day-by-day-by-south by: 2

The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s film about Kathleen Hanna, was my Day 2 highlight at SXSW.

Outside punk, riot grrl and feminist circles, Kathleen Hanna may be best known for providing Kurt Cobain with the inspiration for Smells like Teen Spirit – by spraying ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ (a deodorant for teenage girls) on his wall after a mega-binge. She didn’t drink for 6 years after that, so it must have been quite a night…

The feature-length documentary follows Hanna’s career from a spoken word artist through to a punk musician, becoming an ‘outspoken feminist icon’ en route.  I was sceptical about the icon bit when I entered the auditorium /converted by the time I left.

In short, The Punk Singer is a summary of how a young woman with the voice of Polly Styrene and the looks of Elizabeth Taylor got from here Kathleen Hanna spoken word to here The Julie Ruin featuring Kathleen Hanna

Hanna first rose to attention in the US as the lead singer of punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre. As the voice of the riot grrl movement she also became famous as an outspoken feminist, able to articulate her own inconsistencies and compromises in a way that encouraged other young women to take control of who they are. The post screening Q&A featured more than a few fans who’d been ‘Girls to the Front’ – Hanna’s concert war cry to protect her female fans (and her self) from the growing violence and misogyny of the 1990s mosh pit. And there was one ‘men to the back’ guy, who had done what he was told back in the day but you sensed he still wasn’t quite sure why.

Hanna worked in a strip club to pay her student tuition fees. She struggled emotionally with acknowledging the pain of  her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ in her childhood. And professionally she struggled on through a hectic US and European tour despite being visibly unwell. Laiprepaleset And then she married a Beastie Boy, but in fairness Adam does come across as a very good man.

These compromises and apparent inconsistencies were all grist to the tabloid mill. By 2005, a combination of ill health and having her life torn apart and misrepresented in the media led her to step back from recording and performance. Happily she’s now well on the roads to recovery and the recording studio.

Did I like the film? I thought the Lymes disease doctor (for that is what she was finally diagnosed with) had a wonderful deep and growly yankee voice. But I didn’t need to hear quite so much of it. As for Joan Jett‘s scary deep and growly voice – especially when filmed on the back seat of a limo bedecked with fairy lights – I could have listened all night.

Capturing the musical development of Hanna as an artist was fascinating – from the shaky video of her spoken word performances (better quality on film than the link above – sorry about that) through to the smoother melodies of Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, it’s all unmistakably and gloriously punk.

A quote from Kathleen Hanna: “Art revolves around creating something that isn’t there.”

Screened as part of the 24 BEATS PER SECOND strand at SXSW, The Punk Singer certainly celebrates 24’s aim to showcase the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians and their impact on social and political change. Soon to be released on DVD…

The Punk Singer

Director: Sini Anderson

day by day by south by: 1

No More Road Trips? – a silent movie road trip across the USA and the perfect way to realign my brain after criss-crossing time zones and colliding with a switch to daylight saving en route to SXSW Made entirely from home movie clips spanning the 20th century, starting  with a 1930s rich kid filling a bottle with Atlantic Ocean water prior to heading West. If he ever followed tradition and poured the water into the Pacific we don’t know – or at least film-maker Rick Prelinger hasn’t found that particular clip. Yet.

The painstaking work of sifting though collected, found and donated film stock to compile No More Road Trips? has an astonishingly high attrition rate – only 1 minute in 80 making it to the final cut.

Barring the odd diversion, the film’s narrative is a westward sweep across the states, mixing and matching whatever footage from whichever era to map the route. As the 20th century plays out we see Rural turn industrial, Industrial turn suburban and various states of economic rise and fall often within a few consecutive frames. So the Pacific coast is approached via a California of wooden track roads across the San Bernadino mountains,  fields of grainy monochrome oil drills, a youthful Dennis Hopper waving to Hollywood tourists and Jerry Lewis gurning from his Cadillac in full colour.

So that’s what we see. But what we hear is…nothing. Prelinger’s premise is that the audience at each screening makes  a fresh soundtrack. Downwitemnoyris In other words, the audience is encouraged to call out in response to the people, places and situations on screen. On this occasion, despite Prelinger’s prompting presence the ‘soundtrack’was little more than a few observations about location and style. Acknowledging that this element is a work in progress, he is heading back to his base in San Francisco to work on triggers for the audience.

A couple of things stopped me contributing to the sound-tracking experience. One was the editing, which is generally pretty fast moving so the remarkable hat, house or car has moved off screen before the words have reached the tip of the tongue.The other barrier, for me anyway, is that the images as presented simply prompt a bit of an ‘oo’ an ‘aa’ and an ‘Auntie Nellie had one of them’.

Prelinger’s provocation is that question mark at the end of the film title. Have market globalisation and soaring fuel costs junked America’s freedom to get in a car and travel to a new life in a different place with its own unique appearance  and history. It’s an interesting enough provocation but…

Prelinger has taken an editorial decision to remove sequences of film that may be controversial or provocative. Specifically, he has not included clips of Native Americans or African Americans which he believes are culturally  insensitive or stereotypical. It’s difficult to judge his decision without knowing the material. We’ve all seen early (and not so early) white European home movies emphasising the ‘exotic’ natives and lifestyles found on their travels. Are staged or real Native American rituals captured in Prelinger’s film cans? Are these predominantly from the early 20th century or did they extend to more recent times? And why, from memory, was there only one shot of an African American family? (standing under Lincoln’s statue in Washington) even though a much filmed locality was described as a mixed Italian / African American neighbourhood. We wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t been present and told us. How are home movies of people going about their daily lives construed as offensive? Questions Unsaid and Unanswered.

No More Road Trips? veers slightly too much towards the sentimental past of cows blocking country lanes, close knit families and happy campers. The soundtrack of the 20th century is a noisy and discordant one. Reflecting some of that discord on screen might be the participatory trigger Prelinger is looking for.

But having said that, maybe a cinema auditorium – even one as beautiful as the Alamo Slaughter Lane  – a cinema auditorium is not the best place to shout out in public what would have been your asides to friends. Or at least, that’s how I felt when Prelinger asked a question during the screening, I knew the answer and I didn’t call out but I was happy to mutter.

In fact I shared one of the SXSW limos back downtown with the director and I still didn’t strain my vocal chords to put him straight. Rick, if you’re reading – those trees on the corner of the dark road? It’s white paint.

No More Road Trips? Director: Rick Prelinger.