Director John Cameron Mitchell says he wants How to Talk to Girls at Parties to be the favorite film of some 15-year-old girl. Thank fuck for that, because the middle-aged white male critics hated it. At Cannes, the film was met with derision; one review proclaimed it "one of the worst films ever made" while another lamented its failure to build a focused narrative. The twitteratti cried that it was the punk movie that didn't understand punk.
"Who is saying that?" asks Cameron Mitchell rhetorically. "I had my punk days. The funny thing about punk is that just like anything else it starts to become about rules. Doesn't that actually go against the definition of punk?" It does, but I still manage to cajole the filmmaker into giving me his personal definition: "It's music that has always been about calling attention to and being immediately skeptical of authority and popularity and not holding it in high regard."
Indeed, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a big sci-fi middle finger to anyone that expects the Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning-starring film to be a polished take on the nascent London punk scene. Yes, it's set in Croydon in 1977, and it features teenagers who go to a gig and pogo to punk. Then, the movie says, "So what?", turning into a bittersweet intersectional love story between a rebellious alien (Elle Fanning) and an out-of-his-depth insecure schoolboy fanzine writer (Alex Sharp).
This plot will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Hedwig, Shortbus, or Rabbit Hole, films that cemented Cameron Mitchell's interest in alienated outsiders. The director's 70s heroes were David Bowie and John Waters, not Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten—and Waters' influence is definitely evident in How to Talk to Girls at Parties's purposely-wayward narrative.
It's clear that Cameron Mitchell wants to be a punk filmmaker, not a punk historian; in How To Talk To Girls At Parties, punk-obsessed teenagers meet aliens and realism is immediately jettisoned. With such a fantastical storyline, how can Cameron Mitchell make it even clearer that he's got no intention of making a movie about the punk scene? He just wants to express the spirit of punk, and part of that spirit means not caring whether people think the movie is shit.
Alien Zan is costumed like she's zapped herself straight from the set of Neon Demon and the love-focused plot ("I always make films about love, or the absence of it," said Cameron Mitchell) is so threadbare that it will come as no surprise to discover that the film is based on a short story by Neil Gaiman. Zan repeatedly asks, "What is punk?", and the only answer she gets describes the genre as "the fag-end of the blues," a line delivered by Nicole Kidman in a wig that looks like it's been stolen from Labyrinth. Her over-the-top performance keeps in line with the movie's general mayhem.
"I missed the punk era as a teenager," Cameron Mitchell told me at Cannes. "I was in Britain during the glam era, so Bowie was important, as he was to the punks. It was only after I came out that I got into punk. There was a kind of queer punk thing happening in the late 80s and early 90s, which led to Hedwig. There was a scene happening called SqueezeBox! a party in New York with a queer punk scene."
What Mitchell's alluding to is that no single era has a unique sound, and so the music in the film is an eclectic mix: a bit of Krautrock and glam rock, the sequenced sounds of Matmos and Bjork, and songs in the spirit of the 77 penned by Mitchell himself. "Our joke is that without the aliens, the punks could never have become post-punk. So when the aliens and punk fuck, there is Krautrock and Punk added together and we get New Wave."
The 54-year-old director is a bit more downbeat when chatting about the music scene today. "What was the last popular music movement? Grunge. Isn't that weird? It was an Americanized version of punk. The Neil Young version of punk." He has a theory as to why no new sound of American youth has arrived, and digital life is to blame.
"Now because of the internet, you don't have one big scene, but small groups of belonging," he claimed. "When I saw Occupy happen and then disappear as a popular thing in a year, I wondered whether it was because digital has reduced our attention spans, or is it because people were so equitable that they refused to make a list of demands like the Old Tea Party guys did." He also laments that "The term selling-out has disappeared. Young people, right away, at the age of 12 are branding themselves."
Yet the filmmaker knows the value of branding himself, and he has his own cult following. Nonetheless, he's made a movie that is a middle finger to expectations of what a Cameron Mitchell movie is. It's anarchic and rough, but also sprinkled with plenty of glitter, including several brilliant one-liners that will stand the test of time.
Should he be worried that it's being called one of the worst movies ever made? "From my previous films I've seen that it's only time that will tell."
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