In our last episode, I explained what Punk is and what Punk ain’t. Refresh your memory if need be. I also reviewed
Meditations, a Punk John Coltrane album from 1966. So what if no one else thinks Meditations is Punk. They are blind fools wandering in the maze of some lingering Stockholm-coffee-haus-induced haze that has left them impotent and wack. Wake up daddy-o’s and taste the flaming kerosene spewing from the charred wreckage. Good, I’m glad we all agree. Now, onward and inward.
This month, we’ll take a look at 3 more intense Punk works:
Vanishing Point (1971),
Cool Hand Luke (1967), and
Bartleby the Scrivener (1853). These works are Punk because they all have Punk heros. Note: I refuse to use the word “protagonist.” Nor will you hear me sputter the phrases “character traits,” “anti-hero,” or “nonconformity.” This ain’t no term paper. I will say the word “Punk” a lot, however. Punk. Punk Punk Punk. OK, that’ll do (for now).
To sum it up, Cool Hand Luke won’t stay down, Bartleby won’t get up, and Kowalski (Vanishing Point‘s hero) won’t stop. They are all charging the immovable object of authority, and they all run into it and die. Quixotic role models? No. Punk? You bet!
COOL HAND LUKE
Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke is the most Punk of our three heros. Not to ruin the plot, but here’s a summary of Luke’s actions:
- Luke is sent to prison for lopping the heads off of parking meters with a pipe cutter while drunk. “Not much to do in the evenings,” he explains.
- He gets knocked down in a boxing match by a large inmate an estimated 17 times. “He’ll have to kill me,” Luke says as he gets up again.
- Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. “It seemed like a nice round number.”
- Upon learning of his mother’s death, Luke climbs into his bunk and sings “Plastic Jesus” while accompanying himself on the banjo.
- Luke breaks out of prison 3 consecutive times.
- He calls God “old timer” and “old man.”
- Luke’s prayer for a purpose in life is answered within minutes by a bullet in the neck. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
- Luke dies smiling.
Cool Hand Luke is oh so very Punk for the following reasons:
- His rebellious spirit is eventually broken by the prison wardens. He admits to that. Yet Luke continues to run away from prison even after his will has been crushed. Luke embodies a distinguishing characteristic of Punk – insane persistence enduring well beyond mere anger, rebellion, or principal.
- Another Punk thing about Luke is that he ultimately makes his peace with God, realizing that God made him Punk and that God himself is Punker than even Luke. How poser and trite to expect a Punk to reject Jesus. How truly Punk for a Punk to embrace Him. At any rate, Luke winds up in heaven surrounded by good-looking women. “Ain’t no grave gonna hold this body down.” Don’t blame me. It’s all right there in the movie.
- Finally, Luke is Punk because he’s dirty all the time, and Punks are always dirty.
BARTLEBY THE SCRIVNER
Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame wrote Bartleby the Scrivener in 1853. It’s been called the greatest American short story, but who cares. The obligatory plot summary is as follows: Bartleby is a Scrivener, which is like a human Xerox machine. He’s working for this guy and one day, when asked to copy something, Bartleby answers, “I’d prefer not to.” From then on, he just keeps saying “I’d prefer not to,” until he’s finally fired, bodily removed from his cubicle (where he’s been sleeping), and later arrested. Bartleby dies in prison. The end.
The story is supposed to be about the narrator, Bartleby’s boss. For sure, Bartleby’s static behavior causes his boss to struggle, grow, act dynamic and round, etc. But in the end, Bartleby is still the more interesting character. The boss/ narrator ends his story decrying, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!” But Bartleby’s last words are still presumably, “I’d prefer not to.” We’re never told, but I imagine it went something like this – Prison Warden: “You sure you’re not going to eat this 5-day-old gruel? You won’t get any more after this.” Bartleby: “I’d prefer not to.”
Bartleby is Punk in a nerdy way. There’s no single way to do Punk, and Bartleby does Dilbert Punk. If Cool Hand Luke has a real cool hand with nothing but persistence, then Bartleby takes the pot. Bartleby is our mystery Punk, and the only one of our three Punk heros who doesn’t die smiling. Maybe he’s just insane, and not really Punk at all. Anyway, he sure seems Punk. Bartleby doesn’t bathe a lot either. Guess why.
KOWALSKI, THE VANISHING POINT
When you give up on society, society gives up on you, and you wind up dead in the slammer. Unless you have a fast car, in which case, you wind up dead in your fast car having intentionally smashed into a road block at 120 miles per hour. Oh, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t give anything away.
Kowalski delivers cars from coast to coast, and he decides to make his last stand while delivering a white Dodge Challenger to California (go figure). This movie is like Smokey and the Bandit meets Terminator 2. Kowalski doesn’t stop. He uses uppers and has all these flashbacks and meets some nice people, but he never really stops. He’s going to keep driving until they stop him, which they eventually do.
Kowalski is Punk in that he’s self-destructive, but not outwardly violent. After he runs everybody and their brother off the road at 100 miles per hour, he always considerately circles back to make sure they’re all right. Like Cool Hand Luke, Kowalski is a war hero. Like Cool Hand Luke, Kowalski has admirers and followers, none of whom he’s sought after or desired. Maybe Kowalski’s wild ride is the ’70s predecessor of Forrest Gump’s pan-American running spree? Whatever. I think Kowalski might have bathed under normal circumstances, but you see, he just can’t stop.
All three of our Punk heros make it pointedly evident that something’s got to give. In the end, society holds firm and our heros are destroyed, but darned if they don’t leave a nasty dent.
Four Punk things down, and One Punk thing to go. Why am I spending my entire last article on a single song? Tune in next month and find out.