Note: This is adapted from an essay written for Denah Johnston’s class analog before digital: punk/no wave film & music.
Sidney’s more than a mere bass player, he’s a fabulous disaster! He’s a symbol. Metaphor. He embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation. He’s a fucking star!
-The Sex Pistols’ manager in Sid and Nancy
Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986, about the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious) surfaces a perspective of a society that is dirty, wild, abusive, rude, and hopeless. Drugs control, define and ultimately ruin lives. No one is good or innocent; even the children are rioting. With a bit of time, it could very well turn into the world of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. But it felt glamorized, especially in the beginning. The story and the characters seemed exaggerated.
And yet the portrayal of junkies and drug use was unapologetically dark. Despite glamorization of some aspects, the film seemed to show a one-sided vision of punk culture: the anger, the violence, purposeful apathy, self-destructive drug use, but no community or real sense of (sub)culture. There was only the downward spiral, devoid of hope or even the consideration that not caring has its benefits (it was only shown to be destructive). So it may have been accurate, at least about elements of the culture if not the story it’s based on, but it was an incomplete, unsympathetic vision.
John Lydon (also of the Sex Pistols) has been especially outspoken in his hatred of the movie, not only because he believes it’s entirely inaccurate, but because he disagrees with the message of the movie:
The squalid New York hotel scenes were fine, except they needed to be even more squalid. All of the scenes in London with the Pistols were nonsense. None bore any sense of reality. The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good. But even he only played the stage persona as opposed to the real person. I don’t consider that Gary Oldman’s fault because he’s a bloody good actor. If only he had the opportunity to speak to someone who knew the man. I don’t think they ever had the intent to research properly in order to make a seriously accurate movie. It was all just for money, wasn’t it? To humiliate somebody’s life like that—and very successfully—was very annoying to me… It was all someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era. The bastard.
The film, like many of the period, is thus more a snapshot of a time and a place and a group of people, than a “true” story about its subjects. It intends to capture a feeling, an archetype, more than a factual account (perhaps this was not Cox’s intention; but the filmmakers did seem to be aware of it, calling Sid, through the character of the manager, a “symbol” and a “metaphor.”). This is something we saw quite frequently in class — films that capture life in an era more than they capture a single story. Even Downtown 81, based on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s real life, was as much about life in those days as telling Basquiat’s story.
Essentially, I think the film can be summed up in a scene later in the story, where Sid and Nancy sit on the bed in a hotel room, high on heroin, Sid holding Nancy as the room burns, lit by a discarded cigarette. Too apathetic to react — or simply unable — they sit and watch as the world around them burns. Sid lights another cigarette. And this is the tale the movie tells: a destructive, tragic love story, of two junkies destroying themselves, and each other, oblivious to the world around them burning, oblivious to the fact that they sparked it.
We saw the same kind of apathy, of simply not giving a f-ck (there’s really no better way to put it), from those interviewed in The Decline of Western Civilization and much of the other punk material we’ve seen. Yet Decline‘s portrayal was more nuanced, less dark and certainly less judgmental. Most of what we’ve seen was created out of appreciation or at least fascination with the culture and stories being shared. Cox, on the other hand, while certainly being interested in his subjects, harbored no sympathy or respect for them. He wanted to do the film because he was worried that someone else’s portrayal would be too sympathetic, and might represent someone he saw as a sellout and a traitor as a real punk.1 And the one-sided approach shows — but it’s also an important look at a terrible and tragic aspect of the culture that, as much as it might have been grafted onto a specific story for Cox’s exploitative means, is very real.
In one scene, an old friend starts talking to Sid and gets puked on. As Sid stumbles away, the friends shouts, “You’re gonna make someone a lot of money Sid!”
And that much, undeniably, the movie got right.
Cox’s attitude toward his subjects was indeed unapologetically negative, writing [in X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker] that “Sid had sold out, contributed nothing of value, died an idiot.” Cox went on to say that one of the reasons he was attracted to the project was that he was afraid that if someone else made it, it would portray its subjects as “real exemplars of Punk like I am; rather than sold-out traitors to it.”