The Decline of Western Civilization ★★★★★

Pretty much anyone who was ever into punk rock has some boring story about how it affected them personally. Here's mine (nobody has to read this, but this movie welled up a bunch of old memories and feelings so I feel compelled to exorcise them here):
Last time I saw this movie I was 14 or 15-years-old, sitting on a musty couch with Mary Blackwell in the basement of her aunt and uncles' house in Candler Park. Mary was a senior in high school, and I was a freshman. We met because in some morning period class she would graffiti her desk, and later in the day when the room was used for a completely different class, I would come sit at that same desk and alter her work (the only one I recall is she wrote "STOP WAR" and I changed it to "STAR WARS!"). Over the period of a month or so we anonymously exchanged messages on the surface of this desk. Then we started leaving each other lengthy notes (translation for you youngsters: kind of like an email or a text message, but written on paper with pen or pencil). The time came to finally meet in person, and we became fast friends. I was a little fledgling punk rocker, one foot still in alternative rock radio and another deeply into The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and the sort of new wave of mainstream "punk" (Green Day, Rancid, etc), but Mary was the real deal. She made me a mixtape of old school punk and ska, and Black Flag's "Depression" rattled around in my head like the first bit of truth this frustrated pubescent had ever heard. How deep does this stuff go, and is there more like it?!

We watched THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION and it was like someone had lifted up the carpet and shone a light on this space where these forbidden bits of the history of my people were being kept. The very existence of these people was an act of rebellion. For the first time in my life I felt like there were secret enclaves of culture and the past that were excitingly dangerous, yet totally accessible if only you put in a slight bit of effort to go chasing after them. This spirit drives me to this day.

Even if you don't like the music (and let's face it, nobody's rushing to canonize Catholic Discipline or Alice Bag Band), the importance of this movie as a document, a snapshot of a movement, a shift in not just music, but culture, is impossible to oversell. It's not just that Penelope Spheeris and her crew were there with cameras and sound rolling. She asks good questions and structures the movie around a large "WHY?" that every interview/song/frame attempts to answer. It's neither a fluff piece nor an assassination piece. The interviewees at times hang themselves, but because of the "punk attitude" it's kind of hard to say how much is them being gross dopes or them playing to the camera for laughs. Either way it's effective.

In 1980, could anyone have guessed that the guy calling the audience "fags" and kicking a woman in the stomach before singing a song about his dick would a few short years later act in a beloved Hollywood comedy (based on a board game) alongside Tim Curry, Martin Mull, etc? Would they have guessed that awkward "Pat" who "hates girls" and runs away from fights would get a gig playing guitar for the defining rock band of the 1990s? Would we guess that adorable, charming Exene who is so stoned or drunk that she's laying on the floor during one part of her interview would go on to marry a movie star? Probably not, because nobody knew just how big this would get, and now we have this movie as part of the mythology.

I don't' know if it's cool or ironic or tragic or tragically ironic that in creating this imagery and sound, American punk rock was so loud that it continues to reverberate to this day with the exact same sound and fashion. It's an endurance that no other popular music from the era really has, at least not in an unevolved form. Maybe that stasis is reflective of a failure of punk rock as a true revolutionary force or maybe it's proof that it was, in its own shabby way, the apex not the decline of American rock music...The last point of departure before things forever froze and only began looking backward. Or not. As the graffiti on one of the walls of Black Flag's squat reads, "Who gives a fuck?"