All three films in director Penelope Spheeris' punk documentary series “The Decline of Western Civilization” will screen at The Guild Cinema, 3405 Central Ave. N.W.)
BY CAPTAIN AMERICA
Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris is known for such conventional fare as “Wayne’s World” and “The Little Rascals.” In other circles, that doesn’t mean a thing. For more than three decades, Spheeris’ documentary work has chronicled punk, a topic the moral mainstream considers frivolous excess at best and godless psychopathy at worst.
“Decline I” (1981) documents the nascent LA punk scene that, tellingly, came after the New York and London eras. Generally speaking, New Yorkers focused on their music and were only vaguely political, if at all. Londoners embraced the New York sound and, seeing a bleak future in Thatcher’s abandonment of the working class, turned up the volume and demanded a solution. In LA, punks preferred to walk away from the system because they saw no place for themselves in it.
In the first installment of Spheeris’ “Decline” series, the punk exodus was exemplified by Darby Crash, The Germs’ social casualty poster boy – alienated to the point that brainless inebriation and self-destruction were preferable to their absence. At the other end of the spectrum is X, one of punk’s more intelligent acts – although that’s not readily apparent in the film as they clown for
Spheeris’ camera. Between the two extremes is Black Flag, dissatisfied chip-on-shoulder youth with their wits still about them.
And then there’s the alarming Fear, whose frontman Lee Ving was as angry as the rest but went in another direction entirely. No numbed-out Darby Crash, Ving actively provoked violent response. Most punk bands routinely insulted their audience while the crowd reciprocated; a good time was had by all. But Ving’s disdain and hatred for the audience and himself are plain as day.
Mayhem increased, and bands were pushed out of mainstream clubs into less savory venues, where the yob factor increased tenfold as petty thugs, high school jocks and other meatheads were attracted to a scene where fistfights, misogyny and homophobia were somehow cool. Partially in reaction to the crashed-and-burned peace and love movement, it was more about the kids’ own rejection of a starstruck Hollywood culture that didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything genuine.
However much the music horrified ordinary citizens in 1978, it could still be perceived as showbiz put-on. Not so Spheeris’ interviewees … Whether depressed, hateful or both, the outcome was the same, and a short-lived escape by slamming to loud, fast music was the balm.
Spheeris makes no judgment and provides a distantly affectionate look at these kids. In hindsight, the emphasis on live performance cuts into valuable screen time that could’ve better presented the articulate side of punk. Sneering Kickboy Face (journalist and singer) comes across as the only one with much, albeit condescending, intellect.
The “normal” punk milieu scares the crap out of ordinary folks already. Upon re-watching these films reveal that, far from being just a flippant title, there was a decline going on within that milieu itself. Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten looks almost adorable in comparison – to say nothing of Joey Ramone. Few LA punks were interested enough to bother tearing down the rotten system, and fewer still had any idea of wanting to replace it. They looked into a dim future with dimmer people. It couldn’t get any worse.
But it did. “Decline II” (1988) is almost a side note, as it showcases heavy metal culture that took the speed and volume of punk music but wanted none of the responsibility of anarchism or politics despite claiming outsider status. After a 9-to-5 grind, it was pure party time … until Monday morning when you dragged yourself back to work to put aside a few bucks for next weekend. These kids (and musicians) dropped back in, in alarming numbers. Metal borders on self-parody as it is, and while Spheeris doesn’t intentionally showcase it, it’s easy to write this episode off as such. For anyone with any sympathy for punk ideals, “II” is the most horrifying of the trilogy because there’s little, if any, trace of class consciousness. A member of the metal contingent says proudly, as if claiming normalcy: “We are taxpayers.”
Paying taxes is not punk rock. Nor is it something that the homeless gutter punks of the next installment had to consider. “Decline III” (1998) is the least musical but most powerful in the series. In it, Spheeris follows a handful of ’90s punks who’ve taken up the ’70s mantle – outwardly with alienating fashion and inwardly with an enduring legacy of societal rejection. Familial violence, neglect and alcoholic and addicted parents drove these teens from home. As distasteful as their uncertain lifestyle may be, one says, “Living on the street is alright … better than the abuse I had in my home.” Inured to their plight, another says, “I don’t think anyone can hurt me anymore.” In punk rock solidarity, they have found, if not an actual home, then acceptance and support. Few expect to live long enough to benefit from it.
The minor flaws of all three films fall aside viewed as a whole – something Spheeris never intended. It was doubtful that even the first “Decline” would succeed. The resulting critical acclaim was a surprise for all involved. Its core subject wasn’t taken seriously until much later. Although it’s too late for these kids, it’s never too late to reconsider the meaning and music in Spheeris’ groundbreaking work.
Captain America is a longtime nuevomexicano music journalist and zinester, editor of “Wig Wam Bam: Albuquerque’s Zine of Music and Nepotism.”