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The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, The Germs, X
Rated: NR (Suggested R for Pervasive Language and Real Depictions of Destructive Behavior)
Running Time: 1 h 40 m
TMM Score: 4.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Story, Direction
WEAKNESSES: Nihilistic View, Content
A documentary following six punk rock bands around Los Angeles in the year 1980.
The Decline of Western Civilization is a very raw documentary about the punk rock scene in Los Angeles during the end of 1979 and the first few months of 1980. It chronicles six different bands; the members, their fans, their exploits. We get to know a little bit about how each of the bands came together and then we get to see them perform. As far as a concept, it’s extraordinarily simple, but the execution is where this film really comes to life. What Spheeris has done is opened a door to another world, another way of living; she’s humanized some of the outcasts in society, and in some instances made them seem a little more normal (in other cases, not so much). It examines the psyche of a punk rocker, looks at their reasons for why they feel so much anger and hate against the world as a whole, and it challenges it. The film is a fascinating look at a subculture that is both looked down upon and idolized at the same time. If you don’t at least have somewhat of an interest in punk I can’t see you enjoying this film, but if you do have an interest in the music, or maybe you’re morbidly curious about that lifestyle, then I urge you to check it out.
"I'm searching for something."
The best part of this movie is getting to know the bands. Spheeris takes her camera up close and personal with all of the bands that we see play. Some of the bands are relatively normal, others seem like complete nihilists, and even more seem to be made of more parts drug addict and alcoholic than musician. What is interesting is seeing an underlying theme of rebellion against something they don’t quite understand, and a general dissatisfaction with the world. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where the camera focuses on a man, whom I believe was a psychologist, and that man likened punk music of the seventies and early eighties to the folk songs that ‘hippies’ sung in the sixties, claiming, really, it’s just another way of protest.
Perhaps the most memorable bands were the ones that had the least amount of respect for authority, took care of themselves the least, and performed the worst on stage. “The Germs,” in particular were, as their names might suggest, sickening. Their lead singer was particularly difficult to understand, as he was completely wasted the entire time he performed. Spheeris asked him what kind of drugs he would do, and the man responded that he’d do a lot of speed, then that would get to be too much, so he’d start taking downers, then after that he’d start drinking. This is all intercut with scenes of the man trying to sing on stage- I say trying, because it is darn near impossible to understand what he’s saying. He falls over a half dozen times, and the rest of the time he’s leaned against an amp, eyes droopy and half focused, trying not to fall into the audience. People draw on his shirtless body with sharpies while he’s singing, and he pays no mind to them, almost as if he can’t feel it. Spheeris asks what’s the worst he’s thing he’s ever done to himself on stage, and the man responded that he jumped on a broken whiskey bottle and had to get thirty stitches. Why does he take all these drugs and drink all the time if he keeps getting hurt, Spheeris asks; because he’s afraid, responds the man. It’s in that moment that I glimpsed the man behind all the performance, the in-your-face nihilism. It’s strange to see someone performing on stage, screaming about how they want to kill people, how they hate people, and how there’s no hope, but when you get them away from the punk scene, and talk to them like a normal human being, you find they aren’t as different as you might think. However, right after that moment, another member of the band tells a story about how they found a body in their backyard, and how they took a bunch of pictures with it before the ambulance arrived. Spheeris asks if they felt bad for the man, and one of the girls responds, “No, I hate painters.” It’s this kind of blatant disregard for society that both make these people interesting and rather revolting. This movie, while it’s a documentary, plays like a character study of the players in the band, and also the punk rock fans.
And that’s another aspect of this film that is quite interesting: the depiction of the fans. Most of the time, the only times we get to see of the fans are when the bands are playing. Men and women alike punch, kick, hurl objects, and spit on people- all of this in a mosh-pit where the violent ‘pogo dancing’ rules the dance floor. The scenes are often chaotic, and the faces in the crowd are oft wrought with hatred and etched with malice; men snarl and round on each other like wolves over a piece of meat; woman slash and tear with their claw like fingernails. When Spheeris asks some of the punks why they do things like this, why they fight with and hurt their friends, most of the answers were unsatisfactory. They had no real reason to hate, they just were angry and wanted to ‘get aggression out.’
If you don’t like punk music, or at least have a fascination with the culture, I wouldn’t bother watching this. There are moments when alcohol and drug addiction are depicted right in front of you on the screen; many of the bands proclaim messages of hatred and violence; and the messages gleaned from this are nihilistic and bleak. But, if you find this culture interesting, this is a crazy, hectic, loud documentary that puts you right in the heart of it all. In the end, we get an incredibly rich, unrestrained, uncompromising portrait of a group of people who are dissatisfied with the world, and, as one band member said, ‘searching for something.’
Like this movie? Then be sure to check out the other two movies in the trilogy. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III.
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