The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)

I’m still going back posting reviews of my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, as I try to catch up to the inevitable end-of-year and end-of-decade lists, and one notable trilogy is this one covering the LA punk scene by Penelope Spheeris from the late-70s through to the late-90s. It’s one of the rare trilogies in which its final part is probably the strongest, indeed in my opinion it only gets better as it goes along, mainly because Spheeris builds a broader picture of sub-cultural changes with each successive film. It’s very much her greatest achievement, I think, and well worth watching.

Also, today is Christmas Day as it turns out, so happy Christmas for those who are celebrating, and have a nice holiday in any case. I can thoroughly recommend these films as fine holiday watching if you are thus inclined.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) [certificate 15]

There are some interesting stories to be told about punk music in the late-70s and 80s, whether in LA or in any other part of the world, some of which are only glancingly touched on here. For example it’s clear that many of the bands and their singers play freely with racism, sexism and homophobia in their songs and on-stage banter, though it’s never quite clear (for some people more than others) if it’s an ironic posture intended to agitate and troll the crowd, or whether it’s a more earnest expression. Certainly a lot of the punk scene we see here are very much at the end of their tether with the city, with other people, with capitalism and Western civilisation in general (so much the title makes clear). Punk music attracted plenty of those with stridently left-wing and anti-fascist agendas, but it also attracted a lot of neo-Nazis — and indeed, there are a number of swastikas on display, and presumably not all of them ironically. Penelope Spheeris doesn’t really engage with this, beyond documenting the people at these gigs, but what she does do is provide a moving and fascinating glimpse into this sub-culture. The music is ragged and noisy, and while some of them seem interested in disruption, many others are literate and thoughtful when speaking about the scene and their music. It’s all wonderfully evoked, with little amusing touches too (for example an opening sequence of the bands reading/singing/slagging off the filmmakers’ legal requirement to inform people that they’re being filmed, which will be repeated in the successive two films of the trilogy).

The Decline of Western Civilization film posterCREDITS
Director Penelope Spheeris; Cinematographer Steve Conant; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 9 September 2019.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) [certificate 18]

Whereas Spheeris’s first film had a genuine affection for the music and people in the film, this second instalment almost a decade later takes a far more withering, almost sarcastic tone at times. There’s a lot less of the music, partly because one imagines that Spheeris wasn’t so fond of it (or just that it really isn’t all that good for the most part), but the interviews take prominence. Not everyone is named, but everyone wants a slice of fame, and that seems to be the defining quality of most of those seen on-screen, certainly of the younger bands. A question about what they’ll do if they don’t hit the big time receives a lot of blank stares and reaffirmations of the certainty of success from a lot of people whom the passage of time has largely forgotten, and of the younger bands only Megadeth seem to show some humility (and perhaps that’s why they had more of a career than Odin or London or whoever else was interviewed).

Amongst these various hard rock, hair metal and thrash acts are older hands from across the metal (and metal-adjacent) spectrum, of whom perhaps only Lemmy doesn’t now look ridiculous — and perhaps also Aerosmith. And while the latter seem a little less reflective and thoughtful on balance, they’re nothing compared to the sniggering egos and hedonistic sloganeering of some of the younger kids, or the sex-obsessed tableaux in which the two Kiss leads are interviewed (surrounded by half-naked women). Indeed, some of the settings seem precariously balanced between straightforward documentary and a more manipulated hybrid form — aside from Paul from Kiss with his women, there’s Ozzy cooking breakfast in a dressing gown, or another band in a hot tub (again with women). In fact, I gather liberties were taken with presenting the footage — such as a sequence that purports to show Ozzy unreactive to spilling his orange juice all over the table (the unedited footage in the extras show this wasn’t the case), or one guy floating in a pool who apparently pours vodka all over himself while his mother looks on.

Perhaps the film should be seen as being closer to This Is Spinal Tap in that case. Certainly Spheeris never loses a sense of the ridiculous, and edits in little reaction shots, like Ozzy smirking at the suggestion that he’s the Devil, just after a very serious counsellor involved in some kind of anti-metal therapy explains the deeper significance of the horns gesture (and again, her conversion therapy may be real but it seems very much like a put on). But for most of those involved, the line between real life and performance is pretty blurred, and that’s how most of them like it. There’s a genuine sense of gender fluidity in presentation amongst bands and their fans — balanced perhaps by a few of the older ones who sneer at this, preferring “real men” even as they sport bouffant poodle hairdos. The question of what defines “real” “masculinity” remains hanging — as does the value of the music itself, with many competing ideas about it — but it’s a fascinating time capsule to another era, sleazy and morally dubious at times (as with Kiss, or the 60-something club owner who professes a fondness for 18-year-olds), but there’s a transgressive energy at play too that Spheeris is good at capturing.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years film posterCREDITS
Director Penelope Spheeris; Cinematographer Jeff Zimmerman; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998) [certificate 15]

The final part of Penelope Spheeris’s trilogy about LA musical subcultures, this returns to the punk music of the first part (made almost 20 years earlier). The second part had made a diversion into hard rock and hair metal, and while it features some of the more memorable rockstar posing, it’s also suffused with an undercurrent of condescension (not towards the music or the fans, I should note, but to many of the egos on display).

Spheeris’s voice is more prominent in this third part, as we hear her questioning her subjects (quite directly, even gruffly), but any hint of sneering is soon subsumed by the pathos evoked by their situations. In fact, we see a lot less of the music with this film (compared to the first two, the bands covered are all but unknown), and far more of the fans themselves, the so-called “gutter punks”, most of whom are homeless and have latched onto the scene as a source of friendship in trying circumstances. More so even than the first film, there feels like a genuine ride-or-die commitment to the subculture amongst the kids we see (and some of them really do feel like kids, or have been living on the streets since their childhood), and while there are still fascist skinheads about causing trouble, we don’t actually hear from them this time.

Unfortunately for many of the fans (and some of the musicians), their lives do seem to be on a path to an early death — whether from tragedies like the squat fire we hear about during the film, or from the desperate violence of survival suggested by a post-credits reveal. The film thus has this elegiac quality, a finality even, documenting a side of life in Los Angeles that is so rarely treated in cinema (for all that it makes its home in that city). It’s rare, too, that a film trilogy gets better with each successive instalment, but I think Spheeris has done an excellent job with this one.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III film posterCREDITS
Director Penelope Spheeris; Cinematographer Jamie Thompson; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 30 October 2019.


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