Decadence

December 10, 2011
Film Still, Decadence
Film Still, Decadence

‘Decadence’ is the kind of topic favoured by high school debating societies. Is western civilisation making progress towards a golden future, or are we in irreversible decline? It’s an issue that neatly divides us into optimists and pessimists.

Pria Viswalingam may have debated this topic himself when he was a pupil at Aldenham, a British public school he revisits during his feature-length documentary. If so, he was undoubtedly in the pessimists’ camp, for it is the contention of this film “essay” that the west is sliding towards the abyss with ever-increasing rapidity. Indeed, we are already beyond the point of no return.

This conclusion is not delivered in tones of gloom. On the contrary, Viswalingham presents his case with a wry sense of humour. He has the slightly irritating air of a smartarse who cannot imagine anyone refuting his arguments.

In this he tends to offset a natural advantage, because it is a novel experience to find such a documentary written, directed and presented by a dark-skinned man of Sri Lankan origins, rather than some pale professor hooked up with the BBC. Coming from outside the west, but educated and employed within its boundaries, he is well situated to cast a critical eye over its follies.

By any standards, Decadence is a journalist’s wet-dream, taking the presenter to ten different countries. It playfully heralds this global sweep in an early sequence in which Viswalingam leaves his suburban house on Sydney’s north shore, crosses the Seine, hops onto a London tube, and exits from a Manhattan subway station.

The documentary has its origins in a six-part television series Viswalingam produced for SBS in 2006. That series was subtitled: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life. The feature film bears the more portentous subtitle: The Decline of the West. Shades of Oswald Spengler, whose Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-23), was all the rage in the years following World War I! Spengler is not mentioned in this film, along with many another intellectual precursor. Viswalingam’s approach is essentially journalistic. He avoids any overarrching theoretical framework, relying on distinguished interviewees and case studies.

There is, however, one Spenglerian touch: the division of the film into four sections corresponding to the four seasons: Winter (democracy); Spring (money); Summer (education and culture); Autumn (family and religion).

Spengler would have said we are into the winter of our civilisation, the end days. Viswalingam mixes all the seasons into the present, as if to suggest that the process of decadence is more advanced in some areas than others.

Everyone knows that ‘balance’ in the media is a mythical beast, but Viswalingam makes no pretence at canvassing a diversity of views. He talks to outspoken critics of capitalism such as Noam Chomsky, and others of a broadly left-liberal persuasion. One suspects that the audience for this film will be drawn almost exclusively from this demographic.

If we are hurtling towards destruction those who are most responsible are not in the mood to stop and listen to reason. The GFC, for instance, is seen by every influential economist in terms of a failure of regulation, but populist Tea Party economics blames ‘big government’. Many believe that the inevitable result of this approach will be GFC 2, bigger and better than before.

Faced with such a prospect, it is easy to sympathise with Viswalingam’s cynicism. He says this film is “an ode to the west” that praises the achievements of our civilisation from the time of the Magna Carta. It would be closer to the mark to describe Decadence as an elegy that looks back admiringly upon all that has been lost or betrayed.

Although there are no dissenting voices, Viswalingam has chosen his talking heads from across the social spectrum. There is John Shelby Sprong, the outspoken American Bishop; Shmuley Boteach, a progressive Rabbi; social analysts such as Clive Hamilton and John Carroll. Their comments are often mordant and insightful. Boteach, for instance, notes that America consumes three quarters of the world’s anti-depressants, leading to the “strange equation” that “the greatest prosperity ever has led to the greatest unhappiness ever.”

This is decadence in a nutshell – a sickness brought about by surfeit, an increasing alienation from the fundamental values upon which human happiness was traditionally founded. Family life gives way to pleasure-seeking individualism; sex becomes pornographic rather than procreative; fame devolves into celebrity; consumerism becomes a mania that has to be fuelled by increasing levels of debt. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

Viswalingam’s reliance on a few case studies is an indulgence in what the philosophers call “the individualist fallacy”, but it also provides a structuring principle for an absurdly ambitious project.

It is, finally, an argument that can’t be won. To perish by decadence is not the same as going up in a mushroom cloud. It is a gradual process that steals upon us by degrees. We like to imagine ourselves getting wealthier and happier, while living in a world in which inequality and misery are increasing exponentially. Yet the gradualness of the process also sends out a ray of hope. Can we grab hold of that dangling rope as we plunge over the edge? Such last minute escapes only happen in Hollywood movies, but the same might be said of that scenario which tells us the end is nigh.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 10, 2011

Australia. Not Yet Rated, 102 minutes.

Decadence will be showing in selected cinemas for a limited season, dictated by attendances.  http://www.decadencedocumentary.com/