Punk, Violence, and Nostalgia for Live Music in ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’

Filmed in Los Angeles in 1979 and 1980, Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization is a snapshot of punk in this moment and of the people who made it, loved it, and hated it. It’s a treasure trove of interviews with influential bands and footage from performances, featuring Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, the Germs, Catholic Discipline, the Circle Jerks, and more. (AEL: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

The film’s tongue-in-cheek title signifies the tensions around the punk scene and its conflicts with critics and local authority. Owners of iconic venues talk about the risks of hosting a punk show, of the shows’ inherent violence. The owner of Masque explains that the music’s high speed produces “an abnormal level of adrenaline —which is a statement about safety but also is pretty effective music criticism.

There’s definitely an element of nihilistic toughness to punk. Germs singer Darby Crash explains that he’s always letting himself get hurt in performances on purpose but that he also likes to be high on stage, so he doesn’t feel it. His roommate, Michelle, tells a story of when the friend group found a dead man and posed around the body, taking photos. He had been painting their house and presumably had a heart attack. Michelle laughs, telling the story, aware of how absurd her response was, that it makes her seem callous. Spheeris, off-camera, asks if she feels bad at all, given that someone died. “No,” she replies, “I don’t like painters.”

But thoughtfulness and care were also intrinsic to the punk scene. A club promoter describes the importance of distinguishing between consensual and real violence, between chaotic pogoing as an expression versus a situation where people are using the chaos maliciously to inflict pain on others. People were looking out for each other.

Some people had love-hate relationships with punk. Nicole Panter, a manager for the Germs, compared it to working with toddlers, trying to work professionally with artists who behave unpredictably and are seldom sober. We find out that Nicole quit soon after her interview.

Writers and editors at Slash Magazine talk about their role as music critics, attempting to straddle the divisions in the punk world. Writer Claude Bessy, also known as Kickboy Face and the lead singer of Catholic Discipline, embraces these divisions. In his writerly voice, he says, “I hate people, and I really want them to hate me.” But he’s also grieving a loss of the sense of community that accompanied earlier movements. “Ugly vibes,” he says. “There’s no brotherhood anymore.”

The owner of Masque draws a link between the 1979 punk scene and the 1960s acoustic guitar style of protest music. But what is punk protesting? Notably, nothing in particular. Or rather, everything. Capitalism, the destruction of the climate, the education system. There’s a sense of collective desperation. Many artists share in their interviews that they came to punk when they had nothing else; many of them are living in poverty or recently came out of poverty. There’s no common ideology; punk is the creative force that grows triumphantly out of emptiness and despair.

Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of X, shares that this context of desperation and need can lead to an identity crisis. When you’re a successful band, you charge higher prices. Those prices largely cover marketing and production costs, but they surely create a barrier between audiences and artists. She wonders, how do you stay authentic? “There are worse ways of being desperate than being poor,” she says.

Spheeris went on to make The Decline of Western Civilization Parts II and III in the coming decades, recognizing her impact as a cultural preservationist and historian. In representing communities and movements over the years, she was almost journalistic in her approach, capturing the cultural moments without either glorifying or condemning them.

Spheeris explores how we construct our values, how we know why we do things, or whether we really know. She asks the artists: why start a band, what are you aiming to express? Why do something destructive, like letting yourself get hurt, doing drugs excessively, or getting a visible statement tattoo? Sometimes, the artists’ answers are profound, drawing on traumatic experiences or expressing gratitude for found family. Sometimes, they simply respond with a “Why not?”

© Amelie Lasker (12/16/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Exene Cervenka (X).

Middle Photo: Alice Bag (Alice Bag Band).

Bottom Photo: Claude Bessy (Catholic Discipline). 

Photo Credits: Manson International Pictures/The Criterion Channel

Q: Does The Decline of Western Civilization pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Most likely yes!

We can assume a woman interviewer, not only because the director is a woman, but because we can sometimes hear Spheeris asking questions from off-camera. Spheeris talks to female artists and managers, editors, and younger punk fans.

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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