Nether Regions 11.23.11: The Decline of Western Civilization Part III
Posted by Chad Webb on 12.01.2011
My reviews of Penelope Spheeris' Decline of Western Civilization trilogy conclude with the rarest and best title of the series....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III
Featuring (As Themselves): Naked Aggression, Final Conflict, Flea Written/Directed By: Penelope Spheeris Running Time: 86 minutes Original Release Date: November 13, 1998 Missing Since: The End of Its Theatrical Release Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rarest of the Rare
The third (and to date final) installment of Penelope Spheeris' examination of the rock music scene in Los Angeles, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, is the best in the trilogy. It's also the hardest to find, to the point where I initially attached a statement on last week's column that I might not be able to locate a copy of this documentary to fall in line with my string of reviews. Thankfully I managed to stumble upon a site that was streaming it. Unlike the other two parts, this has not been released on VHS or DVD, though a VHS is said to exist on Amazon for almost $200. It was released theatrically, at least in a limited capacity, for a short time, but after that run it disappeared, becoming increasingly rare over the years.
Disabled punk fan Darius being rolled around on his wheelchair.
Finally Spheeris buckles down and focuses on exactly what her series has been described as all along: life in Los Angeles. The Decline of Western Civilization part one was all about the bands of rising punk rock more so than where they hailed from. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years again concentrated on the acts, this time of the metal genre. Each of those installments included lightly sprinkled interviews of fans and footage of what society was like during the time Spheeris was filming, but the music was the top priority. The Decline of Western Civilization Part III places the music in the rear and puts the spotlight on the fans, which is probably the way it should have been the whole time. This trilogy was enlightening, but the documentaries are connected through thin, often frayed threads.
Spheeris is interested specifically in the "gutter" punk generation of the late 90's, and their ages range from teens to early twenties. The first questions she poses is whether or not they're familiar with the first Decline, most of whom are but weren't born when it was released. They probably have real names, but what fun would that be when they bear monikers like Squid, Pinwheel, Spinner, Spoon, Little Tommy the Queer, Hamburger, Troll, and my personal favorite, Why-Me? In the background are performances from four fledgling bands, which I can safely say were countless in the 90's. They are Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance.
Spheeris reaffirms her talent as a pull no punches, unassuming, mesmerizing interviewer. In many scenes she asks the same types of questions that were heard in the previous two entries: How did you become like this? Where do you expect to be in five years? Some of the answers are the same, but there is enough difference and shocking honesty to separate Decline III from the pack. As a creepy echo of past Spheeris conversations, most of the kids on display here reply without hesitation that they will be dead in five years. Many feel that this is a positive fate in light of how poorly they live and conduct themselves. The hardcore punk bands and their followers from the first Decline conveyed an overwhelming sense of wanting to spread a certain message and improve the world (except for Darby Crash that is). The majority of the fans and musicians in Decline III have no desire to change anything. The fury and passion still lurks, but they want to be rid of their place in society, to escape it.
While the acerbic themes and political undertones of many punk acts of this era were not as prevalent, at least one group here has a voice that addresses relevant topics. Naked Aggression is featured more than the other three aforementioned bands. They stick out because of their female lead singer and sing about police hatred, current news, and abortion. Spheeris takes time to showcase each member that possesses a musical skill. The guitarist is actually quite adept at finger picking. Another member can play the piano wonderfully, and the singer proves that she is a mean French horn player. Their talent demonstrations are bookended with the indecipherable, run-of-the-mill yelling from Naked Aggression's stage show. Later on Spheeris has fun wading through the home of The Resistance, led by Eyeball, aptly named because he sleeps with one open. The place is so riddled with garbage and filth that his mother has to climb over a pile of trash to turn on the television. Lyrics to the music are sporadically displayed, again to either spell out the message or the fact that no one could understand the words.
Another club owner is on hand (Ezzat Solimon), questioned about the violence of moshing. The original term for moshing, "pogo dance," had fallen by the waste side at this juncture. When Solimon is asked if he enjoys punk music, he quickly says no and seems relaxed when talking about going home and putting on a Frank Sinatra record. He seems lenient to what punk brings his establishment, but the police are the exact opposite. Spheeris chats with only one, Sgt. Gary Fredo of the LAPD, who is well-spoken and relatively straightforward for a police officer. The frequent interviewees say they represent everything cops are against by sporting mohawks, colorful hair, numerous piercings, tattoos, and more that flaunt their style. Fredo hits on some key points about this group; that most of them are overcompensating for the lack of attention they were given growing up. He says that they are against any form of authority, and in fact, one admits that don't want to be forced to do anything.
To a degree, what Fredo explains is true, that the anti-authority attitude runs deep in a hefty portion of these kids, but there are two sides to every story. Many of Spheeris' punkers supply detailed accounts of police brutality, being harassed, and getting targeted for little to no reason. Fredo denies that any cops mock punk fans, but adds that they're trying to understand them. Sure. The relationship between punker and cop is obviously a heated one. The hatred these kids have for them (and skinheads, their enemies) is pure and uncomplicated. Fredo's argument regarding the absence of attention they received is valid, but the reality is much darker as the responses to "How did you become like this?" roll along. They feel rejected by society and the overall aura of depression connects them all as the phrase "everything sucks" is uttered regularly. The common trait that sprouts these emotions are child abuse and addictions to drugs/alcohol. The amount of these youths that rob, panhandle, and photospange (posing in tourists pics) just to have a few bucks for beer is astounding.
The unfortunate fact is that a handful from this assortment seem fairly intelligent and present themselves ordinarily, but they could care less about personal hygiene, where they sleep, or getting any form of sustenance outside of a brewskie. Spheeris even speaks up when she spots one that has manners, and while she tries to paint a picture of abuse, there is a moment where Sgt. Fredo reveals many emanate from upstanding homes and have families that care. Not all of them dive head first into this lifestyle, but the ones that did have a distorted view of reality. They tend to scoff at anyone who approaches the punk guise as an extra-curricular activity instead of all day, everyday. It probably goes without saying that holding down jobs are not very trendy or on the bucket list with this collection, but you'd be surprised how many do have paying positions. Anyone that comes across as halfway decent or smart is not aware of their full potential due to be permanently scarred as a child. Some of the stories are unbelievable. Hamburger says his mom stopped him from crying by feeding him beer in a bottle. Another was kicked out of his house and is living on the streets after accidentally setting a fire in his home.
Veterans of the cause such as Rick Wilder of the Wau Wau's, Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, and even Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers share memories of being in similar circumstances back in the day and how things have changed. Spheeris inquires about "squatting" in abandoned or empty homes and even tags along as one small group shows her the house found. Darius is the only punk devotee that has an apartment, which he is able to afford from disability checks. Attending one his parties is akin to being thrown to the wolves or getting caught in the middle of unsupervised pre-school chaos. The music, and what it represents to this crowd, is merely skimmed over, with a brief debate about independent record labels and major companies.
It has been 13 years since the release of this documentary, and I wonder where some of these kids are now. Judging by the scenes in Decline III, the outlook was not optimistic. It's easy to criticize their apathy towards existence, and the majority of the time, that can be justified, but many of the individuals Spheeris' portrait were dealt such a bad hand and have had a skewed perspective of life ingrained in them for so long, that it's no wonder they ended up in such a distressing fashion. I recalled Cinemania, a previous Nether Regions column, where it followed a group of people addicted with watching movies. Unlike those people, the punks are not necessarily bogged down by sheer laziness or obsessive compulsive issues. In most cases, they quite simply want nothing to do with normal society, and it matters not if they can clean up their situation. Fatalism is the trait of the day.
Bassist Flea talks of his punk past.
The direction of Decline III is raw an unadorned like the first trip, and nowhere near as manipulated or one-sided as Decline II. Spheeris never gets overly flashy or artistic, opting more often than not to slip into their daily routine, shoot it as it unfolds, and insert comments much like Michael Apted's Up series. The sole stand-out is a scrolling shot of all the punks standing beside one another. What fails to develop in all three of these documentaries is Spheeris' general aim. She rarely delves beneath the surface of what's occurring in Los Angeles in front of her cameras, but is keen to just point it out and rely on the "shock factor." Still, she has sympathy for these kids, and had already directed a fictional film about it called Suburbia. In a career that has been the definition of a mixed bag (Wayne's World, The Beverly Hillbillies), Spheeris flourishes when peering into the lives of real people. Of all her efforts that I have seen, the music and its followers are where she is most comfortable.
In both the first and last Decline of Western Civilization, the term "punk" is always used to express the music. We all are accustomed to it because that's what caught on, but I remember seeing an interview taped decades ago with a handful of bands that helped etch out that genre, and they frowned upon the name, alleging that it was a media created term. It's somewhat insane then to ponder how a media description has snowballed into being a distinct category of music, a derogatory term for someone, and for the kids in Decline III...a way of life. I have not heard about a fourth installment, and to be honest, I doubt we'll ever see one because little could be expanded upon. Penelope Spheeris adheres to the basic formula she exhibited all throughout this trilogy, but the third and final chapter is the most emotionally resonant as the recollections and damaged expressions will haunt and shake you.
I will end by saying that it should be easier to slap these in a box set and put them in stores. Fans are eager to snatch them up, but getting the clearances approved all these years later for distribution would be a pain in the backside, so who knows if it will ever happen. Netflix seems to have the upper hand with dilemmas like this, so I would advise anyone curious to keep an eye out there. After all, they managed to obtain The Wonder Years with ALL the original music, so how hard can three 90 minute documentaries be? What makes Decline III sad is that some of the proceeds went to charities for the homeless, but it was never released apart from a blink and you'll miss it theatrical run. It deserved more.