Dir. Susan Seidelman
Inside Llewyn Davis
Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen
It’s unlikely Smithereens was on the Coen Brothers’ minds when they made Inside Llewyn Davis, but the base similarities are striking: an abrasive, irresponsible artist wanders New York City, living on the charity of other people while trying to wedge themselves into a spot in a crowded music scene. Yet the plot is so much more persuasive in Seidelman’s film. Maybe it’s because Susan Berman’s Wren is such an interestingly broken person, fun and exasperating, a keen robber and naïve ingénue, obsessively making herself an artistic statement and building a reputation on nothing. Oscar Isaac is magnetic as Llewyn, cool in ways most actors can’t even dream of being, but that’s kind of the problem. He’s not the boor that the Coens seem to believe he is. The film runs on informed characteristics: it surrounds Llewyn with embarrassingly shrill female characters to screech and flap at him and it rejects him after performances that would move the dead. The door was locked from the start, so why blame the guy for smashing a few windows?
The Decline of Western Civilization
Dir. Penelope Spheeris
Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that something was influential. Maybe it’s that The Decline was the larger culture’s first introduction to the hardcore punk scene, and these raucous performances were bracing and wild. But taken as a documentary, it’s a skipping stone. It spends about 10 minutes with each band and intersperses these segments with brief interview clips with club owners, bouncers, and hardcore kids. The view from below given by the hardcore kids, inarticulate and aimless, brings some insight into the dysfunctions that chain the fans to the music. And there’s some memorable scenes, like X’s Exene Cervenka displaying her found collection of insane religious pamphlets, but mostly it’s the same story from the stage: trashed, undernourished malcontents rambling about nothing much at all.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
Dir. Penelope Spheeris
This one does a better job presenting a cohesive picture of a scene, even if the scene isn’t worth documenting to begin with. More ideas get more discussion, but the real fascination is the reflux this music seems to induce in Spheeris, which peaks during her acerbic montage of young dropouts insisting on their inevitable fame. Unfortunately, she ruins the film’s best moment – Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast while offering his barely-survived experiences – with a fake insert of a shaky hand unable to pour without spilling. His weary, quiet wisdom was enough on its own – it didn’t need the orange juice.
Against Me!: We’re Never Going Home
Dir. Jake Burghart
It’s been so long since We’re Never Going Home was released that it feels weird talking about Against Me! in the comfortable us vs. them dynamic of major and indie record labels. It feels even weirder watching Tom Gabel and wondering, while he’s sneaking onto other bands’ tour buses to scam booze and padlocking Taking Back Sunday into their dressing room, is he carrying around the burden of not yet being Laura Jane Grace? Is he miserable in these moments?
Then you start thinking, there’s got to be more to her than her gender identity, and fitting people into convenient boxes of assumed experience is what’s dogged Against Me! since they started, because they’ve always been persecuted as The Band That’s Gonna Save Us, the one we all unfairly weighed down with us. You wonder what all those screaming punks in the crowd shots are doing now: are they wearing Feel the Bern shirts? Are they looking for a new savior? 2004 was so long ago and feels so easy now, with its identifiable cartoon villains. And sure, Trump, but condescendingly pointing out obvious flaws and snorting at fools just doesn’t work as a conversion strategy, we learned that last time and we’re still not getting it. Then you wonder if maybe there’s some kind of lesson in the way Against Me! just focused themselves inwardly and kept moving, kept touring, kept playing, but wasn’t there supposed to be more than that? Wasn’t that the promise they never made that we held them to? Then you watch them score free drinks and baseball tickets by pretending to tolerate A&R reps, and you think, that’s brilliant, but Jesus these guys are always drunk and it never seems like what they believe has much bearing on what they’re actually doing, they’re just confused kids who ain’t gonna save nobody, least of all me.
– Joel La Puma