Monday, July 16, 2012

xxx ALL AGES xxx, The Boston Hardcore Film

The first documentary solely about the early 80s Boston hardcore scene, xxx ALL AGES xxx (2012), directed by Drew Stone, is undoubtedly the definitive chronicle.  While the earlier film American Hardcore (2006) touched on Boston, xxx ALL AGES xxx has the scope to be much more in-depth about it.  It’s loaded with all kinds of great stills from the era, rare video and music, and interviews with most of the people involved.  I really liked the montage that was made of the outtakes from the photo shoot of SS Decontrol’s The Kids Will Have Their Say album cover, for example.  The splicing between archival and more recent footage of bands like Jerry’s Kids and DYS was also a clever touch.  Getting into the personal interview clips, my initial reaction was how weird it is to see everybody looking so old.  It was the same when I first watched American Hardcore, but it’s five further years on now (and no doubt I look old myself, then).  I never went to Boston “back in the day,” though I did see many Boston bands in other cities at the time — SSD, DYS, The F.U.’s, Gang Green among them — and knew most of the major figures from album covers, fanzine photos, and interviews.  So seeing it all again in this new, encapsulated form, with inside stories and so on, was fun if also weird, similar to the experience of first watching American Hardcore (which is xxx ALL AGES xxx’s inescapable antecedent).

There are a number of possible approaches to historicizing something that happened within living memory, and director Stone has chosen the “talking head” model, letting the people who were there reminisce or discuss at will.  Interviewer questions are rarely heard and the subjects are rarely challenged.  There is no narrator.  This makes for a grassroots vibe that in a way reflects the original context itself, a completely underground, self-created scene that was built from the ground up, a truly alternative community that did not rely on any kind of “official” support or affirmation (except on the odd time when an established club would book a hardcore show — though, as the film points out, the ensuing chaos usually meant that it was also the last time).  The problem, at least for me (and this review, if it’s even a review, is admittedly a completely subjective take), is that there is something of a lack of critical perspective.  Certainly, Stone does his best to steer the interviewees down particular avenues of self-criticism, as when Springa confesses the moment when he knew that SSD had gotten lame. (The trajectory of the film inevitably follows that of American Hardcore, since the trajectory is what really happened.  Here also, then, the turn toward heavy metal is depicted as retrospectively comedic, with some hilarious footage of SSD’s final show in LA and Springa trying to be David Lee Roth or something.)

John Sox briefly talks about how some people didn’t get The F.U.s because they supposedly didn’t have the same sense of humor as them, and so they often reacted badly to things they said.  In the absence of follow-up questions, however, one wonders if Sox means that they were just kidding about their politics and never meant any of their right-wing sentiments, that it was all merely a joke.  Or were they at least semi-serious about it?  I didn’t take the F.U.’s lyrics wholly as a joke at the time, though obviously they were reacting to left-wing political punks and the whole Maximum Rock’n’Roll thing.  Maybe they were kidding all through their career, but this uninterrogated Sox segment renders the story unclear.  Of course, the film assumes some knowledge on the part of the viewer, and perhaps it seeks to reproduce the ambiguity that The F.U.’s themselves put forward at the time.  Still, isn’t a documentary’s role to fill in the gaps?

And then there is the issue of gender politics in the Boston scene.  What a hornet’s nest.  A couple of people, men, discuss how they basically purposely attacked girls who would try to slam in the pit.  Why?  Jake Phelps describes his fuck-you, antisocial attitude, but doesn’t come off as any more enlightening on this today than he would’ve been as a teenage thrasher. A couple of women react to the situation, but only for a few seconds of screen time, as if the included response were merely obligatory.  There’s obviously a lot more to say here.  Sure, the physicality of the pit means there was inherently going to be some degree of biological hierarchy, but why the need to be so overt and extreme about it, to actually specifically push women out?  Christine McCarthy suggests that most or many of the guys in the scene were afraid of girls and weren’t getting laid — so what was going on?  I don’t really care about these guys’ sex lives, to be honest, but the film itself brings it up, only to leave it simply hanging out there with no real explanation.  Why the need to be so anti-female?  Basic psychology suggests some deeper issues, but no one ventures a guess, and most of the principals are not asked. (The closest we get is as the credits roll, theres a brief snippet of Choke saying that he never hit on girls at the time because I respected them too much.)

For that matter, I’ve always wanted to know why the Boston scene on the broader level was so militant about everything to begin with.  For example, why did these kids latch on to straight edge in such an intense way?  Jon Anastas talks about the anti-drug thing as being a reaction against hippie parents, but I thought guys like Al Barile and Choke were more from old-school working-class backgrounds (maybe I’m wrong?).  In American Hardcore, Chris Doherty mentions that a lot of kids in the scene were from broken homes, but there’s no background stuff like that here.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still an important and worthwhile film, but I thought it could have gone deeper into what drove these people and why Boston was in retrospect such the strange and unique scene that it was.  So for me, as much as I enjoyed it, there was perhaps of a bit too much unquestioned nostalgia and not enough analysis.  This was clearly a conscious directorial choice, however, and so Stone’s work excels within the parameters he has set for himself. (more below this photo of SSD....)

SSD (Photo: Bruce Rhodes)
The other restriction imposed on xxx ALL AGES xxx is the non-appearance of Al Barile, founder of SSD, and in many people’s eyes the founder of the whole Boston scene.  This, though, was not the director’s fault, as he apparently tried hard to get Al in.  Alas, as Mike Gitter has written elsewhere, “His absence and frequent mentions throughout xxx ALL AGES xxx make him, in many ways the film’s key character — through omission.”  Al, alive and well, is like a ghost here, spoken about in the past tense, forever young in photos, but unable to take up the opportunity to shape his own legacy.  I personally think Al should have appeared, but I can also understand the lack of desire to stroll down memory lane.  In any case, he clearly did not oppose the film itself, as SSD’s music is heard throughout.

To sum up, despite my criticisms, xxx ALL AGES xxx is an eminently watchable and worthwhile project.  A note about the DVD — the packaging is very well-executed, with the basic black-and-white graphics echoing Bridget Burpee’s layouts for the XClaim! Records releases (especially the first SSD album).  Also included are a number of special features/interviews.  I will say that I have not yet watched the film with Stone’s commentary playing, so perhaps some answers to my questions lie there.  Either way, I highly recommend this if you have any interest at all in the U.S. hardcore scene of the early 80s.  Boston to a large extent distilled and intensified many of its dynamics, just as it may also have enacted them according to its own rather idiosyncratic conventions.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think your trying to read to much into the film.as Jaime says in the film it was a bunch of kids having fun,just like any scene the world over! Great film.as you say shame barile didn't make an appearance but if you follow the ssd/x claim Facebook page you can see why.the guys got some issues! He did an interview for the American hardcore film but not this one,which is weird if he didn't want to talk about the past why do it at all!! Anyways massive respect to stone for getting this out there.

Mike Begnal said...

Thanks; I agree that Stone did a good job getting this out there -- and it's a good film. I do think, however, that it's not just "kids having fun," though of course that
s a major part of it -- but at the same time, if that's all it is, isn't that really giving them short shrift? SSD and similar bands were putting their art and ideology out there. SSD's 1st album is called 'The Kids Will Have Their Say', after all, and it asserts a particular worldview. And when you put your particular artistic/political/whatever stance out into the wider arena, you have to expect that it's going to be examined, engaged with, perhaps criticized -- whether it's an album or a film. That's not a bad thing; it means people are taking you seriously. And in all this historicizing of hardcore that has been happening over the last several years, I think these are the kinds of questions we should be asking. IMO.