directed by Alex Cox
written by Alex Cox and Abbe Wool
As this one approached, Beth warned me repeatedly that I wouldn’t like it. Turns out she was wrong! But I can’t blame her. In fact it surprises even me, to think that I enjoyed this. Nothing about it would seem to be much to my taste. Either this movie has some uniquely transcendent quality hiding below the surface, or else this was just one of those fluke experiences where circumstances conspire to trick me into having a good time that I should never have had.
Doing something arbitrary like watching the Criterion collection in order encourages a certain kind of wide-open-mindedness, particularly given the extreme eclecticism of this particular list — and having an open mind is, unfortunately, more or less the same thing as exorcising oneself of one’s personal tastes. For better and for worse, that’s part of what drives me to do stupid things like this. And I don’t want to understate the simple satisfaction of seeing the next movie on the list after having invested it with several months of anticipation. I have perused the first several pages of the list many times, at this point, so all the titles start to seem like they will be special treats of one kind or another.
So that’s probably the why of it. But in any case, I found this compelling viewing despite having no interest in the subject matter nor any affinity for the implicit worldview (of the characters or of the type of people who would be moved to make a movie about them). The crucial saving grace was that the movie felt to me like it had absolutely no agenda, nothing to sell — not even the idea that this was a story worth telling. There was plenty of room left for me to have any thoughts I wanted about these people, up to and including that they were people of no significance and that their story was of no significance. And under the circumstances I felt tremendously grateful for that space.
Even the more poetic, romantic filmmaking gestures were presented quite coolly; I never felt that my experience was being prescribed. Of course, maybe I never felt that because some hormone or other was low in my brain that day, and not because of the movie, but that’s the way it went down.
I’m gonna put the music selection up here so I can talk about it as it relates to this thought. This little cue, track 20 for your imaginary album, kicks in behind the movie’s signature shot, where the two leads kiss in an alley while garbage falls from above in slow motion. (The music is by Dan Wool, the screenwriter’s brother, credited here as “Dan Wül” of “Pray for Rain.”) There’s not a lot of score in the movie, but what there is is in a similar vein.
On the one hand, this sort of music has a clear, strong emotional impact. But to me, the characteristically 80s aesthetic out of which this music comes is actually sort of pre-emotional, or sub-emotional — the feeling it creates is not of a particular kind of meaning, just of the impression of meaning itself, of lines that extend forever in a space that precedes reality. The Romantic message behind such music might have been meant as “their love was tragic and their story is forever,” but to me at least, it says, rather, “this story, like all stories, is just a kind of a pattern, to which we might try to apply meaning, but in truth it is something geometric and alien.” That depersonalizing tendency of the 80s vibe, intentional or not, put this movie into a relatively pure place, for me. I can’t think of any positive claim that could have been made about these two wretched people that wouldn’t have turned me off the movie. But in the absence of any explicit claims, I was able to feel my own heart, and let it touch down on what I was being shown, however tentatively or ambivalently. And that makes for a positive movie-watching experience, even when all you’re watching is some people being incredibly pathetic.
At first I thought the point of the movie was to depict “punk” — its culture and its ideals — and that these two characters were just convenient historical hooks. My sense was that people probably didn’t live exactly like this, but that they lived somewhat like this and toward the same ideal, and that this movie was giving us a sort of ideally streamlined “punk” milieu, where (as Greil Marcus points out in the commentary track) the historical context is left completely unexplained and the mindset is depicted in itself, without any external cause or purpose.
That mindset, as portrayed in this movie, seemed to be something like that of the Underground Man — these people are offended by the obligation to do just about anything other than exist. They smash things not out of any kind of political protest but simply as a way of acting out against the responsibility not to smash things — the responsibility to protest would be just as much of an imposition.
Generally, the offensive thing about youth cultural movements like these is not their nihilism or irresponsibility so much as their their implicit arrogance. These people invented nothing, discovered nothing — Dostoevsky lived 100 years earlier, after all — so their stridency is undeserved. Yet, at least in this cinematically perfected punk world, they do not in fact want attention or fame or respect; they want nothing other than freedom. Not even the implicit obligation to seize that freedom if they can. And so there is no arrogance, just pure, filthy being. Their stridency is only a part of their disdain for anything other than their momentary impulses — if the disdain includes themselves, it can’t count as pride.
But if the ethos is some kind of inverted Buddhism — the transcendence of earthly cares through an all-encompassing bitterness and anger — then why did these people form bands, dress up, do anything? They too had ambitions. The fact is, there is no such thing as the unchecked id — the pursuit of that kind of purity is a recipe for becoming a hypocrite. Someone’s slogan seen lipsticked on a mirror in one scene: “NO FEELINGS.” By falling in love the characters betray the cause and are doomed. I don’t feel like the characters are hypocrites but I feel like the writers might be.
Ah, but these thoughts mostly refer to the first half of the movie. In the second half, the movie more or less reveals the impossibility of the ideal, as it shows Johnny Rotten moving toward normal society and Sid Vicious dropping below any kind of willful punk insolence into pure heroin-addled degradation. Good.
The movie doesn’t seem to care all that much about the Sex Pistols as a band, and the performance scenes feel dutiful and a little drab, which is unfortunate because there are quite a few of them. But had they been truly charismatic, they would have been harder to think about. Of course, maybe I just don’t get how charisma works in this world — Greil Marcus specifically says that the performances are surprisingly effective as performances, moreso than in most rock and roll movies. More on my probable incomprehension below.
The young Courtney Love, we are reminded all over the internet (when we google Sid and Nancy), was very seriously considered for the role of Nancy, and was given a bit part when the producers insisted on casting an established actor. When she appears, there’s the clear sense that there are two viable Nancys onscreen. I couldn’t help but think, “oh, Courtney Love would have been so much more appropriate.” She has the actual vampy drugged-out quality that would seem to be in order, whereas Chloe Webb is all whining and screaming and seems like the most annoying crazy person in the room. But I’m not necessarily saying the movie would be better. Having watched the clip of the real Sid and Nancy that is included on the DVD, I can see that what Webb does is conscientious and, perhaps, a more interesting distillation of the real Nancy than something less grating would have been. Her performance is absurd and unpleasant but she pushes through to the point of being sort of engaging as such. If the characters were any less transparently pathetic, the focus wouldn’t be as clear.
For the first time in a while, we have a full-featured DVD, with various extras and a good solid commentary track, which I enjoyed. Gary Oldman seems a little reserved and above it all but is game to say a few words; Chloe Webb is loosely, extrovertedly thoughtful in an actor-y way that, in my dealings with actual actors, I have come to find sympathetic. There are a couple other people on there, but the most memorable, as evidenced by my references above, is historian Greil Marcus. Yes, his tone is a little bit pretentious, but most of what he says is pretty compelling, right or wrong. Basically, he talks about his thoughts as an audience member as he tries to work out what this movie conveys, which means that he is speaking directly to my experience. His need to tie everything to historical precedent feels a little like a tic developed during a career of trying to give weight to denigrated popular art, but his cultural-critic attitude serves him well in making his comments relevant to the viewer. Unlike the guys on Amarcord who seemed like victims of the delusion that “analysis” means “puzzle-solving” and that academically legitimate criticism consists of extracting symbols and archetypes until you can say something that seems “socio-political” enough. Ugh.
However: Marcus’s perspective is very much a fan’s perspective: it takes for granted that this material is of great mythic weight of one kind or another. At one point he praises the movie for showing that these characters were not making grand generational statements but were simply motivated by normal desires to have the money or drugs that they wanted. But that’s only an interesting point to people who are pre-inclined to read a grand story in rock & roll doings. Otherwise it’s kind of a duh.
It’s possible, in fact, that the reasons I found the movie approachable and interesting — because, essentially, it eschews any kind of muddled rock pantheon mythology — are also why I actually don’t get what this movie really is, because it’s a movie by and for people who love the Sex Pistols. The real point of the movie, I suspect, is in its exact balance of myth-making and demythologizing, and since I come to it with no preconceived myths whatsoever, I may not be seeing what I am supposed to see. I think that in this case, since I enjoyed it anyway, I can live with that.
The filmmakers are apparently people who were such fans of the band, the music, the rock-and-roll-ness of it, that to them these characters were satisfying, meaningful, beloved characters… and in making this movie they felt they were making a fully rock-and-roll movie, because Sid and Nancy are a part of rock-and-roll. They’re like action figures from a set. But if you only have one G.I. Joe, is he just an anonymous soldier, or is he still fighting Cobra? This is like a movie about a Lando Calrissian figurine, and I’m someone who’s never seen Star Wars. If Lando Calrissian falls in the forest, does he make a sound? I’m here saying I appreciated the quiet, but maybe that’s just because I’m deaf.
See, I didn’t even know that the surreal scene where Sid sings “My Way” was based on a real video until I listened to the commentary and they referred to it as though it were common knowledge. Well, maybe it is, but it wasn’t to me. I just watched the original on YouTube. It made clearer to me the exact nature of what Gary Oldman is and isn’t doing in this movie. The real Sid Vicious comes off as pretty straightforward — a jerky, fucked-up kid being as much of an asshole as he can, on cue. Gary Oldman’s character is much less clearly motivated; he seems more pure and more unearthly, which basically entirely misses the point of punk. He acts like an asshole because that’s his part, but he never feels like he relishes being an asshole, the way a real asshole does. Sid Vicious’s real video makes him seem like a real asshole. Gary Oldman seems more like Edward Scissorhands — a visitor.