In the gutter

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

Initially, critics greeted the movie with suspicion and derision, finding it too noisy, the musicians too aimless and self-interested. They thought Spheeris was celebrating nihilism and declined the invitation to her end-of-the-world ball.

Spheeris recalls the initial reaction to Decline: "I can sum it up by a comment from a woman that stood up in the audience after a Writer's Guild screening and said, 'I think you're despicable for glorying these assholes.' As a filmmaker, I was proud of the film, but it was devastating. They were changing their world, and she didn't want it changed. It's called fear. We fear change. But not me. I love it. I love it when the world changes."

If the title of the first film seemed tongue- (or safety pin-) in-cheek, goading those detractors who looked to punk as the soundtrack to the apocalypse, then the title of Decline III seems most appropriate. Her film really does take place at the end of the world, a place where no amount of bright, brown California sunshine will illuminate anyone's day.

The children who populate Decline III are pastiches of cliches--all tatters and tattoos, sporting purple mohawks and shaved skulls, wearing clothes held together with safety pins and spit. They speak about being abused as children, running away from home, and look as though they have stumbled out of a documentary about 1977. With names such as Squid, Filth, Why-Me?, and Pinwheel, they are anachronistic--stuck out of time, out of place, out of chances. These kids, most of whom are between 15 and 19, have taken refuge in a history book, wearing T-shirts of long-defunct or long-forgotten bands (the Misfits, the Exploited, Fear) and echoing their predecessors' fear and anger as though by rote. (Man, the fuckin' cops are always giving us a hard time.) But if punk rock was once about "changing the world," as Spheeris says, then it has become for this group the backbeat to self-destruction.

"There were a couple of times after filming when I would come home at night, and it would be so hard to integrate what I had learned about them into my mind and into my way of thinking," Spheeris says. "At this point I'm successful and live very, very comfortably, and I'm talking to people who are literally living in the gutter and don't hope for anything more and are destroying themselves with alcohol and drugs. It really affects you, and I think that's why I'm having a hard time getting distribution. People say they want to learn about life, but you gotta have some nerve to look at this. In a way, it's kind of exhausting. I try to figure out what to do about this, and unfortunately most of the world is just closing their eyes to it."

The bands Spheeris chooses are mediocre carbon copies of yesterday's punks; they spit out their anti-government, anti-racist, anti-everything lyrics with borrowed venom, offering nothing new to the conversation. Even more hysterically, most of the band members are twice the age of their audience--they own their own homes (or at least rent them), they do not beg for street-corner change, and they aspire to be something more than nothing. The frontwoman for one particularly lousy band, Naked Aggression, likes to play the French horn in her spare time.

For a little perspective, Spheeris goes back to re-interview former Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris, who now looks so old compared to the children Spheeris hauls before the lens. Morris, sporting honky dreadlocks and sleepy eyes, looks like a weary veteran who tried to make a difference and found he could barely make a living. Once a participant in the good fight (with his own very celebrated, very mediocre band), Morris now speaks of the gutterpunks as them, as in: "They're trapped, they're cornered." But he comes off better than former Mau-Mau's front, uh, thing Rick Wilder, who sports shocking red hair that sits atop a ghostly, ghastly visage covered in scars and pockmarks. He's the real father of the gutterpunks, an old man who died 20 years ago; someone just forgot to bury the corpse.

"It was bizarre how much had remained the same," Spheeris says of the modern-day punk culture. "Visually, these kids have the style down to perfection, down to the safety pins. I mean, I hadn't had a lot of contact with the punk world in a long time. I had gotten into metal, and I had gotten into punk again. People sent tapes to me, and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, they're recycling...After the first Decline, I would have never thought I would be making a film 20 years later about gutterpunk homeless kids. I was more of an optimist then. But now, I think if I do a film 20 years from now, that tendency will just increase--that homeless, hopeless feeling of I'm not gonna have a future. Johnny Rotten had no idea how profound he was when he sang about no future. No idea at all."

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III screens April 20 at the AMC Glen Lakes as part of the USA Film Festival.

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