God Save the Screen
Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly spent seven years hunting Mohawks for their mad, mammoth compendium, 'Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film'
If you were a first- or second-wave punk in a small town, graduating high school (if you could be bothered) between '80 and '84, chances are you spent a lot of time watching Alex Cox's Repo Man, Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky, Jack Hazan's Rude Boy, or Lech Kowalski's D.O.A. on a really cumbersome, top-loading VCR. At least that was the case in my punk rock crib years, stuck in Amarillo with nary a skate shop and the very barest, brittlest bones of a scene to call my own. And so, like every other budding young punk in every other small town in America at that time, we played Spot the Punk in any and every movie we saw. There weren't many.
This has changed. Punks on film are myriad and multiplying and ever-evolving. There ended up being so many – thousands and thousands – that it took Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson and Vulcan Video's Bryan Connolly seven years to do the DIY research necessary to create their mammoth and insanely comprehensive book, Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film.
Carlson has Seattle roots at Scarecrow Video (one of the largest video rental stores in the country, possibly the world), which aided and abetted his and Connolly's lunatic dream to catalog not just punk rock movies but every single movie with a punk in it. From the beloved "Punk on Bus" in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (he receives the dreaded Vulcan death grip from Spock for public obnoxiousness) to the runaways of Penelope Spheeris' classic slice of SoCal disaffection, Suburbia, every punk rocker, real or fauxhawk, who ever appeared in a movie from 1974 to 1999 is noted in a capsulized review/commentary, with accompanying artwork (in the classic punk shades of black, white, and hot pink). Accompanying the reviews are tons of interviews with directors and punks/actors (Rock 'n' Roll High School's Allan Arkush, Spheeris, Kirk "Punk on Bus" Thatcher, Clint Howard), all primed and loaded by Richard Hell's fine introduction. Destroy All Movies!!! is more than a reference book for the Mohawk-obsessed: It's a feat akin to taking your shitty punk rock band on a world tour in a crappy '72 Ford Econoline circa 1983. Hard work, but man, when you're done you know you've really been somewhere.
The Austin Chronicle sat down with Carlson and Connolly to discuss their formative punk years, the movies that didn't make the cut – there were criteria, after all; this isn't anarchy in the USA – and the sheer, mad, mammoth undertaking of it all.
Austin Chronicle: We know your background in film, video, and, in Zack's case, the Alamo Drafthouse, but what's your punk rock history, both of you?
Zack Carlson: I became interested in punk rock music when I was in high school, for the same reasons everybody did. The older kids who were a part of it seemed more entertaining to be around, and so I just sort of slipped into that. Plus there were all the standard religious disagreements with my parents and so on. It was the usual story in that regard. But then my kind of autistic fixation nature kicked in, and [I] started to become not just a guy who liked punk music, but a record collector, and then someone who worked in a record store. I just got more and more immersed in it. All through high school, I was in a lot of bands, and I worked at [record label] Kill Rock Stars. When I was in my 20s, I ended up owning a record store, Phantom City Records, that was specifically punk and metal. Meanwhile, while all that was going on, I was getting equally obsessed with movies. I was a massive punk record nerd and then became a huge movie nerd.
AC: What's your punk rock CV, Bryan?
Bryan Connolly: I remember being terrified of punks just based on movies I'd seen. Like the punk in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
AC: The sneering creep on the bus with his giant jambox?
Connolly: Yeah! In my mind, at the time, there were real people that were that crazy, that unruly, "you can't contain them," and they're running wild like animals. I never saw one in real life until I was much older, but as a kid I used to think that these horrible beasts called punk rockers used to roam the Earth wreaking havoc and spreading chaos and doom wherever they went.
AC: You envisioned hordes of ravening punk rockers destroying everything in their path, like Sherman's army with liberty spikes or the Vandals sacking Rome and then doing an impromptu gig.
Connolly: I couldn't believe people like this actually existed. It was outrageous, and I couldn't imagine what would happen if I saw one because, you know, they would kill me.
AC: Does either one of you remember your first movie-punk moment?
Carlson: I think we might have the same answer, actually, which would be "Punk on Bus" in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the one with the boombox who flips off Spock. That came out in 1986, and I'd seen kids like that at the mall, but even so, I saw that character, and I couldn't believe that, you know, his parents would let him out of the house like that. I thought he must be a terrible person. The funny thing is, "Punk on Bus" seems to have been a lot of people's gateway punk. For whatever reason, so many of the people that we've talked to over the years always bring up the punk from Star Trek IV.
Connolly: Also for me, Amazing Larry in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. He's only in the movie for one second where Pee-wee yells at him, and this character's head turns and it's this old man with this extreme Mohawk and a crazy getup. That blew my mind.
AC: What were some of the most remarkable finds that you discovered while prepping this book over the last seven years?
Connolly: That's like, most of the book.
Carlson: A lot of it, anyway. Many of the best and most terrible movies I've ever seen were encountered while doing the research for this book. One is called Tchao Pantin. It's a French movie about this depressed, middle-aged man who works at a gas station on the night shift and he befriends this 20-year-old schmucky whose girlfriend is a punk. When the kid is murdered, the middle-aged gas station attendant and the punk girl decide to get revenge by killing everybody involved in the kid's murder. It's a little bit like The Professional, which itself is pretty much a remake of Gloria by Cassavetes, but it has that mismatched-duo-killing-mobsters vibe to it. Bryan found that one on VHS. There's a DVD, but it's Region 52 or whatever. But it's a beautiful movie.
Connolly: The movies that I discovered that were great weren't necessarily major punk-themed ones. There's a Meatballs ripoff called Odd Balls which is really great. It has a punk character who's sort of the comic relief. Comedian Foster Brooks, as the camp counselor, asks the punk, "How do you pick up ladies looking like that?" and the punk says "You spit on her!" That's was a great moment.
AC: As far as researching titles, would you have been able to do this book without the benefit of the Internet?
Carlson: As much shit as I talk about the Internet, honestly there'd be no way we could have done as complete a job as we did.
Connolly: And in a bigger way, we couldn't have done it without video stores. The Internet Movie Database is only useful to a certain point because people have been referred to as "punks" in movies since the 1930s. We did a lot of work on YouTube, Google, spending so many nights up late just looking for any sign of a movie that might have punks in it. That's how we found a lot of the foreign stuff, stuff that was never released here.
Carlson: I think that the dominant chunk of our research came from the video stores. With Scarecrow Video we spent three full days, 14 hours per day, sifting through this two-story-tall, blockwide video store, literally pulling every single video off the shelf and examining the cover art for any sign of punkness and then making a list, which never, ever stopped growing.
Connolly: My hands were blackened, and I got horribly sick because it was winter in Seattle and there was probably a cold going around, and there I was touching all these videos that had been touched by everyone else in Seattle. It was a really intense illness, too.
AC: And then you had to watch everything? You had day jobs at that point, right?
Connolly: Right. We both had multiple jobs. We'd watch 100 movies – and while you were doing that you'd think of another 100 movies. And we'd go to the video store and take home big, 30-gallon garbage bags full of videos to watch. And VHS tapes are really goddamn heavy when you've got that many in a plastic bag.
AC: What films almost but didn't quite make the cut?
Connolly: A lot. There are going to be a lot of people who think we missed films. According to our criteria, we began with films from 1975, because that's when the word "punk" was first used to describe a type of music. That was even before it was used to describe a kind of person. People probably are going to say we should have included films like [A] Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And there are definitely things that are in those movies that inspired punk styles, but there were no actual punks in those movies. We also didn't include The Warriors or Over the Edge – which has crazy punk music on the soundtrack – but ultimately they were just movies about tough kids. There's nothing in those movies that associate them with the punk scene. We've already had a few people come up and say, "The Warriors is in there, right?" And we had to say: "No, they're not. They're not punk."
Carlson: The Warriors was one that I was a little concerned about, but when the Alamo had a Warriors cast reunion a few years ago, I asked the cast if they would consider any of the characters in the movie to be punk rock people, and they said no. The characters are just tough New York gang members.
Connolly: They were garishly dressed, but it has nothing to do with punk rock.
Carlson: The one we're going to catch the most bullshit for – and we're going to stand strong, right, Bryan? –
Carlson: – is [Alex Cox's] Straight to Hell, because we didn't count it.
Connolly: And we have three other Alex Cox movies in the book, but Straight to Hell didn't make the cut. I watched that movie a lot while working on this book, and we kept going back and forth on that because the Pogues are in it, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer. It should be the most punk movie of all time, and it's always been described as a punk rock Western. But there's not a single moment in that movie at all where they're not just playing a cowboy or a bank robber or whatever. There's nothing in there that ties them into the actual punk scene. And the music they play is not punk music. It's a great film, for sure, but it's not a punk film despite the cast.
Carlson: Straight to Hell is the most punk movie ever to not have a punk in it. When people come up to me and say, "So you wrote a whole book about punks in movies? I bet you didn't get Valley Girl" or "I bet you didn't get Suburbia," we're like, yeah, we got 'em in there. And then they invariably mention Straight to Hell, we tell them it's not in there, and they think we're retarded.
AC: I see your point, but I would have included it. The whole attitude of that film, especially with Joe Strummer's character, just oozes punk rock attitude ....
Carlson: Yes, but we really had to create a delineation. This is a book about punks onscreen; it's a book about them being depicted or being documented. Either way they had to be shown as punks, whether they're genuine or a total fuckup on the part of the director who doesn't understand punks or what punk is. If the intent is there and they're shown as punk people, then it's in the book. In Straight to Hell, yeah, the attitude is there and the cast members are themselves punks, but then again, Henry Rollins is in Heat, as a cop, and that's certainly not a punk movie or a punk role. Lee Ving plays a dead body in the movie Clue but ...
Connolly: ... it's not a dead punk.
Carlson: Right. But that was what we decided, and we knew we had to stick to it even if it felt unnatural because there had to be some serious criteria to work from.
AC: Other than the two of you, there are 17 other contributors to the book, including former Alamo programmer Kier-La Janisse and Ant Timpson. How did you select them, and how did that work?
Carlson: We kind of had to do that Tom Sawyer thing: "Hey, painting this fence sure is fun!"
Connolly: There were a lot of people who said yes who would then get overwhelmed by it and end up giving us maybe two reviews ... which were great, and I'm really happy they contributed them, but they'd have to back away because they saw how crazy we were getting.
AC: Did you enter into this project seven years ago with any inkling of how huge the final contents and gorgeous the actual book would become?
Carlson: No, not at all. Fantagraphics is such a fantastic publisher, and Gary Groth, the founder, who is a lifetime ignorer of punk – he just doesn't have anything to do with it – looked at our manuscript and said that it was the most masochistic, autistic, idiotic, OCD thing he'd ever seen. He thought, you know, the guys who put this book together must be, like, shut-in, worthless masturbators.
Connolly: And he was right.
Carlson: He said he'd never seen this level of obsession in any project, ever. Apparently he even showed it to his 14-year-old son, and the son said, "What's wrong with them?" Which makes sense. If it were a book about basic punk rock movies, then yeah, okay, that's understandable, but this has every single movie that even has a speck of a punk in it. But that's why Fantagraphics loved the book, I guess. We're insane so they don't have to be.
Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film will be released by Fantagraphics Books in November.