Ten rare and restored punk films curated by Peter Conheim (1976-1981)
Ten rare and restored punk films curated by Peter Conheim (1976-1981)
By Peter Conheim
As hit upon elsewhere in this volume, there is probably no one such thing as “punk.” And as a film curator, this presents a golden opportunity: if there aren’t a lot of barriers thrown in your way, you’ve got a potentially wide array of work to choose from that can click together in illuminating ways.
When this volume first came together, I knew from the jump that there were several films (and bands) in particular which the general public probably wasn’t familiar with which would handily illustrate the breadth of this material: San Francisco-by-way-of-Bloomington-Indiana’s MX-80 Sound and their Why Are We Here? (1980), Richard Gaikowski’s Deaf/Punk, featuring The Offs (1979) and Stephanie Beroes’ Pittsburgh-based Debt Begins at 20 (1980).
Those three works are in this collection, along with all of the original 16mm productions by legendary anonymous collective The Residents and director Graeme Whifler (and more from the Cryptic Corporation), Liz Keim and Karen Merchant’s raw never-seen Mabuhay Gardens-era diary, In the Red (1978), Gaikowski’s equally rare Moody Teenager (1980) and the world premiere of our new 2K digital restoration of the legendary first film by DEVO, The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976).
Both a perfect snapshot of a fleeting moment in time and a gorgeous fever dream, Gaikowski’s rare short was photographed in high-contrast black and white by Joegh Bullock, who captures the perfect setup: when few venues outside of San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens existed for edgier bands to play, it was discovered that the local Club of the Deaf would happily rent the space out for cheap several nights a week. Thus, hearing-impaired patrons felt the rhythms while punks learned sign language at the bar and everyone danced. It all lasted less than one year before NIMBY neighbors filing noise complaints shut it all down, but not before just about every great local band (and plenty of touring ones, like X) had played there, and one great live LP was cut. The Offs perform two songs, and we are a fly on the wall.
Akron, Ohio. A literal “band of brothers” from Kent State on a mission: to prove that “de-evolution” is real and eliminate the ninnies and the twits. They were DEVO – The De-Evolution Band, and this was before “Whip It,” Warner Bros. and pop stardom… but they were fully formed practically from the seed. DEVO saw themselves as filmmakers and visual artists just as much as a “band” from the point of inception, and threw their energy into this project during 1975 and 1976 as the group was truly gelling as a live act. This proto-music-video, with two songs, would go on to be screened on a portable 16mm projector as the “opening act” for the band itself for years – sometimes with the band bursting through a paper movie screen after it ended.
The Residents are surely the most (in)famous anonymous band that has ever existed, if they even exist in the first place, of course. Surely, there is something that has called itself “The Residents” since roughly 1971 in the San Francisco Bay Area, that is best known for being a four-person band which wears giant eyeballs on their heads, and has created some of the most uncategorizable music and visual art of the 20th and 21st century. Their only public facing entity has been The Cryptic Corporation, members of which act as spokespersons and facilitators for the work of The Residents. This façade cracked a little in 2018 with the announced death of Cryptic’s Hardy Fox who was, in fact, revealed to “be a Resident.”
In any event, there’s no doubt for those who’ve paid attention to the group’s evolution (or read their liner notes, for that matter) that The Residents have certainly been somewhat of a collective, and one of the most critical contributors to their visual art from the late 1970s to the early 1980s was Graeme Whifler (see “My Life in the Bush of Ralph” in this Chapter). Whifler not only directed all of their 16mm films (after the self-made Third Reich ‘N’ Roll), but also seems to have crafted them out of whole cloth, designing and building their bizarre and intricate sets, painting, and decorating them, as well as initiating the main ideas for the other Cryptic artists’ films, too (check out our byNWR Presents podcast interview with Whifler for even more details).
Hello Skinny is a dreamy black and white night trip told almost entirely in surrealistic still images, starring a peculiar local character who disappeared immediately after filming. One Minute Movies takes four songs from The Residents’ “The Commercial Album” LP from 1980 – where each song ran exactly :60 long – and turns them into colorful little melodramas. And, before Whifler joined the fold, the ocular quartet cranked out Third Reich ‘n’ Roll on the sets of their glorious, sadly abandoned video project, Vileness Fats. The genius of the first half of this film is that it is filmed in color, but on an entirely black and white newspaper-filled set – careful viewers will note the spots of color poking through. For decades, audiences have only seen poor video copies of this film that were inadvertently transferred entirely in black and white… not so here with our restored version.
And the non-Resident duo Renaldo and the Loaf’s Songs for Swinging Larvae is the distressing capper: an epic exaggerated dreamscape which somehow manages to be, at least to this reviewer, almost pro-child abduction. It has long been one of my favorite truly fucked up short films of all time, a worthy contender for Best Room Clearing Party Diffuser when shown on endless loop as needed.
Rounding out the Cryptic Corporation segment is the only “promotional film” by San Francisco-by-way-of-Bloomington-Indiana’s MX-80 Sound, Why Are We Here? As befits this maximal-minimalist band, the entire action (such as it is) is on completely mysterious, bunker-like set (again, built by Whifler) devoid of almost all color except that of the yellow of drummer Dave Mahoney’s shirt. Why are they there? Wait until the shocking climax to find out.
As Deaf/Punk captured a brief flash of time in a corner of San Francisco’s nascent punk rock scene, so does the electrically-charged In the Red, though it takes a far more personal and far more “meta” path. It tumbles forth as a jagged collage of intricately puzzled-together shards of color and black and white, announcing itself immediately as a self-aware experimental film of some sort (“what’s the aesthetic of camera noise?” co-director Liz Keim wonders aloud on screen in the first few minutes), and immediately breaks down the typical barriers between “documentary subjects” and directors in the first sequences we see with band members being interviewed. This is a look at a music movement throwing out the rule book, and the format of the film befits the subject.
Filmed in early 1978, In the Red captures the first flush of the explosion of bands which formed and often played at the legendary Mabuhay, including the Sleepers, Negative Trend (whose Will Shatter is interviewed memorably in the film, and who would on to form Flipper [see Emerald Cities, chapter 2]), UXA, The Avengers and, for just a few tantalizing seconds, the Nuns. The fact that the film remains unfinished, and only survives in its workprint (or “cutting copy”) somehow is the icing on the cake – it plays exactly like the collage art, with all of its jagged splices, ink marks, dirt and fingerprints, that befits the best “hand-made” aspects of a pre-fashion, pre-major record label punk scene. Even the non-ending has a certain poignancy, as the late Will Shatter describes recording in a suburban setting with trees and butterflies as being “kind of creepy” and that they couldn’t even smoke, as the image suddenly goes white. He would die of an accidental heroin overdose nine years later.
A young woman (Susan Pedrick) sheds identities, genders and costumes in front of a bedroom mirror, carefully mirrored by her music choices: Suicide, The Andrews Sisters, James White and the Blacks and Los Microwaves. One of only three surviving films by the enigmatic Richard Gaikowski, whose Deaf/Punk kicked off this chapter.
Stephanie Beroes’ brilliant Debt Begins at 20 should have been revived and become better known long ago, ideally in the early 1990s, when DIY-makes-big band Green Day exploded, and punk rock™ became a brand name forever after. A slyly fictionalized documentary that follows drummer Bill Board of the Cardboards through the underground music scene of Pittsburgh, PA, it is pure DIY at its essence: house concerts, self-published ‘zines, basement rehearsal spaces. But it’s the gender and queerness aspect of the film that really makes it kick, because all three bands in the film – The Cardboards, Hans Brinker and the Dykes and The Shakes – are made up of mixed-gender members, and the pre-Riot Grrrl tunes of the Dykes alone should have been enough to make the film a classic. It also captures some criminally undocumented Pittsburgh no-wave music that should be spoken of right alongside New York’s Contortions, DNA, etc. We are thrilled to be able to present the film to a wider audience as part of this program.
Peter Conheim is the lead archivist behind byNWR, and also a musician and film and audio preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. A longtime member of culture-jamming pioneers Negativland, he also co-founded the “all-16mm-projector ensemble” with the late Owen O’Toole and Steve Dye called Wet Gate, and the Oakland-based Mono Pause and Neung Phak. He has also played bass alongside Malcolm Mooney from CAN in Malcolm Mooney and the Tenth Planet for twenty years, and joined The Mutants in 2015.