Both Salad Days and Happy Valley conclude leaving as many questions as they ask during their runtimes.
Any number of interviewees in Scott Crawford’s Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) try to define the scene differently. Still, some overriding ideas emerge, from straight edge and strident politics to Dischord Records and DIY. Behind just about all of it stands Ian MacKaye. DC punk was never an international scene like New York, London or even Los Angeles. The bands fostered in the cracks of the capital’s inhuman government institutions and post-riot urban blight didn't aspire to get out there and make it big, even punk-rock big. They wanted to play their own style of blitzkrieg hardcore for the diehard packs of mostly white middle- and upper-class teens who didn’t much like late '70s arena rock or disco. The film -- screening 14 November at DOC NYC -- offers a series of middle-agers looking back, some wistful, plenty still scrappy, mostly asserting they were happy just to keep blowing it all up on stage every night, even if only a few dozen people ever saw it.
And yet the legend spread, through the outposts of the American musical underground. As the ever-verbal MacKaye puts it early on, the city was a “petri dish for great ideas”. Crawford runs quickly through the scene’s Molotov cocktail-like clutch of foundational bands, whose raw power is easily comprehended even via the film’s patchwork of muddy video clips. The Teen Idles and Minor Threat (both MacKaye projects) stand out as prototypical American hardcore, the kind that flowered in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Various band members pay homage to the furious punk-reggae blend embraced by Bad Brains. But given that the always-breaking-up Bad Brains were outliers (as shown in the only barely released documentary, Bad Brains: A Band in DC), Crawford wisely keeps focused on musicians with deeper ties to the scene, with members of Dag Nasty, the Untouchables, Marginal Man, and Government Issue all getting their say.
While the film packs in a lot of material that would be of sociological interest to outsiders, this is clearly an insider’s project, heavy on specifics. (Salad Days even calls out a particularly punk-heavy intersection in Georgetown.) Except for a few intertitles, Crawford doesn’t waste time defining terms like straightedge or explaining how skinheads fit into the period’s subcultural milieu. Assuming viewers have a base knowledge, interviewees are free to opine on arcana like the influence of go-go R&B bands like Trouble Funk, the activist-therapeutic resurgence of 1985’s “Revolution Summer”, and how Rites of Spring's introspective lyrics expanded the possibilities of hardcore.
Hardcore's initial limitations, perceived and real, provide a kind of tension for the film. Behind the music was, of course, a sociopolitical stance that rejected the dominant ‘80s paradigm. Henry Rollins talks about punk kids being assaulted on the street because some passerby felt threatened. But that same rebelliousness under threat created a minor, adolescent Stalinism, with codes of what was acceptable that still rankle some interviewees years later. It's too bad that Crawford cuts off his story with the advent of the genre-demolishing Fugazi, just before the eruption of Riot Grrl into the famously guy-centric scene. That does, however, leave open more opportunities for opinions and arguments.
If Amir Bar-Lev’s superb Happy Valley is any indication, the arguments in the Penn State community over the Jerry Sandusky scandal will not be ending anytime soon. As with most scandals that flare into the national consciousness amid intersecting nodal points of volatility (regional identity, sexual crimes, sports), what actually happened ultimately has little to do with how it plays out with public opinion. Just so, the film -- screening 17 November at DOC NYC -- sidelines some of the who-what-when to examine the lingering dust clouds of disappointment, rage, and conspiratorial invective.
Film: Happy Valley
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Cast: Matt Sandusky, Jay Paterno, Suzanne Paterno,
Studio: Music Box Films
US Release Date: 2014-11-17 (DOC NYC 2014)
US Release Date: 2014-11-19 (Limited)
When, on 9 October 2012 when longtime Penn State assistant football coach Sandusky was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years on a slew of charges (including child rape), the case looked almost concluded. But Andrew Shubin, an attorney representing some of the victims during Sandusky's trial, warns in the film that any such effort to put the past behind us would be “a dangerous lesson… It’s just the beginning.”
Bar-Lev subtly and powerfully makes the argument that the cult of personality around Penn State coach Joe Paterno, and the broader obsession with the football team, created a kind of reality-distortion field around the scandal. This produced a counter-narrative within central Pennsylvania's Happy Valley, wherein Sandusky’s predations on children were isolated criminal acts that had nothing to do with the school or community. To that way of thinking, the immense institutional weight carried by the likes of Sandusky and his superiors had nothing to do with his being allowed to operate so freely for so long.
Thusly, the outside media were insulting the community by asking whether Paterno, the area’s longtime surrogate father figure, let a criminal off the hook by not more vigorously following up a report of child abuse. But it's difficult to square the loudly proclaimed tranquility of Happy Valley, steeped in old-fashioned values with the footage Bar-Lev includes from the night Paterno was fired. The enraged students (and not a few adults) stormed through the town in a frightening and grimly building rage. The mob chanted, “Fuck the media” and overturned a news van. A few particularly enterprising individuals tried to light it on fire, as if to exorcise the unwelcome attention it represented.
Happy Valley doesn’t stint on unwelcome details. For everybody convinced that Paterno covered up Sandusky’s crimes, there’s Scott Paterno's believable argument that his father was well read but exceptionally “naïve”, and so he may have not comprehended what he was being told. For all those who just want to move past the scandal and get back to football, there’s the inconvenient reality of all those victims. For the people wanting justice and accountability for those victims, there was the beside-the-point and slightly Orwellian spectacle of Penn State and the NCAA writing Paterno out of history, voiding his wins from the record and taking down his statue on campus.
While Bar-Lev’s approach doesn't condemn any single person, his film leaves you with a creeping sense of unease about what one interviewee calls the “security blanket” of Happy Valley. As in Bar-Lev’s 2010 documentary The Tillman Story, the rush to slap a soothing narrative over a painful truth can sometimes be as disturbing as the truth itself.
Splash image: Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990)