In the gutter
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."
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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