Punk Trilogy Gets a Re-release
Penelope Spheeris speaks on her restored punk doc triptych
To call director Penelope Spheeris one of the most influential documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema isn't hyperbole, it's the truth. The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, her ongoing chronicle of the Los Angeles punk rock scene sprawls over two decades of snarly, debauched and alternately narcissistic/nihilistic youth movements. And Spheeris' antipop-cultural cinema verité visions are, if anything, even more culturally relevant today than when they were first shot. Serious rock & roll anthropology indeed.
Now, for the first time, all three films are being released on DVD and Blu-ray by Shout! Factory in gorgeous 2K transfers with hours of extras all around. Spheeris credits her daughter, Anna Fox, for initiating the four-year-long labor of love. Says Spheeris, only half-joking, "I would have died before getting around to putting these films out."
The March, 1981, Los Angeles premiere of the first Decline caused a literal riot at the Hollywood Theatre, when a completely unexpected mob of some 3,500 punks, poseurs, and 300 police swamped the venue. But where Spheeris' original film truly gained its rightful cult status was in every provincial town with an indie video store. Where else could misfit, Mohawked ne'er-do-wells in small-town America see people just as creatively fucked-up as they were? That sudden revelation that you weren't the only ultra-creative freak in the world was like a shot of adrenalized dopamine straight to the amygdala. Pre-Internet fanzines and tape-traders went gloriously nuts, this writer included. To say that the regional teen-angst discovery of The Decline of Western Civilization literally changed thousands of kids' lives overnight is another incontestable fact.
Speaking from her home in L.A., Spheeris admits she's well aware of the film's massive (and continuing) cultural resonance. "I hear that a lot. Even from Dave Grohl on his commentary for Decline I. He says the same thing: There was no social media back then, there was no YouTube, you couldn't pass it around. It didn't get on TV, it didn't really get out to theatres, so you just had to find it wherever you could, and people, on an underground basis, just exchanged copies. That was kind of cool, you know?"
The crown jewel in Spheeris' fringe-rock trilogy, and the film closest to her heart, remains 1998's Decline III, a never-released, barely-even-screened portrait of the disaffected, abused, drunk, and homeless L.A. gutter punks (or crusties, depending on your age) that she took up with in the mid-Nineties. It's a harrowing albeit strangely gleeful film featuring a group of hardcore kids who openly admit they'll likely all be dead in five years. Sadly, a number of them were dead before the doc was even fully finished. Spheeris, who had recently come off a series of mainstream Hollywood comedies (Wayne's World, The Little Rascals, Black Sheep) was touched to the point of later becoming a foster mother.
"Shooting Decline III was the biggest pivotal moment in my life," she says. "Doing that movie just spun my head around, because ... I had no idea that there were so many young people out on the street because of the way they had been treated by their families. I met my boyfriend on that movie and he's been my boyfriend for 18 years. It just changed my life and I knew that I had to do something instead of just making a movie that nobody could see up until now, so I became a foster parent, yeah."
And where are those safety-pinned and inked-up kids these days?
Spheeris: "Of all the movies I've ever done, documentary or mainstream, those kids from Decline III I still consider my family. And my daughter Anna and I have remained in close contact with them all. And they're doing pretty well."
The Decline of Western Civilization box set is out now. AFS will screen all three films and Spheeris' 1983 feature Suburbia on Friday, Aug. 28, and Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Marchesa, with Spheeris in attendance. Visit www.austinfilm.org for info.