Subcultural Cinema: From Back to the Future to ‘Care for the Future’


Courtesy of photographer Ben Stewart

Whilst growing up, my subcultural identities were initiated and informed by films and film-going. At 9, ET (1982) triggered my obsession with BMXing until Marty McFly persuaded me to switch my allegiances from two to four wheels, by casually catching a ride from a passing pick-up truck on his skateboard in Back To The Future (1985). My taste for skateboard films soon became more niche, even subcultural, with me and my friends descending on the house of whoever had got their hands on the latest, usually pirated, Bones Brigade skate video from America. This would then be copied and eventually worn out from endless replaying on rainy days and evenings. Skateboarding gradually became superseded by hardcore punk, but film remained, now feeding the latest tracks rather than the latest tricks from Los Angeles and Washington DC into my bedroom in Norwich. Now around 16, the latest DRI or Minor Threat live videos accompanied my first exposures to alcohol, with a couple of cans of Budweiser facilitating stage diving practice from the wardrobe onto my bed.

Though silly and slightly embarrassing, these shared filmic experiences were central not only to my communal experience of these subcultures at a local level, but also the feeling of being tied to a global scene that allowed me to transcend the confines of Norwich. Later, travel afforded through real networks of punks and skaters revealed that my experiences were not unique; like-minded teens spanning San Francisco to San Sebastian had gathered with their friends at the same time to watch these same films, and been inspired to learn the same tricks, cover the same songs in their bands, and make their own films replicating the same often crude formal and aesthetic qualities. It is the realisation of the extent and ways in which such experiences operated at a local and global level, that have inspired my recent research into what I am broadly calling ‘subcultural cinema’. I am interested in how films – both mainstream and underground – were/are used. How they were/are circulated? Where and how they were/are shown? In essence, the different ways in which film content was and is created and altered for subcultural use.

In a current AHRC ‘Care for the Futureproject I am conducting with colleagues from Sussex, Glasgow and Newcastle and the skateboarders from Long Live Southbank, reflecting upon their successful campaign to retain the Undercroft for subcultural use, we have seen how they have marshalled the ethics and aesthetics of skateboarding to undermine and overturn the Southbank Centre’s corporate agendas.  LLSB won over hundreds of thousands of non-skaters who signed their petitions – and even Boris Johnson – largely through a succession of short films (see video below) that mobilised the subcultural vocabulary of skate videos to communicate their emotional and experiential attachments to the Undercroft and thus their vital intangible heritage claims. There is much to be learned – for others grassroots campaign groups, heritage organisations and policy makers – from both the content and communication of their arguments, and we are working with some of the filmmakers from the campaign to produce a film that will hopefully do their story justice and retain some of its ethos and aesthetics; I’ll post it on this site in a new blog once it is completed in September.

The interviews we conducted with the LLSB skaters and campaigners have been fascinating in revealing the complex attachments and meanings of the space that have built up across and between generations of usages, interpretations and innovations. It is these shared understandings and cyclical uses that have brought this found space into existence, hence the skaters’ successful claim to retain their space and preserve it for future generations. Whilst the Undercroft has, justifiably, been lauded as the birthplace of British skateboarding, the skateboarders’ more impassioned argument for its preservation was that its everyday use across 40 years made it skateboarding’s ‘spiritual home’; repetition not exceptionality was at the heart of their heritage claims.

In regard to my interests as a media historian, it was fascinating for me to hear how significant skate media was, particularly for young skaters outside London, not only in introducing them to the Undercroft but also in constructing individual and collective experiences of the space. Skate videos, magazines and video games were repeatedly cited as central in shaping initial experiences of the Southbank, with skaters explaining that they anticipated and experienced their first skates there through the aesthetic and experiential frameworks of fisheye lenses used in skate magazines, visually degraded skate VHS sections like Mark Gonzales’ iconic Southbank session in 1991’s Video Days, and the digital remediation of the space in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games. As one Southbank skater and LLSB campaigner explained, since moving to London and becoming a Southbank regular, these much-circulated mediations have ‘integrated with [his] muscle memories’ such that he can feel and visualise skating at the Undercroft even when ‘miles away’.

My hope is that this research with the LLSB skaters and filmmakers – alongside previous and ongoing historical research I have conducted around the influences, understandings and perceptions of youth audiences at the cinema from the 1930s to the present – serves to visualise some of the voices that have been marginalised from dominant cultural histories and heritages, as achieved so effectively by the LLSB. As their campaign has highlighted, the involvement of youth in heritage debates has typically been as part of a paternalistic rhetorical strategy that serves to speak for them as future stakeholders; as in ‘we are preserving the heritage for future generations’ (typically the tangible assets of say a historic cinema building or an archive of canonical texts). Very rarely does anyone stop to ask young people what they think should be preserved and why? Or enquire about the nature of their historical attachments or understandings of change itself. In September we will be holding a workshop in conjunction with the Heritage Lottery Fund that will bring key heritage organisations and policy makers into dialogue with youth campaigners and activist groups to explore these issues.

I also have selfish reasons for undertaking this research, however. At a now significant distance from youth, this project has allowed me to look back fondly, sometimes ashamedly, at my own subcultural past (particularly the bedroom stagediving). Despite these nostalgic self-reflections, triggered through the interviewee transcripts and archival sources we’ve unearthed, I haven’t been tempted to buy a skateboard or a studded belt again. Yet!

By Tim Snelson

Lecturer in Media History

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