Suburbia/Rebel Streets/The Wild Side (1983) ***
It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but punk rockers of my generation owe a hell of a lot to the woman who directed Wayne’s World and that god-awful Beverly Hillbillies movie. Not for those films in particular, mind you, nor for any of the other dreadful-ass comedies that Penelope Spheeris spent most of the 90’s grinding out, but rather for two pictures from the very beginning of her feature filmmaking career. The Decline of Western Civilization, Spheeris’s 1981 documentary covering the Los Angeles punk scene just as its center of gravity was shifting from Hollywood toward suburbs like Venice and Huntington Beach, gave the punks of the 90’s a sense of cultural context that the music alone could not easily provide. It gave us glimpses into the lives of the people whose art we were consuming so fervently, firsthand insight into how and why they had created it, and a much fuller understanding of what it had all meant to them at the time. (It also introduced me to Fear and gave me my first hints at how much better Black Flag had been before they poached Henry Rollins from SOA, but that’s another matter.) In short, it helped bring us in touch with our tribal heritage— which sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but for a disaffected teenager in a not-particularly-cosmopolitan suburb, it’s heady stuff discovering not only that there are millions of people worldwide who are out of step in much the same way as you, but that they’ve been struggling for years to develop an antidote to that disaffection. Then there’s Suburbia, Spheeris’s first narrative feature. Although a work of fiction, Suburbia was in a sense even more inspiring than The Decline of Western Civilization, at least for the punks in my neck of the woods at the turn of the 90’s. Although none of us led lives as comprehensively fucked up as those of the TR kids, we could all see some parallel between Suburbia’s doomed teenage runaways and either ourselves or someone close to us. Incredibly, this movie had been made by someone who got it, and even more incredibly, the presence of Roger Corman’s name in the opening credits almost certainly meant that that someone came from outside the scene. One need only watch a few more conventional old punksploitation movies to surmise what a mind-fuck that realization was.
It’s well after dark somewhere along Interstate 605 (the freeway running north from the Los Angeles suburb of Long Beach), and a blonde teenager (Jennifer Clay) is trying to thumb a ride. A woman in a station wagon (Dorlinda Griffin) stops for her, and when asked where she’s headed, the girl says simply, “To the end of the highway.” This sets off warning bells in the driver’s mind, and she asks the girl if she’s running away from home. The hitchhiker doesn’t answer, directing her attention instead toward the driver’s approximately year-old son. The woman soon has more pressing concerns, however, for her car blows its right rear tire, and she, her boy, and the hitchhiker are forced to trudge off on foot in search of a telephone booth from which to call a tow truck. They spot one on a road passing under the 605, not too far from the interchange, but using it turns out to be a really bad idea. While the driver places her call, a feral Doberman pinscher attacks out of the darkness, and mauls the child to death. Welcome to Penelope Spheeris’s LA!
Now let’s stop in at the Johnson house, a mass-produced 60’s tract home in a once hopeful neighborhood that is now slouching exhaustedly toward slum status. Teenaged Evan Johnson (Bill Coyne, who had a small role in the made-for-TV tabloid exploiter Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones) is reading comic books in the dank living room and paying intermittent attention to a televised war movie when his mother (Donna Lamana) makes her belligerent return from work. First, she picks a fight with her son over the vodka bottle she keeps hidden in the oven (I’m thinking that should tell us something about how often that appliance gets used for its intended purpose…), which is now filled to a level significantly below what she believes it should contain. Then she picks another fight with Evan over the trash he was supposed to take out that morning, which is still sitting undisturbed beneath the kitchen sink. And for her encore performance, Mrs. Johnson begins snarling about how much Evan reminds her of his no-good deadbeat of a father. After Mom finally retreats into her room to commence the evening’s bender, Evan fills up a plastic garbage bag with clean clothes, explains to his little brother, Ethan (Andrew Pece), that all concerned will be better off if there’s only one kid for their mother to care for, and sets off toward the city in search of alternative living arrangements.
Evan’s wanderings that night eventually bring him to a punk club, where D.I. are playing for an extremely rowdy crowd. How rowdy? Well, the show gets shut down after a shirtless, shaven-headed boy (Timothy O’Brien) rudely accosts a strangely overdressed girl (future porn starlet Gina Carrera, from New Wave Hookers and Cleopatra’s Bondage Revenge), gets told off, and tears a sleeve off of her dress while making a grab for her; a moment later, every macho meathead in the place is on her, not relenting until they’ve stripped her naked. As D.I. frontman Casey Royer remarks from the stage, “You guys have minds this big.” Meanwhile, a guy by the name of Keefe (Grant Miner) surreptitiously spikes Evan’s drink with a drug he calls “black triangle.” Evan is passed out in a puddle of his own puke by the time security has cleared the club of disgruntled concertgoers, and he is understandably mistaken for a drunk and tossed out. That’s when he catches the attention of Jack (Chris Pederson, whom this movie launched on a decade-long career as a character actor— look for him in Night of the Comet and Platoon).
Jack is the de facto leader of a group of runaway punk kids who call themselves “TR”— the Rejected. There are at least a dozen of them, all squatting a house in an abandoned development that the county government bought up when both the builders and the bank underwriting them went bust as casualties of California’s early-80’s mania for real estate speculation. That non-neighborhood, incidentally, is also home to a whole pack of feral dogs like the one that killed the kid in the opening scene, which tends to keep anybody with a lick of sense from getting close enough to discover the squat. Anyway, if Evan would like to move into the TR house, that’s fine with Jack, provided that the younger boy submit to the group’s initiation ritual; anyone wanting to become one of the Rejected must get a rather large “TR” branded onto the inside of their left forearm. The kids figure that putting an unpleasant price on moving in is a good way to screen out people who are just looking for a free ride somewhere. Evan says he’s okay with that.
He isn’t the only new resident at the TR house, either. Along the way home, Jack stops by to pick up his friend, Joe Schmo (Wade Walston, the bassist for U.S. Bombs during their War Birth-Covert Action period), who has been completely unable to deal with his home-life ever since his father came out as a homosexual. And when Jack, Evan, and Joe arrive at the TR house, they find the hitchhiking girl from the opening scene getting her hair chopped off in the kitchen. The girl’s name is Sheila, and the reason she ran away from home is that her dad (who will be played by J. Dinan Myrtetus, of The Power and The Lost Boys, when we see him later on) makes a habit of beating her savagely with a leather belt as a way to contain his incestuous lust for her. All the TR kids have troubled backgrounds, as you might expect. One boy, Razzle (Mike B. the Flea— who, after dropping the first three quarters of that name, would win stardom playing bass for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and occasionally acting in movies like Back to the Future, Part II and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), is the child of drug addicts, and has spent most of his life bouncing from foster home to foster home. Keefe— the same one who drugged Evan at the D.I. show— is an addict himself. Skinner (whom we also met at the show last night, provoking the scuffle that got it shut down) takes a pretty hard line against drug use, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a sullen, withdrawn, violent troublemaker. As for Jack, he’s got stepfather issues. After his father was killed during the waning days of the Vietnam War, his mother married a black cop, and having to cope with culture shock in his own home has left him rather messed up (albeit noticeably less messed up than most of his companions). Finally, little Ethan Johnson gets what might be the ultimate TR origin story when Mom goes to jail after causing a horrific crash while driving drunk, and Evan and his new friends rush in to spirit him away before the state child welfare apparatus has a chance to get its hands on him.
So how do the TR kids spend their time and make their livings with no jobs, no school, and no external demands upon them save those of survival? Cash comes from begging. (Some of the girls have an exceptional touch with little old ladies.) Food comes mainly from theft, either through shoplifting or through organized raids on the freezers that many of the local suburban homeowners keep in their frequently unlocked garages. Amusement comes from seeing bands play at the punk club (providing excuses for a great live performance by the Vandals and a pretty good one by T.S.O.L.) and from playing pranks of varying degrees of sophistication upon the residents of the nearest inhabited neighborhood. (My favorite example of the latter comes when they pay a nocturnal visit to a house with a newly resodded yard, and literally steal the front lawn.) None of this, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is exactly apt to win the TR kids many friends among the larger community. In a period of economic stagnation and mass industrial layoffs, it pisses people off to be confronted with those who are determined not to work for a living, even when the conscientious shirkers aren’t getting by on burglarizing garages. Those who behave lawlessly in mild ways will naturally be presumed capable of serious lawlessness, especially when they use their appearance to advertise their defiance of generally accepted values. The Rejected would be asking for trouble because of their lifestyle even without factoring in scapegoating and persecution from the angry and unscrupulous. So when the angry and unscrupulous eventually appear, in the form of two laid-off auto-workers (Lee Frederick and Jeff Prettyman, the latter of The Boys Next Door and Cheerleader Camp) and a couple of “nice,” “normal” boys who aren’t above bringing knives to a fist-fight, Jack and company won’t stand a chance if left to their own devices. Ironically, however, the TR kids do have one ally among their aggrieved neighbors— Jack’s hated stepfather, Officer Bill Rennard (Donald V. Allen). It’s simply a question of whether they’ll be willing to accept aid from such a source.
The really impressive thing about Suburbia is that it mostly succeeds in presenting the Rejected in a sympathetic light, even though it makes no bones about them being a bunch of out-of-control fuck-ups. In reviewing Class of 1984, I mentioned that Mark Lester and his cowriters seemed to have little or no understanding of the reasons behind the nihilism of 1980’s punks, even if they depicted it in more or less credible ways. Suburbia, in contrast, shows that Penelope Spheeris understood those reasons very well indeed. To the kids who became punks back then (and to those who did so in my day as well), what the 80’s represented was quite simply the failure of everything. We were raised in the dual shadows of nuclear war and economic decline, most of us in families riven by the Baby Boomers’ epidemic of divorce. Cities had been all but abandoned to crime and infrastructure decay, and the bill for a hundred years of ecological neglect was coming due— with interest— in the countryside. We spent our childhoods hearing an endless succession of anecdotes about how our schools were providing us with worthless non-educations, and from what we saw every day in the classroom, we could believe it. The public face of organized religion was an army of televangelists lining their pockets with the life-savings of gullible retirees. Our government was selling weapons under the table to deranged theocrats who were officially our enemies, and sending special forces operatives abroad to train the death-squads of bloodthirsty dictators who were officially our friends. And perhaps most disheartening of all, we watched as the high-minded ideals for which our parents’ generation seemed never to tire of congratulating themselves curdled into a sick strain of reactionary narcissism. The marvel is not that a few young malcontents turned their backs on the whole business with a disgusted cry of “fuck the world,” but that everybody else didn’t. Suburbia never does anything as crass as to deliver an explicit manifesto of generational resentments, but all that stuff is in here nonetheless, exactly the way I remember experiencing it at the time— as an all-pervasive background whisper of doom and futility.
However— and this is what makes watching Suburbia nearly as satisfying now that I’m an adult as it was when I was a teenager— there is a subtle polyphony to this movie that makes it much more sophisticated than the simplistic paean to the gutter-punk lifestyle that it might look like at first glance. However unpalatable the alternatives before them, the TR kids, in the final assessment, really are the pack of thieves, vandals, and troublemakers that they are accused of being. Theirs is not a sustainable way of life, and their inability to solve their problems (even to the extent of failing to appreciate that one of them has serious suicidal tendencies) plainly says as much. It surely is no accident, either, that two of the three concerts we see them attend get shut down early due to some form of violence— D.I.’s by the mass attack on the overdressed girl, and T.S.O.L.’s by the stabbing of a security guard. Granted, the stabbing isn’t the punks’ doing, but the sexual assault most assuredly is. (And while I’m on the subject of Gina Carrera getting stripped, I’d like to point out how far out of synch with the rest of the movie that scene feels. Although some sort of mass impulse violence by the punks fits in with the theme of them unconsciously contributing to their own undoing, it’s decidedly odd that it should take the form of a sexual attack on a character we’ll just barely see again, and that it should happen in the first twenty minutes of the film. I have to wonder if maybe the stripping scene was conceived as a pacifier for New World Pictures’ usual exploitation audience.) It’s also worth pointing out that TR’s main adult antagonists have been screwed by life almost as thoroughly as the punks themselves, and are merely venting their resentments in a different direction. But by far the most important indicator that Spheeris sympathizes without necessarily agreeing with the punks’ perspective is the character of Bill Rennard. He, let us recall, is the familial outsider from whom Jack fled to the TR house, and therefore an embodiment of family instability and collapse (although his status as such is mitigated by the fact that Jack’s mother is a widow, and not a divorcee). Furthermore, he is a policeman, which makes him an embodiment of the authority that the TR kids disdain, too. Nevertheless, he’s also the only genuinely concerned, genuinely understanding parental figure we ever see, and he’s the one thing standing between TR and the wrath of the neighboring community.
The big weakness in Suburbia is the acting. Spheeris assumed that she would have an easier time turning punks into convincing actors than she would turning actors into convincing punks, and so only a couple of the TR kids were played by people who had any acting experience. That premise was certainly defensible, given what we see in most contemporary punksploitation movies made the usual way, but it would be an exaggeration to call the experiment a success. Chris Pedersen is alright within the limits imposed by his natural accent (I don’t know what it is about that Southern California surfer-dude accent, but I almost always find it lethal to acting), and Jennifer Clay manages to be almost good in a few scenes, but the rest of the cast is in way over their heads. Especially in scenes that should carry a heavy emotional weight, their performances are clumsy in the extreme, and rarely persuasive on even the most naïve level. The aftermath of the suicide in the TR house is the most conspicuous example— not one cast-member seems to have the slightest idea what to do with the scene. Spheeris compensated to some extent by hiring bad actors to play most of the grown-ups, too (better a uniform sucking than a vast gulf between those who know what they’re doing and those who don’t), but this definitely remains a film in which a strong script and competent direction are let down by the floundering in front of the camera.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabal’s month-long look at counterculture exploitation movies. Click the link below to see how my colleagues are faring in their encounters with the various restive youth tribes.