Penelope's World; Spheeris Returns With Third Punk Doc
by Emily Bobrow
In “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981), Penelope Spheeris documented an exciting new music movement that was sweeping Los Angeles: punk rock. A montage of concert performances, engaging band profiles and fan interviews, this first installment of the budding trilogy was a hearty and enthralling examination of youth and its rockin’ discontents.
Close to twenty years later — and after a hilarious dip into the teased hair and glam-rock postures of 1988’s “Part II: The Metal Years” — Spheeris returns to the Hollywood Boulevard of her directorial debut, back to the punk rock clubs and the mohawked moshers, and has unearthed something different: something a little more angry, a little more hopeless and a lot more unnerving. Effectively stripping away any of the movement’s romantic allure, “The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” reveals the bitter and grisly rawness of punk. It is a sympathetic and unflinching portrait of the homeless, abused, alcoholic teenagers that make up the current punk rock scene — tragic torch carriers of the so-called “Blank Generation.”
Spheeris’s enigmatic career follows two entirely different tracks: small independent features about youthful disillusionment and alienation such as “Suburbia” (1983) “The Boys Next Door” (1986) and “Dudes” (1987) and major Hollywood studio comedies like “Wayne’s World” (1992) and “Senseless” (1998). Upon the limited release of “Decline, Part III” (currently in New York), Spheeris spoke to indieWIRE about her directorial schizophrenia, the current face of punk rock, and her plans to be one of the first punk senior citizens.
indieWIRE:What actually compelled you to go out into the field for “Decline III?”
Spheeris: Well, there was a whole kind of revival thing going on — although it was a kind of mainstream, pop-oriented punk rock like Green Day and Rancid. I felt there must be something on a more grass roots level going on out there. So I went to listen to some music at some clubs and I was astounded because I felt like I was having an acid flashback. It was exactly the same clothes and hairdos — it was like 1978 all over again.
iW: You kind of kept your distance from the punk rock scene before you became inspired by a sequel?
Spheeris: The thing is, [punk rock] kind of went into recession, just in terms of the visibility of the music and the kids out on the street. So I kind of thought “well, I guess that’s over with.” Although it did make its mark, mind you — it changed music forever. So when I went out there, I got more interested in the people and the lifestyle than the music itself.
iW: Why was that?
Spheeris: The first time [“Decline” Part I] the music scene was totally original. This time it really emulates that original movement, so I wasn’t so interested in it as a brand new music movement. I was fascinated by the fact, on a sociological level, that there were so many young children out on the street with no homes.
iW: So this film was a little different from what you had originally planned?
Spheeris: Yes, very much so. When I started this — it’s actually kind of funny, or ironic — I thought well, the first and second “Decline” are so well known, I’ll just do this one and make, like, a bunch of money. And it was a stupid thing to think, because I lost so much money making this movie, but I’m so happy that I did it. I learned so much about myself and about the world that the money doesn’t count.
iW: “Part III” is a much more sobering and even depressing tribute to a movement that you seemed more inspired by in ’79. How do you explain this change in tone?
Spheeris: In retrospect, the first movement was really quite historic in that it changed the way people played music and the way people thought and dressed and acted. It was quite significant. As for today, I just feel that unfortunately it’s like, there’s very little help out there for a lot of kids. Parents are not taking care of their children. That’s the big difference. It was a little more frivolous back then. Who would’ve thought? When you watch the first punk rock movie you go, “Oh my god, they’re so angry, they’re so pissed off, how could it ever get any worse than this?” And you look back and it looks almost innocuous now.
iW: When you look at the punk rockers now, there’s this greater emphasis on physical mutilation and self-inflicted pain rather than just the wild make-up and hair of the late ’70s. Do you think the movement has become more masochistic, literally self-destructive?
Spheeris: I think these kids are used to a lot of pain, just in their upbringing, and 90% of their existence is devoted to survival.
iW: And it is interesting to watch the first “Decline” and see everyone in houses.
Spheeris: Exactly. Back then — and I was pretty much a daily part of that lifestyle –everyone had a roof over their heads, while today very few do. It’s sad. There are children out on the street; we don’t think it’s true in the United States but they’re there.
iW: What do you think punk rock gives these kids that they can’t get elsewhere?
Spheeris: It gives them a sense of family. I think a lot of kids get a kind of nurturing from their friends that they didn’t get at home. They’re also generally quite intelligent. I mean, not every one of them, but they’re thinkers. They choose to separate themselves out of a certain disdain for mainstream society. And I have to agree. Not on all levels, but on many.
iW: How did you gain the trust of the kids that you interviewed?
Spheeris: Well, most of them knew who I was from the other films. Actually, if I would walk up to them on the street and just start shooting, they would ask me to stop or get nasty. I’d say “But I’m doing the Decline Part III” and they’d say “You can’t do that, that’s Penelope’s movie!” And I’d go “Well I’m Penelope,” and they’d go “No way!” I’d go into places where they were squatting and there’d be posters of my films on the wall. I’m still friends with many of them, and Pinwheel, who was in the movie, is working for me now. And of course Eyeball and I are still really close. I love them. I just have such an affection for those kids — far more than I do for any of the studio executives I work with.
iW: Given your sympathetic portrayal of punk rockers, where does your fascination with punk rock stem from? Do you consider yourself a punk rocker?
Spheeris: I think, philosophically, yeah. I’m kind of a loner, you know, I don’t have a lot of friends, I keep to myself, I feel that I have a great deal of integrity when it comes to social and business situations — sometimes to a fault. I do relate to them quite a bit. I also had a rough upbringing, like many of them. My mother had four kids and she worked two jobs. My father was murdered when I was seven and I was the oldest so I had to take care of all the kids while she was gone. And then she was married nine times so I had a number of different stepfathers, and some of them were really abusive. So I can relate to these kids from that perspective. When I was poor, which was like 4/5ths of my life, I always said if I ever got any money I would give it to these kids. And so this is one of my efforts. Thank God for “Wayne’s World.”
iW: Speaking of which, your career seems to be defined by two entirely different modes: the mainstream Hollywood director and the independent documentary filmmaker and music fan. When do these two intersect, if they do at all, and was “Wayne’s World” your big break or the beginning of the end?
Spheeris: That’s very astute. I learn from making documentaries. I love to do it; it’s my passion in life. And I feel that I am, in a small way, able to help inform the rest of the world about certain subjects they would never know about. So for that reason, I prefer doing the documentaries. You know, “Wayne’s World” was never meant to be a huge box-office success; it was supposed to be some little movie. And yeah, it was the beginning of the end because it totally changed my life. Suddenly I was being offered millions of dollars to do movies. Being able to live the lifestyle that I can is sort of in total conflict with my basic beliefs, which are more on the punk rock level. So yeah, it’s been a weird ride. . . . I just shot the Ozzfest all last summer. I took a year off from making money, and I’m telling you, it was so educational. We were on a tour that went to thirty different cities with sixteen bands, and how many times do you get to do that?
iW: Are you approaching this as a fan?
Spheeris: Punk rock is true to my soul and my soul is true to punk rock. I don’t have tattoos and piercings all over me because I don’t like to do that to my body, but if there’s such a thing as a senior citizen punk rocker, I’m sure that will be me. Me and Lee Ving, we’ll just be in wheelchairs rolling around and saying “Fuck You!”
So yeah [the approach is] as a fan, but mostly as a sociologist. That’s the way I think about my films. I generally think about myself as someone who studies human behavior and is trying to figure out what the hell is going on in our current society. If I can leave any film that helps define a certain time after I’m dead then that’s great.