Mitchell: How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
One of the most anarchic and irreverent teen films to be released in some time, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, but it feels like a mere fragment of a much broader and more sprawing narrative, suffused with the kinetic energy and picaresque plot of a graphic novel franchise. In fact, we find out in the epilogue that the entire narrative has eventually been turned into a graphic novel, and that what we are seeing is the inspiration for this novel, which is released by Enn (Alex Sharp), in 1992, but which details events that he experienced during the late punk era. The first part of the film introduces us to this era by way of a collection of aspiring punks who find themselves arriving on the scene just as it is ending. Desperate to make up for lost time, Enn, Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) try to insinuate themselves into one scene, gig and venue after another, perpetually moving at a faster pace than everyone around them, and suffusing everything they do with the exhilaration of live performance. Over these opening scenes, it often feels as if they, and the film, are trying to render real life as “live” as live performance, resulting in an intermedial anarchy that patches film, music video, concert documentary and live performance into an composite and irreverent whole.
For all their aspirations to street cred, however, there are two areas in which this trio of young punks remain utterly inexperienced – electronic music and women – only for both of these avenues to suddenly open up to them when they meet a young woman named Zan (Elle Fanning) who invites them to a local house party. When they arrive, they’re presented with such an odd space and community that it’s difficult to capture, in words, just how surprising this shift is in the context of the film as a whole. For one thing, everybody in this space appears to be subsumed into some kind of opaque ritual, moving from room to room in strange formations, and gathering in cultic groups for the sake of practices and ceremonies, that remain utterly obscure. For another thing, the costumes and décor in this space prioritise queerness, androgyny and fetishism, even as they’re paired with a very British sense of decorum and grace as well, as if splitting the difference between Powell and Pressburger and a contemporary queercore aesthetic – or positing Powell and Pressburger themselves as the harbingers of a very British queercore aesthetic. Moreover, all these actions and movements are accompanied by otherworldly electronica, beautifully evoking an era when every new musical movement was tantamount to envisaging a new species, and every new musical sound had a science fictional capacity to reimagine newness itself.
As it turns out, however, that science fiction angle is more than a metaphor, since it now emerges that Zan is part of an alien collective set to Earth to study the planet as a potential new colony. While the exact process is never fully explained, it seems as if these aliens both evolve as individuals, and evolve into symbiotic relationships with new environments, eventually reaching a state known as the “Fourth Colony” in which they are at one with their new habitat. In order to arrive at this stage, they both have to consume inhabitants of their new environment – that is part of their process of colonization – but also have to consume members of their own species, although the exact way in which this occurs is left unclear. Process aside, the end product feels quite close to the “Colony” that gives the Joy Division song its title, as the alien species arrive on Earth at a time and place where human experience and punk experience are synonymous, leading many of them to emulate and replicate punk mannerisms in order to subsume themselves into and consume their prey.
While the import of these aliens is too anarchic to provide any single meaning, they do often feel like an emissary from the post-punk future, or from the post-punk universe, embodying all the things that punk would become, as well as all the other contemporaneous trends that would come to be seen as more continuous and compatible with punk than any punks would have conceded or immagined at the time. Time and again, the unkempt bodies of the punk trio are contrasted with the mannequinised post-punk bodies of their new alien overseers, as well as emasculated by them, since it turns out that the only way in which the aliens can assert their dominance over a new environment is by penetrating the orifices of the creatures they are colonising. By envisaging punk from the post-punk future, punk itself also becomes more continuous with historical tradition, as evinced in the figure of Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), the last “true” punk in the scene that the film describes, who describes her namesake – the Celtic queen who ran the Romans out of Britain – as the first real punk. When the aliens start wearing Union Jacks, then, the film comes full circle, embedding punk in a resurgence of English nationalism that would culminate with the Cool Britannia, Britpop and New Labour movements of the 1990s, all the while decisively severing punk from its aspirations to make a rupture, or break, with history.
Yet if the film depicts punk as immobilised by the post-punk future, it makes up for it with the punkiness of its premise. It’s here that John Cameron Mitchell’s direction really shines, as he discovers something inherently punky about the screenplay’s weirdness, spontaneity, and its shifts from moment to moment, which imbue every scene with the throw-everything-at-the-wall DIY aesthetic so crucial to punk. It’s exactly the same willingness to risk anarchy that can make drag so powerful, and which makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch such a powerful film about drag. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense, but that just makes it all the more urgent to accept the premise of it all in the moment, as Mitchell tells a story in the same way that a live act tells a story, demanding a certain energy and ethic from the audience to make it work. It’s for that reason that this often feels like part of a broader graphic novel universe, since while we only get a momentary impression of the story, that’s part of the point, insofar as punk is defined here, above all, as not leaving anything permanent, or aiming for anything permanent. Despite being ground in gritty realism, then, this version of punk demands a leap of imagination as much as any science fiction premise, even as it outdoes the futurism of science fiction with a defiance of futurity, an anti-futurity, that is even more otherworldly, finally defying sci-fi to even articulate it.
In other words, there is something deliberately self-defeating about How to Talk to Girls at Parties – a prescience that punk has to continually consume itself in order to prevent the post-punk future, and the very idea of the future, from consuming it. The result comes close to the sublime inanity of films made by actual bands – at times, it’s almost like a punk riff on A Hard Day’s Night – culminating with a beautiful final sequence in which the aliens jump off the edge of the local housing estate into an otherworldly light that doesn’t explain or resolve anything, but instead ushers in what appears to be the first groggy morning after punk died. Defying that morning, and defying the very idea of the future that designates that morning, is the beautiful and unusual task of Mitchell’s film, which is one of the truest pieces of punk cinema I’ve seen in a long time; a live act that immolates itself as it lives.
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