Ears, Eyes and Throats: Classic and Lost Punk Films 1976-1981
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 6 Minutes
The process of putting together the program you are seeing on byNWR.com under this title was a labor of love for The Restorationist. As discussed elsewhere in the volume, this was a fertile period of experimentation for filmmakers as well as musicians, and when we looked at what could be brought to the site, we wanted to avoid the obvious pitfalls of “typical” or predictable “punk rock programming” – we figured those bases had been covered many times over, ad nauseum.
But what turned out to be the greatest inspiration for assembling the compilation of short films seen here was, in large part, discovering how badly even the best-known work of the last four decades had been treated during that time. It turns out that if you wanted to see any of the works of the seminal anonymous group The Residents, for instance, you had only fairly mediocre multi-generation copies available to watch – even if you bought their own DVDs. Devo’s legendary first film hasn’t been seen in a version close to its original source material since the early 1980s.
Indeed, we are presenting a brand-new restoration of Devo’s In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976), which has been struck from the original camera negative – an element which hadn’t been touched in almost forty years. The film was the immensely popular “opening act” for the band in their early period of touring, and many prints were struck, but all copies have faded badly over time. Furthermore, as early as 1981, cuts were made to the film for video release so that it would flow differently and its credits were excised. It was essentially re-purposed as twin music videos fairly early on, and ceased to be its own film. We’ve gone back to the original, and in doing so revealed the gorgeous fine image details long lost to lousy standard definition video copying.
The aforementioned Residents short films were most recently glimpsed in the documentary on the band, Theory of Obscurity (2015), but, inexplicably, terribly color-faded and unpleasant-looking copies of the films were excerpted. Considering the documentary was, in essence, meant to be the ultimate “career summary” of the group, the use of inferior prints seems all the more distressing. The Restorationists set out to right this wrong by working directly with the Cryptic Corporation to restore all the major films from scratch from their original camera negatives, and we were fortunate enough to have their director Graeme Whifler personally oversee the process with our colorist, Andrew Drapkin. The results are nothing short of astounding for all five of the Cryptic/Ralph Records titles we are presenting here: all three of the Residents’ works on film, Renaldo and the Loaf’s Songs for Swinging Larvae and MX-80 Sound’s Why Are We Here?
And two of the films in this compilation, Deaf/Punk and Moody Teenager, nearly died with their creator, Richard Gaikowski, had it not been for his close friends having rescued the only surviving prints and deposited them at a local archive. These impossibly scarce films are presented here in scans from these sole surviving prints, through the cooperation of the Richard Gaikowski estate and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California.
Liz Keim and Karen Merchant’s In the Red (unfinished; 1978) is a remarkable piece of verité collage filmmaking which gets its formal premiere here on byNWR. Made in San Francisco in early 1978, just as the first flush of the punk rock scene was exploding, it was never completed by its creators, and its workprint was left in a sort of fugue state for about 20 years. It was only when friends of the filmmakers urged them to pull it out of storage, after seeing a horrible off-color video transfer, and put it in front of people, that it had a chance to emerge at all. Its workprint and soundtrack have been scanned and reconstructed by Dino Everett at the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive – open ending and everything.
Stephanie Beroes’ brilliant Debt Begins at 20 (1980) was distributed for years by the venerable Canyon Cinema Cooperative, and while not being nearly as well known as its contemporaries such as The Decline of Western Civilization, it made the rounds to festivals and various screenings. But it would mysteriously disappear when a sloppy cinema forgot to send it back, and not turn up again for years – and when an independent film only exists in one single 16mm print, it’s a small miracle when it is actually re-discovered. Happily, the film is currently being restored through a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation – from its recovered original negative – and will be reissued at some time in 2020. We present the film from its one and only (and still lovely) original print.
Peter Conheim is the lead archivist behind byNWR, and also a musician and film and audio preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. A longtime member of culture-jamming pioneers Negativland, he also co-founded the “all-16mm-projector ensemble” with the late Owen O’Toole and Steve Dye called Wet Gate, and the Oakland-based Mono Pause and Neung Phak. He has also played bass alongside Malcolm Mooney from CAN in Malcolm Mooney and the Tenth Planet for twenty years, and joined The Mutants in 2015.