In the gutter

Penelope Spheeris wallows in the Decline of Western Civilization one more time

As Penelope Spheeris begins describing her documentary, she lets out a slight chuckle, as though the laugh will cushion the blow: "It's so depressing," she says of the film, the third installment in her series charting the Decline of Western Civilization. "Isn't it?" She laughs again, the answer so obvious you don't even need to respond.

Decline III is a movie about kids at the end of the end, and how the only thing more hopeless than today is tomorrow; it's about "gutterpunks" (her word) in Los Angeles who live on the streets, beg for change, mosh to bands like Naked Aggression and Final Conflict, and drink from dawn till dawn. Yes, that's depressing. But Decline III is also poignant, somehow funny, always engrossing--it's a movie you can't watch once but end up viewing half a dozen times, perhaps because you can't believe it.

After one film documenting the birth of L.A.'s punk-rock scene (1981's Decline of Western Civilization) and another smirking at the Sunset Strip's metal decadence (Decline II: The Metal Years in 1988), Spheeris now offers a movie about children who pierce and tattoo and otherwise mutilate their baby faces until they resemble patchwork quilts of rage and sorrow. This Decline is less about the music and more about the culture for which punk provides a machine-gun soundtrack; the bands are almost incidental this time around, background fodder. The result is the most compelling installment in the trilogy, a reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the rotten same.

Yet as of this writing, the 52-year-old Spheeris can't find distribution for her movie, despite winning the Sixth Annual Freedom of Expression Award at January's Sundance Film Festival. (Its screening at the USA Film Festival on Monday will mark only its second showing in front of a paying audience.) Seems no one wants to touch a movie about the end of the world as we know it; seems no one wants to dirty their hands on society's soiled leather. There have been takers, a handful of European distributors, but Spheeris says--again, laughing--that people overseas just like to watch this country self-destruct. Theirs is a voyeur's glee.

"I might release Decline III internationally first, because I think the rest of the world likes to watch the United States," she says. "Sundance is the only public audience that has seen it, and in terms of judging the reaction from the distributors and the offers I have gotten, I think some of them could be shy because of the disclaimer on the end of the film that says the profits are going to [homeless] charities. Documentaries don't have a history of being moneymaking entities in the first place."

For now, Spheeris can afford to be picky: She bankrolled Decline III herself, using the money she has made over the years directing such major-studio dross as Black Sheep, Wayne's World, The Little Rascals, and The Beverly Hillbillies. She learned with The Metal Years that it's better to pay for your own vision than borrow the money from someone else with bad eyesight: The movie was funded by New Line Cinema, which insisted she do more interviews with such metal heroes as Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and W.A.S.P. She's less fond of The Metal Years than the movies that bookend it, and with good reason: A decade later, it looks more like an MTV Rockumentary than a Penelope Spheeris documentary.

"It was funny to watch, but it doesn't break any new ground," Spheeris says of The Metal Years. "Look, I think filmmakers who get paid these outrageous amounts of money should use what they know how to do best and help the world instead of taking the money and buying a new house every year. I've lived in the same house for 24 years."

Spheeris, who got a Master's degree in Theater Arts from UCLA before going on to work on the early Saturday Night Live and produce Albert Brooks' debut Real Life, will forever be remembered as the woman who introduced Los Angeles punk to a Midwestern world. The first Decline of Western Civilization was, in retrospect, a celebration of a brief moment when Los Angeles stood at the center of the rock and roll world--when John Doe and Exene Cervenka were creating the most literate, musical noise in all the world; when Darby Crash was self-destructing by design; when Henry Rollins was a scrawny punk instead of a muscle-bound oaf.

Spheeris' first glimpse into the late-'70s L.A. punk culture was funny, touching, immediate. Writing about it in The New York Times in 1981, shortly after the movie's release, Robert Palmer compared it to a movie about rock in the 1950s, when the music was vibrant and brand-new. "The bands that are featured in The Decline of Western Civilization have consciously rejected the complexity and artistic pretensions of mush '60s and '70s rock in favor of the '50s standards," he insisted. "Several of the bands' guitarists, most notably Billy Zoom of X, are using guitar figures invented by '50s rockers such as Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry."

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