Friday, June 28, 2019

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and The Decline of Western Civilization part 2 The Metal Years (1988) directed by Penelope Spheeris

“Such welcome and unwelcome things at once.
‘Tis hard to reconcile.”

Starting a post about the first two The Decline of Western Civilization with a quote from Shakespeare may seem incongruous. But I read Macbeth over the last weekend and the lines sum up my feelings about the nascent LA Punk scene depicted fantastically in the first of these part documentary/part concert films.

There is an undeniably appealing energy to the first. The anarchy of the movement feels at times like a perfect antidote to the consumer/conformist society they railed against. The groups depicted in the doc have various levels of commitment to anarchy and to their art. X seemed pretty focused on making it work. They were slightly more honest about their ambition to make it as a band. Black Flag seemed pretty focused on the music as well. Germs’ anarchy seemed to extend to the music to the point that the singer at least seemed to barely think he should perform. Fear, better musicians and performers, expressed that anarchy by being openly hostile to the crowd, spitting on and being spit on by them. These are Gen-X levels of performative authenticity, which makes sense as the youngest in the crowd were probably about the right age to be the first of that cohort.

Some seem more authentic than they would probably like in retrospect. While much of the anger seems justified, it can get aimed in just about any direction. The camera catches at least one swastika (painted onto a cast). One of the non-band interviewees expresses his racism very plainly. The mosh pit, or pogo dancing as they called it in the film, seems like a great way to get out aggression, and no doubt, for some it was. But the cavalier attitude toward violence against women is jarring to contemporary sensibilities. No doubt some of them felt their convictions deeply, but many were clearly in it for groupies as well. I’m very glad that Spheeris didn’t shrink from depicting that reality. The documentary is a great portrait of both what is great about punk and the unsavory aspects of it.

In the second film, all pretense of authenticity is out the window. This is pure excess. Despite being about real bands, and despite the genuine ambition of the various bands, this really felt like a companion piece to Spinal Tap. The documentary is amazing; I don’t mean that as a negative. I was once again genuinely surprised how close Tap came to capturing the reality of this brand of rock.

This time, there are interviews with the forbears of the hard rock metal scene, and most of the performances are from up and coming bands. I’m not well versed enough in metal history to know at what stage of their career Megadeth was when they performed, but they seemed the most authentic (and the best at their instruments) of any of the bands. Like the first, it works as both a concert film and document of a scene. An incredibly decadent scene.

The two films make an interesting pair. Speeris is clearly more sympathetic to the punks. The poverty of the punk bands makes a stark contrast with the opulence of the headbangers. While watching the first film, I thought of The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Her anarchist society in that novel worked so well because of austerity conditions. The second film depicts her worst capitalist nightmare. I really loved both movies.

Both Highly Recommended.

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