Rocked By PATTI ROCKS
There was zero chance I was ever going to like Clerks.
That’s not because of my raging jealousy over the fact a guy who lived basically down the highway had made a feature film on the cheap and had sold it to Miramax. (Though surely that didn’t help.) It was because as far as I was concerned, and through no fault of Kevin Smith's, Clerks was getting credit - and attention -that belonged to another movie. At the time, Clerks got a LOT of press over getting an NC-17 rating for language, something everyone called “a first”, and something which Miramax exploited the shit out of, hiring Alan Dershowitz to appeal the ruling and giving Clerks some serious buzz in the process. I was pretty cranky about it, since one of my favorite movies encountered the exact same problem a few years earlier. But it had all the vulgarity, ten times the wit and human insight, and 100% less Weinstein behind it, and it kind of vanished shortly after release.
That movie was called Patti Rocks, and when it played art houses in New York in 1988, reviews were good-to-mixed, but as a teen reading the film sections of the New York tabloids, the idea that a movie could be threatened with an X rating (NC-17 didn’t exist yet) for language was intriguing. So when Patti Rocks hit VHS later that year, I rented it and had my mind blown by a kind of movie I’d never seen before.
Patti Rocks is about a married guy named Billy (Chris Mulkey) who guilt-trips his estranged friend Eddie (John Jenkins) to take an all-night drive to convince Billy’s titular, pregnant mistress (Karen Landry) to have an abortion. A laugh riot, right? You’d be surprised. A large, large chunk of the movie’s running time is taken up by the drive, in which Billy and Eddie drink and tell stories - raunchy, vulgar anecdotes and musings that lay bare Billy’s prehistoric attitudes toward women. “Objectification” doesn’t quite cover it; he literally refers to women as “beef”, and having sex with women is “chopping beef.” Eddie kind of giggles along without contributing any more than necessary to goad Billy on. It’s jaw-droppingly horrible stuff coming out of Billy’s mouth, but when you hear it you know you’re hearing something authentic. It’s also hilarious. And it was, to 1988-era me, revelatory. Movies were a thing where the unlikely-to-impossible happened. Zombies, vampires, Bill Murray joining the Army. Here was a movie where a guy is just cracking up his friend on a long drive, and it manages to be kind of riveting. Billy’s wildly entertaining misogyny carries the middle of the film, and as we listen to him on his sexist shitbox pulpit, we wonder just what sort of woman would go for this, who this woman at the end of the ride will be.
When we get our answer, it’s another revelation. Patti is a mature gal who is none too thrilled about being woken up in the middle of the night by her dumbass fling and his random pal. Billy is cut down to size rather quickly, and we learn his version of this affair (“she wants to have the kid! She's hung up on me! She loves my ass!”) isn’t 100% accurate. Patti wants a kid, it’s true. She’s getting older and she wants to be a mom. Billy, as far as Patti is concerned, is little more than a sperm donor. Eddie isn’t sure why he’s even there. But as Billy gets vocally marginalized by them both, Patti and Eddie begin a conversation that finally lets us in on what’s behind Eddie’s sad smile. The finale, called "hackneyed" by the New York Times, felt to me sincere and bittersweet, and surprising all the way to the end.
There are a few surreal stops along the way, and while these moments caused the Times to compare the film to “a bad play”, to an 80s teen discovering film nearly every moment of Patti Rocks is a revelation. “They can make a movie that’s just people talking? That’s allowed??” No crime, no action, no heightened hijinks - the spectacle offered is an unblinking honesty about how these men view women and, in the film’s final third, how one woman views these men. In the VHS era of the late 1980s, I’d simply never seen anything like it. This was before the indie boom of the 90s, and the films of John Cassavetes, Henry Jaglom, Ingmar Bergman, or even Woody Allen weren’t exactly overflowing on the shelves of my local video store. This was the first time I’d seen a film that was just about PEOPLE - at any rate, the first one that didn’t feature big-name movie stars. And it shook me. It showed me that with some solid actors and a human story (large parts of the film feel improvised, and indeed all three actors have a screenplay credit), movies can bring you a truth unimagined.
I became obsessed with this film. I watched it over and over, showing it to other people whenever I could. I snapped up the one-sheet when I saw it for sale in a pile of posters. I wrote to David Burton Morris, the film’s director, and told him his film was an unsung classic, and that these actors are all giving legendary performances. I told him it made me want to know more about filmmaking. (I didn’t tell him how much the film aesthetically colored my own attempts at short filmmaking, which was a lot.) He wrote me back and included a VHS of Loose Ends, his undistributed 1974 feature that featured Mulkey and Jenkins playing the same characters a dozen years earlier. And his letter discussed an abandoned third film in the trilogy (called, I think, Real Heavy). I was positively elated at the chance to see Loose Ends (a film I’ve come to enjoy maybe even more than Patti Rocks), and crestfallen that there was a third chapter to this story that never happened. And I was over the moon that the creator of this thing I loved thought enough to reply to my dumb, fawning letter with kindness and respect - yet another huge lesson embedded in my experience with this film. More than anything that followed, and certainly more than any Weinstein-orchestrated cinematic controversies, Patti Rocks is the movie that showed up, fittingly, when I turned 18 and changed me in a big way.
Patti Rocks sat available as a 50-cent VHS on Amazon for years; when I looked today the VHS was listed for $35. It’s been years since I watched it, and I have no idea how it will hold up in 2015. But the cult of Patti Rocks increases these days in fits and starts; there’s a Facebook fan page with three likes, and the director was on Facebook a couple years ago talking about plans to release the films on DVD. I’d love to revisit the film properly (I believe it screened in 35mm in New York City earlier this year), and I’d love see it released on DVD, or blu, or streaming, maybe with Loose Ends included in the deal. After a decade gorging myself of horror and sci-fi, of thinking movies had to be escape first and foremost, Patti Rocks came along and opened my eyes to the more human possibilities of cinema, and for that I’m forever grateful.