The De­cline of Western Civ­i­liza­tion Col­lec­tion 1981/1988/1988

Australian HIFI - - ON TEST -

Star­ring: Germs, Black Flag, X, Cir­cle Jerks, Catholic Dis­ci­pline, The Alice Bag Band, Fear, Alice Cooper; Lemmy, Poi­son, Aero­smith, KISS, the Mau Maus, and many, many oth­ers…

Movie: A | Pic­ture: B | Sound: B | Ex­tras: A

Aso­ci­o­log­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of a sub­cul­ture? A cel­e­bra­tion of a re­turn to au­then­tic rock af­ter the ex­cesses of the 70s? An at­tempt to cre­ate a moral panic? What, pre­cisely, was ‘ The De­cline of Western Civ­i­liza­tion’?

This 100 minute movie is now con­sid­ered a clas­sic of mu­sic doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ing. If its for­mat—bands play­ing, in­ter­spersed with in­for­mal, free-flow­ing in­ter­views—seems fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause it’s a stan­dard that this movie helped to es­tab­lish.

And the sub­ject? Punk rock bands in the Los An­ge­les area at the turn of the decade from the 1970s to the 1980s.

I doubt we’ll ever be see­ing au­dio­phile re­leases of the mu­sic from most of these bands: Germs, Black Flag, X, Cir­cle Jerks, Catholic Dis­ci­pline, The Alice Bag Band, Fear and the like. All the per­for­mances are live. All the per­for­mances are an­gry. The singers fling out words tune­lessly, some­times ran­domly. The riffs are ba­sic, rarely in­ven­tive. As the movie pro­gresses, the acts grad­u­ally be­come more pro­fes­sional. The open­ing sec­tion is in part con­cerned with why Darby Crash of Germs—who (apart from his pet taran­tula) seems nor­mal enough hav­ing break­fast in his kitchen—has to be so loaded when he sings. And why he seems in­ca­pable of singing into the mi­cro­phone. Not dis­cussed is why there is no tune.

It turns out that the Germs’ per­for­mance in this movie was even more chaotic and out of con­trol than usual. The Germs al­bum seems only vaguely re­lated to what you see here.

And then there’s the vi­o­lence. Bounc­ers and club man­agers dis­cuss the fine dis­tinc­tions be­tween pogo­ing and ac­tual vi­o­lence. Some dis­af­fected youths are given in­ter­view time in black and white, and they ex­press their youth­ful dis­af­fec­tion, their ap­par­ent en­nui and alien­ation, and their de­sire for and prac­tice of vi­o­lence. They are pa­thetic in the real mean­ing of the word. Near the end the group Fear goes on stage and taunts the au­di­ence cru­elly and foully un­til a near-riot breaks out, af­ter ex­plain­ing that it was the first time they’d been al­lowed back in that venue due to a pre­vi­ous riot.

To an­swer the open­ing ques­tions, Pene­lope Spheeris’ ‘The De­cline of Western Civ­i­liza­tion’ seems to be all three. The the­atri­cal trailer calls it ‘the most shock­ing Amer­i­can youth move­ment in his­tory’. A bit of moral panic there. But there were those lost young­sters. There was the fact that Crash was in­ten­tion­ally dead from heroin a cou­ple of years later. Part-way through the show when asked why peo­ple love punk, Robert Biggs, edi­tor of Slash Mag­a­zine, says, ‘Noth­ing else is go­ing on. It’s the only form of rev­o­lu­tion left, I think’.

So what is it with this rev­o­lu­tion stuff? For me, mu­sic is about the mu­sic. In movies, in pop­u­lar cul­ture, in (dare I say it) many mu­sic crit­ics’ writ­ings, it is of­ten about youth ex­pres­sion and re­bel­lion and ‘stick­ing it to the man’. The pro­gres­sive rock of the decade lead­ing up to the time of this movie was soon to be—and re­mains—scorned as ‘pre­ten­tious’ and unau­then­tic. The tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency of even pop acts was re­jected. Punk is seen as a nat­u­ral cor­rec­tive—re­peat­edly over the decades—a re­jec­tion of prog rock’s ‘ex­cesses’. It re­jected not just the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and com­plex­ity, but of­ten also its mu­si­cal­ity and com­pe­tence. The doc­u­men­tary adds in­for­ma­tion that ought to help one un­der­stand the phe­nom­e­non of late 70s, early 80s punk, but it re­mains to me largely in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

That’s only the first of three movies. Spheeris re­turned to these themes at least three more times, first with a fol­low-up drama called ‘Sub­ur­bia’ (1983), for which there’s a trailer (ex­er­cise cau­tion for at least one gross-out scene therein), then ‘The De­cline of Western Civ­i­liza­tion Part II: The Metal Years’ (1988) and fi­nally with ‘The De­cline of Western Civ­i­liza­tion Part III’ (1998).

The lat­ter two are the main con­tent on Discs 2 and 3 of this four­disc col­lec­tion. The fourth con­tains ad­di­tional spe­cial ex­tras. There are nearly eight hours of ex­tra ma­te­rial, some of it du­pli­cated.

Part III is closer in style to Part I than Part II, but seems more op­ti­mistic. The youths—the Punk fash­ion by this point seems to be a uni­form of spiky, coloured hair—seem more self-aware, even self-mock­ing, than their equiv­a­lents of eigh­teen years ear­lier. And, of course, not ev­ery­one dies. In­deed, one panel dis­cus­sion in­cludes Lee Ving, the abu­sive singer from Fear, who seemed like a nor­mal mid-for­ties reg­u­lar guy. These days he’s 67 and his Wikipedia page lists his gen­res as Hard­core Punk… and Blues and Coun­try!

The pic­ture qual­ity in the first movie is so-so, but clear enough. It im­proves in later ones (Spheeris wasn’t just some un­der­ground film maker—she also di­rected movies such as ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘The Bev­erly Hill­bil­lies’). Time and again I see Blu-ray discs with enor­mous ca­pac­i­ties car­ry­ing ex­ces­sively com­pressed con­tent, while much of the disc is left empty. It would seem a no-brainer to in­crease the av­er­age bit-rate and use as much space as is avail­able. It might not nec­es­sar­ily im­prove qual­ity, but it might, and there’s no cost in­volved.

With this re­lease, that com­plaint sim­ply can­not be made. Even the ex­tra con­tent, most of which is de­liv­ered with a mere 480i60 res­o­lu­tion, has a video bit-rate of 20Mbps, or some four or five times the rate nor­mally used—ex­cept on the third disc where there is less con­tent, so even more space. The ex­tras there mostly get 30Mbps.

The movies them­selves get 31Mbps (the first two) or 35Mbps. The pic­ture qual­ity is as good as the source per­mits.

The sound on the first movie is oddly scratchy. It’s not odd that it’s scratchy, but odd be­cause the scratch­i­ness sounds like that from a vinyl record, not from mag­netic tape or an op­ti­cal sound track. Weird.The first movie was shot in mono, the se­cond in stereo and third in Dolby Stereo (i.e. sur­round). So the sur­round mix pro­vided on the disc im­proves with time. The first in­volves noth­ing more than a bit of bleed. I pre­ferred the two-chan­nel mono mix for that one. Stephen Daw­son

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.