There is a purist feeling about punk to which I’m sometimes sympathetic: punk died, and its death was an inevitable consequence of its live-fast-die-young philosophy and thus should be reverently respected. To immortalize and commercialize punk is to betray its anarchist spirit, full stop. This kind of piety doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, some of punk’s most influential impresarios were shameless hawkers of a sensationalized product. For another, from the critic’s perspective, “there is probably no one such thing as ‘punk.’”
So writes editor Bob Mehr at Nicholas Winding Refn’s online curatorial project Ears, Eyes and Throats: Restored Classic and Lost Punk Films 1976-1981. Punk emerged as a series of rock and roll art pranks and anti-pop stances; it also emerged in publishing, photography, poetry readings, performance art, graphic art, fashion, and, yes, film. Like earlier movements devoted to multiple media (Dada especially comes to mind, and like Dada, punk’s defining feature may be the manifesto), punk names an assemblage of creative gestures, loosely related more by attitude than aesthetic.
Punk’s looseness “presents a golden opportunity” for film curators, writes Mehr. “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.” The films showcased in Ears, Eyes and Throats feature few of the punk superstars memorialized in the usual tributes. Instead, to “illustrate the breadth of this material”—that is, the breadth of what might qualify as “punk film”—Mehr has chosen “films (and bands) which the general public probably wasn’t familiar with.”
This includes “San Francisco-by-way-of-Bloomington-Indiana’s MX-80 Sound and their Why Are We Here? (1980), Richard Galkowski’s Deaf/Punk, featuring The Offs (1979) [see a clip above] and Stephanie Beroes’ Pittsburth-based Debt Begins at 20 (1980).” There are other rare and obscure films, like Galkowski’s Moody Teenager (1980) and Liz Keim and Karen Merchant’s never-before-seen In the Red (1978). And there are films from more recognizable names—two from “legendary anonymous collective” The Residents, whom many might say are more Dada than punk, and a “2K digital restoration of the legendary first film by DEVO, In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976).”
Is punk relevant? Maybe the question rashly assumes we know what punk is. Expand your definitions with the nine films at Ears, Eyes and Throats, all of which you can stream there. And revise your sense of a time when punk, like hip-hop, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D says in an essay featured on the site, wasn’t something you “could go out and just buy… Couldn’t slide yourself into punk. You had to kind of get creative.”
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness