The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 10/04/2015

On Friday, I noticed that Fandor had added a number of great movies to their selection, things I was keen to see, like Things (1989) and Penelope Spheeris’s entire Decline of Western Civilization series of films.  Fandor, I’m digging it!

Of the three films, the only one I had ever seen was the first, The Decline of Western Civilization.  I may have seen parts of the second film, but I definitely have still not yet seen the third one though I remember when it first came out and I’ve been waiting for it to become available for years.  It was only earlier this year that Spheeris had the trilogy released on a DVD box set.  So you can know that I’ll be watching the latter two toot sweet.

While I’ve never seen the other films, I’ve actually seen this one multiple times, most recently having a version dubbed on VHS.  I’ve also watched the X and Fear segments many times on YouTube.  So, though it’s been over a decade since I last watched it in full, I am quite familiar with it, as I am with the later X documentary X: The Unheard Music (1986) (which is also available on Fandor, by the way.)

I first saw Decline back in the mid-1980’s and at the time probably liked the Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Fear segments the most.  I was into hardcore punk and the only thing that I really didn’t like was that the movie was old (probably 4 or 5 years old at the time).  I was into bands that were happening in the “now” of then, and by then, X was a much more commercial prospect.  I liked their music okay, but got much more into it as I got older.

For more than 25 years, X has been my favorite band, so I’ve watched this and appreciated it for seeing them in their prime, both onstage and off.  Watching Darby Crash crash everything, knowing that he was dead within a year or so of this movie’s filming, had different points of interest and curiosity.  I’ve gotten into The Germs over the years, but he’s such a hot mess, it’s hard not seeing the end coming sooner.

Overall, the film is an amazing glimpse into the culture and scene of Los Angeles punk at its red-hot best in the late 1970’s.  You only wonder why this band or that band wasn’t included, so many great ones aren’t there.  And a couple lesser bands made the cut.  The Fear sequence has some rather appalling homophobic humor in it, which is too bad because the way they are baiting their audience is otherwise pretty hilarious.

I watched the film with my 11 year old daughter and just turned 14 year old son.  My son is getting into music and I thought he would be interested.  I wanted to show my daughter X.  She hears me talk about them being my favorite band and asks questions.

What did the kids think of the movie?  I don’t know.  It’s 35 years old, and as much as it captures some greatness, it also captures some inanity, some from the young kids Spheeris interviews, some from the bands in their own interviews, some just from the bands in general.

Still, it’s a remarkable artifact.

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