The Decline of Western Civilization III

19 Feb

Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, the Resistance
The Decline of Western Civilization III
R – 100 Minutes
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

I received a VHS copy of this movie in the mail from Spheeris Films about three to six months back. I had no idea what to expect. It’s definitely a heavy film. In 1979-1980, when director Penelope Spheeris filmed The Decline of Western Civilization, she looked at punk-rock nihilism. For most, it was an opportunity to view close-up a culture which was unfamiliar. The Decline of Western Civilization III delves a bit deeper, because of this it may be the best film of the three.

The film is, basically, about kids who drink all day, sleep in abandoned buildings, spend their days just trying to find food, and evade arrest. Spheeris remains respectful, allowing the kids to tell their own stories. The film is ultimately about the way that even the most marginalized people create community in the face of circumstances most cannot imagine.

I read in an interview with Spheeris, that she ended up living with one of these kids for about two years, after the filming.

What’s disturbing about this film is that the title is no longer ironic; it is truly about a generation in a tailspin. The punks that Spheeris documented in 1979 for the first “Decline” film were a vibrant group of musicians, journalists, and “scenesters” who were mapping out music’s next turn. While the ’90s punks that she tails are in punk bands as well, groups like Naked Aggression, Final Conflict and Litmus Green, but musically they’re simply walking down a trail that Black Flag blazed nearly two decades prior. As the film’s opening series of interviews points out, most of the subjects weren’t even born when the first “Decline” was released in 1981, but most of the ratty T-shirts they wear bear the names of punk’s first (or second?) wave: Crass, Exploited, Subhumans, Misfits, Fear, and Black Flag. And the fans aren’t the excited community they once were. The teenagers Spheeris talks to are rough, homeless gutter punks. They have no fanzine to produce, no well-reasoned arguments about punk’s musical or social worth. Most are alcoholics; they get drunk, and sneak into punk shows to let off steam. They then go back to the streets or the squats, get drunker, and wait to die.

There’s a moment in the film that’s a real kick in the nuts, a kid talks at length about why he left home: his father regularly beat him in the face with his fists. Asked what he’d say to his Dad now if he could, he gives a completely sincere answer: “I’d say, ‘Hi.’”

An overweight, slurring, teenager who calls himself Hamburger recalls how he nearly drowned in a toilet when his Father and Uncle got him drunk when he was three-years-old and others argue that the abuse of the streets and the feared Nazi-Skinhead punks is better than the abuse they received at home. One squatter relates her plans for the weekend: She’s started making a circle of cigarette burns around her left biceps, she hopes to get drunk enough to finish the job.

The film slides back into the stylistic conventions of the first two Decline films, right down to the reading of disclaimers onstage, to the dangling light bulb during the interviews, to another scene of a musician frying eggs (Darby?). Spheeris inserts interviews with the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who both argue that life for punks, and teenagers in general, has gotten more difficult; Flea notes that the homeless punks of the early ’80s were protected by “an umbrella of art, and punk rock” that doesn’t exist anymore.

The most powerful moment is offered by Rick Wilder of the Mau Maus, who stuns you with his mere presence on-screen: Backlit, he speaks of the damage drugs did to the scene. There is a look in his eyes that says he knows what he’s talking about.

Rating: ** * two out of three stars

On to the story . . .

Back in July of 2007, I made the trek out to San Diego to attend the Comic-Con show. It was one of the more overwhelming experiences of my life. On Saturday (July 31, 2007) there were something like 150,000 people crammed into the place. It was very difficult to look at anything, you just moved along with the sea of people in this kind of a human pinball machine. Anyway, I found myself at the far end of the building trying to find something to look at when I saw the Fox Studios booth; they were promoting the DVD release of Wrong Turn 2 (I didn’t know it was made). I walked in, and Henry Rollins was sitting there. I was blown away. Other than his small cameo in Heat, I hadn’t been keeping up with his film career. He stood up, we shook hands, and I was blown away at how small he was. Very thin, gray and he looked about 5’6” or 5’8”. My memories of him somehow put him at 7’ and bulletproof. But he was 46, and somewhat frail looking. I kept the conversation short “Big fan, bought Damaged when I was 14 or 15, and reread Get in the Van a few months back.” Henry’s lengthy response was “Cool, thanks.” It was definitely a flashback to my youth.



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2 Responses to “The Decline of Western Civilization III”

  1. 1
    Eddie Cook Says:

    Hey Mike ~ loved that movie! Cool about meeting Henry! ~ Eddie

  2. 2
    Mike E. Says:

    Eddie -

    Thanks for reading and writing in.

    - Mike E.

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