"Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?" Rock critic Simon Reynolds opens his recent survey Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin, 432 pages, $16) with that famous piece of invective, courtesy of Johnny Rotten from the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland. Rotten sneered those words during a Sex Pistols show. Tellingly, they arrived at the end of an American tour that contained both a zeitgeist and its own annihilation or so it seems from Lech Kowalski’s documentary D.O.A. (1980), one of four features comprising the Pacific Film Archive’s "Louder, Faster: Punk in Performance" series.
Even before the blowup, Rotten’s question had already been answered first by the art school oddballs and city poets who pre-dated then capitalized on punk’s groundswell, and later by the younger acolytes who reclaimed the false prophets’ call for "louder, faster" with their authenticity-obsessed rebel yells. Punk was made to be photographed Sex Pistols guru Malcolm McLaren ensured that much but the spirit of the frame depended on who was doing the shooting. The same three-chord assaults could make for social documents (1978-’88’s Target Video) or hipster scrawls (1976’s Blank Generation). They might inspire science experiments (Bruce Conner’s 1978 Mongoloid; Graeme Whifler’s 1978 Hello Skinny), or lyrical love streams (1979’s Deaf/Punk).
Blank Generation is the earliest punk film essay, a given since its New York milieu was already codified and oozing latent celebrity before punk moved to the provinces. Directed by Patti Smith bassist Ivan Kral and future No Wave saint Amos Poe, the film’s chapbook portraiture is heightened via a Hollis Frampton-like use of non-synched sound. Grainy black-and-white 8mm footage floats over the skips and starts of the soundtrack’s mix, creating a jilted effect perfectly suited to the push-pull of Television and the Talking Heads, as well as the tense erotics of Smith and Blondie.
Crappy audio and video smears aside, Joe Rees’s Target Video compilation reveals Bay Area post-punk in full bloom as it moves between Black Flag’s pummeling hardcore and Flipper’s art-damaged sludge to Devo’s proto-Teletubbies weirdness. The austere, one-camera setups anticipate a billion YouTube transmissions. I’ve driven by San Quentin Prison dozens of times wondering how Johnny Cash scored his famous gig there, but that was before I saw Rees’ footage of Crime at the same site thrashing away in mock police uniforms under the harsh glare of the afternoon sun.
Before it is art or communion, punk is permission. For a zenith-like picture of this freedom flight, one should look no further than John Gaikowski’s modest short Deaf/Punk. Gaikowski’s film uncorks a long-forgotten performance at San Francisco’s Deaf Club, using slow motion to revel in punk’s limitless potential energy. This music wasn’t designed to be elegant, but I can think of no better word for Gaikowski’s shocked vision of a singer standing in repose among a small crowd of daydreaming slamdancers.
"LOUDER, FASTER: PUNK IN PERFORMANCE"
Thurs/5 through June 26
Pacific Film Archive Theater
2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.