There was a time when I was incapable of processing confrontational performers. For example, Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar album came out when I was a freshman in high school, and while several of my classmates were obsessed with it, I refused to come anywhere near the damn thing. It wasn't that it shocked me - I would've had to engage with Antichrist Superstar for it to shock me. No, it was so obviously weird, filthy and angry that I didn't have the courage to even give it a try. I think it's more accurate to say that it overwhelmed me, because at that time I was just too sheltered to approach something that deviant.
However, that was a long time ago, and in the years since I've not only learned how to approach shocking works of art, I've become more or less blase about them. I'm not saying that because I want to sound cool - I'm saying that because at some point I realized that if you've seen one pervert you've kind of seen them all; there are only so many pleasant and unpleasant things you can do to a dick, and it's kind of hard to be impressed when you realize you're just watching variations on a theme. Furthermore, once you realize that most of that sort of bad behavior can be boiled down to an angry overgrown child demanding negative attention it's pretty easy to stop being appalled and start being apathetic. There was a time when I was all too happy to supply a provocateur with all the fear and disgust that they could ever want, but now that I'm older I've learned that I'm better off when I don't feed the trolls.
I say all that because I want to explain why it took me so long to watch Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. This documentary has been on my radar for years, but I was never in a mood to give it a try. When I was in college some friends tried to sell me on the idea that it was totally crazy, but at the time I wasn't totally comfortable with crazy. A few years later some friends tried to sell me on the idea that it was very well made, but at that point I just wasn't interested in it's subject matter. In case you aren't familiar with GG Allin he was a performance artist / rock singer who was infamous for his out of control stage show, where he regularly pushed boundaries - for example, he would shit on the stage or roll in broken glass. I understand why other people would want to rubberneck at that sort of behavior, because it certainly is extreme, but it just doesn't interest me.
Fortunately, when I actually sat down and watched Hated I discovered that there was more to GG Allin's act than merely trying to get a rise out of the rubes. In fact, Allin doesn't have much in common with the sort of performers whose main shtick is shocking the audience. When you see footage of Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper in their private lives they seem like sensible people, which makes it clear that they are showmen who are merely putting on a show - a crass show, but a show nonetheless. GG Allin was clearly different, because its obvious that there isn't very much separation between the filthiness of his "show" and his personal life. In fact, both his onstage and offstage lives are united by the same focused rage, with the only difference being that he focused that rage outward when he was performing and he focused that rage inwards when he was by himself. I know that this might sound odd given Hated's subject matter but the experience of watching this documentary is not unlike reading a Dostoevsky novel - there is a basic level on which GG Allin's unending sense of frustration and purposeful insistence on living like an animal challenges our basic assumptions of what it means to be a human being. That makes it a very different experience than listening to Antichrist Superstar, which has it's moments but isn't exactly Crime and Punishment.
Don't get me wrong: Hated doesn't intentionally aim to be philosophical. In fact, the few times that we get a glimpse of director Todd Phillips' personality he comes across as being rather juvenile and wrong headed. For example, the film's closing narration registers Phillips' disappointment that Allin died of a heroin overdose offstage when he could have fulfilled his reoccurring promise to shoot himself to death on stage, and I just don't have any patience for that sort of half-baked rebel mythos bullshit. Still, the footage that Phillips got mostly speaks for itself, and what it says is often very compelling. In particular I was fascinated by the divide between GG Allin (who had an outlet for his anger) and the other people in his life (who seem to have a similar level of anger but nowhere to put it.)
Allin's live act was not particularly well structured - in fact, his shows tended to devolve into chaos, particularly if he started attacking the audience - but they still gave him some sense of purpose. He practiced with the band; he planned tours with them; it's clear that he performed with every bit of energy and focus that he was capable of summoning. In contrast, most of the other people that are in his orbit seem to be lacking that level of dedication. His brother Merle - who, incidentally, has muttonchop sideburns, an overflowing Hitler mustache and no other hair on his head - seems to be content to merely follow in GG's footsteps. His drummer - who likes to perform in the nude, and who is a registered sex offender - has a vacant and shell-shocked look in his eyes every time he's on camera; it's not clear if he's just high or dumb, but either way his life seems to be lacking some essential ingredient. Unk, who might be GG's number one fan, seems to have no life plan other than drinking as much as he can and worshiping at the altar of a madman. The contrast between Allin and his cohorts raises the question: is it better for the bitter to process their bitterness by acting out against the forces that have been keeping them down or should they abandon themselves to hopelessness?
I don't think that's a question with an answer; these people seem to be doomed whichever path they take. Yes, Allin has some way to work out his aggression, but his performances don't seem to satisfy him or lessen his pain - in fact, his willingness to act like a beast while he's in the public's eye might be cathartic for him, but it also puts him on the path to confrontation with authority figures, and their harassment actually increases his burdens. (The last contact that Allin had with Phillips was from prison - he was making a collect call to the director while he was locked up for a parole violation.) On the other hand, Merle, the Naked Drummer and Unk all seem to be more or less complacent about their squalid living situations, and while their willingness to accept their lowly fates keeps them flying under the radar it also means that they are left wallowing in their own dissatisfactions. Allin is making a sincere effort to attack the world; they are letting their animosity rot their insides; all of them seem to be living such extremely unpleasant lives that you could say they have been sentenced to existence by an unknowable and probably uncaring God.
My hesitancy to watch Hated totally makes sense: once I realized that behind almost every flame-spewing Oz the Great and Powerful there was a frightened little man who was trying to distract me with carefully prepared stagecraft I started to realize that not everyone who appeared to be an extremist was actually that extreme. However, films like Hated are proof that some outsiders are exactly who they appear to be, and that they are fully capable of challenging those of us who still live inside the system. I never expected this short documentary about an obscenely crass and often inarticulate individual to remind me of some of the greatest (and also longest) literature I have ever read, but Hated really does get at some of the same existential themes that the classier and more cerebral Dostoevsky does - they're both interested in how the lowliest cope with the inescapable cruelties of life, and what their very existence indicates about the nature of the world. You know, it's funny, but now that I think about it maybe I wasn't so wrong to be overwhelmed by this sort of stuff when I was sixteen....