Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Short Essay on Decline of Western Civilization, Three

           If one thing immediately stands out about the third installation of Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization series, it is the lack of innovation in the music.  Final Conflict sounds good, but are playing music they composed a decade earlier, from their 1987 lp, Ashes to Ashes.  The rest of the acts, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance, who are perhaps even more obscure than the other bands, largely produce music that similarly could have been written a decade ago, or perhaps even earlier. This lack of innovation also really stands out when you look at the kid's t shirts. Everyone is wearing band shirts from groups that started in the late 70s or the 80s, Conflict, Misfits, Rudimentary Peni, etc. It's as if the whole thing had hit a dead end.  This, for lack of a better term, retrograde dimension places a gulf between the music of the film and the earlier two films, both of which represent both far diverse aesthetic streams in their respective subcultures, and represent music that it would be impossible to imagine as having been produced at any earlier time.  In the first film, we find ourselves immersed in the 'year zero' world of punk rock, exploring its various branches, from the art world of Catholic Discipline to the suburban hardcore of The Circle Jerks.  In the second film, we find ourselves in a far older world, defined by the newer stream of glam metal that dominated the strip at the time, along with the rising stream of thrash, but that world was supplemented with interviews with older acts in the genre, from Ozzy to Lemmy and a couple members of KISS.  In both cases, we are being introduced to aesthetic novelty, new forms of art, new forms of subjectivity.  The third film represents a subculture that no longer is creating something new, and a subculture that was on its way out, representing the endpoint of a musical moment, the punk revival, that began in the late 1980's and was in the process of closing.

            However, the film is worth watching because of its shift in focus.  Rather than focusing on the bands, which are the almost exclusive focus of the first film, and the dominant focus of the second film, the third film focuses on the primarily homeless punk kids who were the backbone of that scene.  We can already see a shift to a kind of ethnographic gaze with the second film, which brings in a bunch of kids who imagine themselves becoming the next big thing, but that engagement is far more limited.  We don't get a sense of how those kids live, and we don't get a real sense of their individuality.  Instead, we're offered a set of remarkably thought-free clichés, an exploration of the spontaneous ideology of Reaganism, really.  Spheeris really spends a lot of time with the punks in the third film, though.  We see how they live, make money, find places to sleep, etc.  There's a real sense of trying to create that sort of ethnographic engagement, of exploring an unknown way of life, of trying to understand its social mechanisms and driving motivations.  The film also explores some of the causal mechanisms of why these kids wound up on the street, which aren't terribly surprising, and involve a lot of issues around abuse and abandonment.  Just as significantly, through this engagement, we meet a group of young punks who are far more thoughtful, politically engaged, and sympathetic than the participants in the first two films.  The film series effectively moves from a focus on interviews and live footage of the bands to a film that focused on the daily lives of the subculture.  It also shifts from what can effectively be called a participant-observer document to a document from the perspective of an outsider.[1]

            And in a sense, it's that sense of estrangement that produces such a rich engagement with the scene, and effectively communicates why such an fascinating subculture produced such formulaic music.  Embedded in the film, are a number of short interviews with participants in the original LA punk scene, who are there to create a sense of change over the years.  One of the most significant interviews is with Flea, who talks about how the city had changed from his time as a homeless punk in the early eighties.  He noted that he was a kid in the scene there was so much more of an infrastructure to support him, from art venues to places to sleep.  The kids that were living on their own in the mid to late nineties had so much less to support their survival.  It was at that point that the lack of creativity made so much more sense.  Despite its fantasy of a 'year zero', the original punk scenes had a scaffolding of the counter-culture of the 1960's and 1970's to create itself within.  Veterans of those scenes helped provide venues for kids, found funding for them, and contributed to the cultural and political educations of the new folks involved in the scene.  Perhaps even more significantly, the welfare infrastructure that had been produced by the Johnson administration in the mid-century effort on the part of the political class to create what might be called a capitalism with a human face had not been entirely eviscerated by the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.   

          The punks in the third film are left with only the dregs of both that counter-culture and the mechanisms of support that so many of the subculture could depend on in the first film.  Within such a situation, it's not surprising that the art that got produced within that scene didn't have the vibrancy and creativity of the earlier scenes.  The participants had to focus so much more on survival. The film deliberately creates this effect through its focus on the mechanisms of survival, eating, sleeping, drinking, and raising the money for those activities, contrasting those activities with the memories of the memories of participants in the earlier formation of the subculture.  The film further reveals the precarity of the life of its subjects through the depiction of two tragedies: the murder of one of its primary interview subjects, Squid, who was allegedly killed by his girlfriend, and the tragic death by another interview subject in a squat fire. If the first film points to a new sense of self-destructiveness, and the second film is largely about decadence and thoughtlessness, the final film is a film of exhaustion, the exhaustion of the subcultural formation, of the participants, trying to survive, and perhaps even a whole series of social reproduction.  Within that exhaustion, we find a rich cultural life, and actually a thoughtfulness lacking from the first two films, but it's so much harder to imagine transformation in that world.

[1] Watching the first film for the second time, it's fairly obvious that Spheeris is effectively translating the formal structure of the fanzine for film.

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