Punk doc “Decline of Western Civilization” screening on Oct. 10
Despite what you might have heard, punk isn’t dead. The original sound has gone the way of all new forms of art: absorbed and repackaged to make it more palatable for the masses, varied and stratified as its influence is felt across subgenres, and finally discussed and studied for its cultural significance, thus taking all of the original edge and fun out of it.
But the hardlined, quasi-intellectual, anger-filled attitude that can be found in bands like Black Flag and Fear never goes away. It simply moves mediums. The “I don’t care about you,” combative, in-your-face message can be found in a variety of places on the internet, from the recently banned fatpeoplehate page on Reddit to the master trolls of 4chan, each providing an outlet for the rage that can manifest itself in young men and women between 15 and 21.
Punk music was the face for the angry and the white in the 1980s and the movement was a zeitgeist for a variety of antiestablishment philosophies, from white supremacy to anarchy, much of it in reaction to the disillusionment following the failure of hippie love and peace. Not that any of this was evident to the leaders of the punk music scene.
Penelope Spheeris, known more for “Wayne’s World” than her excellent punk music documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization: Parts I, II, and III,” shows just how tedious and directionless these musicians were in person and how electric and wild they were on stage. The films were a cult favorite for years, found only on VHS and then nearly forgotten. But they have recently been revived, and are now available online and as a Bluray box set.
And since the Chattanooga Film Festival and Mise En Scenesters are always on the cusp of the new and the forgotten, they are, of course, screening the films on Oct. 10, with Spheeris as a special guest on hand to intro the first two volumes of the collection and do a Q & A with the audience.
It’s Spheeris’s interview style that allows the film to truly show the movement as it is—a collection of disenfranchised youth with just enough education to embrace certain ideas without any real understanding. The bourgeoisie shouted down in the lyrics of bands like Circle Jerk and Fear isn't referring to the wealthy upper classes that control the means of production.
No, the bourgeoisie they refer to are middle-class kids who might have things a little bit better than they do. In some cases, it might be that these elusive enemies of punk have it a lot better—the anger at society many of the interviewees profess seems to be well earned and many of the kids interviewed in the films are likely there because they have nowhere else to go.
The success of punk comes from its stripped-down, populist sound alongside a strong self-centered message. Teenagers are naturally egotistical and they are quite likely to revel in the celebration of the id. Spheeris shows this side of the movement with startling clarity by allowing the subjects to speak for themselves, without restraint.
When a member of the Germs gleefully reminisces about taking pictures with a dead painter in her backyard three days after a party, Spheeris asks if she felt sorry for the man. “No,” she says. “I hate painters.”
The film is filled with these types of moments. It seems that 1980s punk was defined by what they hated, which is obvious to anyone that’s ever listened to the music. But while the interviews show a defined lack of self awareness among the band members, the performances show a powerful, wild energy that is lacking in today’s overproduced youth culture.
The musical side of punk music was always good, old-fashioned rock and roll, stripped of its excess and pretention. Certain songs, particularly from bands like X, were distinctly old fashioned, with a heavy Chuck Berry vibe that showed a passion for good song writing. Lyrically, the songs were afterthoughts, less important than the raw emotion that being expressed.
The true virtue of early punk came from the relationship between the bands and their fans, a union of lost and disillusioned rage.
Each generation has their own band that speaks to their darker nature. For me, it was Rage Against the Machine. For others, it was NWA. I don’t know who it is now, since it’s been a good 10 years since I emerged from that phase. Rest assured though, there will always be angry young men.
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“The Decline of Western Civilization, Parts I and II,” 7, 9 p.m. Oct. 10. Majestic 12, 311 Broad St. Tickets available through chattanooga-film-fest.myshopify.com