Friday, July 19, 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998)

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998)
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris.
The first two films in The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy became legendary, and almost impossible to see for a long time, then the third in the trilogy became even harder to see, but nowhere near as legendary. The film played the festival circuit back in 1998 – and then kind of disappeared, no real distribution of any kind. In a way, it’s easy to see why no one picked it up. Unlike the first two films, it’s only tangentially about music at all. The inspiration for Penelope Spheeris to revisit this world seems to be the re-emergence of punk in the mid-1990s. Bands like Green Day and The Offspring may not have been hardcore like the bands in the first film – but they became huge. But this time, Spheeris concentrates almost exclusively on the fans – sure, some of them are in punk bands, but not ones anyone has ever heard of – even two decades later. This is a film about the people who really do live on the margins – squatting in abandoned buildings, sleeping in cars, etc. – their lives a mixture of drinking, drugging, partying, violence and poverty. It is a grim film – one without much hope. When you get to the end, and find out that one of the main figures in the movie has been killed – and another one has been charged with the murder – you are not surprised, just saddened.
The film acknowledges its roots in its opening moments – asking the interview subjects if they had ever seen the original film. Many of them have – although they then acknowledge that they were only 1 or 2 when it came out – if they were born at all. This works to make Spheeris seem more on an elder statesman this time around – perhaps even a parental figure. She is concerned for these kids – as a parent would be – but also realizes she is powerless to stop them heading down the path they are going to inevitably go down anyway.
But mostly, Spheeris lets you draw your own conclusions about the differences between this group of punks – known as gutterpunks – and the group she filmed nearly two decades before for the first film. In the original, those kids were angry of course – but also determined. They poured themselves into their music – and even if they never made it big – never wanted to, they left a mark. This group seems more fragmentary – more isolated. They come together, sure, but there isn’t quite the sense of community there once was. These people are loners- and forever on the outside. They’re never going to get even the fame as the groups in the first film – and they’re barely even trying. They are too poor for that – and don’t have the ambition.
All of this probably makes it sound like this is a depressing film. It isn’t really. It is a sad film – I can only imagine where the last two decades have left most of the people in the film. And yet, at this time, they are young, dumb and hedonistic, and while Spheeris clearly has concern for them, she also doesn’t look down on them. She allows their dark, gallows humor to come through. They kids are nihilistic and dark – but they somehow manage to, if not smile through it all, at least accept it – and take what joy they can from it.
In a way, this is a proper way to end this trilogy. The first film was about these legendary punks bands – they may never have become super famous, but many of them went on to have long, influential careers. They didn’t become huge – but they did what they wanted. The second film is all about the excesses of rock – how the metal bands embraced that excess, and how its fans and wannabes want to. This last film is about the lowest rung of this ladder. These aren’t even wannabes really – they’re just holding on. They are punks almost by necessity – what else are they going to be.
The film that Spheeris has made here is funny and sad, gross and comical. And it ends, as is inevitable, in tragedy – because of course it does. This film doesn’t have the hook of the legendary punk bands of the first film, or the excessive idiocy of the second film. And yet, it may just stick in your head a little bit longer than either of the other films.

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