Last night I saw The Decline of Western Civilization at Cornell Cinema (everybody, go support your campus movie theater). Decline is a documentary directed by Penelope Spheeris (weirdly also the director of Wayne’s World) about the Los Angeles punk scene, and was filmed between 1979 and 1980, just as thrash-hungry scuzzballs were beginning to coalesce into a “scene” of sorts. I went to see the film because I’m taking a class about punk culture (ENGL 2906) this semester, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the music or punk’s almost unfathomable effect on American/western/global culture. For me, this class has largely meant returning to artists that were heroes and obsessions of mine in junior high, and finding that today I’m pretty much repulsed by a whole lot about them.
Decline, which is fascinating in the way that watching a dog eat its own vomit is fascinating, really brought my new and possibly curmudgeonly distaste for punk and particularly for its audiences to a head. In the film, there’s concert footage of several bands — most famously Black Flag, X and the Germs — interspersed with interviews with band members and fans. There’re gems like an interview with the members of X, who are all pretty charming, and there’s hard-to-watch grossness like Fear’s performance at the film’s conclusion, which features a whole lot of homophobic slurs and frontman Lee Ving — who looks like punk Rambo — spewing lyrics like “I just wanna fuck some sluts!”
The thing about punk rock is that it was basically a massive “NO” to everything: to conventional ways of dressing, dancing, talking and making music; to gender norms (sometimes), to the government, to “society” in general. The problem with this is that when a movement is only characterized by the negation and not by the affirmation of any values, this cuts both ways and you get both racist skinheads and socially progressive activists at the shows. You get people who want to say “NO” to prejudice and injustice, and you get white guys who think that they are being marginalized and want to say “NO” to the idea that actually-marginalized groups deserve equal rights and protection under the law, as well as respect for their identities.
This is all clear in a segment near the end of Decline, in which a bunch of punk fans are interviewed and asked what they think “punk” is all about. One guy who has a mohawk in the shape of an “X” shaved into his head says that he just really likes violence; when asked how he feels when he’s in a fight, he just says, “Violent.” Another one muses, “Everybody shouldn’t be afraid to be as different as they want to be… I’ve probably hit lots of girls in the face. I don’t like girls much.” It’s clear that nobody there has any kind of “tearing down the unhealthy norms”-type definition of what punk is good for; for them, it’s good because it’s loud, fast and violent, not because it’s “challenging.”
One memorable character is Eugene, a kid of about fourteen who for me was the beating heart of the whole documentary. Eugene’s the kind of guy who likes to drawl a bemused “fffuuuck” in response to the interview questions. Eugene also says that he likes punk rock because it’s “not bullshit,” which pretty much sums up how punk fanatics feel about the genre. The thing is, unless you’re a really hardcore devotee, I think it would be hard to sit through Decline and not feel that it was all kind of bullshit. The problem is that today punk is fit into a narrative of revolution against damaging societal norms, but a lot of the fans of the early waves of punk seemed to really just like mashing their bodies together in a moshpit. And as much as moshing apologetics try to characterize moshing violence as communal and safe and healthy, that’s not what you see in Decline. What you see is people trying to hurt each other. One of the security guys who shows up at several concerts in the film — a person whose job it is to make sure people don’t get hurt — jokes about how if he sees a guy choking a girl at a punk show, he assumes that it’s just part of the consensual fun.
Young Eugene also provides one of the most moving and insightful moments of the film: “When I go to concerts, it’s like my friends get beat up by my friends, y’know? Then it’s, like, fucked, y’know? Cause it’s like they’re not beating up the right people. They’re not beating up the fucking posers. They’re beating up just, like, just my friends.” He puts his finger right on the problem: with no clear enemy or criticism or value to believe in, punk culture quickly just became about easy, immediate aggression for one’s own self-interest and enjoyment. That’s, like fucked, y’know?
Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Thursdays this semester.