All civilisations rise and fall. For 300 years, the Judeo-Christian West
has been the world's pre-eminent civilisation. So, where is the West on
the timeline? Many have theorised about the fall of the Western world
but now we appear to have the evidence. Negative birth rates, ageing
populations, debt-laden economies and immigration – the West consumes
without consequence, loves without longevity and lives without meaning.
Decadence
, a simple powerful essay-style documentary, asks if the West
has peaked? And due for a new renaissance or a final dark age?

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It's the end of the world as we know it.

Decadence is a non-fiction film about the end of western civilisation, as we know it.

The content at first, at least for anyone with even a mild interest in civics and public affairs, is a by-now familiar cast of cultural horrors, corporate chicanery, and political catastrophes. The queasy moral horror of Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Iraq, the madness of the GFC, the mendacity of 'security’ agencies like the CIA, MI6 and MI5, the vacuity of celebrity culture, the sad spell of a population hooked on prescription drugs, the despair of a youth culture that self-harms just to feel something, the collapse of the conventions of marriage and traditional parenting, and a loss of spirituality are all name-checked and glossed here, and used as 'markers’ of social decline in the films argument about the way the West has been sliding since 1969, in 'slow-motion" into an irreversible era of decay; a place where the 'First World’ population finds no faith in anything much, not even consumerism, because, as one of the many talking head 'authorities’ intones here with all the solemnity of a funeral eulogy, the rush we get from a purchase fades ever so quickly. So we buy more and get depressed, because we’re spending money we literally don’t have.

Produced, directed and presented by veteran TV journalist Pria Viswalingam, Decadence is neither as ambitious, threatening, or foolhardy as a brief description can make it sound. Nor is it pompous and curiously, it isn’t even especially alarmist since most of its notions and ideas are so much apart of the cultural zeitgeist; the anxiety that the film outlines so well is ever present in TV shows, films (often by virtue of their blind optimism), music, and new fiction (and indeed the piece evolved out of the SBS TV production Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life.)

What Viswalingam is trying to capture here has been mobilised by authors, pundits and public academics for some time and spawned quite a few books like Bruce Thornton’s 2007 tome Decline and Fall: Europe's Slow Motion Suicide or this year’s How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly and the Stark Choices Ahead by Dambisa Moyo or Walter Laquer’s 2009’s Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent.

Still, what’s valuable about the film has little to do with academic or scholarly insight, or any kind of tough-minded sociological discourse (though the cast of talking head authority figures here is strong, including Noam Chomsky and Clive Hamilton and Shmuley Boteach.) Viswalingam is a reporter and he shapes his material around anecdotes, a few choice facts and a some 'human interest’ vignettes – one about the effect of war, another about modern parenting and relationships – that aim to illustrate both an awareness of the West’s 'decline’; and an alternative to giving into a sort of spiritual 'death’,

I think Viswalingam’s real subject isn’t civics, politics and big C culture but a smaller, but no less significant narrative about how once 'we’ in the West had lives and now we have life styles and that has brought about a pervasive sense of nihilism.

Near the end of the film he explains in his velvety sub-British tones: 'Spirituality is going out with the bath water"¦an epidemic of meaninglessness a feeling that used to be so important has been eroded and lost; no more history, no heroes and no God."

A big part of the films considerable charm lies with Viswalingam’s persona; he’s on screen for much of its lengthy running time, and his narration is a bracing mix of personal asides, self-deprecation, persuasive over statements, erudition and compassion. Of course the on-screen Viswalingam is as much a 'construct’ as Michael Moore’s working class man-on-the-rampage – the knowledgeable, well-prepared journalist is as 'helpless’ here as the rest of us in the face of the ill’s that afflict the West. That’s a conceit that’s a little too pat; but at least it gives the film some much needed light relief.

At least on the level of movie making, Decadence is a sometimes weird, often unwieldy, sometimes maddening but always compelling generic hybrid. Stylistically the film is part upscale globe trotting TV news magazine (the film, shot in Iraq, all over Europe, Australia and the US and Asia has spectacular production values), and part TV essay (not unlike such key stones in the genre like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, from which the director quotes here).

Or to put it another way, it doesn’t really feel like a conventional doco, nor is it quite an essay film, in the rigorous style of say a Chris Marker, and it certainly doesn’t have the glib ironies of Michael Moore’s satires and as such Viswalingam avoids creating a 'guru’ cult of celebrity around himself.

Still, the film is personal, eccentric, idiosyncratic and engrossed in its project in a way that’s quite powerful. Viswalingam himself has called it an 'ambient’ piece – I’m not quite sure what that means, but perhaps it has something to do with a filmmaker trying to articulate a hard to nail down feeling of unease and disquiet. Strangely though the ultimate effect is optimistic because Viswalingam recognises the fundamental truth – that with self-knowledge comes a kind of power. Viswalingam is thinking out loud. It may be a one-way conversation but there’s something encouraging in his intimate, thoughtful tone. Its old-fashioned hope, I suppose.