Thanks for Nothing

Andrew Hultkrans on “Punk ’n’ Pie”

Left: Brian Gibson, Breaking Glass, 1980, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Hazel O'Connor. Right: Julien Temple, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, 2007, still from a black-and-white and color film, 123 minutes.

THERE IS A FUTURE, it appears, in England’s dreaming. “Punk ’n’ Pie,” an awfully named but well-programmed UK punk retrospective at BAMcinématek, gathers ten features and documentaries from the thirty-plus years since the class of ’77 first stuck a pin through the queen’s nose and pilloried Tory and hippie culture alike with equal ire. Though sown in New York—the Velvets, the Dolls, the Ramones, Richard Hell, CBGB—with ample fertilizer from a nice Ann Arbor boy called Iggy, punk flowered fully in England, where bleak environs and civil unrest were matched by vibrant street fashion and a serious approach (in demand and execution) to pop music. Malcolm McLaren, peering into a grimy bar on the Bowery, may have seen the next big thing in Dick Hell’s spiky hair, safety-pinned shirt, and blank-generation stare, but the world saw Johnny Rotten. Ever since, punk has seemed as English as kidney pie.

So despite a title playing on a distinctly stateside holiday, there’s no domestic fare here. The Decline of Western Civilization, Repo Man, and American Hardcore aren’t on the menu. Nor, surprisingly, are there any helpings of live footage from Brit ur-punks the Sex Pistols. What “Punk ’n’ Pie” does offer, though, is rich enough to have you sporting torn Tartan by Christmas. Divided between documentaries (early UK punk and reggae, New Wave, Joe Strummer, Joy Division, Depeche Mode), biopics (Sid and Nancy, 24-Hour Party People), and streetwise fantasias (Breaking Glass, Jubilee), the retrospective reminds us how, since the Beatles and the Stones, Brits have continuously transmuted American musical ore into gold records with art school experimentation and a keen understanding of style.

The fiction films—Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1977) and Brian Gibson’s Breaking Glass (1980)—capture late-’70s London, however impressionistically, in all its outré glory: waxed-up, unnaturally hued hair; bondage gear; Nazi iconography (and neo-Nazis themselves); mannered nihilism. And strangely, both evoke a world where punks are instantly (and willingly) co-opted by revanchist record-business moguls. Breaking Glass, particularly, is an old showbiz story trussed up in New Wave clothes, something like Flashdance meets Liquid Sky starring Siouxsie Sioux. Jubilee is an arty, pretentious time capsule in both directions: Queen Elizabeth I travels forward to ’77 London as we journey back there through the film. Lambasted at the time by Vivienne Westwood and other punk scenesters, Jubilee nevertheless offers the most immediate view of that moment, albeit through Jarman’s overwrought Renaissance-painting perspective.

Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten and Grant Gee’s Joy Division (both 2007) further explore the inherent contradictions animating Jubilee and Breaking Glass—purity versus sellout, anger versus vulnerability, past versus future—and the toll they took on real musicians. Strummer, a diplomat’s son and hippie-turned–pub rocker, bizarrely became a symbol of uncompromising authenticity by undergoing a style makeover and denying his past lives. After too much success with the Clash, he fled the music business, only to reemerge years later as a wizened world-music shaman. Not a band that has suffered cinematic neglect, Joy Division has a story that is well known yet remains terribly moving. Ian Curtis’s love triangle, his epilepsy, and his suicide on the eve of his band’s first American tour get their most complete, intimate rehashing in Gee’s well-made doc, with full participation from the surviving band members (New Order) and Curtis’s then lover, Annik Honoré. Too sensitive for mass success and perhaps for human life, Curtis seemed to offer a way out of punk’s constraining paradoxes; sadly, as with so much of punk, his life ended with a negation.

“Punk ’n’ Pie” screens November 21–30 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. For more information, click here.