Like all things punk, DIY cinema is a bit rough around the edges. But, isn’t that what makes it so much fun? Kicking off in midsummer with the release of Céline Danhier’s Blank City, punk films have been having a bit of a revival — and, while we’re at it — a reinvigoration.
Blank City, a film about the birth of punk cinema in the 1970s, debuted in Brooklyn at Williamsburg’s IndieScreen movie theatre this past June, around the anniversary of the theatre’s opening. With the grit and squalor of New York City teetering on bankruptcy as not only a backdrop, but as a medium, Blank City documents the motion picture movement that came of age with punk while utilizing its same guerrilla tactics.
As summer turned to fall, it became clear that Blank City would not be the only film of its genre making the rounds in Brooklyn. Newly founded and ultra-DIY Spectacle Theater (so punk that their logo is a parody of the band X) has, after all, been showing the most obscure and the most low budget in both vintage and current films. Once the fall schedules were announced I heard that Washington, DC’s Amy Oden of the all-girl hardcore band Hot Mess, and a first-time filmmaker, would be showing her feature-length film From the Back of the Room, a documentary about women in punk.
At an hour and 43 minutes long, I can imagine that my enthusiasm for uncovering the history of women in punk had something to do with my ability to sit through the whole movie; it might not be all that palatable to newcomers. From the Back of the Room is chock-full of interviews with various women in punk bands: largely, its appeal is based in the fact that it’s not solely about riot grrrl. Unlike most “women in punk” dialogues I have been privy to, From the Back of the Room interviews a range of women: women in hardcore bands, women who don’t identify as feminists, women who primarily play in bands with men. Specifically, certain bands that have influenced tons of women in New York’s own scene who have been classically left out find their voices in this film: one major example being Thulsa Doom, a band that used to play in squats all over the Lower East Side.
Yet another Brooklyn DIY film house, Union Docs, has been producing not only film screenings but also more fleshed out programming, like Q&As with filmmakers and other creatives. With the release of White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, a newly compiled volume on the subject (and the first of its kind), Union Docs collaborated with publisher Verso Books to allow for a night of punk films that negotiated racial identities.
Co-editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay shared clips from five different films, including Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization (1981), essential for any punk cinema fan, Afro-punk: The Original ‘Rock’n’roll Nigger’ Experience (James Spooner, 2003) — the film that launched the festival and the movement, and Mas Alla de Los Gritos/Beyond the Screams: A US Latino Hardcore Documentary, by Los Crudos’ Martin Sorrondeguy (1999). In between brief clips, the editors helped the audience interpret the footage we were seeing in the context of certain racial threads of punk rock.
My favorite punk cinema tidbit of the season would have to be Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls (1983). Curator Bradford Nordeen throws Dirty Looks, a night of queer cinema in roaming locations throughout the city on the last Wednesday night of every month. September’s production was cosponsored with Translady Fanzine at PPOW. Praunheim’s film features one of New York’s first queer punks ever: Jayne County, a translady herself. Angie Stardust, the first Black drag queen to perform at the infamous queer 82 Club, co-stars in a campy musical that could easily be second string to Rocky Horror Picture Show.
With conversations about queerness and transgender identities that still ring true today, the film is ahead of its time. Importantly, it’s one of the most fun films I have ever seen, with elaborate drag scenes that take place in the middle of a diner, and at least one in front of a giant hamburger.
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