“We Had No Idea about the LSD, or that Napa Had a Farm….”: Mike Plante and Jason Willis on Their Cramps/Mutants Punk Doc, We Were There To Be There
One of the most storied shows of the punk era was seen by just a tiny audience at an unlikely venue — a California mental hospital. The punk rockabilly band The Cramps and theatrical art-punk band The Mutants played the Napa State Hospital on June 13, 1978, one of a series of concerts programmed at the institution for its residents during that era. What made this concert different was its documentation — it was recorded on old Sony equipment by Bay Area documentarian Joe Rees and his Target Video crew. “Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that — you seem to be all right to me,” says Cramps lead singer Lux Interior on the tape, which, with the shambolic abandon of both performers and audience, still carries a liberatory charge.
In their new short doc for Field of Vision, We Were There To Be There, filmmakers Mike Plante and Jason Willis have revisited this video and situated it as a nexus of several cultural, political and social currents. Acknowledging its status as a seminal document of DIY culture and underground media, they also present the tape as primary source material speaking to different attitudes towards mental health treatment, arts funding and more. And this is all done through an exciting, graphic-driven editorial style that illustrates also the distinctively rough-hewn collage look of the era’s flyers and posters. The short can be watched now at Field of Vision, and, below, the filmmakers discuss the process of making the sort, the revelations they found in the material, and their forthcoming feature on Target Video.
Filmmaker: First, when did you both come across this footage, and when did the idea of using it as the basis for a larger essay film of sorts, dealing with everything from the history of San Francisco countercultural to public policy around mental health come to you?
Plante: I was probably 15 when I first saw the VHS of The Cramps at Napa, and it’s haunted me in a good way ever since. All of Target Video’s releases really helped me survive the ‘80s. I loved punk then and still do. The videos were crucial [to me] question[ing the] politics of the moment. Seeing the bands in action [at] the small clubs, there was no divide between them and the audience. Raw energy. Punk ethics influenced how we make films now, DIY with very little resources.
A couple of years ago we tracked down the main artists that are Target Video, all alive and well, and are making a feature doc on them and the ’70s Bay Area scene. This felt like a solid side project that could be a complete story on its own and get more time than we might be able to give it in the feature. We were lucky that Field of Vision felt the same way. We wanted to know everything about the show – not just that some bands went and played, but the story of Napa State and the citizens living there. Many people in California talk about the homeless problem stemming from Reagan-era mental health cuts. It’s a pretty easy connection once you research Napa State’s history. They lost their land and most of their dairy farm starting in the 1960s under budget cuts. The show should have never even happened — all California mental hospitals were scheduled to close by mid-1977 and a couple did. And it all led to intense problems that are still very current.
Willis: Target Video first popped up on my radar in 1984 when my pal Jack Boyd loaned me their Black Flag VHS and man — talk about a revelation! I mean, I grew up in Lawrence, KS which was absolutely swell and happening and all of that, but this footage just seemed like a completely different planet to me.
Still, none of that prepared me for the Cramps at Napa tape — I just had no real reference points for what I was watching. I mean, the music was great and the whole vibe was overwhelmingly joyous and yet… how did this come about? There seemed to be no boundaries in place whatsoever. Someone had to have gotten fired over this, right?
Cut to: the 21st century where Mike has an idea around making a feature doc on Target Video. As we dove into all of the amazing stuff that they had done, this show just kept jumping out. There were just so many elements in play; cultural, political, creative, musical, entrepreneurial, technological – it was really begging for a deeper dive than what we could do inside of a larger feature, and we both wanted to talk about things beyond the traditional “rock doc” framework.
Filmmaker: What were the particular challenges of putting this together in terms of access to archives and such? I noticed there’s quite a bit of material licensed, but also material that’s used under Creative Commons licenses.
Willis: Well, right from the beginning we knew that we didn’t want to have any “talking head” interviews taking up space because there was just too much amazing art deserving the spotlight instead.
So, our idea was to visually advance most of the story using the killer visuals that we were lucky enough to have access to. This meant that photos, flyers and fanzines from the era would sit alongside the original Target footage, which was not only being remastered but came complete with an unreleased song!
Then for the remaining gaps the idea was to use public domain images, educational films, street art, news reports from both the mainstream and the underground – basically the media landscape that usually served as creative grist for the punk rock mill during this era. Carrying that approach into the present day led us to the world of Creative Commons – it’s a pretty impressive reservoir.
And finally, I wanted to design a kind of collage-vibe, since that’s something super present in a lot of Bay Area punk from this era. For example, the way that Joe Rees would edit the original Target Videos was just a total assault on the senses; there is always a ton of information sailing out at your eyes when you watch his work.
The same thing goes for the art that Winston Smith was doing at the time, or the utter sensory overload of a Survival Research Labs show, or even the layouts found in Search and Destroy or Damage. Punk rock is often described in reductionist terms, but at the same time so much of the visual language is really dense packed and rewards scrutiny, you know?
So, with all of that in mind the idea was to layer in as many archival elements as we could without overwhelming the viewer to the point that they couldn’t follow the story itself. It’s a fine line!
Plante: It helps to stand on the shoulders of everyone in the film. Besides all of Joe’s kickass camerawork, we got incredible still photos from Ruby Ray, Jim Jocoy and Jill Hoffman-Kowal (also a Target founding member). The budget is modest, it’s a short, but we took care of everyone and the bands.
Filmmaker: I was struck by the section early on about the NEA and government funding for the arts — both more radical work as well as work that steps outside of traditional performance spaces. In building the piece and revisiting this footage, what were some of the revelations you experienced about the intersection of culture, politics and society?
Plante: When you see what the NEA could do on smaller, local levels, it’s encouraging. Art should be personal and experienced in a small setting with few people, or even alone. Artists could really experiment and have the space to try things that require money – and available time costs money. And you can fail, it’s ok. The physical spaces where artists worked or had shows were part of main street America. Go in if you want, like the art for your own personal reasons, or don’t. It seems so genuine, a natural extension of when you are in elementary school and have an art class. If you take away the national spotlight and the cult of personality, for both artists and politicians, you start seeing real risks taken.
Willis: This is one of my favorite parts of the story! A standout component of the early Bay Area punk scene is that several of the contributors either sprung from or had strong connections to the art school world. Given that a whole bunch of creative stuff (Technology! Performance! Music!) was just exploding around that time, and even though the ALL-CAPS-ART-SCENE was kinda lagging behind, the folks who were drawn to the punk community just grabbed ahold of everything (from opportunities to mediums) and made it their own.
So, what I loved discovering here was just how very self-aware everyone actually was about all of this, as well as how they all were each drawn to explaining the different parts to us.
Like, while everyone tended to touch on everything, Joe, Sally, Mark and John all seemed super plugged into the boundless potential of creative possibilities that were present. Jill and Vale often sought to frame things in terms of the cultural and economic causality that led to that creative context. And Howie, Lincoln and Alan tended to zero in on some of the political climate surrounding it all.
So to me it was just really cool to hear about their level of awareness around what motivated their decisions at the time, as well as how they all saw it cascade down the line. Like there were a whole bunch of disparate threads all laid out on a table in the mid ‘60’s that had been drawn into a tightly knit ball by the end of the 1970’s.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the format and length of the work, which is near 30 minutes. Was the length pre-determined to fit in a half-hour programming slot, did you expand it or contract it to get to this length? Is there material you wished you could have gotten in?
Willis: We were lucky that the final length was entirely motivated by the storytelling rather than any premeditated constraints – basically we were able to let the film reveal itself to us across the editing and production.
I mean, for sure when we did the Napa-specific interviews we had a general fix around the bones that were present, but we were also thrown a lot of very welcome twists and turns along the way. Because we were both really open to having our preconceived notions challenged (especially when it came to the health care components), our thinking around what we wanted to include was always evolving.
Heh, of course this means that along the way we also played around with a pretty big slew of additional topics, but eventually decided that they would simply work better inside of a feature-length doc with a broader scope. Charlotte [Cook] at Field of Vision gave us some really good notes when it came to this part of the process too – I’m pretty sure that we acted on all of them and that the film is stronger for it.
Plante: We didn’t have any preconceived plan for length – other than we are already doing a Target feature, keep this somewhat short. And it’s still a lot of stories packed into 30 [minutes]. Meanwhile, the audience might be coming for the punk rock and then how do you get them some socially-conscious story too? We learned things exactly how the viewer does. We had no idea about the LSD, or that Napa had a farm before. Editing drifts it into a (hopefully) coherent oral history by multiple people. Just a reporter chasing down an event we’ve obsessed about for 35 years.
Filmmaker: Finally, what other possible countercultural archaeological expeditions does the completion of this work tempt you to go on?
Plante: Next step is to finish the feature on all the Target Video history, so many more great stories to tell. I’m also working on a film about the ghost towns from the 1800s near where I grew up, which had far more cultural layers than old movies led us to believe.
Willis: Yeah, Mike’s totally right. Target Video documented some truly amazing stuff with the Cramps and Mutants at Napa being just one chapter. We also ran into some cultural forerunners here that I’d love to dig into more deeply — stuff like the intersection of performance/outsider art and how the democratization of technology and distribution allowed it to grow in a pre-internet era.
And thanks to shows like this (though really, are there any other shows like this?), by the time you get to the early hardcore scene there was an even more uniform rejection of the established rulebook that I think would be cool to explore. Stuff like 15-year-old kids renting VFW halls to book bands, the continued explosion of self-pressed records and fanzines, bands carving out the North American touring circuit with stolen phone cards and vans that were being held together with, you know, duct tape or whatever. Just an ultra-DIY approach that managed to really remap the landscape – I think there’s probably a bigger story in all of that too.