I mentioned last night that I get obsessed with stuff and watch it over and over and over. In 2008, for the first half of that year anyway, I had three films on repeat: Ghostbusters, Stop Making Sense, and today’s subject, The Filth and the Fury. Surprisingly, after having seen The Filth and the Fury all those times, it just occurred to me last night after watching it for the first time in several years that the title is a reference to The Sound and the Fury. And like Faulkner’s novel, The Filth and the Fury has unreliable narrators in both Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren.
It doesn’t matter to me that the true story of the band is not told here, because it may never be told. I’m not even a fan of the Sex Pistols, or of punk rock in general. I don’t hate Never Mind the Bollocks, but I didn’t even listen to it in its entirety until 1992, and even that was someone else’s copy. Although I do prefer an actual punk to a god damn hippie any day, if I have to choose one to associate with.
So why did I get obsessed with this rock doc? It was the stream of consciousness presentation, which also reminds me of The Sound and the Fury, now that I think about it. I enjoy seeing the images from British TV and film, along with news clips and actual footage of the band, just flow into one another. This documentary came out before the current execrable trend of documentaries being filled with static images that the filmmaker lazily moves around on the screen, like animation but not quite. Director Julien Temple actually had to find and edit together clips, which he surely had to ask permission and pay for.
Unfortunately, along with the bullshit coming out of the mouths of McLaren and Lydon/Rotten, an unusual style was chosen for the interview sequences: the band members are shown in shadow, like witnesses on Unsolved Mysteries who agree to be filmed only if they can’t be identified. (And why does Malcolm McLaren have a black beach ball over his head? Did the viewer just become a nonconsenting part of someone’s fetish?) Except we already know who they are! And for most of the film, different people just talk over other footage, so you don’t know who is talking anyway unless it’s Lydon, whose voice is unmistakable. So I guess it’s better for me that I wasn’t watching this movie to see a band I liked. I think that maybe I liked this more because I don’t know much about the subject. To me, it’s just a kaleidoscopic viewing experience with an underlying current of dread. And dread is something I cared very much about when I was watching this on repeat.
I will say this for Lydon and company, I think the most honest they were here was when they admitted that they started a band because there were no jobs in England at the time, and otherwise they felt they had no future. Seeing the clips of the garbage strike and the riots of the time, it’s understandable that young men would do anything to rise above that sort of poverty. But that sentiment clashes with a guy on a microphone screaming about how he doesn’t care about anything. I’ve never believed that punks don’t care about anything. When you don’t care, you don’t bother yelling about it. If anything, they care too much, and that’s what makes punk in general, and the Sex Pistols in particular, so fascinating.
The 70s footage includes shots of notable people who attended Sex Pistols’ shows, including Billy Idol. Isn’t it ironic how he named himself Billy Idol as a parody of rock stars, and then became a rock star himself? People really win on MTV!