Category Archives: film

A Brief Documentary History of Punk Rock


I’m a music geek. I’m a total geek for lists. I also love documentaries. And history. If only there was some way to combine all of these. Wait– THERE IS!

Without further ado, I present you here a brief history of punk rock through documentaries, suitable for the audiophile, cinephile, and home-schoolers doing a unit on popular music. Note that these are presented in order of where they fall in the history of punk’s development, rather than when the films came out.

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003, Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia) Often lost in the mix of its subsequent history is the fact that Punk actually started in the U.S.. Here’s the story of one of the first punk bands, highlighting the long shadow they cast on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980, Julien Temple) It may have started here, but it was in the U.K.that punk burst into the public consciousness, and there wasn’t a louder source of the P.R. burst than the Sex Pistols. This documentary of their rise and fall is set apart by coming from the era, and being itself a punk pastiche of sound and vision. 

The Filth and the Fury (2000, Julien Temple) Twenty years later, Julien Temple came back to do a more conventional (and thorough) documentary on the Sex Pistols. It lacks the verve of his earlier film, but makes up for it in accuracy, and really puts the band and the Punk movement in a wider context. 

The Clash: Westway to the World (2000, Don Letts) This documentary does a similar kind of treatment for the Clash. If the Pistols were the brains of U.K. Punk, the Clash were the brawn. Or maybe exactly vice versa… Either way, Letts makes great use of performance footage, interviews and news clips to remind you why it wasn’t purely hubris to call the Clash “the only band that matters”.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981, Penelope Spheris) The funny thing about influence is, it runs both ways. If the Ramones helped jump-start U.K. Punk, U.K. Punk equally fed back into the scene in the U.S.. Heavy on live performance and interviews with the bands themselves, Penelope Spheris’ powerhouse showcase vividly brings the LA Punk scene of the early 80s to life.

We Jam Econo (2005, Tim Irwin & Keith Scheiron) From the general to the specific, this film hones in on The Minutemen, one of the more unique bands to come out of that Southern California scene before their highly literate, political and musically eclectic mix was brought to an end by their front man’s premature death just as they were on the verge of wider success.

American Hardcore (2006, Paul Rachman) Who the hell needs wider success? In the course of the 80s, LA Punk became LA Hardcore, and similar scenes popped up around the nation. This film chronicles the development of the nationwide scene, and makes a persuasive argument that Hardcore Punk was the only functioning political opposition in Reagan’s America.

1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992, Dave Markey) One thing about American Hardcore is that it ends the 80s on a distinctively downbeat note- a la the scene is gone now, and the kids all suck. This 1992 documentary puts the lie to that kind of defeatism. It chronicles a tour by Sonic Youth and the bands they brought with them, including priceless footage of a fledgling Nirvana, and is a reminder that, even as Punk flamed out throughout the 80s, it was giving birth to an alternative music scene that still had a splash or two left to make.

This list will get you going, but there’s more to discover. And I’d love to hear some that you recommend!

Ten Years Gone By…

I just has a birthday this past Friday, which always gets me in a “looking back” kind of mood. Since I was born in 1970, this particular birthday also has me hoping that I’m about to discover the secret to:

That’s not what I’m here to discuss today, though. But I have, in fact, been thinking a lot about life. Being on the leeward side of 40 has made me wonder about the twists and turns my life has taken, what might have been, what might now be too late, etc. I don’t necessarily recommend this crazy-making line of thought, but it does lend itself to looking for the narrative.

And as it happens, one of the biggest turning points in my life recently had its own birthday, and has everything to do with narrative. In April 2002, the uranium pile of my first marriage had finally hit critical after a two and a half-year meltdown. This was a crisis I bore no small measure of responsibility for, and I was already going through a process of wrenching change and self-examination in trying to address the issues that had brought it on. Between that and the general void the collapse of a twelve-year relationship leaves in its wake, I was struggling to rediscover who I was and what I wanted from life.

One of the things I had put on the shelf about ten years before that was a lifelong interest in writing. Even as a kid, I had written short stories and movie scripts. I started keeping a journal and writing poetry in my teens, and kept it up all through my early 20s. Then, as I was gearing up for graduate school and working life after that, I stopped. I can’t even tell you why, exactly, but it went away, and was replaced by more “grown up” concerns. Not at all coincidentally, I think, addiction and darkness started ramping up at the same time.

Back to post-separation: alone, shaky, and rebuilding, in the summer of 2002 I decided to take an “Intro to Fiction”  course led by Junse Kim at the Bay Area’s excellent Writing Salon. I’d already started keeping a journal again in the last year of the marriage and the workshop further re-awakened literary stirrings. By late August I had realized, “You know what? I think I’m supposed to be a writer!” I began work on a novel.

So here we are, ten years later. I’m still writing! It doesn’t pay the bills, but it remains the core of how I think of myself: I’m a writer. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I have “enough” to show for it. The part of me that does this because it is my truest and deepest calling in the world gets mixed up with the part of me that wants it to have some kind of concrete outcome in terms of recognition and success. Well, for both those parts, I’d like to bear witness to what I have produced so far:

  • First (and perhaps foremost?) I ended up doing 7 drafts of that novel that I began in 2002, Out in the Neon Night, before finishing it in 2006. I ended up sending out queries for it to 27 agents in 2007, 3 of whom requested a look. While none ended up coming through, I do from time to time consider doing another round of queries, or even e-publishing and promoting it myself. In the mean time, you can read a sample chapter.     
  • My essays “Kissing Girls in the Dark” and “Watch the Skies!” appeared in the 2005 and 2006 issues of the late, great compendium of true tales of the unseemly Morbid Curiosity. I will always be grateful to Morbid‘s editor (and darkly wonderful writer) Loren Rhoads for publishing me for the first time.
  • My confession of my mid-30s discovery of a love for heavy metal, “I Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll” appeared in the 11th issue of the sadly departed “Magazine For People Who Think Too Much” Kitchen Sink in 2005.
  • While I was engaged in endless rewrites of Neon Night in 2005-2006, I started a much more lighthearted “new novel” to have something fun to work on in the midst of revisionitis. It eventually petered out at 20 chapters, and I set it aside in favor of other things. But I’ve been feeling some enthusiasm for resurrecting it recently… 
  • I wrote several articles on arty (and boozy) aspects of San Francisco life for in 2007. 
  • SoMa Literary Review published my poems “untitled” and “Twelve Steps to the New Israel of the Beats” in 2009. Sadly, their online back-archive is currently in search of a host, but I can send you copies if you want to read them!   
  • Slouch Magazine published a short prose piece of mine, “relapse in 26 lines” in August 2009. 
  • My prose poem “Young Karl Marx” was featured on Opium Magazine’s website in late 2009. 
  • In 2010, my essay “Bachelors of Armageddon” appear in When I Was There, an anthology of tales of student life at UC Berkeley.
  • From 2007-2011 I finally pursued a lifelong interest in film-making as a member of the Bay Area independent film co-op Scary Cow. During a four year-period I worked on 13 short films in a variety of capacities, including 6 that I wrote or co-wrote. You can get more of a description, and links to several of the films I helped write, produce or direct, here   
  • Even my bad adolescent poetry has had its day in the sun, being read on stage as part of the Mortified reading series in San Francisco and Boston multiple times from 2006 through 2012. 
  • My Short Story “Ave Maria” was published in 2012 in the anthology Warpaint, available from Amazon on Kindle, and in several other electronic and print formats from the publisher, Zenfri. Meanwhile I have three more short stories making the rounds of submissions. They vacillate between despair at ever seeing the light of day and feeling terribly encouraged by Ave Maria’s success.   
  • Earlier this year I completed the first draft of my first full-length screenplay. I’ll be revising and finishing it over the next year, and then confronting the intriguing sell/make decision… 
  • I also just finished revising a collection of 40 poems (written between 2000 and 2010) which I am now starting to submit to publishers and prizes. 

So there you have it. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like such a bad output for my first ten years (re)devoted to being a writer. That belief wavers a little whenever I hear about a 20something author’s big debut. Then I remember that Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45, or his first novel until he was past 50. And the truth is, should success come sooner, later, in a form I can barely recognize, or even never, it doesn’t really matter. I have to keep doing this. I’m a writer!



In Praise of Scary Cows

 One of the things I dearly miss about San Francisco is Scary Cow, the independent film co-op that I was a member of for the last four years. It was founded by Jager McConnell, in part in response to a problem he kept running in to in the course of pursuing independent film-making: he would post online looking for cast and crew for a project, but then the day of shooting a flake factor would often mean key people, maybe even everybody, failed to show up. With a $50 monthly fee for members, Scary Cow takes advantage of the fact that people are much more likely to show up for something they’re paying for.

It also solves another key problem for independent film makers: access to equipment and crew. The co-op format brings together people with varying specialties, levels of experience and access to equipment and enables them to pool their resources. At a pitch meeting every few months, any member who has a project in mind stands up before the group to present it, and then gathers together names of interested people. Directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, light and sound people can all be assembled in short order.

Finished ten-minute projects then screen to an audience of several hundred at the end of each round in a local theater in San Francisco (lately the grand old Castro Theatre). The audience votes on favorites, and top vote-getters are awarded funds for future projects and the chance to screen longer 20-minute pieces. I can testify that some really great films have been produced, many of them going on to film festival success outside of Scary Cow. So far two teams have expanded their work to feature length films as well, the documentary Iran is Not the Problem, and the delightful musical comedy shoe fetish extravaganza Devious Inc. The group is currently gearing up to support even more feature-length projects.

My own involvement began in 2007, when years of wanting to be involved in film finally reached a boiling point and happily intersected with seeing a posting about Scary Cow online. In four years with the group, I had a chance to work on 13 films, and went from having no formal experience to getting to try out just about every role imaginable: actor, art director, assistant director, best boy, casting, director, extra, producer, production assistant, props manager, script supervisor, shot log and writer.

On six films I got to be a principal participant (some combination of director, producer and writer), for a total of 75 minutes of screen time. That’s almost a feature length in most parts of the world! Along the way, I also got to participate in many of the workshops the co-op held, led by experienced cinematographers, directors and producers. At $50/month for 44 months, plus about $1,000 I put in directly to making films along the way (craft services can really add up!), and then workshop fees, for under $4,000 over four years I got a thorough introduction to film-making and got to meet and network with hundreds of people. That’s a significant bang for your buck compared to most any film school you could name.

While I’m sadly far from the herd now that I’ve moved, I’m working on finishing the first draft of my first feature-length screenplay (currently 103 pages and counting), informed by everything I learned with Scary Cow. And I have a half dozen films that I had a primary role in to show for my efforts too:

Carson Larson Gets the Picture– The very first film I worked on, which I got to co-write along with Alex Winter (who produced it) and Jason Hoag (who directed it), and also worked as a production assistant and had a small role in.

Geek Wars– Which I wrote and produced, and Richard Armentrout directed.

Deaf Dumb and Blind Date– Also written and produced by me, and directed by Richard. This was actually a companion piece to Geek Wars, intended to be part of a three-part 20-minute film called Triptych, which I never got the prize money to screen in its full-length. I can arrange home screenings if you like, though, and meantime I think this holds up niftily well on its own.

The Buddhist News– The brainchild of national treasure and co-star of Geek Wars Matthew Weinberg, which I co-wrote with him and Assistant Directed, and also spit up on screen for.
Ave Maria– My baby, which I wrote, directed and produced, based on a short story I’d written. Which was way too much to do all by myself, but I guess I really wanted to get it made! I learned a ton, and while it was a long haul to get it done, I’m super-proud of it.

23 Ways In Which I Could Die– Co-written with Matthew, and Co-directed by myself and Fathy Elsherif, this film just screened in November. It’s not online yet, but when it is I’ll let you know. Until then, vive la Scary Cow!


Baby, I’m a star!

Well, that may be overstating it a bit. As a writer, though, I figure I have carte blanche to over- under- miss- or re- state whenever the mood strikes. This blog is reality as I create it, after all, and divine re-creation is the highest human prerogative.

Here’s what I can state, with a high degree of accuracy:

I spent most of yesterday (starting with a bracing 6:00 AM wakeup) in the East Bay on the set of the short film I’m one of the writers on. Small production, so far I’m a co-writer, assistant producer, script supervisor and manual laborer. And, as of yesterday, actor.

I hesitate to use the term “actor” since I have a total of eleven words of dialogue in two brief scenes that probably don’t occupy a combined 20 seconds of screen time. I especially hesitate to use the term in comparison to Ryan Eggensperger, Aimee Miles, and Bonnie Jean Shelton, three really superb actors with the film who were on set yesterday.

Still and all, I got in to character (which mostly involved being a geek and lying around in bed- both of which were a total stretch), did my takes and took direction from (oddly enough) the director. It’s such total joy to be hanging out with all the great people involved in making this film, and working on it is a concrete form of one of the three intentions I have for the New Year: putting my creativity out there in public more. Yaay!

The film will be screening at the Victoria Theatre toward the end of the month with a bunch of other shorts, I’ll let you know when it’s coming up…

Scene 1, Take 2

This weekend I spent 23 hours on the set of the movie I’m working on, and got an average of four hours of sleep a night. The amount of sleep considerably increased last night, but I’m still pretty punch-drunk, so this will be brief. I loved making a movie. I loved the beautiful, talented people I worked with. And I loved that I am finally doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. In particular I loved this:

Have you ever been out around town somewhere and run across a group of people who were making a movie? I have before, often with a little flash of envy accompanying the “who the fuck are these people who have taken over a public place?” We mostly shot at the director’s apartment, but our last scene of the weekend was in a taqueria at 29th & Mission.

So last night I the fuck was one of those people. Jason, the director, even got a passing mariachi band to take part in the scene. I have never been happier!