FOOTAGE FETISHES: THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS

“Why do you drink so much Chris?” “Because it makes me happy.”

The high, or low point (or “nadir,” if you will) of “Decline” is Spheeris’ interview with W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes. His appearance would count as the comic highlight of the film if it weren’t so disturbing. Spheeris has said since that she initially thought the Holmes footage was unusable, and on first glance it probably seemed that way. He floats in his pool – guzzling vodka and describing himself as a “piece of shit” – while his mother takes it all in, like a spotlit deer, from poolside. We watch, as Spheeris herself probably did, in advancing stages of scorn, revulsion, and pity. The surreal quality of this entire segment alone almost makes “Decline” worth seeking out.

For more humor of the sad clown variety, there’s Los Angeles probation officer Darlyne Pettinicchio pimping the city’s “de-metaling” program and describing the grave dangers posed to society by heavy metal music. Her matter-of-fact declarations of metal’s association with Satan take us back to a simpler time in America, when somebody actually cared about such nonsense.

Unsurprisingly, the sagest comments come from the veterans of the metal wars. There’s enough world-weary wisdom and sly humor in the comments of Lemmy, Ozzy, Cooper, Tyler, and Perry to make the film worth viewing. Their cogitations are welcome, and as some of metal’s original survivors they help to counterpoint the banality expressed elsewhere in the movie. As in the other two “Decline” movies (“Part I” covers the nascent L.A. punk scene of the late ‘70s, while Part III revisits it 20 years later), Spheeris does an admirable job staying out of her subjects’ way, only occasionally prompting responses or requesting clarification. Like any good documentary filmmaker, she lets her subjects hang themselves.

My favorite, since you asked, has to be Lemmy. His comments are spliced throughout the film, jumping back and forth in time between dead of night, dawn, and full daylight. This is amusing on its own, but his frank commentary makes each individual snippet a must-see. Ozzy comes in a close second. As…uh, “hilarious” as “The Osbournes” may be, actually seeing and hearing a lucid Prince of F-in’ Darkness is a real treat. The charm and wit he displays in “Decline” make his present-day decrepitude all the more tragic.

And for the record, Spheeris admits to staging the infamous juice-pouring incident.

One big difference you’ll find in the three “Decline” movies is that Spheeris appears to have real affection for her subjects in “Part I” and Part III. With few exceptions (Lemmy, Cooper), it seems like she has little use for anyone in “Part II.” After hearing most of them talk, it’s hard to blame her.

Metal up yer ass.

Spheeris overlooks a number of metal’s bigger names of the time, but this can be viewed as either a cash limitation (Spheeris managed to obtain some funding from New Line, but even so she was operating on a very thin shoestring) or a function of location over thoroughness. Metallica hails from the Bay Area, Guns ‘n Roses were still relative unknowns (though they sing the closing credits song “Under My Wheels” with Alice Cooper), and going with harder acts like Napalm Death or Slayer wouldn’t have produced equally comedic results. Some established metal bands, like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, are similarly nowhere to be found. But what remains more of a mystery is the absence of groups like Ratt or Mötley Crüe, who were probably L.A.’s biggest glam metal bands. Given how most of the bands come across in “Decline,” their failure to appear, conscious or not, was probably a wise career move.

Bad as much of it is, at least the music showcased in “Decline” is fun. Somewhere during the heyday of grunge and nü-metal, contemporary songs became depressing “sad bastard” music. Listening to the radio these days is like enduring endless three-minute snippets of your buddy bemoaning the loss of his girlfriend, which definitely qualifies as one of my conceptions of Hell. And the only political statement (a “Fuck the PMRC” sticker on Dave Ellefson’s guitar) in the movie comes from the only newer band that combines decent music with intelligent discourse: Megadeth. As a fan from the “Peace Sells…” days I may be biased, but their relatively grounded thoughts on making their music work combined with a live performance of “In My Darkest Hour” close “Decline” on a high note. And it probably doesn’t hurt that of all the live acts featured, only Megadeth’s audience looks like it would’ve been equally at home in “Part I” or Part III.

“The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” is a lot of fun to sit through again, preferably with several beers and a pause button. But before you laugh at the coiffures on display and make fun of goofy songs like “Twelve O’clock High” and “Crash Landing,” answer me this: What were you listening to in 1987?

And what did your hair look like?

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Writer Pete Vonder Haar takes us down memory lane for an in depth look at films we may have forgotten about. Some of these films will bring back fond memories, while others may force you to cancel your cable service in fear of coming across a late night screening of them.

Discuss Pete Vonder Haar’s “Footage Fetishes” column in Film Threat’s BACK TALK section! Click here>>>




Posted on March 25, 2003 in Features by
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