The Filth and The Fury The Filth and …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Such is patently
the case with The Filth and the Fury, a new Sex Pistols documentary that’s
currently getting overpraised because (1) it’s fun and full of good music
and (2) this is the dismal season for movies when critics desperately seize
upon anything with a little juice to it. Filth was assembled (much of
it from previously unseen material) by Julien Temple, an early Sex Pistols fan
who filmed the band regularly during its existence and, as his first feature,
mounted the much superior and more important Swindle. That film, which
was as much a pie-in-the-face cinematically as the Pistols were culturally,
painted the band as the invention of its outlandish manager, Malcolm McLaren.
The new version aims to "set the record straight," in the band’s
favor. Like most revisionism it is overly earnest and, when all is said and
done, a wee bit pathetic.

You will understand
that I don’t give a fig for the truth per se concerning the Sex Pistols:
what John said to Steve in July of ’76 or who in fact gave Sid Vicious
his illustrious moniker. Facts are for real documentaries. As those alien excavators
will surely discover, rock music was never about anyone’s reality but about
mythic responses to same, and any filmmaker making a movie about rock is doing
only one of two things: translating the myth into another medium (e.g., the
three films named in the first paragraph above) or deflating it (Spinal Tap).
The filmmaker’s primary relationship, like the fan’s, is not to any
music’s "facts" but to its mythology.

In that sense,
Swindle got it right. Slapdash, at once self-puncturing and shrewdly
self-serving, filled with fakey skits and rollicking satiric cartoons (these
are incorporated into the new film without any acknowledgment of their provenance),
the first Pistols movie proved the band’s seriousness by so effectively
and ingeniously denying it. It posed the group as cunning buffoons rather than
hipster avatars, money-grabbing opportunists rather than artists, and purveyors
of fraud rather than purposeful anarchists–an extraordinary way of signaling
their real claims and import while eluding the snares of the commercial
machinery that, as Pistols myth aptly saw it, had virtually asphyxiated rock.

This mocking,
antimythic myth was the last real effort made to free the rock fan from his
most addictive and wasteful drug: hero worship. It didn’t work, needless
to say, but there was an extreme, strangely ascetic beauty to the attempt. As
with the Beatles and Brian Epstein, the cultural landslide triggered by the
Pistols was primarily one of style, the conceptualization and practical launching
of which had lots to do with their ingenious manager (McLaren supplied the name
Sex Pistols and with his wife, designer Vivienne Westwood, concocted the punk
look from the bins of their Kings Road SEX shop). But Swindle’s
vaunting of McLaren as the Pistols’ cackling Svengali was mainly a further
attempt to subvert mindless band adoration by playing to a favorite old-fart
chestnut: that the artists had nothing to do with it, that it was all a greedy
manager’s way of conning the trusting public and upstanding music industry.

This witty
charade was another inspired way of keeping the truth from the squares–who
today, alas, seem to include the surviving Pistols. Okay, sure. You can understand
Rotten’s mounting-over-the-decades irritation not only that McLaren was
given such credit, but also that the manager’s subversive art project apparently
included the destruction of the band he helped create. Yet present-day Johnny,
who lives in Malibu and has a show on VH1, comes across not as clever but as
peevish, petty and middle-aged cranky in trying to counter the incandescent
situationist poetry of the McLaren-era Pistols, including Swindle, with
the footnotes and flat prose of "the band’s version." Inadvertently,
surely, this almost makes it seem that the genius of the original animal was

starts out wallowing in the sorriest sludge of all, sociology. It portrays the
Pistols as a product of the blighted and bitter England of the mid-70s, and
a prole–youth culture chafing at unfulfilled Labour Party promises. True
enough, perhaps, but so flippin’ what? Tell it to PBS. In happy contrast,
easily the smartest and most valuable thing about the new film is the way it
incorporates footage of Olivier in Richard III (a major role model for
Rotten, according to him) and comedians like Benny Hill as a way of acknowledging
that the Pistols’ real roots weren’t in Gene Vincentland, or politics,
but in English theater, music-hall and electronic japery. They were Monty Pythons
from Yobsville rather than Oxbridge.

Which isn’t
to underplay the more obvious points: that the power and the glory of the Pistols’
music was indeed epochal, thunderously transcending as well as deftly supporting
the shtick; and that the whole effect was keyed to the reptilian charisma of
Rotten’s acerbic persona, for which he and he alone deserves credit. Still,
as much as Filth fills in the blanks regarding the band’s meteoric
career, it’s stinting and at times disingenuously opaque about the music’s
development, especially where fired bassist Glen Matlock’s contributions
are concerned. The surviving Pistols, incidentally, refused to be interviewed
together. And for vanity’s sake, it seems, they were filmed in silhouette,
disguising middle age’s bloating besmirchment of youthful images. The movie
also incorporates big chunks of a Sid Vicious interview filmed a year before
his death.

Naive fans,
especially those outside Britain, may think the Pistols represented some kind
of threat to "the establishment," but Filth provides ample
reminders that they were made famous and endlessly used by Britain’s gutter
press, which plays to a level of mental squalor and petit-bourgeois hypocrisy
that’s perhaps unique in the world. In any case, their "threat"
was as quickly domesticated as the Rolling Stones’ had been a decade earlier.
The most touching passage in the movie recounts the time, almost at the end
of their career, when the Pistols found themselves playing a charity event for
safety-pinned kids and firemen in the middle of England. Here, for a brief and
glowing moment, they were what the world seldom allowed them to be: great entertainers,
making ordinary folk happy.

That they self-destructed
in the U.S., at the end of their first American tour, was perhaps inevitable
given that Americans "got" British punk to about the same extent that
white people got the blues. Even in England, as the film shows, punk followed
the usual trajectory, first being embraced by a coterie that shared the same
reference points and sense of humor, then being invaded by the media-fed world
at large, dull-witted and uncool. But America was worse than uncool, it was
virtually toxic. First, New York Dolls groupie Nancy Spungen sweeps in and gets
sweet, dim Sid Vicious (the band’s number-one fan, who was recruited as
a member because of his beauty) addicted to heroin. Then, the Pistols go off
to the U.S. and discover longhairs in cowboy hats, who throw broken bottles
because they think punk–rather than America–is about violence.

As has been
observed, rock ’n’ roll was American; rock, Anglo-American. And the
latter entailed both catalytic glories and inevitable tragedies due to a fundamental
difference that, pace Oscar Wilde, is as insuperable as a shared language: where
British pop music revels in artifice, America’s eternally seeks authenticity.
In American terms, Filth–with its Malibu, VH1 Johnny–giving
us the "real" Sex Pistols makes perfect sense. In the original, British
understanding, the same notion is self-contradictory, at once an absurdity and
a desecration. As McLaren understood, the Pistols’ importance was (and
is) entirely bound up with their fraudulence. Documenting them as a mere "great
band," as Filth does, has its uses and fascinations, but it also
can’t help leaving them looking smaller and sadder than before, composed
of past-tense facts rather than the incendiary, ever-transfixing myth captured
in Swindle.

good idea that’s now in its fifth year, the PS2000 Short Film Festival
is offering programs of shorts every Monday night at Anthology film Archives
through the remainder of April. Thanks to the sponsorship of, the
shows are free (although a $5 donation is encouraged). The program for next
Monday includes Jonathan Bekemeier’s Titler, Aldo Emiliano Vesquez’s
Crabgrass Manifesto, Kris Lefcoe’s Can I Get a Witness, Kimberly
Harwood’s True Confessions of a Sushi Addict, Alexander Meillier’s
Dr. B. Scurrilous, Scurvy Specialist and five other titles.