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SLC PUNK (1999)

PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Anarchism, meaning of life

CHARACTERS: Steve (Matthew Lillard), Heroin Bob (Steve’s best friend), Trish (Heroin Bob’s girlfriend), Mike (violent nerd), Mark (Eastern European immigrant), Sandy (Steve’s first girlfriend), Brandy (Steve’s second girlfriend)

SYNOPSIS: Set in 1985, Steve, a youth from a wealthy broken home in Salt Lake City, narrates events during his four years in college as a violent, anarchist punk rocker. The punk subculture that he participates in appears all the more radical in view of the Mormon Church’s strong conservative presence in the city. Throughout the film Steve ridicules other youth subcultures and defends punk-anarchism as a world-life view. A series of tragic events unfold – one friend becomes homeless and another dies – that reveal the implausibility of punk-anarchism. These crises force Steve to recognize the insincerity of his commitment to it. In the end, he sets off for law school, adopting the more conventional values of his attorney father. The film reflects the experiences of writer/director James Merendino who, during his youth, was part of Salt Lake City’s punk subculture. In the DVD commentary on the film, Merendino explains that Steve’s narration is from the perspective of a law student who is looking back on his earlier days. Merendino notes that he intentionally built that perspective into the editing of the film. On first appearance, the film seems to be a series of random events, which gives a feel for the anarchist-punk lifestyle that’s depicted. On closer inspection, though, there is a complex logical structure to the unfolding of each scene, which reflects Steve’s analytic approach as a law student.


1. The film depicts a range of youth subcultures – or “tribes” as Steve calls them – such as punks, rednecks, mods, skinhead nazis, heavy metal, new wavers. In some ways, it’s as though Steve was presented with a menu of lifestyles, and he just selected one from the list. What might have been behind Steve’s selection of punks over the others?

2. In addition to the youth subcultures, a range of adult subcultures are also represented, such as hicks, cowboys, Mormons, religious fanatics. It seems as though most people in the film represent stereotypes and not individuals. Aside from Steve himself, who are the characters that seem to rise above their stereotypes?

3. Steve’s father is an attorney and hopes to set Steve on a similar path by having him attend Harvard Law School. Steve resists, disliking the world that his father represents (yet another stereotype). What, for Steve, is so bad about lawyers like his father?

4. Steve discusses what might be called the violent-anarchist-paradox: he fights to oppose structure, but in doing so he thereby creates and defends his own structure. Is there a solution to this paradox?

5. In the director’s commentary to the movie, writer/director James Merendino states that, during the presentation of the violent-anarchist paradox, Steve has a flash of insight that makes him reevaluate the direction that his life has been taking. What is the change that he goes through?

6. A pivotal moment in the film is when Steve bumps into Sean, a punk rocker friend who was brain damaged from a drug overdose and is now homeless. Steve is especially upset by this encounter since he realizes that, as a homeless person, Sean exemplifies true anarchism. How might homelessness represent true anarchism, and why is this so bad?

7. Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope lived in a barrel as a means of defying established convention. Some people in large cities “dumpster dive” for their meals as a way of protesting against consumer waste and value systems. Suppose that Sean wasn’t brain damaged, but instead embraced homelessness as a means of social protest. Would that type of anarchism have appealed to Steve?

8. It is clear why Sean’s homeless condition forced Steve to rethink anarchism. Ultimately, though, it was Heroin Bob’s death that drove Steve to abandon punk-anarchism. What specifically about Heroin Bob’s death prompted this in Steve?

9. “Posers”, as Steve defines the term, are people “who look like punks but did it for fashion.” In the DVD director’s commentary, Merendino states that the ultimate insult for a punk was to be accused of being a poser. At the close of the movie Steve accepts the fact that he was a poser all along. How was he a poser?

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