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My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, July 21, 2022

July 21, 2022: UtahStudying: SLC Punk!

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On the independent film’s sociological studies, and whether they’re specific to this week’s subject.

If the 1990s were a golden age for auteur-created independent films (and I think the Kevin Smiths and Quentin Tarantinos and Richard Linklaters of the world would argue that they were such a high point, although of course they have heavy competition from the 1970s), then an often-overlooked but unique and interesting late entry in that decade-long trend would have to be 1998’s SLC Punk! Written and directed by James Merendino, based in part on his own experiences growing up in Salt Lake City in the late 1970s and 1980s, the film stars Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian [SPOILERS for the film’s climactic events in that clip] as (as the trailer puts it) “the only two punks in Salt Lake City.” It was chosen as the opening night feature at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival (perhaps the crowning achievement for 1990s independent films and their auteurs), and became influential and enduring enough that it spawned a successfully crowd-funded 2016 sequel, Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2 (once again written and directed by Merendino and featuring much of the same cast as the first, although Lillard did not appear in the sequel).

SLC Punk! is first and foremost the story of Stevo and Bob, Lillard and Goorjian’s young punks, and their lifelong and ultimately tragic friendship. But Merendino’s screenplay is also quite interested in broader sociological questions, and he explores them through an interesting conceit: describing (or rather having Stevo and to a lesser degree the other characters and the film’s narration/perspective overall describe) the city’s various teen cohorts as “tribes,” with distinct traits and characteristics, clothing and appearance, behaviors and customs, and so on. As the title suggests the punks are our central focus throughout, but as that hyperlinked scene above illustrates we also meet examples of five other tribes: the Mods (yuppie-types), the Rednecks (duh), the Neo-Nazis (double duh), the Heavy Metal Guys (triple duh), and the New Wavers (the most passive and peaceful tribe, and thus the most preyed-upon by all the others). Preyed-upon is a purposeful turn of phrase, because the film presents these “tribes” as not just warring communities of young people, but really as animalistic adversaries in an ecosystem that can feel very much like an urban jungle.

But does this particular urban space matter? Would the basic categories and dynamics hold if it were NYC Punk!, for example? To a degree I imagine they would, especially in the film’s specific time period of the 1980s (when both Mods and New Wavers were prominent youthful groups around the country to be sure). But there are also specific aspects of Salt Lake City and Utah that do matter, and not just because it’s a Red State (to use a more recent term) that thus has a more significant quota of a category like Rednecks. No, as that above trailer comments on overtly, the conservativism of Salt Lake and Mormon Utah runs far deeper than just the “Red State” identity, and is really one defined even more fully by another c-word: conformity. As I’ll talk a bit more about in the weekend post, the Mormon community is centrally connected to a very elaborate set of rules, and to the idea that young people especially have to conform closely to them to pass the community’s legacies along. So while 80s Punks! everywhere might well have things that speak to them in this film, I’d say SLC Punks! have a particular context and connection that Merendino’s film explores thoughtfully.

Last Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

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