Reviews

What We Do Is Secret

The faux interview preserves Darby Crash's self-image, the reenactment in What We Do Is Secret remembers the preservation.


What We Do Is Secret

Director: Rodger Grossman
Cast: Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez, Noah Segan, Ashton Holmes, Tina Majorino
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-08-08 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
Standing in the line, we're aberrations,

Defects in a defect's mirror.

-- Darby Crash, "What We Do is Secret"

"Everything works in circles," asserts Darby Crash (Shane West). "Like, sometimes you're doing something and a year later you're back at the same point. So right now, we're doing circle one. Someday we'll probably do circle two."

Or someday, we'll be doing circle one again.

As Darby explains this complex facet of his philosophy to Slash magazine reporter Kickboy Bessy (Sebastian Roché), he appears in black-and-white. This suggests not only that it's 1979, but also that this is a reenactment of an archival moment, an interview with which the real Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm in Los Angeles, 1958). The Germs inventor and frontman leans toward the camera, earnest and stoned, insisting on his rightness and wisdom. The faux interview preserves his self-image, the reenactment in What We Do Is Secret remembers the preservation.

Rodger Grossman's film is sometimes fascinating for this very circularity. Whether West's cunning performance is like Crash's own, or whether the movie's recollections are accurate is almost beside the point. What matters in watching the film is how such gestures challenge the institution of rock-stardom. As Bowie fan Crash and Crash fan Kurt Cobain well knew, the conventions of celebrity shape expectations and possibilities. Efforts -- especially genuine efforts -- to resist that perpetual show are both inspired and doomed.

Crash's notoriety is partly premised on his demise, his deliberate heroin overdose at age 22. Repeatedly in the film he extols his "five-year plan" for stardom, instigated by his own faith in the model set by David Bowie. That the plan doesn't precisely look out for his bandmates -- legendary guitarist Pat Smear (Rich Gonzalez), bassist Lorna Doom (the enduring Bijou Phillips), and drummer Don Bolles (Noah Segan) (so smitten by the Germs that he drives out from Phoenix to offer his services) -- is both predictable and lamentable. The movie's Crash is a self-described fascist (but not a Nazi, because "There's a difference, you know: like, I can respect Hitler for being a genius, but not for killing off all those innocent people"), but also vulnerable and terminally sad. His performances are calculated as well as creepy and childish. He tells his interviewer that in high school, he and his misfit buddies "would carry around copies of Helter Skelter and put Xes on our heads," knowing then and now that his audience will be revolted and mesmerized.

Drawing from Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, an oral history by Bolles, Masque book Brendan Mullen (played here by a badly wigged Ray Park), and publisher Adam Parfrey, the movie is episodic and, perhaps appropriately, offers only glances at Crash's emotional life. Today, he may be as well known for when he died as for how: the day after he shot up for the last time in a friend's parents' pool house, John Lennon was killed outside the Dakota. In What We Do is Secret, this odd collision of events is turned into cross-cut scenes of loss: as Pat watches the TV reports on Lennon, Lorna calls to tell him of their more immediate loss. She weeps, he stands with mouth agape. Unconvincing and performative in their own rights, these responses emphasize What We Do is Secret's understanding of celebrity's incessant soul-sapping.

These responses also underscore the odd and exquisite built-in irony of the film's title. Crash's self-abuse on stage -- he cuts his chest, Sid-Vicious-style, he fights, falls, and trades obscenities with his angry, adoring audience ("Cut yourself!" they yell out as they slam into one another) -- obviously denotes a personal pain. Such clichés structure the film (and, arguably, Crash's brief life). He's beloved by girl groupies and in love with a surfer named Robbie (Ashton Holmes). (The film doesn't attend to punk's homophobia during this period or Crash's ensuing depression.) The band quickly becomes famous for destroying clubs, making it impossible for them to get gigs. Their one album, 1979's GI, is hailed as brilliant and innovative (in the film, they read aloud reviews, per formula), but they're already dissolving.

The film doesn’t shed light on Crash's story so much as it repeats it, its circular shape at once apt and disappointing. When Penelope Spheeris (Michele Hicks) plants herself in front of Crash and declares she wants to include the Germs in The Decline of Western Civilization, you know it's only a matter of time before they'll be on a stage, she'll be pointing her camera, and What We Do is Secret will be including images emulating hers. Her film -- which features as well members of X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Catholic Discipline -- remains a powerful document of the scene and its participants, bandmembers and fans alike.

Crash's speech here, to a final club audience, suggests early punk's raucous intimacy between performer and consumer. "I want the people that care, that care what it was like, that admit something to be inside of here," he says. "I want to play for you and you can come up here and you can play with us and we will make it like it was." Circular, again.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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