L.A. Punk Cinema

Reyner Banham's Four Ecologies of Los Angeles : (from left to right) the foothills, the flatlands (or "The Plains of Id"), Surfburbia, and the Freeway System. 

Reyner Banham's Four Ecologies of Los Angeles: (from left to right) the foothills, the flatlands (or "The Plains of Id"), Surfburbia, and the Freeway System. 

Behind the scenes of  Tangerine  (Sean Baker, Magnolia Pictures, 2015)

Behind the scenes of Tangerine (Sean Baker, Magnolia Pictures, 2015)

The cinema of Los Angeles makes use of at least one of Reyner Banham’s four L.A. ecologies in varying degrees. In 1971, the English architectural critic described “the Los Angeles experience” as being comprised of four ecological models: 1) the foothills, 2) the flatlands (or the plains of id), 3) the beaches (or “surfburbia”), and 4) autotopia, the freeway system that entangles the L.A. landscape like concrete ribbons. In L.A. neo-realism these ecologies are remapped through what Thom Andersen describes as "a cinema of walkers." While some recent L.A.-set films are explicitly neo-realist in their orientation—Chris Wietz A Better Life from 2011, for example, is a remake of Vitorio Di Sica’s Bicycle Thieves -- Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine (below) furthers this L.A. neo-realist tradition in very striking ways. The film is the story of trans sex workers is a quest film largely on foot through the Hollywood district, shot entirely on iPhones. The flatlands are redrawn cinematically by outcast Angelinos who journey from tacquerias, to what the city describes as nuisance motels, and to late night donut shops in strip malls, while landmarks like The Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame, and The Sunset strip are kept off screen. The conspicuous production value provided by many of the iPhone shots in the film brings to mind another L.A. cinema that has received less attention but which owes much to the influence of neo-realism. 

The influence of neo realism can be felt in L.A. punk cinema – a series of independent films that arose in response to the Los Angeles punk rock subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a scene dubbed “L.A. Hardcore.” Receiving earlier critical appraisal from J. Holberman in 1979 in his essay “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk underground,” punk cinema tended to be fast-paced, elliptically edited, and specifically calculated to offend bourgeois notions of taste and morality. A crucial element of punk cinema in both Holberman’s view and the view of scholar Stacy Thompson were the economic conditions under which they were produced. Though much scholarly attention has been given to punk cinema, the attention has been largely placed on New York’s No Wave Cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, and to more recent mainstream cross-over films. For this reason, I would like to consider Los Angeles punk cinema as an essential component in the story of Los Angeles cinema -- an L.A. cinema that seeks to redraw the map of the city that we have in our heads. 

Punk cinema, according to Stacy Thompson, exists at the meeting of two vectors also found in punk music and subculture: aesthetics and economics, and “the history of punk is the history of the interplay between these two lines of force which find their expression in one another”(Thompson 2005, 22).  Drawing upon Walter Benjamin’s view that “what matters is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce,” Thompson notes that punk cinema produces producers by foregrounding simplicity, while at the same time exhibiting a film aesthetic that  “mimes punk music’s speed, frenetic energy, anti-authoritarian stance, irony, style…or disillusionment” (21). Thompson stresses the importance of economic models in the discussion of what is punk cinema: "Punks resist the major labels because they grasp them as a synecdoche for capitalism as a whole” (23). Therefore, revealing traces of the film’s production and economic conditions through its aesthetic form is encouraged. 

This is an economic model that recalls Alexandre Astruc’s notion of La Caméra Stylo, in which he argued, in the wake of Italian neo-realism, that cinema that will “gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language.” Astruc concluded that “contemporary ideas and philosophies of life are such that only cinema can do justice to them.” If we can consider punk culture’s DIY (or “do it yourself”) ethic as a contemporaneous philosophy around the rise of punk cinema, then camera stylo becomes more of a fitting lens, added that punk is also a project that includes not only music but zines, clothing styles, and art.

Black Flag gig flier 1981) drawn by Pettibon.

Black Flag gig flier 1981) drawn by Pettibon.

Raymond Pettibon in his Hermosa Beach studio. 

Raymond Pettibon in his Hermosa Beach studio. 

Accompanying both early punk cinema and the L.A. hardcore scene was an art movement described by one writer as a “complex dialogic response to the counter-culture of the 1960s.” Exemplified in the art of Raymond Pettibon (below), the brother of L.A. punk band Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, the album cover and gig fliers (right) of the L.A. scene attempted to highlight what the artists, musicians, and ultimately filmmakers recognized as the salient social phenomena of the 1970s, that the “bourgeois subject—constituted in labor, learning, and production, had become displaced by a mythical conception of the subject as a ceaselessly and compulsively consuming machine.” This perception exhibited in art was not without precedence, including and especially in the Los Angeles art scene, particularly when one considers the work of Edward Ruscha and Edward Kienholz. For Pettibon, however, the Los Angeles scene had a “historic sensibility” to it, drawing on a memory of L.A. subjects like Charles Manson. 

The Decline of Western Civilization  (Penelope Spheeris, Media Home Entertainment, 1981)

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, Media Home Entertainment, 1981)

In Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, punks stress a raw form of authenticity with no rock stars. Ron Reyes of the band Black Flag in particular, discusses in the film that punk music cannot be about profit, noting that they rarely are able to break even from their record sales and live performances. Here, Spheeris points to both aesthetics and economics as crucial elements of punk culture, but what is also interesting is how the film presents Banham’s L.A. ecologies. The L.A. landscape, seen here in an interview with Brenden Mullen (right), the owner of the long-since-defunct, Masque Club off Hollywood Blvd, shot near Runyon Canyon with Downtown in the background, in which Mullen points the city behind him and comments that “the air in utopia is poisoned” and that the L.A. punk music yells at it like the folk artists of the early 60s, only in this case its “high speed and 300 beats per minute.” So, in one shot the foothills, plains of id, and the freeways system are critically dismantled through the lens of punk ethos. 

The paradisiacal image of Surfburbia is also ruptured in the documentary through The Church (below right), the home of Black Flag in Hermosa Beach. Now the Abigale Restaurant and Brewery (below left), this abandoned Baptist Church built in 1924, and a mere five minute walk from the beach, is shown covered in graffiti, inhabited by the band members and other squatters, decorated with collages of gig fliers and posters, and costing “$16 a month.”       

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The Decline of Western Civilization  (Penelope Spheeris, Media Home Entertainment, 1981)

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris, Media Home Entertainment, 1981)

Spheeris would later turn her lens on L.A. squatter punk lifestyle through narrative fiction, and in doing so painted the plains of id in almost apocalyptic terms. Suburbia (1984) is what theorist Guido Aristarco describes as “critical realism” which aims to ‘reveal the dynamic causes of social change through exemplary situations and figures” (Stam 2000, 74). The film is the story of runaway squatter punk kids, known as The Rejected, living in an abandoned tract house in what are now the cities of Norwalk and Downey, at the intersection of the 105 and the 605 freeways. This is a neighborhood that fell into Eminent Domain during the late 1960s and remained a sea of vacant homes until they were demolished during the 1990s.  

The film begins with Evan leaving his suburban home, alcoholic single-mother, and younger brother Ethan. Consider here, this moment near the beginning of the film where Evan says goodbye to Ethan before setting off on his own. The film connects with Thompson’s definition of punk cinema in many regards—its position outside of the Hollywood mainstream as a Roger Corman Production as well as conspicuous punk aesthetics, for example—there is something of a near Spaghetti Western tone to Alex Gibson’s melancholy rock score, a reminder that Los Angeles for decades had been viewed, according to Tina Olsin Lent, as the “last manifestation of the Western movement” and the “end of the frontier.”  And in this sense, the tract housing area that he will eventually live in can be viewed as something of a new age ghost town.

Suburbia  (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984)

Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984)

In the opening title sequence of  Suburbia  (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984), Ethan watches as his brother even leaves to face life on his own. 

In the opening title sequence of Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984), Ethan watches as his brother even leaves to face life on his own. 

Suburbia  (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984)

Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1984)

Yet, at the same time, the film views L.A. punk life in apocalyptic terms—similar to the many L.A. disaster visions that rose out of the 60s and 70s. Here, there seems to be a commentary on the entrenchment of classism in the L.A. ecologies, and yet at the same time there is something of a suggestion from Spheeris that punks may be more equipped to handle the apocalypse. This idea is especially driven home during a scene (left) where The Rejected sneak into a mall after closing hours to watch television, seated on stolen astro turf taken from a flatlands home. 

Spheeris cast actual punks from the Los Angeles scene, and drew upon real life stories of L.A. punks, as well as actual images featured in underground Los Angeles punk fanzines. The film directly references actual punk gangs whose rivalries earned the L.A. Hardcore scene the reputation for violence, embodied here in the image of the gang The Family led by John Macias from the band Circle One, an image directly quoted in Suburbia (below). 


Ethan, now donning a mohawk, at a TSOL gig with his new family in  Suburbia  (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1983)

Ethan, now donning a mohawk, at a TSOL gig with his new family in Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, New World Pictures, 1983)

John Macias' "Family" (early 1980s)

John Macias' "Family" (early 1980s)

Repo Man  (Alex Cox, Universal Pictures, 1984)

Repo Man (Alex Cox, Universal Pictures, 1984)

Turning to Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man, the film cemented Cox’s reputation as a punk cinema auteur (furthered by his later films like Sid and NancyStraight to Hell, and the acid Western Walker).  Repo Man in particular exudes what David Lavery describes as “a cool cynicism through semiotics and inter-textuality.” The film, the story of L.A. punk rocker-turned-repo-man Otto (right) played by Emilio Estevez, offers a glimpse into “cosmic meaning” by tapping into a yearning for collective belonging that “individualization, commodification, and enculturation of belief systems have pushed out of everyday reach.” Though the film features punks and punk music (comprised almost entirely of Los Angeles bands such as Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Circle Jerks), the film is notable for gaining a cult status outside of the punk subculture. 

Though featuring that L.A. Flatland ecology in varying ways, the freeways and other L.A. transportation systems play a striking role in both its critic of L.A. culture as well as part of a series of punk cultural activities that John Fiske identifies as “bricolage,” in which the “subordinated make their own culture out of the resources of the other.” Bricolage, according to Fiske is achieved by punks through several strategies and “offers a contested site of resistance” to the mainstream.  Bricolage in Repo Man is seen in what Xavier Mendick describes as “cinematic mixing” – sliding between “different genre film templates.” In terms of Repo Man as a work of L.A. punk cinema, this is achieved through the intersection between cult films, L.A. noir cinema, and identifiable subcultures. For example, Otto’s combined cynicism and search for cosmic meaning recalls films such as Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth staring David Bowie, and plot elements that recall the “greatwhatsit” from 1955’s Kiss Me, Deadly.

The "greatwhatsit" in  Kiss Me, Deadly  (Robert Aldrich, United Artists, 1955)...

The "greatwhatsit" in Kiss Me, Deadly (Robert Aldrich, United Artists, 1955)...

...and in  Repo Man  (Alex Cox, Universal Pictures, 1984)

...and in Repo Man (Alex Cox, Universal Pictures, 1984)

Lastly, let's look at some recent examples of L.A. set punk films that exemplify both Stacy Thompson’s punk cinema criteria through aesthetics and economic conditions.  

That Darn Punk  (Jeff Richardson, Kung Fu Films, 2001)

That Darn Punk (Jeff Richardson, Kung Fu Films, 2001)

Towards the end of the 1990s, Kung Fu Records, owned and operated by Joe Escalante, the bass player for the Huntington Beach group The Vandals, opened a film production arm: Kung Fu Films. Starting with a series of inter-connected short films called Fear of a Punk Planet, Escalante would branch out into feature filmmaking: independently funded and made for and by Southern California punk rockers – the most notable being That Darn Punk from 2001 (directed by Jeff Richardson and starring Escalante) and later Cake Boy from 2005 that Escalante himself directed and which starred Vandals guitar Warren Fitzgerald (formerly of the band Oingo Boingo).

Live Freaky, Die Freaky  (John Roecker, You've Got Bad Taste Productions/Hellcat Films, 2006)

Live Freaky, Die Freaky (John Roecker, You've Got Bad Taste Productions/Hellcat Films, 2006)

In 2006, independent L.A. punk filmmaker John Roecker directed Live Freaky, Die Freaky—a stop-motion animation film recounting the history of Charles Manson and Helter Skelter from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic nomad stumbling across a history book about Manson in the desert outside of Los Angeles in the year 3069. The film was produced by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong and features Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong as the voice of Manson. 

Finally, this year will see the release of L.A. set film Groupers, directed by L.A. punk scene veteran Anderson Cowan, independently financed through crowd-sourcing, targeting the fans of his two podcasts The Film Vault and The After Disaster. The film, according the Cowan, explores issues of “bullying, homophobia, gentrification, and squatter’s rights.” At the time of this writing, the film is not set for festival circuit release, but rather it is currently on tour across the country, playing at independent theaters and catering directly to fans of his podcasts and previous short films. 


Further viewing: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Further reading:

Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., "Raymond Pettibon: After Laughter". October. Vol. 129 (Summer 2009), pp. 13-50.

Lent, Tina Olson. "The Dark Side of the Dream: The Image of Los Angeles in Film Noir." Southern California Quarterly. Vol 69, No. 4 (Winter 1987), pp. 329 -348. 

McRoy, Jay. "Italian Neo-Realist Influences" in New Punk Cinema (editor Nicholas Rombes). Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. 

Mendik, Xavier. "Repo Man: Reclaiming the Spirit of Punk with Alex Cox" in New Punk Cinema (editor Nicholas Rombes). Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. 

O'Connor, Alan. "Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punk and Theories of Cultural Hybridity." Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 225 - 236. 

Rombes, Nicholas. New Punk Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005

Thompson, Stacy. "Punk Cinema." Cinema Journal. Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 47 - 66.  

Turner, Grady and Raymond Pettibon. "Raymond Pettibon" Bomb. No. 69 (Fall 1999), pp. 40-47.