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The Decline of the American Empire (1986)

by on 2012/07/25

“Well, I don’t agree. I’m sure there are experts who can prove just the opposite.”

* * * * *

In a rural cabin outside Montreal, a group of men spend the day cooking, drinking, and shooting their mouths off. In the big city, their partners have a spa day, also sharing conversation, confessional, boastful, and everything else in between. When evening falls, the groups meet up for feasting and great debates.

The Decline of the American Empire seemed in theory like My Dinner with Andre. Instead, watching it, I was reminded of Family Guy. From time to time, a person’s words would give way to an illustrative flashback, not simply a filmed discussion.

To its credit, nobody’s “right” or “wrong”. There’s more rhetoric and opinion than fact. Which is not to say boundaries aren’t being pushed, with varied perspectives explored, if not expanded. Nothing is easy, and no answers are provided. It cuts like a slice of Neorealistic life.

Although I appreciate this approach, it took me a while to catch up. As much as I (now) respect Decline, the awakening wasn’t painless. Perhaps that’s appropriate to its theme, but it tests the viewer nonetheless.

First: Worst. Dubbing. Ever. Do not watch this piece with English audio. You will lose your sense of synchronicity, your balance, and maybe your mind. These subtitles are your friend.

Second: The “discotheque” sequence. Not since the relative nadirs of The Breakfast Club have I felt such acute embarrassment watching a video alone. Again, it’s a case of discomfiting effectiveness, for the scene describes hell for a middle-aged suburbanite male on the prowl.

Third: The stereotyping is regrettable, even as an expression of character viewpoint, because others agree with (or permit) it without dissent. Nobody posits a contrasting view of the Arabs, “African Blacks”, “Caribbean Blacks”, Jews, or Vietnamese who are mentioned.

What I’m not including among those issues are the adjustments I needed to make to adapt to the personality types and dialogue rhythms. Initially I was unconvinced by the faux-casual meditations on history, philosophy, and sex-sex-sex. The sing-song condescending tones frankly got under my skin, and I didn’t find the movie’s “humour” funny.

I found it all rough and unbelievable but, by the end, I was caught in its pull. I realized it was more progressive than the recent Young People Fucking. While showing less explicitly, it ventured further afield, into matters of: BDSM, cross-dressing, disease, exploitation, feminism, homosexuality, infidelity, masturbation, pederasty, polyamory, and other related topics, never feeling like a by-the-numbers checklist. Decline doesn’t require the benefit of context, for being of its era, that is old-fashioned.

No doubt it was a bit of a culture shock, the odd blending of coarse and pretentious. I wasn’t keen at first but, eventually, I was sold. There’s something here for most outlooks, with many represented, even if yours is “less talk and more action”.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must locate and order the sequel, The Barbarian Invasions, immediately.

* * * * *

Rated R

102 minutes

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