The Anthropological Power of the Long-Unavailable (But Never Forgotten) ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ Trilogy

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For years now, Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization documentaries have loomed larger as artifacts and specters than as actual films, thanks in no small part to their decades-long lack of availability via official channels. They were never previously available on DVD, due to a combination of licensing issues and the director’s own reluctance to revisit them; if you wanted to see them, you had to buy a pricey VHS copy on eBay (and then find a way to watch a VHS tape) or, more likely, a bootleg. Such covert maneuvers can lend a sense of danger to as mundane an action as the viewing of a motion picture, but I’ll trade that little thrill for access, and now that the Decline trilogy is available not only on DVD but also Blu-ray, as a bulky, bonus-laden box set, we can appreciate the films for what they are: as first-rate acts of both documentary filmmaking and anthropology.

The original Decline, shot between 1979 and 1980 in Los Angeles, was Spheeris’ first completed film (after the aborted Richard Pryor vehicle Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales over a decade earlier), and it pulses with not only the raw energy of its subjects, but the enthusiasm of its director. It’s easy to file the film away as a music doc about punk rock at the turn of the decade, but Spheeris has more on her mind than just the musicians; it’s also about the scene (the zines, the clubs, the fashion, the tattoos), and the loose, sometimes rambling, admirably candid interviews with the musicians are as much about their attitude as their sound.

Not that those elements are mutually exclusive. The performances — from Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, X, Alice Bag Band, and Fear — are happenings as much as they are music, if not more so (though the lyrics are helpfully, and often necessarily, captioned as on-screen text). These are shows that often veer from concert to riot and back, and never more so than in the performance of Fear, which (tellingly) closes the movie; the band shouts abuse at its audience and gets it right back, and when the exchange turns from talk to action, it’s frightening. (Cinematographer Steve Conant’s camera was right in the middle of the melee, and you start to worry about the poor guy.)

But that’s the power of Decline I. Spheeris doesn’t stand at the remove some documentarians do; you feel like you’re in the scene, at those shows, and in those rooms. You come out of it sweaty and dirty, and when X shouts, “We’re desperate/ get used to it!” it’s less a lyric or even a rallying cry than an anthem that summarizes the entire movie and everyone in it.

There’s desperation in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years as well, but it’s of a different vintage. The bands in Spheeris’ 1988 follow-up don’t long to express themselves, or even survive; they’re defined by their desperation for sex and stardom (in negotiable order of priority), and when she lets the lead singer of Odin explain how they’ll be bigger than the Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, while intercutting their manager leading a tragically unenthusiastic “ODIN! ODIN!” crowd chant, you can all but smell the flop sweat.

In many ways, The Metal Years is the stylistic outlier of the series. Though it begins with Decline‘s trademark montage of lead singers (sometimes humorously, sometimes incompetently) reading the crowd-likeness release, its veers sharply in structure; she tackles the bands in Decline I one at a time, but here organizes the picture by topics rather than musicians, intercutting each subject’s views on gender play, groupies, sexism, originality and imitation, censorship, Satanism, and (of course) drugs and alcohol. There’s less urgency to the performances, and many of the artists (Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, members of Poison, KISS, and Aerosmith) were legitimate stars when the film was made and released, as opposed to the cult acts of the first and third pictures.

And thus — whether it was Spheeris’ attitude towards those performers, the spirit of the era, or the people she found — it’s a far funnier experience. Her decision to let her subjects choose their interview setting is ingenious; it renders each a commentary (on iconography, on fame, on sexuality) before it even begins. Some of these metal rockers aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, which lends the picture an irresistible Spinal Tap vibe — indeed, there seem to be specific echoes of that satire in the compositions of concert scenes and the editing of the interviews, wherein Spheeris injects her own commentary by the sheer force of her juxtapositions (witness the witty cut from scuzzy “sexy dance” showman Bill Gazzarri barking, “We’re missing a couplea asses up here” to one of his “girls” announcing, “It’s a classy place”).

But the filmmaker ultimately comes away with a portrait of hedonism and emptiness that’s as sad as it is funny. Most viewers remember Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. pouring vodka on himself as he floats in a pool; fewer remember his, “Because it makes me happy!” explanation for his excessive drinking, and how it is incongruously followed, mere moments later, by the announcement, “I don’t dig the person that I am.” That serious theme — of the good time that never ends, yet never begins — courses through the picture, alongside that of delusion, of the kind of LA wannabe who responds to Spheeris’ questions about what they’ll do if they don’t make it with a firm, “But I will.”

One of them predicts, “I’ll end up on Skid Row or something” before giving up, an eerie foreshadowing of The Decline of Western Civilization Part III. The 1998 chapter, which only played the festival circuit and never saw a proper theatrical or home release, opens with notes of conscious circularity — not only replicating the “attention!” montage, but echoing the first film’s stark, black-and-white opening interview and continuing with the filmmaker asking LA’s current punk fans how old they were when her first film came out. (Most were not yet born.) She spotlights four underground punk bands (Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance), and again has lyrics worth captioning, and musicians who are angry about the world around them.

But the performers aren’t the focus this time around — it’s their audience, with the music serving as interludes to underscore the frustrations of those who hear them. Spheeris spends most of the film with the “gutter punks” of the LA streets, delving deep into the logistics of their day-to-day and moment-to-moment existence. Throughout the series, she’s never seen, but only heard, asking questions off-camera; she’s more vocally present this time around, because it’s more work with these kids. They’re not musicians prone (hell, rehearsed) to make statements. She has to draw them out, and what they have to tell her is often heartbreaking.

Again, the picture is immersive, with a grimy, hang-out vibe that leaves you wanting a shower afterwards (not in their apartment, though, where an instruction to “piss in the bathtub” rather than the inoperative toilet is followed by a cut to a kid vomiting into said tub). But you can’t look away, particularly during the film’s most painful segment, in which she asks her teenage subjects the simple question, “Do your parents know where you are?”

Spheeris told our Alison Nastsasi that these scenes “changed my life,” and it’s easy to see why. They’re the culmination of her achievement in the trilogy, which chronicles a scene with visceral skill, and often with an anthropologist’s detachment (“I’m interested in the music, but I’m more interested in human behavior,” she says). Yet you can only detach for so long. Los Angeles is the city of dreams, the destination for so many musicians who aspire to make their mark and become a star. The Decline films spotlight those hopefuls, those who make it (and are often worse for doing so) and those who don’t. But at the series’ conclusion, Spheeris puts her camera on the people its predecessors’ subjects — those who’ve made it, and those who hope to — look past and look through on a daily basis, and asks, simply, “What then?”

The Decline of Western Civilization box set is out tomorrow from Shout Factory.