The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part 3 Review
Decline of Western Civilisation Part 3 offers no real surprises to anyone familiar with either of the first two films in the series. For the unfamiliar, what you get is basically a documentary that focuses on the youth surrounding various musical cultures in Los Angeles. Part One focused on the punk years of the late 70's. The second dealt with the vacuous glam rock scene and was famous for the soul destroying scene featuring Chris Holmes of WASP, virtually unconscious in his swimming pool while his mother looked on in despair. This third installment returns to the punk rock scene of the first in the trilogy and focuses on a group of 'gutterpunks', that is, young homeless punks who have sought refuge in the underground scene for a variety of reasons.
This is not a film of hope. In some ways, it very much resembles a real life version of Spheeris' other punk film of the early 80's, Suburbia. It's just as bleak, and it's all for real. Spheeris is quite possibly one of the most talented documentary makers that America has produced over the last two decades. Her camera never flinches from its subject matter, never takes sides and never tries to impose an opinion on the viewer; it's a master class in objectivity. As well as the kids, we see interviews with cops and the bands themselves. The interview with the police is quite revealing as is the stories the kids tell of their encounters with street cops. The beatings, thefts and abuse they often suffer. Not that it's possible to sympathise totally with the street punks; Speeris never hesitates to show their more unpleasant sides, one admits to camera that the way he gets money is through robbery of people and breaking into houses. The one thing that every punk seems to have in common is a dreadful upbringing; some of the stories of abuse, physical, mental and sexual will make the hardest heart break. One tells of the first time he got drunk and nearly drowned in the toilet after being forced to drink alcohol all day by his father and his uncle. He was three years old at the time.
It’s not all downbeat, though. Much of the film is extremely funny, sometimes intentionally but not always. Some of the kids interviewed are extremely street smart and are able to put across their points of view with biting humour and sarcasm. The scene where they demonstrate their ability to get spare change from passers-by is impossible not to smile at. One throws a beer bottle into the gutter, then says to the first person he sees, "Hey buddy, you got any spare change so I can get another one of those?", while his girlfriend points helpfully at the bottle. They fail in their task this time.
We also get a glimpse into the bands lifestyles. Naked Aggression are featured quite heavily and although the music might be far too abrasive for some, their politics are worthy; they've played gigs raised money for such diverse causes as to set up a rape crisis centre and to help out fans pay their rent. They're also intelligent and highly amusing. There's also live footage of bands galore, such household names as The Resistance, and these are shot with Spheeris typically unflinching gaze; the sweat, the blood in the mosh pit and the naked aggression are all captured superbly and it's difficult not to get a rush from it. But even if you're not a fan of the music, there's still much to get out of the film. The music is merely used as a framework for exploring the lives of a group of, essentially, children who feel that society offers them absolutely nothing.
If you like the first two films in the series, then this is recommended without hesitation. If you're unfamiliar with Spheeris' other work, then the closest comparison really is that of Larry Clarke. This is a piece of film making that shows the ugly reality behind the ugly fiction of Kids or Ken Park. Depressing, funny and shocking in equal measures, it marks a return to form for Spheeris.
It's not a particularly easy film to see at the moment in the UK. It's on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (The Mall, London) for a limited time, but it's well worth scanning the local art cinema listings, lest it pop up announced.