Looking Back at L.A.
Director Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization is less obsessed with L.A. (make that Los Angeles), although it would certainly fit into Andersen's musings on "the city as background." Her 1981 film paints a shocking, electric portrait of the city's punk rock scene at the time, rendering its title more literal and alarmist than ironic. Spheeris relies heavily on riveting live footage of legendary bands like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and X. She expertly captures the aggressive energy of the rockers and their slam-dancing audiences with restless, in-your-face camerawork that stands as some of the best concert footage ever. In between, Spheeris interviews the bands and, even more interestingly, their young fans. The comments she draws out on the punk movement and the social ills that spawned it are often damning. Standing on a smoggy L.A. roof, a concert promoter speaks about how "the air in Utopia is poisoned," making young people "desperate" and "bored." Later, a teenage fan expresses his frustration with the city and its "ugly old people, the buses, the dirt." Spheeris's film is a work of unsettling brilliance, deftly capturing her subject's spirit and questioning its dark heart. The director will appear when Decline screens on March 28.