Punk is Dead
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998): 2 out of 10: In the third of the Decline films, director Penelope Spheeris revisits the punk scene she illuminated in her first Decline film. Here she finds the struggle of street kids and young adults in West Hollywood trying to make it day by day, fighting off attacks from skinheads and following the ever decreasing number of punk bands that remain in the scene.
The Good: Like her previous two films, Spheeris highlights some bands and one of them is actually pretty good. Naked Aggression led by lead singer Kirsten Patches seemed like America’s answer to Chumbawamba. The band even shows their not inconsiderable classical music chops. As Todd in the Shadows would say, they deserved better.
The Bad: In 1999, Rory Kennedy made a documentary about a family in Appalachia that had been beset by poverty for the last 100 years. Being the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, this was a topic that was close to her heart. Her film American Hollow would expose us to the real people behind the poverty and help bring in a new age of help for those folks dependent on handouts whom the American Dream had passed by.
Unfortunately for Rory, her film features the laziest bunch of yokels this side of Jerry Springer. Rory simple didn’t see it. One cannot watch her film and not think we need to cut welfare off yesterday and get these people a clue.
Spheeris doesn’t see it as well. Yes, the kids featured are broken. In reality, many of them are pretty horrible people. There is a scene where they all crash at a poor black man’s apartment. He is in a wheelchair from an auto accident, doesn’t drink and lives in a humble one bedroom. About sixty of these street hooligans pile in there as if it was a scene from Aronofsky’s Mother!. They trash the place beyond recovery, and the look of pain in the man’s eyes is haunting. He just wanted a friend.
Spheeris does her interviews like the previous two films, and once again most of her subjects are understandably about as deep as a puddle. She seems interested in the dirt about how they left home, but leaves some obvious questions on the table. Starting with why are they dressed in fashions that went out of style before they were born?
In conclusion: Punk is long dead by the time the documentary starts. The bands, with one exception noted above, are barely garage bands and the fans are begging for a dollar to buy a pint of MD 20/20. Apparently, there are skinhead Nazis that prey on these youths, but we never see one and Spheeris really drops the ball, not getting one to sit down and tell their story.
On some level, it is an interesting look at a slice of life on the margins, but the combination of bad people and awful music makes this an unpleasant ride. One wishes for a filmmaker who could see what she really was looking at.
Honestly, the picture quality is one reason the movie got a such a low score. This isn’t some underground punk tape from 1981, it’s a movie from 1998.
Penelope Spheeris is a director with two dozen credits and almost thirty years’ experience. One would expect a better looking film.