Markey Cinemas - An Interview with David Markey
Dave Markey grew up in Los Angeles during the 1970s, at a time where electicism and new ideologies were starting to permeate the rigid rock-and-roll revivalism of early punk rock culture. Markey, like Raymond Pettinbon, or James Nares and Richard Kern in New York, used this potential as an impetus for filmmaking, rather than starting a band. Unlike those seminal influences, however, Markey came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, documenting a generation of musicians who grew up with his same set of reference points. 1991: the year punk broke follows Sonic Youth and Nirvana around on a European tour, navigating the territory of the punk aftermath and the newfound contingencies of commercial success. Now, there is a newly available DVD, Cut Shorts, that compiles Markey’s work over the past 30 years, revealing the dyanmics and intricasies of punk music in an age of music videos and commerical co-opting.
Matt Wellins: There seems to be a direct lineage that leads from a certain rock cinema cannon to your work. Films like Nicolas Roeg's Performance and Man Who Fell To Earth, or even films like Richard Lester's Hard Day's Night or Bob Rafelson's Head, where there is a certain attention paid to the personnas and mythology of rock music. This delineates a lot of your work from some of the more explicitly punk rock films of the time, films like The Blank Generation or The Decline of Western Civilization, which are more interested in presenting more cut-and-dry documentary. Could you could talk a little bit about the process of distilling characters and narrative structures from your music interests?
David Markey: Honored you see my work as relating to those films. I can tell you I saw them, and they informed me in an important way. But I was equally fascinated with how the establishment (specifically television) saw the counterculture. The fake rock bands from the Partridges to the Archies, to Sabrina singing hippie songs on Bewitched, to the Monkees. Especially with the Lovedolls films. Both were rife with Rock Iconography, and I think that also comes out of growing up in the 1970's. The interests are infused with the characters. There's obvious nods to pop culture icons in character's names and whatnot.
Matt Wellins: In the same token, there were a number of filmmakers interested in counter-cultural mythology at this time. How was your process of making films aided, influenced, or discussed between you and people like Raymond Pettibon? Were you conscious of the New York filmmakers like Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Richard Kern, etc.? To what degree were your filmmaking concerns private, rather than based in shared community ideals?
David Markey: I met and stayed with Richard Kern in the mid 80's in New York. Even though our work is 180 degrees apart, he's one of the few filmmakers that was using Super 8 like I was. It was not like a collective community in any way, but we respected each other's work. Same for my collaborations with Pettibon. On those films it was more about Raymond's dialogue. There wasn't much discussion of what we were doing. I understood the underlying theme was comic, albeit dark. I was enamored working with him, because I was a big fan of his comic books, specifically the Tripping Corpse series.
Matt Wellins: You describe your work as being largely separate from the concerns of Kern and Pettibon, I was hoping you could elaborate a little bit more on how you see your own work, in differentiation from your colleagues.
David Markey: Well, we all shared similar punk rock and low budget backgrounds, but clearly we’ve shed some skin over the years. I think much of my films straddle the line between document and fantasy. They usually have a comic undertow. They are defiantly rock ‘n’ roll. I see my work from different eras being pretty specific to their times. My seventies stuff, while it is the most primal, it is a product of it’s time, just as my 80’s and 90’s works are.
Matt Wellins: You represent the first generation able to bypass the public screening as a method for film distribution. Could you talk a bit about the process of creating and distributing your videos and the response you got? Did the fact that the videos ended up in people's home VCRs, as opposed to movie theatres, have an impact on the way you decided to make films?
David Markey: I was more concerned about making the film rather than doing the work a major studio would to exhibit it. But in a very small-time sense, that's more or less what I ended up doing. In the early 80's the VCR boom made it possible for my work to be seen outside of Los Angeles, through a sort of post-punk underground distribution network. It was out of necessity more than design. Even in LA, there was little chance, outside of nightclubs (The Lhasa Club, which played Desperate Teenage Lovedolls in its small screening room for quite sometime) and actual video venues (like EZTV, an independent LA video theater), to screen my films. These screenings were all important at the time, as they generated interest in the Betas and VHS tapes I was self producing.
This then lead to a couple different VHS distribution deals for the films. By the time I made the sequel Lovedolls Superstar, we were able to set up a national tour, in which the film played in nightclubs with a live performance from the fake rock band, The Lovedolls.
Matt Wellins: What other sorts of film and video work was being produced around you at this time? You talk about an underground distribution network, was there an emphasized relationship between the music culture and the filmmaking that you noticed on a wider scale, or were you blending into more of an experimental film/video framework?
David Markey: I was referring to the hardcore punk record / fanzine distribution network of the 1980’s. This was my first market for my film work. At the time, I was hoping for more people like myself, Kern, and Pettibon to get their films made in an underground fashion, not unlike the music culture of the time. But that didn’t really happen until the 1990’s…
Matt Wellins: At some point in the 90s, your films, like the music they grew up with, became very much appropriated and capitalized upon by mainstream media venues. In many ways, your filmmaking-style became widely appropriated, and a number of your visual ideas were used to signify a general marketing aesthetic, resulting somewhat comically in multi-billion dollar industries like MTV playing hours of grainy Super-8 footage. While many musicians have gone on record, discussing their reactions and relation to the commodification of their work, how did it affect you as a filmmaker?
David Markey: I was taken back. I mean when I saw Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, or even more so, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction I was floored. It's a fantastic film. With Stone's film it was more a visual and stylistic thing. With the latter I know there's a direct connection there, because when I first met Quentin he praised Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. In those cases I was definitely flattered.
As far as MTV goes, once you produce work that is seen there, you are a part of it. And at that Nirvanamania time, I was. I suppose I blew it, because I really could have cashed in at that point. Instead, I just kind of receded. It was a long while before I could even look at my films. But when I did, I was reassured, and I realized I should do the work and produce the DVD versions.
Matt Wellins: When localized communities and scenes, such as the axis of artists on SST, began to disintegrate, how did that change your sense of filmmaking?
David Markey: I learned that nothing is too precious, and that's ok. I don't know if or how it affected my filmmaking. I was making films since I was a kid, long before I got into music.
Matt Wellins: As a zine-publisher and a musician, and as someone coming from a punk background, it seems like that concentrated dissent is a very important part of your work. Is resuscitating a closely-knit community a concern for you?
David Markey: It might have been at one point, but now things are just so different. While I doubt I would have been able to do what I did at the time without that kind of scene around me back in the early 1980's, I am not looking to replicate that experience now. I doubt I'll ever be around something like that again. That kind of stuff is once in a life time.
Matt Wellins: Could you elaborate a little bit more about what your current filmmaking concerns are, now that you are removed from that community? Where do you see yourself fitting into the current political climate?
David Markey: I’m out on the edge of it, like I’ve always been, but it’s in conservative times like these when I most feel like I am actually riding the pop culture zeitgeist. The tide is turning, there’s a lot of pissed off people out there right now. A lot of energy. And I flourish most creatively when I’m angry.
Matt Wellins: You mentioned in an interview recently that you'd like to work beyond the low-budget constraints that you've dealt with in the early part of your career. Could you talk a little bit about how the budget relates to your ideas? On Cut Shorts, there seems to be a pretty decisive reasoning to stay away from shooting video. What would making a bigger budget film entail? Is a 35mm feature-length something you're specifically interested in doing?
David Markey: Yes, and at some point I will make the leap. I always knew I would produce a big budget film, it's just a matter of time. These days it would be all to easy to make a film digitally and edit it on my computer. That just does not seem like a challenge to me. I grew up doing that, and I really need to up the ante at this stage in the game. And at this point in my life I feel like I'm ready.
Matt Wellins: This may be an elaboration on the previous two questions, but I’m curious as to what a larger film would entail for you. Would you still approach it with the same immediacy as many of the films on Cut Shorts? Do you see yourself scripting it? What sort of subject matter are you interested in tackling? Is widespread studio-backed screening an interest at this phase?
David Markey: I have worked from shooting scripts before. I would leave room for improv and spontaneity. Whether I write it or not, as long as it makes sense, even it makes no sense at all. I’ve learned a lot over the years and I am in a place now to really take advantage of that. I’ve just finished writing an autobiographical novel. I feel I am a little close to it, to adapt it into a screenplay, but you never know. Maybe I’ll do something light and frothy before I take that sucker on.
By Matt Wellins