One owes a certain allegiance to people supporting good causes — such as punk rock — even when they stumble. And then there are atrocities so unforgivable, though committed by people whose basic intentions you might admire, that you must speak out against them.
The punk director Jem Cohen created one such atrocity a decade ago with his inept, nigh-unwatchable, and yet wholly uninteresting “documentary” Instrument about the pivotal late-punk band Fugazi. As an article on Decider notes, Cohen will be poisoning minds — pardon me, sharing his cinematic insights — as part of a two-month program of related screenings at New York’s IFC theatre, starting with tonight’s showing of Instrument. I urge any tempted punks to avoid the big-screen disaster like the plague.
And please note that I am not moved to issue this warning by the fact that straightedge-inspiring Ian MacKaye of Fugazi is an ardent anti-capitalist. I expect that from punks, the slogan atop this website notwithstanding. Indeed, I am sufficiently pro-Fugazi that I was quite saddened when reading the Decider article to learn that the band’s members were involved in editing the film, as it may be the most poorly-edited piece of ostensibly-professional visual material I have ever seen (even the films of Ed Wood display a certain basic understanding of human aesthetic needs and narrative expectation utterly lacking here).
Repeatedly, we hear mumbled comments from the band of no apparent significance that reveal nothing, whether aesthetically or psychologically, of any use to the viewer. Virtually no songs are heard at sufficient length for a newcomer even to make the judgment that Fugazi is a decent band. At times, the camera literally lolls about aimlessly showing flashes of light and coiled-up electrical wires of no known relevance to the scene’s main narrative arc. Nothing is learned about the history or meaning of the band, and it is rarely even possible to tell which member is which, let alone what the point of their mumbled half-sentences are.
It is telling that the Decider piece lauds the offbeat inclusion of footage of the band shot by eighth-grade girls at one point in the movie because even now — ten years after I first saw the film — I recall what a relief it was when the eighth-grade video footage comes onto the screen because of the startling increase in the technical and aesthetic quality of the production. Would that Instrument rose to an eighth-grade level throughout.
Fans of the band should be warned that this film is so awful as to force one to seriously reconsider the music itself. If such a cretinous, incompetent production had their hands in it, should I not reconsider my judgment that they have good taste about purely sonic matters? Have I been as duped by the sound as I was when I bought my ticket to the visuals?
We live in a world of aesthetic experimentation, and I have rarely thought that a movie was so bad on all levels as to border on fraud warranting full ticket refunds to the audience, but the appalling, boring, futile, waste of time that is Instrument may be that one case. That Jem Cohen will nonetheless likely generate an audience is a black mark against our entire culture, except in so far as he is trading on the good (albeit anti-capitalist) name of Fugazi — a band that could have been productively brought to the attention of millions had a documentary worthy of their music been created. Alas, there can be no forgiving Instrument.