Review: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Effective in its lo-fi, hands-off aesthetic, The Decline Of Western Civilisation captures the myopic restlessness of an aimless generation.

In this barebones documentary, director Penelope Spheeris lets the collective energy of bands like Black Flag and Germs do its thing. The quizzically conflicted musicians of the late 70s LA Punk scene perform, muse, and indulge in a hedonistic, at times self-destructive, lifestyle. Discovering the historical genealogy of punk’s juvenile, recalcitrant core becomes the most interesting socio-psychological question the documentary raises.

Punk’s apocalyptic, nihilistic edge is highlighted in the interviews and footage on display here. The jeering, unfocused rage, often clipped by terse, self-referential humour is the definitive Schelling point of band members and catatonic groupies alike. The extensive run time dedicated to band performances is no different, with a playful mood expressively valued over disparate lyrics and the musician’s limited talent.

There are some immersive, intimate moments in the interview sections of the film that distinguish the documentary from more generic attempts at capturing a dissident era. The (temporary) lead singer of Black Flag, Ronny Reyes, for instance, jokes about his new 16 dollars-a-month digs being a place where he entertains rich girls while they fund his drifter life style. The bands embrace the on-the-road poverty that was initially associated with punk, while coyly aware of ties to middle-class voyeurism are entangled with survival.

Where is punk situated, here, in Sheeris’ documentary? A hangover of a headier, happier cultural revolution? Perhaps framed as a generational tantrum, a reaction to the realisation that John Lennon’s Imagine was nothing but a forlorn memory of what couldn’t be. In the documentary, Black Flag replaced hippies who replaced Baptists in the refuge of an old church – a salient transition.

The horror of modernity’s self-reflexivity led to Nietzsche’s ‘last man’ confronting an abyss of meaning in a world where technology and science predominated. Similarly, as the documentary’s title nod to Oswald Spengler’s book hints, this subculture fulfils the prophetic sentiment of a final season drawing closer – winter – for Westphalian civilisation. It’s these transatlantic anxieties linking cultural cousins (USA and Western Europe).

Additionally, punk fetishizes individuality, failing to escape capitalist loyalty and logic. The lyrical ethos of bands like Black Flag unintentionally spell out a fatal flaw – viral in liberal democracies – that an insistence on high time preference: to the point where living for today means no tomorrow, where hedonistic consumption starts at the minute of appropriation, is the major decivilising process of a once proud Anglosphere.

As a documentarian, Spheeris succeeds by holding up a mirror to a genre of music that lucidly represented political and social frustration in the youth of the day. Beyond that, little is gleaned from the band’s principles other than the future of the West looks wholly dark and destined for a downward curve.

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