Witness The DECLINE: A Punk Rock Weekend With Penelope Spheeris

The director brought her DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION trilogy and SUBURBIA to Austin Film Society.

“I was a part of the scene, I wasn’t a professional. So get that shit out of your head,” director Penelope Spheeris told Q&A moderator Zack Carlson (co-author of Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks of Film*), and a captive audience of film fans following a screening of her landmark documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. Though Spheeris had previously shot music videos for CBS Records, she didn’t consider herself anything more than a “fledgling filmmaker” by ‘79. She was an explorer of her own societal subsection; immersing herself in the Los Angeles punk arena. There she mingled with fringe luminaries and basement show devotees, both of who helped define its DIY take no prisoners aesthetic. The artistic misconception regarding the eventual Wayne’s World director is easy to understand (she had a legit resume, including producing Albert Brooks’ Real Life, after all), but the clarification lends key insight into how her famous set of cult documents was created. After all, would a total outsider be able to coax members of Black Flag into appearing in a movie while hanging at the local Dairy Queen? Doubtful.

Over the weekend, Spheeris graciously agreed to appear at the Austin Film Society, where she showed and spoke about all three Decline pictures, plus her Roger Corman punksploitation masterwork, Suburbia**. What ensued was not only an incredible opportunity to see a set of once rare films almost the way they were originally intended (only Suburbia was shown on 35mm), but to also experience raucous, insightful commentaries, routed between being playfully ribald (Spheeris wasn’t shy about inquiring what dudes were doing after the show) to severely sensitive (the filmmaker opted only to intro Decline III, due to its bleak subject matter). It was an amazing experience, put on by an institution that is instrumental in ensuring that ATX has the greatest repertory film community on the planet.

In a way, the Decline trilogy and Suburbia don’t so much play as a cinematic collection as they do transmissions from an alternate dimension we strangers may never fully comprehend. Thankfully, Spheeris is a gallant guide, displaying a sensibility that is simultaneously compassionate and inquisitive, yet never judgmental (any moral decree is derived from her subjects hanging themselves with the rope they’re given). After all, these are her people – as she admits to not only counting many of the band members from the initial Decline as good pals, but subsequently allowed her own daughter (Anna Fox***, present and corroborating every story as a consummate witness) date Motley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx when she was only seventeen years old. “This is my life’s work,” Spheeris says when asked why it took so long for the films to receive official home video updates (the first two languished on VHS and eBay bootlegs for decades while the third only played fests), and it’s pretty clear she didn’t want anyone to fuck that legacy up.

The Decline of Western Civilization [1981]

It was fascinating to see members of a modern progressive film community react to what is essentially an anthropological document of a scene established via antisocial behavior (the elderly couple seated next to me were visibly uncomfortable from the first Black Flag performance on). Beyond preservation, a revisit to the first Decline offers up a healthy dose of mythology undressing. It’s easy to forget, thirty-plus years later, that punk rock was mostly birthed by volatile, sometimes uneducated juveniles, rallying against a perceived system they didn’t fit into. Watching Darby Crash describe how “loaded” he would get**** before joining The Germs on stage to perform his nigh incomprehensible tirades of speedy gutter poetry is possibly only bested by Fear frontman Lee Ving antagonizing an audience by inquiring how many “queers” were amongst their ranks. These were not nice people or good upstanding citizens. They were poor, pissed and often prejudiced; high, drunk and miserable – calling squat pads and shitty apartments their homes (which Spheeris was cordially invited into). But they had each other and their music, and that was all that mattered. These weren’t members of the suburban bourgeoisie, living a cushy life free from danger; but rather fringe fundamentalists, writing their own blood codes.

The sense of danger this musical area presents is best defined when Crash himself states that he gets high on stage because he’s scared of those in the crowd. Rage boils over as Ron Reyes bawls “Depression” at the top of his lungs, and the picture only keeps building on these initial displays of microcosmic self-expression; lost souls transferring psychic pieces of themselves into a concrete sea of despair and isolation. But artists like Spheeris were picking up what these kids were putting down, even if you often fear for cinematographer Steve Conant, who had no problem lugging his rig into the pit. ‘Zine scribes such as Claude Bessy (a/k/a Kickboy Face) were manning their own bands; fronting discordant, apocalyptic orchestras in an effort to piss off the establishment and ensure their cries of (occasionally petulant) defiance were heard by any who would lend an ear.

In ‘81, it’d be impossible to know just how influential and culturally relevant both Decline and those who appeared in it would become. As brilliant as the movie is as a fragmented historical record, there’s no denying that Spheeris also won the subject lottery, finding herself in the midst of a cultural revolution of bewildered boys and girls. Nobody could’ve known that the seemingly homophobic lead singer of Fear (who also kicks a woman square in the stomach on camera) would go on to have an impressive Hollywood career, appearing in films like Clue, Streets of Fire and Flashdance. Cherubic X vocalist Exene Cervenka – who is so drunk she can’t even stand up during her interview – would not only marry bandmate John Doe, but also actor Viggo Mortensen. And that pumpkin pie-haircutted dingus who says he doesn’t “hates girls” (Pat Smear)? Now a guitarist for one of the defining rock bands of the post-Nirvana “alternative” era.

These artists were just young, dumb, intoxicated kids, expressing themselves the only way they knew how. In turn, they attracted legions of followers like Eugene (who is now apparently a folk singer in Berlin), the skinhead weirdo who becomes the picture’s avatar for disobedient adolescents. Spheeris was just wise enough to pick up a camera and preserve this snapshot for the world to recall; a reminder of a raw musical past that could never be sanitized, and spoke to the disenfranchised with absolute clarity. Something happened here, and it was important.

Suburbia [1983]

“I am The Decline of Western Civilization. I am Suburbia. I am not Wayne’s World. I am not Paramount Pictures.”

On the surface, Suburbia appears to merely be the dramatic representation of a breed Spheeris considered herself a part of; a Roger Corman-produced slice of exploitation, complete with his mandatory “sex and violence every ten minutes” rule. However, when taken in tandem with tads of Spheeris’ autobiography and experiences spelunking the LA punk scene, her first narrative feature becomes a fictional intersection of personal expression, meticulous detail, and Roger Ebert’s fabled “empathy machine”. Born out of frustration that she couldn’t obtain distribution for The Decline of Western Civilization, Spheeris instead creates a genre construct, through which she’s not only able to expound upon the stories of the “single light bulb kids”, but also her own. Much how Brian De Palma worked inside the framework of horror to exorcise demons that had been living in his soul for years (see: Dressed to Kill for the best example), Spheeris found liberation via pure invention.

The central conceit of Suburbia is simple: fed up with an abusive, drunk mother, Evan (Bill Coyne), runs away from home and ends up getting taken in by the “TR Kids” – rejects squatting in an abandoned, dilapidated home on the outskirts of the titular dystopia. Here Evan finds solace and a familial unit, unified by both their inability to conform and a shared love of a grungy, lo-fi musical scene. Punctuated by exhilarating performances from the likes of TSOL and The Vandals, Suburbia becomes something of a non-traditional musical, during which we witness the struggle to both define one’s self whilst fending off oppressive adult authority figures – namely cops, working stiffs, and the stab happy patrons of neighboring bars.

All the while, Spheeris effortlessly injects authenticity that can be recognized by simply listening to her anecdotes. The burns the kids mark themselves with come straight from a Germs initiation rite the filmmaker herself endured. When Evan’s little brother (Andrew Pece) peacefully sits on stage at one of the shows, it’s reminiscent of Spheeris placing Anna in a similar position as a youngster while she directed Decline. Even the casting of Flea (yes, the bassist from The Red Hot Chili Peppers) was masterminded at a lasagna dinner held by Lee Ving. While some may be put off by the amateurish acting (as Spheeris demanded she be able to cast real punks as her leads), these viewers would be missing the wonderful swath of minutiae being woven into this shaggy tapestry.

Sadly, Suburbia ends a tragedy, foretelling the “no future” through-line that would skip over the pompous glam comedy of The Metal Years and cap her Decline trilogy. However, what sticks with the audience long after Alex Gibson’s synth-laden theme scores the movie’s haunting final frame is a cornucopia of compassion and lack of condemnation Spheeris is able to present in ninety breezy minutes. Not only does the filmmaker find warmth in these homeless kids’ way of life, but she also stops to try and understand (even if for a brief second) why their older Conservative counterparts are so frustrated with their own existence (the socioeconomic subtext of Suburbia is glaring). At the same time, Spheeris refuses to sweep the uglier byproducts of punk (racism, homophobia, misogyny) under the rug. This isn’t a fictional glorification of the gutter, but rather a single tale discovered in its reeking basin. For within this septic tank are diamonds, glittering amongst the rest of society’s discarded waste.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years [1988]

“If you stop and look at the history of rock and roll, you see that each movement killed the one that came before. Grunge killed metal. Metal killed punk. Punk killed disco. And you can keep going back to when Elvis died on the toilet.”

The 1979 – 1980 filming Spheeris performed in Los Angeles presented an underground haven to derelicts. Barely able to play their own instruments, they howled their grievances into the wind. Conversely, what she uncovered during 1987 – 1988 in the City of Angels was a pigpen, in which all of the hogs coated themselves in drug store lipstick. The glam metal world of Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper and their minor league ilk was a sexual playground; each artist listening to their inner aggressor, who was guided by a second, smaller head. The Metal Years is a droning neon cacophony of big dicks, bigger breasts, and face melting axe solos, coated in the stench of hairspray. While the initial Decline documented genuine discontent, The Metal Years chronicles the aspirations of mimbo goofballs, all thinking that their adherence to a set sound would somehow distinguish themselves from the pack. Conformity was key when joining the great LA pussy hunt of the late 80s guitar hero showground, making it stand in stark contrast to the kids who wanted to do anything but obey.

The superficiality of Spheeris’ subjects is often emphasized by the surroundings they choose to place themselves in for each interview. Where the first film found the documentarian chasing wildings in their natural habitat, The Metal Years is scenes from the zoo – only these alpha animals are allowed to design their own cages. Paul Stanley (of KISS infamy) is the worst offender: draped in Playboy centerfolds after the models Spheeris originally intended to use for the shoot were deemed “not pretty enough”. His cohort, Gene Simmons, wanders around aimlessly, ogling women as he talks about chasing dreams like some kind of demented motivational speaker. Alice Cooper is photographed on his trademark ornate stage, playing with a noose as he calmly describes his displeasure with those who “rip him off”. Most disarming of all is Ozzy Osbourne, who chats while cooking breakfast for himself at home; his facade of an elder, settled statesmen undone when he cannot hold a bottle of OJ steady enough to pour himself a glass*****. The years of abuse have taken their toll, no matter how much of a “professional air” he attempts to put on.

The dark underbelly of these starry-eyed dreamers’ world is what Spheeris is digging at with The Metal Years. Near the end, many of the never-were rockers describe how they’d rather kill themselves than not make it big. These double-bass jabronis all know in their hearts that they’re going to be the next megastars, leaning on their “groupie” counterparts to bring them groceries because they don’t make enough gigging to pay the rent. That’s possibly the most troubling aspect of this second musical journal Spheeris has cobbled together. Where the original Decline found children forming antisocial tribes in the wild, The Metal Years contain the real Lost Boys, stuck in a shared, bullshit Peter Pan story. Only there isn’t enough hairspray in the world to mask the scent of their anxious desperation.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III [1998]

Conceived after getting dosed with acid at Burning Man by a complete stranger, Spheeris’ third (and thus far, final) Decline movie is the documentary extension of Suburbia’s fascination with punk squatter families. While it’s easy to focus on the more antisocial elements of the musical movement, what often gets lost in the conversation is the sense of community the scene promises to those who no longer have people to call their own (or were abused by those who birthed them). Decline III is about real squatter punks; the gutter rats tossed off to the outer fringes of society, and who (sometimes reluctantly) band together to form a shelter in this anti-future. Where Suburbia is entertainment masquerading as document, Spheeris strips away any sense of hope and fun, presenting the world as it is for these unwashed miscreants: without any semblance of outcome beyond a dirt hole in the ground.

The Metal Years is more a straight-ahead comedy (almost like a real life Spinal Tap), condescendingly narrating the wanton, vapid excess that replaced the disillusionment shrapnel that was punk. Decline III returns to the original’s purpose of presenting an oft-overlooked societal pocket. Punk had been born and developing in the world for over two decades by the time Spheeris returned to its West Coast stomping grounds, and found a universe that was far harsher than she could ever imagine. The homeless subjects are made that much more heartbreaking by the fact that the bands they look up to (Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance) don’t even have the benefits of possible consumerist exploitation to aspire to. A quick montage showing the day-to-day panhandling these kids perform to try and scrape together $3 for their next bottle of beer could double as the country’s view of the scene that seemed bursting with life during the initial Decline: a shrug or turned up palm, hoping they will return to whatever hole they crawled out of if we ignore them long enough.

It’s easy to understand why Spheeris has a difficult time watching or taking questions on her third punk doc. Even the musical performances are marked by a hot, sweaty disgust that no longer feels like anguished self-expression, but rather haughty protest expected to fall upon deaf ears. But it’s a testament to the filmmaker’s integrity that she allowed the movie to go so long without distribution, quoting her reluctance to relinquish rights to the first two in order to do so. Her movie needed to find the audience who was going to champion these derelicts for what they truly are: not just sad send-offs in a world that has no need for them, but human beings who struggle and cry with every daily cut delivered. Out of all the movies featured during the two night program, Decline III feels the most “essential” in terms for need for rediscovery. Though the final frames are some of the most depressing, sucker punch post-scripts ever committed to film, each and every audience member walked out of the Marchesa auditorium buzzing, ready to share these experiences with the world. We cannot accept full collapse or forget the names of those who truly experienced it.

*And who wrote his own take on The Decline of Western Civilization for BMD here.

**Not to be confused with the Richard Linklater picture from ’96, the title of which led to Spheeris holding an unofficial “grudge” against the ATX director.

***Who was tasked with the Herculean feat of finding a proper distributor and delivering superlative home video editions of her mother’s defining filmic accomplishments.

****During the Q&A, one audience member inquired as to where Crash was now, and Carlson politely declined to fill in the final blank of the singer’s tragic tale.

*****Though Spheeris has been accused of staging these scenes (and even admits regretting the way Stanley’s interview was cut together).