Sid and Nancy
Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (or Love Kills, which was its intended and better title) rides in on the strange spectacle of nostalgia attending the “tenth anniversary” of punk – i.e., punk replayed for those sad young things who, alas, missed it the first time around, because they were under the age (or at a Rod Stewart concert). As such, one cannot help but compare it with a related, Australian exercise in low-life nostalgia, Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986) – a film that has been called “the most pointless and important movie ever made” by the scenesters of Xpress magazine.
But both films, whatever their individual virtues or flaws, strike me finally as being, indeed, pointless: why tell the story of punk, or in particular the story of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), beyond the fact that it’s there, that it exists, that it happened? If there is any mileage to be gained from turning over the corpse of punk, now does not yet seem to be the time to do it.
But, as a film, Sid and Nancy certainly has much going for it, and it advances Alex Cox’s visible directorial skill several light years beyond the easy flipness of the least-deserving cult film of the ‘80s, Repo Man (1984). Sid and Nancy is a triumph of tone: the note it consistently strikes throughout is one that manages simultaneously to both play up the Sid and Nancy story (for laughs and even romance), but also put it in a dark, entirely anti-nostalgic perspective.
Cox achieves this notable effect by making brave use of ellipses, paring away all extraneous detail, zeroing in on the zonked-out interpersonal space of its two anti-heroes. Indeed, insofar as Sid and Nancy is about the relentless experience of drugs and the grim death-wish scenario of addiction, it shows this world as if from inside its doomed characters: a series of dislocated, decrepit hotel spaces in interchangeable countries (France, England, America), fantasy and reality indicators increasingly blurring and swapping over as the film proceeds.
Sid and Nancy avoids the problem of trying desperately to be realistic, authentic, documentary-like. Cox, to his credit, refuses to wallow in the sludgy sea of punk-paraphernalia detail that Dogs in Space so obsessively records (and sometimes loses its way in). Nor does Cox let his film get too sidetracked into the controversies of punk-history – although the throwaway caricatures of Malcolm McLaren (David Hayman) and other figures are likely to wrench some in-the-know audience members away from the real guts of the matter.
As for the principal actors, Oldham as Sid is a little too interior in the British drama-school style for my liking, but is amply compensated for by Webb’s chillingly precise rendition of Nancy’s melodramatic hysteria in any and every situation.
The other major virtue of Sid and Nancy is its sense of humour – it’s full of sharp sociological observations (punks versus hippies and rockers, punks at home with their conservative families, fickle fashion-only punks deciding to change their subcultural lifestyle overnight) that are fast, witty and diverse – more in the vein of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) than Dogs in Space (compare Cox’s delightful “naughty newsreader” gag to the endless and leaden “Malcolm Fraser is a fascist” anti-leftie quips in Lowenstein’s film).
Theme? Insofar as Sid and Nancy wants to be about something, it’s the punk variant on doomed love: love unto death, love too strong for this world, love that goes out in a blaze of suicidal glory. Cox shows the love of Sid and Nancy to be hardly anything – a hazy, drug-induced hallucination – and yet simultaneously glorifies it as the last flicker of romance, desperate and confused, in a No Future world.
At this huis clos point, I must confess, the film starts to lose me, and I find myself thinking about tales of obsessive, dissociated desire that are tougher and more complex, like Fingers (James Toback, 1978), Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) or King Blank (Michael Oblowitz, 1980). For those films are more plugged into the subterranean, material realities of men’s and women’s troubled relations and identities at this point in modern history.
Love kills? Maybe and maybe not – it’s a dumb question, Romantic in the worst sense. Cox may ultimately be off with the punk fairies – or the dogs in space – but Sid and Nancy is still a finely stylised exercise, worth checking out.
© Adrian Martin January 1987