizzled ending: Lacking the narrative necessity that drove Ian Curtis and Sid Vicious to their doom, Crash’s fatal overdose feels like a pose taken too far rather than rock martyrdom.
Director: Penelope Spheeris
The nothingness of suburbia was one of punk’s favorite targets. It’s that spiritual emptiness, along with dysfunctional domestic situations, that separately propels runaways Sheila and Evan into the wild, where they find sanctuary in a punk commune. The kids live out a parody of suburban family life: listlessly watching TV for hours on end, barbecuing food heisted from the garage freezers of normies. Calling themselves the Rejected, they brand their flesh with the stigmata of their alienation, a stark and literally searing TR. Suburbia is full of memorable scenes: Flea inserting the entire top half of his pet rat into his mouth, the kids stealing the turf off some schmuck’s lawn to make a cozy carpet. But the kids don’t seem much more enlightened or inspiring than the straight world off which they leech. Spheeris pointedly includes some nasty sexism and a scene where the punks mock a disabled shopkeeper. “Everyone knows families don’t work,” the Rejected tell a cop who asks why they don’t want to make something of their lives. “This is the best home any of us ever had.” That ain’t saying an awful lot.
The Blank Generation (1976)
Director: Amos Poe and Ivan Král
A collaboration between Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Král and Amos Poe, a leading figure in No Wave Cinema, The Blank Generation is a rough-looking dispatch from the subcultural frontline. Foggy focus and high-contrast black-and-white film exaggerates Tom Verlaine’s lunar gauntness and makes Tina Weymouth resemble Jean Seberg’s ghost. The sound quality is variable and deliberately out-of-sync with the performances, partly because the audio is sourced in demo recordings by the bands rather than the concerts actually being filmed, and partly because Poe was a fan of French New Wave directors like Godard and the disruptive alienation-effects they used. Talking Heads are in it, but there’s no talking heads providing explanation and context. But in its opaque, literally speechless way, the film is a wonderful document capturing future stars (Blondie, Ramones) and soon-forgottens (Tuff Darts, the Shirts) with equanimity.