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Moving across state lines always comes with a little culture shock. Shit, just go from northern California to southern California and you will take some time to adjust from the difference between the two. I've been a few places, I come from a nomadic tribe of people and have no real hometown, but none of the previous experiences I have had prepared me for my return to the cultural vacuum of southern Utah as an adult. Something happens when your governing body is filled by a local cult and you are separated from the rest of civilization by seemingly endless miles of desert. Every place has its upsides, in this case beautiful unspoiled (for now, they're working on it) landscapes, but the downsides from these secluded desert civilizations are a special kind of fucked up. Most modern establishments in the area were started by religious zealots, some kind of survivalists or a scary combination of both. Minding your Ps & Qs is a very different art form from somewhere like New York or Northern California, luckily it's pretty obvious as soon as you enter. I have more than a few times been reminded of  backwoods-esque horror movies while here and have felt myself coming dangerously close to living out a western version of Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) as I enter some of the smaller towns for work. Looking at the untamed desert hills and some of the people, one could definitely see some kind of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) going down out here, in big way. In fact between inbred killer flicks and Westerns the area has brought to my mind moments in cinema frequently since the move. I couldn't help but think of one very different flick, during those first experiences when I arrived and the trip leading up to it. Penelope Spheeris’s punk road film Dudes (1987).
We start at a Vandals concert, with a fitting play through of “Urban Struggle” performed by a post Steven “Stevo” Jensen line-up. There we meet our trio of protagonists as they bounce around the mosh pit. After the show, a neon diner throwdown and a near death experience, Grant(Jon Cryer), Biscuit(Daniel Roebuck) and Milo(Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers) decide to trek out west to California from their home in NYC in a Volkswagen Bug, hoping to meet life head on. Early into the journey the group meets a jack of all trades dressed as Elvis(Pete Willcox), they help him with some car trouble and find a place to camp for the night. Unfortunately some bigoted rednecks come upon their camp, take all the groups dough, and shoot poor Milo, killing him. Biscuit wants to continue to California originally, but the tragedy awakens something in Grant and the two go on a mission of revenge instead, seeking out the murderous Missoula (Lee Ving of Fear) and his gang of killer cowboys. Along the way they meet an extremely useful auto wrecker(Catherine Mary Stewart), get in another rumble and scare a family of vacationers. There is also a loving but misguided vision quest at some point, when they get fucked up on Elvis's “snake juice”.
While it starts out in the same place as other punk classics such as Suburbia (1983), its light tone and attempt at life affirming moments help the film meld into a slightly morbid buddy road comedy. The punk aspect never leaves, but it feels a lot different sans the surroundings and nihilism. The hybrid tone achieves a unique but somehow familiar flavor that doesn't ever really stick to any one style for very long. This is my favorite aspect of the film, it never decides because it doesn't have to. The well used scenery of the Arizona-Utah desert contrasts against the Hollywood style punk rock get-ups to help build the fish out of water motif.
The story benefits from its simple structure, enhanced by somewhat random elements. It follows a familiar path set down by other road comedies, even at some times borrowing slightly from “highway horror” flicks like Road Games (1981). A big part of the films plot revolves around a death but it never quite reaches a dire tone, opting instead for mostly angst lined optimism. Unless the story calls for consequence, fights are taken lightly as the two remaining characters come out on top of fights by bouncing around like the Drunken Master in a circle pit. Characters are entertainingly odd, but definitely play off a lot of used cliches and it gets a little cringe inducing when Native Americans are brought up. Camera direction and lighting all work with a little of the late 80s fun obsession with pink glow. Dialogue is goofy but no where near the ever quotable writing of the much less polished, Suburbia (1983). It's more flushed out, in line with the comedic timing of mainstream film making of that era. It moves at an upbeat but dry pace and gets a few subtle jokes in, that work well in the long term.
Penelope Spheeris, who originally got her “punk-cred” with the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), seems slightly more removed from the authentic than she did with that release. She would go on to make mainstream comedy classics like Wayne's World (1992) and Black Sheep (1996), and the distance from her hardcore roots could be showing in '87. The notion is doubled by the fact that one of our NY punk rockers is played by fucking Duckie from Pretty in Pink (1986) . I'm not afraid to admit I love Jon Cryer’s wholesome, goofball expressions. He is the only reason to watch most things he is in, if you can even stomach some of the crap he is a part of, outside of Hot Shots! (1991), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987 aka Terry, please don't put that movie on again) and a few others. It seems weird at first on re-watch having him as a supposed street punk from New York but it grew on me. If you do not recognize Daniel Roebuck’s name you will probably recal his face as he has been bit parts in a grip of films (>200) since the 80s. This is the version of him that comes to mind when I see him, lovable oafish jerk, it works well. Whenever I catch him playing somebody's dad or some shit, I just see the mohawk. Flea appears as the ill fated friend through the first parts of the film. Playing, as in other films, what I assume is mostly himself. He is always enjoyable and gets a lot better writing to play with than earlier bits. Catherine Mary Stewart plays the obligatory love interest, always fucking awesome and as with 90% percent of her appearances the only problem is she is just the helpful love interest. I love shit like The Last Starfighter (1984) but Night of the Comet’s (1984) deadpan protagonist leaves me thinking she was underutilized (somebody get her out of DTV comedy crap and put her in DTV action crap, oh and give her more money), but that might be just me and my love for that movie. There are a few other recognizable faces among the side characters and mother fucking Lee Ving of Fear plays Missoula, the main bad guy.
While it can be enjoyed with the same crowd that may also sit through a viewing of the first Vacation (1983) and it doesn't have the grit of Spheeris’s previous punk films, it's less likely to send your local 13 year punk elitist into a frenzy, then a film like SLC Punk! (1998). If they still give you shit, even after you show them your copy of Bedtime for Democracy on vinyl for cred, drop their ass off in a culturally stunted Southern Utah town to show them how lucky they had it. Plus it's easy to be punk-as-fuck when the church is still out here burning KISS records.
| 1987


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