New To Blu: The Decline of Western Civilization

Over the next week, The Movie Sleuth will be chronicling the entire Decline trilogy that was just released in a phenomenal box set. 

After years of anticipation – or honestly, after years of thinking that it was never going to happen due to one of the most notorious tangles of music rights in film history – Penelope Spheeris's iconic documentary trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization is now on blu-ray and DVD thanks to the wonderful team at Shout! Factory. This is such a hotly-anticipated release – and such a massive amount of material – that one New to Blu review just won't do the job. So we're handling the Decline collection as separate reviews for each film, and a review of the box set itself, with its wealth of special features that are just as expansive as the movies. First, let's look back to 1981, when Spheeris unleashed the film that would define her career, and set the tone for all the punk rock documentaries that followed...

The Decline of Western Civilization is a film that has taken on a mythical status over time. It's a film that almost everyone has heard of, and knows by its fabled reputation, but that until this week, very few were actually able to see legally for many years. Out of print for over two decades, Decline was one of the most famously sought-after and rare VHS and laserdisc releases among collectors, and was more commonly relegated to poor quality nth-generation bootlegs. Perhaps best known from passed-along memories from its days as a video store staple in the 1980s, and from its much more readily-available soundtrack album, it is usually thought of as the ultimate punk rock movie... but now that everyone can see it again, does it live up to the hype?

Well... yes and no. As someone who was lucky enough to actually own the Media Home Entertainment VHS of Decline, I've always had a few reservations about the film that stop me from loving it as much as I'd really like to. The tricky thing about it is that it is actually two pretty different things at the same time. As a concert film documenting the early days of the L.A. punk scene, it is absolutely amazing: an intense, vivid, adrenaline-fueled epic that genuinely captures the experience of seeing bands like X, The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Fear at their furious beginnings, as well as The Germs during their all-too-short reign. But as a documentary about that scene and the people in it... it has some big problems. It's a very good film – in some ways a great film – but it is undeniably flawed, and has a bizarre, seemingly contradictory relationship with the very scene that it is about.

In its concert film mode, it absolutely is the ultimate punk movie that our pop-cultural consciousness remembers it as. The performances are captured with a flare for filmmaking that perfectly compliments the music: raw, gritty, handheld cinematography that gives the feeling of actually being in the mosh pit, but that never looks sloppy or amateurish in its shakiness. Considering that this was an era when punk was still pretty far from mainstream, it is a miracle to have performances like these captured in such relative high quality; Penelope Spheeris was clearly committed to doing the live shows justice in the film's aesthetic.

From a pre-Henry-Rollins Black Flag, to X when they were still purely a punk band, to the gloriously confrontational Fear shortly before their notorious studio-destroying Saturday Night Live appearance, it's simply awesome to see these bands at this point in their careers. Their performances are every bit as intense and unrestrained as you would hope. The film is also one of the few documents of The Germs' live shows, shortly before frontman Darby Crash committed suicide by heroin overdose. Crash is clearly so messed up during the set that he can barely remember his own lyrics, but they nonetheless put on one hell of an intense performance. There are some more obscure bands from the scene documented as well, like Catholic Discipline and The Alice Bag Band, but Spheeris clearly could tell who the really important ones would turn out to be. It's essential punk viewing, and while the musical and aesthetic style could not be more different, I'd rank it alongside Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense as one of the best concert films that the 1980s produced.

But then there's the film's documentary segments. They're very entertaining, and do a good job of maintaining the energy and the gritty aesthetic... but they are also obviously skewed and biased in their editing in a way that is hard to ignore. Despite all that I just said about the concert segments being the definitive punk rock movie, Decline's documentary mode reveals that the film is at best apathetic and skeptical of the scene, and at worst disdainful of it. While the title The Decline of Western Civilization seems like a snarky joke, there are times when it feels like that genuinely could be what Penelope Spheeris thought of the punks she was interviewing. It feels distinctly like a film made by an outsider who embarked on the project with negative preconceived notions about her subjects, and who allowed those assumptions to shape the whole narrative rather than giving the interviewees a chance to change her mind.

The interviews are clearly cut in a way that focuses on the musicians and fans at their most violent, intoxicated, and inarticulate. This is especially true of the kids in the scene, whose interview sequence is far too short, and almost entirely consists of quick bursts of them saying nothing in particular, or else saying stuff that sounds either vapid, violent, or offensive. Many of the comments are clearly taken out of context in a way that suggests that the kids had a lot more to say, but it all wound up on the cutting-room floor. This segment should give some sort of insight into what makes this music so important to them, and what sorts of emotions or ideologies it speaks to; instead, all we really get is “punks are angry.” A couple people get to make some articulate and insightful comments, but it gets outweighed by the noise. The same is true of the interview segments with the bands: there is a distinct feeling that most of what they had to say about their music wound up on the cutting-room floor in favor of the more scandalous train-wreck-ish moments. There's a very telling moment when Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski is talking quite eloquently about his search for a sense of meaning that took him through a college neuroscience major, various pursuits in philosophy, and eventually the individuality and politics of punk rock... and Spheeris essentially cuts him off to ask him why a mohawk seemed like any kind of good idea. Since she took such good care to give the bands strong representation in the performance segments, it is very disappointing that she doesn't let them tell their stories here. The result is undeniably entertaining, but is just as undeniably an unfair portrayal, and more shallow than it should be.

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That is the bizarre and complicated duality of The Decline of Western Civilization: a fantastic concert film caught up in a flawed documentary made by a filmmaker whose great talent carried with it an unfortunate agenda. But while the documentary aspects are troubling in their slanted editing, it's hard to deny that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It sweeps you along on a crazy ride that never slows its pace, and while the interviewees don't get to tell their full stories, they are definitely great characters to spend the better part of two hours with. And in the end, the problems with the overall narrative are more or less outweighed by the sheer greatness of the concert footage, which is both the majority of the running time and the film's heart and soul. Spheeris would take her music documentary approach to the metal scene for Decline's sequel, but then would return to punk rock with Decline III to make up for this film's flaws by offering a much more nuanced and honest portrait. Plus, the large amount of extra interview material included as special features helps to correct this flaw, making The Decline of Western Civilization a stronger and more complete story. While it is certainly not as perfect as we would like to remember, Decline is definitely worthy of its cult classic legacy, and is essential viewing if only for the unique concert footage it contains. Now let's get this new 2K transfer screened in a theater with a mosh pit.

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- Christopher S. Jordan