Bloodied But Unbowed: a review
1. Holy crap, is there an amazing wealth of archival footage in this film. LOTS of stuff I've seen before, but wayyy more stuff I haven't (a photo of Joe, Brian and Gerry in elementary school?! Stone Crazy photos, I guess, of the DOA and Subhumans guys as hippies?). I will forever be grateful to Susanne Tabata for rescuing this stuff from semi-oblivion and showing it to the world thus. I mean, I've seen the "Slave To My Dick" video before, dig, but it was likely something that had been taped on someone's VCR in 1982 off Nite Dreems or Soundproof and then left in a damp box to degrade for 30 years, until someone took the trouble to convert it for posting on Youtube; here, it's as big as the screen, with sound and image quality vastly improved over anything I've encountered before (a friend who made some rather unpunkrock comments about the uneven sound quality of some of the footage has clearly not watched enough of this stuff via badly degraded VHS; it's not perfectly presented, but by damn is it a whole lot better than anything I've seen before). A lot of the footage is a nostalgia trip for those who were there - the guy to my right cheered when the Plaza got mentioned, in such a way as to suggest he'd been there on more than one occasion. All this footage is sharply edited together with current interviews into a very dynamic and engaging whole, a vibrant, energetic collage of Vancouver punk. It may be, perhaps, a little confusing to people who don't know the history - it's so jam packed that a viewer who didn't grow up here might feel him-or-herself being pelted with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which he or she is then expected to assemble for him-or-her-own-damn-self - but this was not a problem for me, or probably for most of the saltier folks in attendance tonight; it's a measure not of a lack of craft but of the sheer volume of material that Tabata is cramming into her lean 75 minute movie.
Most of the tone, for the first 3/4s of the way through, in any event, is quite celebratory and positive. It's very easy to get a bit of a contact high from all the exuberance of the musicians on stage, and the ease and humour with which the people interviewed (especially a bickering, joking chorus of Rampage, Zippy Pinhead, and Brad Kent) relate their tales. Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, and Duff from Guns'n'Roses are on hand, too, to provide an American perspective on the Vancouver scene, which may not be that enlightening to those of us who were here in some form or another, but is plenty flattering...
3. All of which is great - even Biscuits' big black box is interesting, if kinda weird - UNTIL YOU GET TO THE LAST QUARTER OF THE FILM. The huge head of positive steam that it has built up completely dissipates at the end of Gerry Hannah's interview about Direct Action - which is brave, revealing, insightful, and honest, but also highly sobering and, in the end, quite depressing. The Subhumans may or may not have let the air out of Warren Kinsella's tires some 30 years ago, but Gerry sure deflated the audience last night - you could almost hear the whole raucous bunch, having been pelted with prizes by Billy Hopeless and given a chance to act out a bit when the initial projection of the film fucked up - sort of sink into a rather pensive silence, contemplating the futility of trying to change anything through radical action, which rather circumscribes the whole domain of political punk: what's any of it worth?
Or maybe they just weren't sure where the film was taking them, but sensed a downward trajectory - which indeed is what we get. From Gerry's imprisonment, the film goes on to deal with even less cheery topics, like violence, heroin, death, and Art Bergmann - who is given more-or-less the last word, talking about how history favours winners, that failures really have no voice and are forgotten, referring to himself and to everyone in the scene previously documented. The film ends rather grimly and sadly - TOO grimly and sadly, given both what has gone before in the film and the actual history of the bands in question; we're being offered Bloodied And Bruised, not Bloodied But Unbowed. I overheard two audience members - guys, punks, men who must have been about my age when the scene was at its peak - talking about how one of them actually cried at the end of the film. I didn't go that far, but I was really rather bummed out.
And again, for those of us who know the history, it might not be a big deal, but for those who don't, they're going to miss out on a few important details: like the fact, say, that punk rock survived in Vancouver even to this day, in some form or another, the first generation being replaced by a second generation, and a third - many of whom, including cameraman Danny Nowak, are people who greatly respected and admired the originators of punk in Vancouver. Even more significantly, what about the fact that of the bands documented, the Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, Dishrags, Furies, and briefly even a semi-Modernettes have reunited and returned to performing and, in many cases, recording? That the Pointed Sticks have toured Japan and the USA and have recorded a new album? What of the Subhumans' return to the studio for the vastly under-appreciated New Dark Age Parade - to say nothing of the "new" new album? That the Dishrags are joining the Sticks to go to Japan? That the Furies first record came out not in 1978 or whenever they started, but last-bloody-year (or was it 2008?). Fucksake, even the amply damaged and depressed Art Bergmann got back onstage to a packed Richards On Richards in 2009; it still may not be the happiest time for Art, but the film has him stumbling off down the road like a man broken, lost, and hopeless... it's a hell of a note to conclude on. There's been such a huge resurgence of interest in the vintage Vancouver punk scene in the last few years - which this film itself is a part of - that one would think that there'd be some attempt made to dig back up out of the pit that the film ends up in, some attempt to say that it wasn't all for nothing. ...Because if it was, why the fuck were we watching the film?
For those in attendance on Sunday, one tip: a vastly better "last word" on the first wave of Vancouver punk can be found AFTER the credits roll, in a lengthy sequence of unused interviews that Susanne, I guess, wanted to stick somewhere. There, Gerry Hannah talks briefly about how the "reward" for making music in a community doesn't need to be wealth or riches or fame, but simply HAVING a place in the community as a musician, being a respected part of it, and contributing something of value to it. (I'm very crudely paraphrasing - I don't recall exactly how he phrases it but I think that's the jist). This seems a very healthy and positive attitude towards being a musician - and neverminding the relatively recent and unnatural phenomenon of rockstar-as-God, one that is in keeping with how musicians are regarded in most cultures and at most other times in world history. Don't leave your seats when the credits roll - it's a conclusion that the film rather needs.
I really, really enjoyed Bloodied But Unbowed, but the ending left me rather sad, which is not how I feel about the scene it documents, nor how most of its members or admirers seem to feel about it now. Good film, important film, necessary stuff, and congrats to Susanne for gettin' 'er done (and to Knowledge for having the enthusiasm and taste to program it); but... jeez, those last fifteen minutes...