Friday, December 10, 2021

Review: Punking Out (1978)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Screenshots from the film

Punking Out
Directed by Maggi Carson, Juliusz Kossakowski, and Ric Shore
Punking Out Producers
25 minutes, 1978
Full film HERE

While undergoing a “procedure” in a hospital a few short years ago, the doctor suggested I think about a “happy place,” such as a beach or a mountain. My mind instantly went to sitting at a table at CBGB, around the time this documentary was filmed in 1977, waiting for the Ramones to come on. This was something I did a lot back then. Made me happy at the time, and during the biopsy (it was negative, for those who care).

I remember seeing this black and white documentary when it first came out, and a few times since then, be it at a revival theater (e.g., the Thalia) or online. And like my mental image before the doctoral slice and dice, the film makes me smile. And, on occasion, sneer.

There are so many familiar faces in the crowds (such as Terry Ork) and those interviewed, some whose names I have since forgotten, and others I never knew, but I was a regular at the club and have seen all the bands represented here numerous times, and can say the live shots of – in order of appearance – Richard Hell and the Voidoids (the only band not interviewed for the film), the Dead Boys, and the Ramones, capture their early fire, as all the songs represented would come from their first albums, such as “Blank Generation,” “I Need Lunch” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” respectively, among others.

Helen Wheels

From the first time I saw it, one of the moments that stuck with me is singer Helen Wheels commenting (though not identified in the film) that she is never bored, as she fidgets around. I would interview her when she opened for Iggy Pop at the Brooklyn Zoo half a decade later, but even then, in the short moment she’s onscreen, she is riveting. Also memorable for sheer obnoxiousness, as is her style, is Lydia Lunch, happily squealing that she had slept with all of the Dead Boys. It comes across as forced and full of pretentiousness (reads as “I’m cool and insufferable. Aren’t I precious?!”). When I interviewed Lydia at Max’s Kansas City with her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks around the same time this was filmed, she was an absolute asshat full of self-importance that would eventually achieve her C-level fame.

Joey Ramone (back), DeeDee Ramone (foreground)

The interviews of the bands are fun, as DeeDee of the Ramones stumbles over his words describing a song he wrote, and Jimmy Zero of the Dead Boys scarily and amusingly runs off with the interview, invoking his mom numerous times. Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB, comes across with dry, fatherly advice about violence and how loud music helps quash it (I never saw a fight occur in the bar).

Lydia Lunch

Other fun interviews include a couple of non-regulars in cardigans who swear they will never come back (but I bet they’re bragging they went even to this day if they are still on this plain), an over-amped bearded guy who I believe was a member of the Helen Wheels Band, and a couple of thick New York accented women who have menial office jobs and go out to see bands to blow off steam (I can relate to it).

The directors wisely don’t stay on any one person too long, just enough to get the gist of personality, which they disperse with the live footage and band interviews. It is only 25 minutes long, but it flies by quite fast and I definitely wanted to see more.

Office drones enjoying the music

This came out a couple of years after Amos Poe and Ivan Kral’s Blank Generation (1976), which focused more on the music and the bands (i.e., playing their records over unmatched footage of the bands playing live). Punking Out is more of a deeper dive into not only the music, but those who were there to experience it. It was just before punk became more codified in dress codes and styles, and is a flash of a time capsule of a Camelot-like moment of joy.

IMDB listing HERE 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Documentary Review: You Can’t Kill Meme

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

You Can’t Kill Meme
Directed by Hayley Garrigus
79 minutes, 2021

Media is fascinating. I have been a student in the field of Media Studies for decades, so when this particular “anti-documentary” came up, I just jumped on it. I have been saying for as long as the Trump administration has dumbed down the culture, that the right is more interested in memes than facts.

According to the Oxford Languages Website, which gives two main definitions of a meme that are both accurate to this film, it is ”an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitations.” It is also described as “a(n)… image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.”

The film describes the meme process with a bit more flamboyance, as “memetic magick.” Any way, you want to designate it, it is created on a computer and then hoisted upon the Internet, via social media such as Facebook (yes, I am still calling it that), Instagram, etc., and it is spread around through like-minded individuals who often accept it as truth, in part because it is in print, but more because it falls into their own ideology. While used by both sides of the political aisle, it is especially accepted as gospel by the alt-right, who are willing to accept conspiracy theories without seeking out the sources, because receiving a piece of sometimes amusing art from someone who has like-minded leanings is easier to digest than the often-complex text of those who they have chosen to distrust (such as a quick meme about COVID, rather than the complex and changing science). It is apparently easier for them to believe a meme than known fact, because it is beyond their ken and not in their realm of belief systems.

Billy Brujo

As an interesting point of entry to the meme, the director chose to focus on R. Kirk Packwood’s 2004 book Memetic Magick: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality. This was at the rise of the 4chan Website and, of all things, the Pepe the Frog meme, which became one of the first viral memes, especially one that was adopted by the politically right leaning, according to Chaos magician (yeah, I have no idea what that is), YouTube personality, and apparently goth by his make-up (observation, not criticism), Billy Brujo. He states, “We’re looking for magick until we find it” on social media. Sounds a bit like the equivalent religious search for the god-being. In Brujo’s case, to me that could be another way to describe an algorithm. I actually felt sad for him, as I do for religious fanatics.

Marshall McLuhan’s theories turn up here and there, such as one anonymous government worker who states, “…this myth [is] that the Internet opens people up to new ideas. It doesn’t; it actually allows them to close down”. McLuhan famously said that most technologies do the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do (e.g., a car was supposed to make it possible to visit relations far away, but it makes it easier to go so far you may not come back).  

Pepe Trump

The main focus of the beginning narrative of the film starts in earnest with the Trump presidential campaign, and the use of Pepe to promote the Trump team and to mock Hillary Clinton.

While director and narrator Garrigus breaks down the meanings of the coded language of “magick” and “memetics,” she also does not talk down to the audience. Occasionally it sounds a bit “New Agey” for my tastes, but her point is valid and worth noting. That being said, Garrigus seems to come from a higher (or is that deeper) tech world than I do. She claims around 2014, the acronym “LOL” was replaced by “KEK,” who was the frog-headed Egyptian god (symbolizing the bringer of light after the darkness, or chaos). Really? I don’t remember that, and I still see the former to this day, but have never noticed the latter. But then again, I have never been on 4chan, nor hang out at alt-right sites.

The documentary, I find, is a bit disconcerting. We are facing civil unrest, “the big lie,” voter suppression, the scrapping of voter right and rights to abortion,” and the documentary is discussing mixing the internet with magick – literal metaphysicality – with speakers like Dave Mullen-Muhr, a right-wing pundit (to give you an example of his trustworthiness, he deals in Bitcoins) who believes in the Matrix, and calls Trump the “red pill.” And people listen to him, why? And why should we? Or there is Carole, a New Age Buddhist, who discusses the “science of spirituality.” There’s an oxymoron for you. She is part of a group of Lightworkers, who “are awakened beings who bear the highest interests of all living beings and Earth in their minds,” according to One of them that we meet is Nick Peterson, a “scientist magician.”

Sometimes it is hard to tell whose “side” Garrigus is on, stating Mullen-Muhr is a dear friend, while pointing out the evils of KEK (or as I now call it, pre-QAnon, which is quoted a bit here, as well). Rather than pointing out what right wingers are doing, she almost gleefully gives them a voice. Remember, sometimes things are actually opposite of what they are intended.

I must confess, I went through the New Age movement indirectly in the early 1980s when I dated someone neck-deep in it. I never believed, but I saw with her friends the reliance on crystals, psychics, and yes, magick. This deep-dive look at a very technical product (memes and social media) has the same woo-hoo as that. It was hard to take the topic seriously, and that’s on me, not the film itself. Harold Innis may have called it a bias of communication, both as sender and receiver (I could bring up Shannon-Weaver at this point…oh, I did; never mind).

Taking out all the New Age Shaman stuff, to put it simply in my opinion, a better way to describe memetic magick is a word that was once incredibly popular in big business during the 1990s: synergy. That is when something grows beyond one’s control and gains a life of its own. The expression “Jump the shark,” for example, has gone beyond “Happy Days” and is now a description for an act of desperation. That’s synergy. Memes do not use magick to become powerful, they are used enough to become cultural icons – for good or in this case bad – and go beyond the originator’s control until they become something broader with a wider base.

It is really hard to take a lot of this seriously. I mean, Carole discusses how Obama went to Mars in a secret space program with someone who started time traveling when they were 5 years old; another woman pulls four assault rifles out from under her bed as well as a huge army/Bowie knife while spouting she likes Trump because he’s a “disrupter.” There is a belief expressed that both the left and the right use wizards and witches to cast spells on the other side but the right uses dark magick. It also would be quite easy to just substitute the word “magick” with “Jesus.”


As the film gets to the last quarter, the narration starts sharply turning anti-Liberal (Garrigus claims they hate the Middle Class, like the Conservatives help them with tax cuts for the uber rich?). At some point, the memetic fades away, and it’s the magick that becomes forefront through the middle section. This documentary isn’t as much about social media as New Age philosophy with a right-wing twist.

Towards the third act of the doc, Garrigus brings it around again by interviewing Packwood, author of the book that foisted this film, Memetic Magick. He humorously declares that he and 12 others can change the course of the world, while describing himself as  “underrated,” and numerous times as “intelligent.” Okay, then. It’s around this point where the meme topic raises its head again, as the meme is claimed to have elected Trump in 2016, according to the film. No focus at all on Russian hackers or the interference of James Comey.

As far as the form of the film, Garrigus makes it personal as she narrates opinions, films a variety of people (sometimes a bit too long), adds some nice stock footage as well as her own, animation, and 4chan screenshots, and does her best to avoid the dreaded talking head syndrome. Kudos for that. I just wish the documentary was more about what it claimed, how the right uses memes, than a guide to magickal thinking. The narrative straddles the fence (a metaphor for right/left politics) between technology and mysticism, and perhaps it would have been less whiplashy if it had been two separate accounts.

You can find the documentary on Altavod, Apple TV and Video on Demand.