Monday Movie: The Decline of Western Civilization, by David Bax
To whatever extent it still exists, the punk rocker’s mentality almost reflexively rejects things that feel calculated to appeal to it; like Grouch Marx, they don’t care to belong to any club that would have them as a member. This is not unique to punk but can be found in any genre, like metal or hip-hop, whose acolytes have a preoccupation with “authenticity.” In that sense, Penelope Spheeris succeeded where most others would likely have failed when she made 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization, her documentary about the Los Angeles hardcore scene. Whatever hierarchies may have existed within the scene, she gives equal footing to the artists, fans and facilitators. Her unpretentious egalitarianism may have made the relentless moshing, spitting and nihilism all the more scary to the normies to whom it was marketed but it also made the film a strongly embraced, clear-eyed landmark to a cultural milieu that still has trouble being discussed without pearl-clutching or derision.
Spheeris’ untainted reportage avoids that condescension. But it also, rightly, avoids glorification. She doesn’t editorialize but neither does she try to ignore that some of the kids her camera captures are dumb and despicable, like the young woman from the Germs who relates a story about finding a dead body with perverse amusement and racial insensitivity. Then Spheeris gives the same breathing room to the musical performances, allowing you to find them repulsive (if you’re lame) or thrillingly infectious.
One thing most everyone can probably agree on, though, is that these punks are pretty funny. Viewers may be divided along “laughing with” and “laughing at” lines but we can all chuckle together at exchanges like the one where a punk tells Spheeris, “I feel like I’m doing something I’m good at,” to which she replies, “What?” “Beating people up,” he answers.