Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Desert of Identity

"Kids. There's not much future for them."

The 20th Century sure was a mess, wasn't it? Wars, genocide, and rampant grabs for power, filled every moment of its brief 100 years. Most history books in the future will probably only talk about the first half of the century with all of the death and destruction, but little ink will be spared on the resulting damage that rippled out of them into what has been the 21st century so far. If the second half of the 20th century is going to be remembered for anything it will be for decay. That is, if it isn't skimmed over entirely.

I've said before that I consider the Ramones the definitive band of the 20th Century. Yes, more than the Beatles, Nirvana, or Black Sabbath. I consider them the most definitive because they managed to capture the entire century in a sound that accurately depicts what it was like living in a materialist hell where everything is clown world and common sense is dead and forgotten. In tiny discordant nuggets of sonic noise they wrote about the spiritual and moral death of the world around them, and did it with an honesty most musicians do not have the fortune to possess, especially today.

Many wonks dismissed the band as cartoony and juvenile, but very much missed the point. The reason their influence expanded to the point that every popular band in the 1990s referenced them is because of their universal appeal. Metalheads and rockabilly cats both got into them for the same reasons. You can't say the same for any band with such a wide influence.

Be sure to listen to them beyond the debut album the hipsters constantly reference. You would be surprised at how ahead of their time they were.

It should be emphasized that the Ramones created a sound and defined the genre of punk rock, but they did not create it, nor did they have much impact on the bands that came a few years later which missed their whole point by crying for a meaningless revolution in a world that was already dead. The two things most don't want to admit is that punk is about honesty, brash and brutal, not feelings or politics or changing the world. To punk the world is dead, and there's nothing worth saving.

Why would you want to save a world that has nothing to offer beyond material pleasures?

It's not so much that punk is nihilist, or at least, it isn't intentionally. It is that the members of Generation Jones that played it when it mattered in the 1970s didn't have anyone or anything to trust. They were thrown into a world where nothing mattered except consuming, debasing, and corrupting, anything you could get your hands on. Part of the reason punk was created was to return to the forgotten sounds of rock n roll's birth, their grandparent's music, and away from the decadent nature of the musical climate of the time. The Ramones didn't invent any of this, but they epitomized what the music meant by the time their first album released in 1976. In many ways, not only were the Ramones not the first punk band, they were actually the last.

After they came out, the genre moved away from its '50s roots and attempted being deliberately combative with audiences and society, perceived political enemies, and crafting an image that didn't actually exist at the genre's formation, all to show others how individualistic they were. A lot is said about punk in the 1980s being the genre's peak, but it's really more like the nadir. There is a reason the most popular punk records of the era were made by bands that quickly ditched the genre afterwards. It was essentially already over. There was nothing left to say, sonically or lyrically, because the end was due at any time. Armageddon was a stone throw, or a bomb drop, away.

But that didn't mean punk didn't persist as an identity for many. Skater culture grew throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s and was a whole different scene from the punk scene that exists at the genre's start. It especially connected with Gen X kids that grew up in the world the old Gen Jones bands wrote about, and had fashioned it into an identity for themselves. That insipid and ignorant "slacker culture" label was created to define just this group that would go on to define alternative arts and music for the next two decades.

This makes the era an interesting one to fertilize. One such movie that did this was the cult classic movie SLC Punk released in the very popular year of 1998.

The time was the best moment for the movie since it was released during punk's second wave of popularity brought about by the alternative music explosion of the 1990s. The Warped Tour, Hot Topic fashion, alternative radio and TV programs, and the soon-to-be pop punk boom were here and inescapable. The film even starts with a cast roll using old punk album sleeves and posters to dip the audience into the time period of the not-so-distant past. For those who wanted to know the roots of the average punk in this scene, it was the best time for the movie.

SLC Punk takes place in the titular Salt Lake City in 1985, a time where western culture was in its honeymoon with material success and momentary hope for the future. The very first scene of the movie has the two main characters performing a sneak attack on a pair of rednecks because rednecks represent America, and they hate America. They hate everything, including themselves. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie: how things were really not as different in the 1980s as you might think they were.

Rednecks beat up punks. Punks beat up mods. Mods beat up skinheads. Skinheads beat up metalheads. Metalheads beat up new wavers. New wavers beat up no one because they are wannabe hippies. Each group retaliates against the other, creating conflict that is as artificial as the uniforms they wear. The groups in direct conflict with each other appear to have very small differences that irk one another since they base their entire identities on worldviews fashioned from music and pop culture. They define themselves by how others see them through their interests. Punks are no different. Whether it is the patriotism of rednecks or the distinguished poise of the mods, the punks are in direct confrontation with both.

Punks themselves are a walking contradiction, usually intentionally to prove just how meaningless everything is through their strong beliefs. The main characters, Stevo and Heroin Bob go out of their way to offend. Heroin Bob has his name despite the fact that he doesn't do drugs. They have graffiti in their apartment denigrating then-President Ronald Reagan while also having graffiti saying they voted for him. It's all about getting a rise out of someone, not about coherency. They don't want sense, they want destruction. Their image as anarchists is more important than creating a present or planning for any future. The world, they say, is already over.

Their opposition to society is shown when Bob is taken to the doctor after punching a mirror because he just hates his reflection. There are crosses on the walls and well meaning people in the waiting room, but Bob simply hates doctors. This goes well with the fact that he doesn't want to be well. He wants pain and death. They just do whatever they feel like at the time without ever thinking ahead, which always ends up biting them back.

"I Wanna Be Well" by The Ramones

Stevo, in particular, is shown as someone who cares about nothing but self-destructive hedonism. Heroin Bob hates drugs and lectures everyone about them constantly, despite being a drinker. His friend Mike doesn't look or act anything like a punk, but he is very loyal to his friends. It is almost like they found each other by accident. But as the saying goes, you are who you have as friends. Stevo, however, is incapable of seeing that. What it says about him is something he probably will never understand.

The subcultures are all meaningless, but they do say a lot about the persona someone wishes to construct for themselves. They need to have something, which means they will grab onto anything. One such character is the one of Sean, the drug dealer.

He doesn't become a punk for any reason other than that he felt like it, yet he still sells drugs to everyone of every subculture. His identity doesn't extend to anything beyond his whims. However, that day he is caught by the high school security guard selling on school property and is chased.

Sean runs through sprinklers and gets the acid he was dealing soaked through his pants and into his skin. This ends up warping his brain, and screwing him up. Bob visits him at his home and he soon learns how far gone he is.

Sean starts expecting Jesus to knock on his door and tell him his sins and if he is going to heaven. This is foreshadowing for something that comes later, but Sean's scrambled mind ends up with him spouting some choice quotes.

"It's a crazy fucked-up world, and we're all just barely floating along, waiting for someone that can walk on water."

Not too long later the police arrive and take Sean away because he was threatening to attack the demon hiding in his mother's house. His mother is frightened of her own son. The sort of thing Sean brings down is what comes into play later in the movie.

Bob tells Stevo all this in an attempt to ward him off of drugs, but it doesn't take. Stevo is so backwards and messed up that he thinks Sean was sane and the rest of the world is what is messed up. He only says this out of habit, not thinking about it at all.

You see, both Stevo and Heroin Bob went to college to tear down the system, but they both did well and graduated. Stevo did particularly well to his own astonishment. His parents were, obviously, supportive of his academic pursuits, but not so much for his attitude. After he graduated from high school they had to sit him down and tell him the business of life. These two are the embodiment of the Baby Boomer generation, and a major reason as to why Stevo is who he is.

This movie is not very kind to Boomers. There are kids and even elderly characters treated with some level of respect, but every Baby Boomer is either oblivious to the plight of their children or are too self-absorbed to notice anything going on around them. None are interested in anything outside of themselves. Stevo's parents are the most obvious examples of this. His father doesn't really try to connect with his son, but mouths typical platitudes about bootstraps and being a "success" like he was. He even went to Woodstock which helped end the Vietnam War! Show him some respect! His mother is the flipside: the typical "be free" hands off hippie-type that cannot abide by rules or the system. Just listening to them talk tells you everything you need to know about what formed Stevo's spiritual and emotional core.

Ironically, his relationship with his parents show that his desire to rebel against them is conforming to what they want him to do. This seeds conflict inside of him. How can you rebel when society tells you that rebellion is good? What are you actually rebelling against?

But it is the flashback scene where the two parents discuss their son's future after high school that put the rest of the movie in perfect context. This is when Stevo is told, most likely for the one thousandth time, what his parents are all about.

"You two believe in freedom, love, and rebellion?"
"But you two are divorced. So love failed. Two: Mom, your New Age that you're clinging to for any scrap of Eastern religion that may justify why the above said love failed. Three: Dad, you're a slick corporate preppy ass lawyer. I really don't have to say anything else about you, do I, Dad? Four: He moved from New York City, the mecca and hub of the cultural world, to Utah, nowhere to change nothing, more to perpetuate the cycle of money, greed, fascism, and triviality. I mean, your movement, of the people, by the people, and for the people, got you nothing. You just hide behind some lost sense of drugs, sex, and rock n' roll. Oh, Kumbaya! I'm the future! I'm the future of this great nation, which you, Father, so arrogantly saved this world for. Look, I have my own agenda. Harvard, out; University of Utah, in. I'm going to get a 4.0 in damage! I love you guys, don't get me wrong. It's all about this (*touches heart*) but for the first time in my life I'm 18 and I can say fuck you!"
"Steven, I didn't sell out, I bought in. Keep that in mind."
*Stevo leaves*
"That kid is going to make one hell of a lawyer, huh?"
"Oh yeah, he takes after his father. He's a son of a bitch."
"... Fuck you, dear."

That entire exchange pretty much says it all. His mother never reappears for the rest of the movie, showing just how much she really cared about her wayward son. Say what you want about his clueless father, but at least he was there. There are no other attendant fathers in the film.

As a result of this damaged relationship, Stevo's motivation in life became to simply not use his mind. Instead he would let it waste and decay. He would ruin the system with his inactivity and refuse to give it what it wanted.

Instead he fell deeper into his scene, making it his entire identity. As such, he became an expert on what a poseur is. The following speech is a transcript from the most emotional rant in the movie, one about identity. Be warned, it's long.

"Poseurs are people who look like punks but they did it for fashion. And they were fools, they'd say: "Anarchy in the UK!" You see? Poseurs. Anarchy in the UK. What the fuck's that? What good is that to those of us in Utah, America? It was a Sex Pistols thing, right? They were from England, they were British. That's what they did. They were allowed to go on about anarchy in the UK. You don't live your life by lyrics! I mean, that's all you ever heard from these trendy fucks. Like, "Did you hear the new Smiths album? It's fucking terriff!" Kids walk around Utah saying "terriff" in that stupid little English twang. See what I mean? What the fuck is up with the England bullshit? Union Jack is a fag! This Utah girl will only have sex with a guy if you have a fucking accent. Can you think of anything more ludicrous in your life? Every asshole in Salt Lake City, and let me tell you, plenty of assholes in this general region, will get her drunk, put on some stupid accent like: "Hey, hey, mistress, do you fancy a shag?" There she would, fucking knees to the sky. It was sad, it made me really sad. That poor girl had no self-respect. See, to me, England was nothing more than a big, fucking American state, like, uh, like, North Dakota, or Canada. You gotta look at me and say, "Hey, buddy! Why are you so mad?" And I'll tell ya. Cuz for all the fawning that went over the English bands in the SLC, those fucking English chaps could only say shit about us Americans. All we were to them was a bunch of hicks. Well, you know what? I'M NOT A FUCKING HICK! I don't wear cowboy boots, I hate the fucking rodeo, horses smell like shit to me, and I don't fuck anyone of my own bloodline. By definition, I'm not a redneck, and g*ddamn it I ain't a hick. Oh, "The sun never sets on the British Empire!" Well, the sun never sets on my asshole! Another thing that pisses me off: who started punk rock music? Was it the Sex Pistols in England? Was it the Ramones and the Velvet Underground in New York? Who cares who started it?! It's music! I don't know who started it, and I don't give a fuck. The one thing I do know is that we did it harder, hot damn we did it faster, and we definitely did it with more love, baby! You can't take that away from us. Exhibit A: *points to himself*. It's my own exhibit, really, but you know what? I think it's pretty fucking good."

It's rambling, nearly incoherent, and emotional. It's pretty punk. It also goes a long way to explaining the scene's mindset. And yes, people really did argue who started punk, even though the copyright information on the back of albums told you exactly who did. Tribalism mattered more than facts. It still does even today, only to a more extreme level.

From this point on the movie centers on this period in Stevo's life post-college and facing the real world down. What is he going to do with the rest of his life? The punk rock show he attends after really pushes this divorce between what he wants and what he desires. It shows a world entirely disvorced from civilization. The show is violent and sex-fueled, offering them an escape from the reality knocking at their door. But it's still phony.

"In a country of lost souls, rebellion comes hard, but in a religiously oppressively city which half of its population isn't even of that religion? It comes like fire."

That takes on a whole new meaning in 2020. But it isn't incorrect.

It also comes off as oddly prescient when the next character introduced is Mark, a foreigner. Someone easily able to take advantage of the alienated culture to fit himself inside of it. Mark is a wandering soul who came into town, offering drugs in exchange for friendship. He watches the punk rock show with Stevo's friends in bafflement.

"That's what I don't understand about you Americans, you're always looking for pain."

Mark suffers from acute loneliness even more intensely than those around him. His family died in a plane crash when he was a kid, and he inherited all their money and wealth. He fills his life with trinkets and drugs in an attempt to feel something. He talks everyone's ears off because he's desperate to connect with someone on any level, despite his extreme paranoia of being betrayed and ripped off. He spends his time in the movie trying to impress Stevo and Heroin Bob, despite them not really having anything to offer him.

The entire movie is about this broken generation, Gen X, that has no bearing in life or existence, just floating about trying to figure things out on their own. They don't have a past to look to or a future to hope for. They just don't know what to do. Every single character suffers from this affliction, and no one can seem to find an answer.

When the group visits a liquor store in Wyoming they meet the first, and only, Greatest Generation character in the movie. The old man proprietor who literally doesn't understand what they are or what they're doing. They have to pretend to be from England because he thinks they escaped from a mental institution. This is played for laughs, but it isn't that far from the reality. The gulf between the two generations isn't separated by that much, and yet it could fill the Grand Canyon. They have nothing in common with each other, and could very well come from different planets, or be members of different species. It's a bit awkward, honestly.

There is a jarring moment in the store with a couple of fundamentalist Christians discussing the end times and demonic activity. The punks ask them about the Nazis being demons, but the only thing they get in response is that they weren't demon worshipers or Satanists, just a bunch of people. The punks act incredulously and get kicked out after trying to cause a scene.

This is meant to imply that the dopey fundies like the Nazis, but it come across as something else that says much about what punks purported themselves to be. The fact is that the Nazis weren't Satanists and they were a group of people, but the way the punks act about them is like a stimulated brain response that compels them to scream fascist and try to tear them down just from hearing that word. They are nihilists. Why do they care what happens to anyone or why it is done to anyone? Though to the film's credit, it wasn't made in 2020, which meant the writer actually tried to explain this absurd Pavlovian response to Nazis that even UK punks never even had, and '70s punks embraced while they used their imagery and quotations to offend people with.

The '80s punks, unlike their supposed ancestors, really hate Nazis, because "some things are sacred" even, apparently, to a nihilist. They didn't want any rules for society which includes no fascists to make any rules. So they would beat them down and attack them at any opportunity they could, not even knowing why they are doing what they are doing or if it is a larp like it was with the old punks. The only way to keep a fascist down is to oppress them. And this is the key crack in the punk worldview which is split open as the story goes on.

They are essentially the parodies of the punks the Ramones wrote about.

"I'm Against It" by The Ramones

Why do all these subcultures and scenes constantly clash with each other? Stevo explains the best he can figure from his limited life experience.

Man is alone in the universe, man desires to feel something. Man searches for differences, creates dispute over them. This dispute creates a reason to fight. This fight is a reason to feel pain, to feel alive. Life is pain, so to fight is to achieve meaning. But you have to fight to achieve your goals: you have to step on your enemies and oppress them to get what you want. Even if that's for total freedom. 

This contradiction between Stevo's beliefs and what he does is what leads him to question what he's doing with his life. He can't believe in total anarchy but also believe that fighting and beating down other groups is necessary to be free. You can't believe in freedom through oppression, because that requires oppressing others and preventing their freedom.

This lack of direction is emphasized further when Mark abruptly leaves town one day and is never seen again. People just come and go in the SLC. No one has anywhere they belong. They will float by without attachment for the rest of their lives. What does one do to live in a world like this? This is yet more foreshadowing for the ending. Things are changing. 

Stevo and his father have a conversation where he learns he signed up his son for Harvard. Stevo studied law because he wanted to show his father just how worthless his life's ambition was. But the truth is that the two of them are very much alike. They both hunger for success and victory. He calls his father a fascist and a Nazi, because that's the only way he can argue. One of his reasonings is that he bought a car at a German dealership, and little else. It's all a smokescreen to hide the fact that he didn't want to discuss why he did so well in school despite apparently hating it and the system as much as he says he does. One of the weird ironies of the movie is that the system is a scapegoat, and only part of the problem: every single person chose to be in the predicament they were in, either by bad choices or intentionally, especially Stevo. The system has problems, yes, but everything that occurs during the movie is because of his own choices, including what happens at the end.

Seeing people from his past who have ruined their lives due to their bad decisions, such as Sean, ends up changing the way Stevo sees things. He realizes that sometimes there are things you can't do to help people, and sometimes people end up the way they do because of their own poor decisions. Someone falling into poverty under his own nose shows just how much Stevo doesn't understand the world. You can't destroy a system if you don't even know what the system is.

In a brain-addled stupor Sean says to the clerk who he thinks is offering him a job, and therefore a place in society: "I don't care how much you pay me, because I've got integrity!" which is emblematic of the entire movie. No one is offering him anything, but he has to let them know they can't have him. His integrity is for nothing and doesn't mean anything. It's a pose which is hollow. He then turns to begging on the street. But at least he's got his integrity.

What this does is lead towards the final nail in the coffin of Stevo's old worldview. He walked away from Sean just like he criticized others such as his own parents for doing. There was nothing he could do, and nothing anyone could do, but he still believed everyone else was a poseur for saying they want to help people and yet not doing anything about it. The truth is not that simple. Sometimes, no matter how much you rage and scream, you can't change anything.

"I'm Not Afraid of Life" by The Ramones 

There is then a pivotal discussion Stevo has with a bunch of hippie friends over a girl being taken off her medication. They think she should be free to be who she is, off of any sort of influence, whereas Stevo thinks she can only be herself when she uses the medication for control. She doesn't know who she is because she is unable to figure it out without her meds. Ironically, it is the hippy, Chris, who believes in structure, and Stevo, the punk, who believes in anarchy. Yet, what we see from the two's actions is that they very much believe the opposite, but really do not understand it because of the parts they are playing.

The hippies prove to be the bottom of the barrel of Stevo's lifestyle, falling apart around him into a pit of hedonistic filth that they will never recover from. We know this because people like them still exist today, lost, bitter, and broken. Chris has no structure to his life, he is anarchy in the modern world personified.

It is through this that one of the hippies tries to prove faith and the devil doesn't exist by summoning demons. Science is the future! But Stevo had experienced differently--he had seen evil, he had experienced the result of anarchy. And we saw what happened with Sean earlier that demons do exist. The anarchists he is rolling with are far behind the game. Stevo could gain nothing from them anymore. This life was leading nowhere and to nothing. These people didn't have any answers, and they never would. 

Shortly after he learns that everyone else is growing up and leaving the scene behind, but still Stevo has no idea what to do when he sees no future ahead of him. The truth is that he's changing, everything changes, and the person he would become is the sort of person he would have beat up even a few years ago. All the scenes, the poseurs, and his shallow ideals, were temporary, and not what truly mattered. In fact, it was all a pose.

It all comes to a head when he attends a party and meets a girl who is the opposite of everything he is, despite having the same upbringing. They hit it off. Bob also attends the party, but ends up taking bad pills which he assumes are for a headache. He starts feeling sick, and Stevo brings him home. This leads to the climax of the movie.

Heroin Bob dies overnight in his sleep, from a mixture of the pills and the alcohol.

Stevo loses it, not being ready for losing the only person in his life he cared for. Bob fell to something he hated: drugs. The one time he didn't follow his own code, it killed him. Stevo cries for the only time in the movie over his friend leaving him behind in the world alone.

And the world went on, his funeral barely attended with no family to speak of in the pews. Only a small handful of people from across the scenes showed up. It was a far cry from the packed parties and shows from the rest of the movie. This shows how little any of those people thought of Bob in these supposedly tight circles, even though he really deserved better.

He had always been Stevo's friend, all the way back when they were nerdy kids listening to Rush and playing Dungeons & Dragons in his basement. Even then they were always trying to find an identity to make it and be cool. In order to be someone, to not be losers, Bob dragged them out of it into the punk world. They weren't invited to the parties? Then they would make their own parties!

But that was all a pose, an attempt to escape reality. It wasn't who they really were, because they never had any idea of who they actually were. Bob died in the prime of his life, potential unfulfilled and forgotten, and he will slip out of sight not too dissimilar from the trash he desperately wanted to be. This was the fate he had chose for himself.

Stevo, at that very moment, abandoned being a punk. There was nothing left for him there but death, and that no longer seemed as cool as it once was.

"I was my old man. He knew. So what else could I do? I mean, there's no future in anarchy, lets face it. But when I was into it, there was never a thought of the future. We were certain the world was going to end. But when it didn't I had to do something."

But this is the final ironic twist of the movie. The passage of time in the real world shows us what probably eventually happened to Stevo.

"You can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it. That was the final irony, I think."

In the end, he was nothing but a poseur. Under the guise of taking down the system, he is doing exactly what his Boomer father wanted him to do despite saying he wanted to do the opposite. While he lost everything and everyone and pledged to move on, Stevo was no longer a punk, but he still had no identity. He never grew into anything except a half-formed idea of what adulthood entails. He will continue on for the rest of his life blindly flailing around for anything to give him an identity to separate himself from others.

And that's where the movie ends, not as a statement of victory or defeat, but of the knowledge that everyone has an identity they'll fight for, even if it is based on nothing but a lie. Even if it doesn't exist. This lost generation will always be lost, perpetually in the shadow of the adults that failed them, unsure of what their purpose in this world even is.

Looking back on this 1998 movie that takes place in 1985 from the present of 2020 is a bit of a trip. One of the reasons it was so successful at the time was, as mentioned above, because it came around during a brief wave of punk resurgence brought on by the alternative revival of the early '90s. In many ways the nostalgia for the movement at the time is also a product of its era. They showed this subculture to audiences at the highest it had been in decades. Mostly it was illuminating for the Gen Y kids that were coming of age like their Gen X brothers did years before. There was a relevance even for its release in 1998. SLC Punk is a product of its time in more than one way.

But now it has to be divorced from its time period in order to be understood today. The Warped Tour is dead. Extreme sports a long distant memory. Punk rock music doesn't really exist anymore except as novelty and corporate-approved rebellion for over-the-hill bands. The last time anything remotely punk has been in the mainstream was a brief blip with emo which lasted perhaps for a year back in 2002/2003. 1985 was a long time ago, but it is longer distance between now and 1998 than the original movie's release date and the time period portrayed in it. Everything that supported this movie's original success is long since over and forgotten, leaving it with only its craft to hold it through.

So we have to judge this movie for what it offers apart from the aesthetic and the nostalgia. What does it offer a viewer who knows nothing of the things it is talking about?

Watching this movie outside of time and place, I can only say what this film shows to someone alien to this specific time and place and culture, and that's utter madness. SLC Punk portrays a culture already detonated and the resulting scraps blowing around the empty minefield. I couldn't even imagine what someone a hundred years divorced from this era could possibly think of this movie except that it is a portrait of a society that absolutely failed its children and left them to die in the cold. Their ancestors would roll over in their graves if they saw something like this.

Because this movie was made when the writer/director was still young and far too naïve (as we all were) to know what was coming after 1998, it has an awkward nihilistic optimism about it. This explains Stevo's unconvincing denouement after Bob's funeral. There was nothing else he could take away from what happened to his friend because he was still too young to understand death and what the implications meant on society or the future. But he wasn't too off about what his parents had done to his generation and how he needed to act against it. But without the proper tools to succeed, he could do nothing else but punch the brick wall of the system. Nothing will ever change.

The odd optimism extends to an "everyone getting what they want" speech from Stevo. The Boomers to the Gen Xers, they will both get their revolution! As if the Boomers would get what they wanted by having their own kids rebel against them and fix the world through their own patently ridiculous ideals. Neither of them have compatible worldviews despite their goals ostensibly being the same, because there is no shared culture between them. Neither have an identity that extents beyond not wanting to be their parents. Without your ancestors and traditions, what identity do you have? A speck of dust in an uncaring universe. This isn't an identity, and it can't build anything. Why else did they obsess with destruction? What else could they do?

But the ending where Stevo abandons his old life to charge into his father's world with gusto and fire has a more sinister edge now that we know how Gen X has turned out since 1998, never mind 1985. The truth is that in the real world his father is still in charge, and Stevo would probably be even more miserable than his father was, unable to hide his emptiness in loose women and drugs. That is, if he didn't overdose himself like Gen X and Gen Y were prone to doing as the decades have moved on. That is, if he didn't end up like Heroin Bob.

Without sugar coating it, SLC Punk is a very hard movie to watch nowadays. It's especially tough if you were around for the time period portrayed in the movie or at the time of its 1998 release. "Unsettling" is the best word to describe the film. It's funny and it is somewhat poignant at times, but the world presented here is one of baseless optimism mired in misery that Gen X just had to tell themselves existed. There had to be a light at the end of the tunnel. There just had to be. What actually exists over 20 years since its release is not a better world.

The main issue is that the spiritual vapidity of the characters is clearly the problem with them, highlighted by the pre-internet redditor trying to prove Satan doesn't exist by summoning demons near the end of the movie. They all act as if the world is a joke and nothing is worth living for, but hindsight is a hell of a thing. The world they lived in is objectively better than the one we have now. None of them realized what they actually had, and none of it exists today. They have tight-knit communities, jobs and opportunities for them, relatively clean streets, schooling that can actually get you a career, and neighborhoods that don't look like they haven't been refurbished in over 25 years. They don't actually realize how bad it can actually get, despite their quaint and dated nihilism. Heck, they can even walk into stores and talk to each other without a mask as well as touch everything on the shelves without being scolded. This movie takes place in 1985, but you can see all the problems in that year that would lead to where we are now, and it makes the characters appear doomed even when we are being told they are not. It's awkward and unsettling.

The solutions and epiphanies the characters come to are maddingly pedestrian and rote, which isn't a fault of the film, but that it is too accurate of what would happen in years to come. It is hard to put the ending aside as anything other than someone without a flashlight feeling around in the dark for a way to see his own shadow. These are people that had no chance, no guidance, and no hope, and no matter what happens, history has shown as that they will never get what they truly need. It only gets worse from here, no matter how much they pull up their bootstraps or believe in their newfound ideals. Stevo was wrong to be an anarchist, but his solution is just as stupid. No matter what he does, his father still wins, and Stevo will never succeed on the level his hated dad has nor will he ever undo his achievements. The game is rigged, and Stevo is destined for a life of going nowhere. He can never be anything but a pale shadow of his father.

That is simply the way his path is laid out in the future we know from our own experience of living 35 years since the time this movie takes place in. Despite the ending hinting differently, Stevo will never succeed, because he has no idea what success actually is, and the world he was raised to take part in no longer exists. That he doesn't see it coming is what makes it uncomfortable.

SLC Punk doesn't really have a plot, but that would work against the movie if it did. The movie is about the triumph of nihilism in the postmodern world. Much like American Psycho shows the vapidity of modern secularism and the resulting dehumanization into a prison of materialism, SLC Punk shows how ideals, heart, and passion, are ultimately empty without a grounding or purpose to steer them. Stevo is just as hollow as his New Age mom and materialist dad, and he has no tools to build anything better out of what little he has. Whereas Patrick Bateman is trapped in an existence where he has no identity or personality, Stevo is trapped in an existence where even having those things ultimately mean nothing because there is nothing to apply them to. All roads lead to the same place. There is no exit.

This is the modern world. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There is no escape. That's the unintentional lesson in SLC Punk.

I've already said before how the late '90s feels like the end of the road when it comes to the way things once were. Watching this movie really emphasized how much, and how little, things not only changed between 1985 and 1998, but also between 1998 and 2020. The same problems remain, worse than ever, but the solutions remain even further out of reach, at least for most of them. This is what makes it an odd movie to view today.

I would recommend watching SLC Punk, especially if you are curious about a subculture and time period that doesn't exist anymore, whether it be the 1980s or 1990s. The lack of identity and purpose that fills this film has only exacerbated over time, communities have only decayed more, and we have less in common with each other than ever before, but this movie shows a lot of the root cause of where many modern thoughts, processes, and notions, come from, even if it can't offer solutions. If it had those solutions we wouldn't be where we are, would we?

Much like punk itself, it's just a primal scream in the wasteland. It doesn't have any solutions, it's just going to show you the way things are as honestly as it can. While the real life scene was co-opted by poseurs worse than Stevo ever was, killing it dead (the Warped Tour had education and etiquette classes near the end, not to mention they banned the Dickies for being "offensive"), there are better things ahead of us. You shouldn't mourn for a dead past, but learn from it. Punk is dead, and that's a good thing for everyone involved.

There is one lesson SLC Punk can teach you. The world is broken, but you can't give in to it. Pain isn't always something to run from, sometimes it must be embraced and used. While things might be a mess there is always a chance for something better ahead. And that's a lesson we could use today more than ever before. The future is on the way.

The punks thought tomorrow would never come, but then it did. That is what killed the movement. Reality is what it is. Tomorrow will always come.

The question, as always, is what are you going to do when it does come? Answer that and you'll be on your way to moving on to something better. You just can't stop at the question. Go the whole nine yards. The answer is the entire point of asking the question to begin with.

If I had a scheme for everything it seems I'd be sure
That I could change it all
It all, it all, it all, it all

If I had it in me
To stop my random thoughts and my dumb dreams
I could deal with this non-stop spinning world

If only I could say that everything's okay, take a good look
Look the other way
Frustration, hell, who needs it?
Who needs it, anyway?

If I had it in me
To stop my random thoughts and my dumb dreams
I could deal with this non-stop spinning world

But I'd rather sit back
Just smoke cigarettes
Be the one with the loudest mouth
Be the most closed-minded
As I could get

If I had a scheme for everything it seems I'd be sure
That I could change it all
It all, it all, it all, it all

If I had it in me
To stop my random thoughts and my dumb dreams
I could deal with this non-stop spinning world.


  1. Take a bow

    I had to stop halfway through this post and look up the movie to make sure it's real. That's how prescient you made it sound.

  2. This movie meant so much to me in college and the years immediately following and now, like you described, it's hard to watch.

    "Kiss me, deadly"

    1. I also liked it a lot as a teenager, but it really is difficult to go back to now, and it's not even the fault of the movie.

      It really feels like a whole different world.