We round out our reviews of the Decline trilogy with a look at its excellent, severely underappreciated third installment.
The third installment of the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy brings the story full-circle by revisiting the L.A. punk scene fifteen years later... but it does it with a completely different tone and attitude. Rather than being a concert film with documentary elements, it is primarily a documentary about the lives and troubles of the kids in the scene, which also features some concert film accents. The result is a surprisingly strong and emotional, very meaningful film. In fact, it is probably the strongest documentary of the three, even though it doesn't pack quite the same musical punch.
The original Decline is second to none as an intense, adrenaline-fueled, really well-made document of the early years of American punk. But its big weakness is that its editing is obviously skewed to make its punk subjects look as bad as possible for the sake of entertainment. It was pretty dismissive and disdainful of many of the punks interviewed, and while some of them made some really good points, the editing clearly favored train-wreck moments. While its iconic reputation is well-deserved based on the concert footage alone, it felt very much like a documentary about punk made by an outsider who was skeptical at best, and it didn't have as much depth as it should have. A decade and a half later, Decline Part III feels very much like Penelope Spheeris going back to the scene with a more open mind, making the deeper, more honest and emotionally attuned portrait that the first film could/should have been. While the title was a snarky jab at punk rock the first time around, this time The Decline of Western Civilization feels like a very dramatically appropriate name for a story of lost, struggling teenagers living in pain, addiction and poverty, who genuinely do feel like society is crumbling out from under them.
Decline Part III focuses on the subculture of homeless teen and early-twentysomething punks – so-called Gutter Punks – living on the streets and in the abandoned buildings of L.A. in the mid-90s. But while the first film kept a semi-judgmental distance from its subjects and never got a sense for the emotions and backgrounds behind its young interviewees' anger and disillusionment, this sequel really wants to get to know them, and it extends them quite a bit of compassion. While they still have a lot of half-formed, poorly articulated animosities towards authority and political bodies (what young punk doesn't? We've all been there if we were in the punk scene), it becomes very clear that these kids have far more specific and personal reasons for coming to the scene, of exactly the sort that the first film didn't bother exploring. Most of them are homeless because they fled abusive family members, they are almost all alcoholics, many of them struggle with depression that the constant drinking medicates, and they all gravitated towards the scene because it gives them a strong family unit where they can protect themselves against the violence to which they had previously been subjected. Rather than portraying them as rebels without a cause, like the first film often did, we see that they really do have each others' backs, and work hard to give each other the safe-haven that they've never known. As one girl says, “they're my family, they're my support, they're my love, they're my... everything.” The problem is that since they are almost all broke, homeless, and addicted, their ability to create that safe-haven just really isn't there, despite their best intentions.
Director Penelope Spheeris focuses on a small handful of these teen and twentysomthing gutter punks as our main characters, and gets to know them very well. There are a lot of interviews – like in the original, shot against a white wall lit by a dangling lightbulb in the shot – but she also follows them around as they panhandle for money, struggle to find squats or semi-sheltered outdoor areas in which to sleep, and party with their makeshift family in the one apartment to which they all have access. While it does have moments of humor like the first two Decline films did, this quickly becomes an emotionally intense and heavy, very sad journey. This emotional depth gives even more punch to the anger and intensity of the mostly-hardcore punk music captured in the film, because we know just what depths of despair that intensity rises from.
While the focus of the film is definitely on the homeless kids in the scene, and the concert sequences are more of accents serving that story, those sequences are once again excellent. They are shot with a raw, gritty, handheld intensity that puts you right in the mosh pit, and all the vocals are screamed in intense close-ups. The bands featured are Naked Agression, Litmus Green, Final Conflict, and The Resistance (who were themselves homeless). By their fiercely independent, hardcore nature these bands never became as widely-known in the mainstream as some of their counterparts from the original like X, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks, but they are pretty classic '90s hardcore, and their performances are captured excellently. Fans of the bands or hardcore in general will really like what they see here, and the film is a solid introduction for those who are only discovering the bands because of this film. While I missed their initial wave captured here, I caught Naked Aggression's mid-2000s resurgence (fiercely political with a passion for activism, they were a great punk band to rail against the dark days of the Bush era), so I loved seeing their roots captured through Spheeris's awesomely kinetic camerawork. The bands get much more nuanced portrayals this time around as well: Naked Aggression in particular gets a lot of depth, as we learn about their classical music training and history of playing benefit shows for rape crisis centers, shelters for abused women, and AIDS research. Plus, those who dismiss hardcore as the sound of untalented people banging on instruments get to see just how wrong that stereotype can be when the members of Naked Aggression dust off their classical piano and french horn skills. The strong portrayal of the musicians makes me wish that there was a bit more concert footage in the film: while its narrative focus on the lives of its subjects was definitely the right choice, at a short running time of 85 minutes there certainly was room to add in a few more music sequences without harming the story arc.
Despite how excellent a film The Decline of Western Civilization Part III is, it has remained far more obscure than either of its cult-classic predecessors; in fact, I would not be surprised if most readers of this review have not seen it. This is truly unfair, as I can honestly say that Decline III is more than just a good rock doc: it is a socially important documentary. However, there is a good reason for this obscurity: last year's Decline Trilogy blu-ray box set was actually the film's first ever wide release. While Decline I and II had been out-of-print and outlandishly rare for over two decades, they were at least distributed on VHS by pretty major labels (Media Home Entertainment for part 1, RCA-Columbia for part 2), and were video store staples in the '80s and early-90s. Part 3, on the other hand, was self-released by Penelope Spheeris in both its theatrical run and a limited home video run, making it certainly the most scarce, if maybe not the most pricey. As such, it is probably a new experience to all but the most serious fans who pick up the box set. It is definitely an experience to seek out. It may not have the same classic reputation as the original, but it deserves it. Not only does it live up to the reputation of the Decline series as an excellent concert film, it also corrects the first film's flaws and gives us a genuinely powerful and thoughtful documentary.
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- Christopher S. Jordan