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Penelope Spheeris Reveals the Backstory Behind Cult Documentary ‘The Decline of Western Civilizaton’

Penelope Spheeris Reveals the Backstory Behind Cult Documentary 'The Decline of Western Civilizaton'

For decades, there were only two ways to watch “The Decline of Western Civilization”: buy a bootleg or download it online. Both are illegal. For a movie about the underground punk scene, the film’s nearly impossible-to-find status contributed to its cult appeal. Like hunting down a rare vinyl record or an out-of-print fanzine, scoring a copy of the 1981 documentary required a rabid degree of dedication in exchange for street cred.

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Penelope Spheeris, the film’s director, has a less romantic way of explaining the movie’s thriving underground market: theft. “You know that feeling you get in your stomach that’s like this fluttery kind of fear?” she told Indiewire recently, describing the sensation that would wash over her when she’d stumble across a bootleg copy of “The Decline of Western Civilization,” including the 1988 and 1998 sequels of the same name. “The worst part about it was that they were making really bad copies, that my work looked like shit. And that’s the part also that really upset me.”

After years of what she describes as paralyzing anxiety surrounding the films she considers her life’s most important work, Spheeris finally did something about that queasy feeling in her gut. At the insistence of her daughter, Anna Fox, who has stayed in touch with many of the subjects in her mother’s films, Spheeris undertook an intensive two-year process of digging up and editing archival footage, restoring the movies and shopping for a distributor. Beginning on June 30, all three DVDs will be available in a box set from Shout! Factory.

Now on the homecoming stretch of this summer’s promotional tour, which included theatrical screenings across the country, Spheeris, 69, is mostly relieved—she no longer has to revisit long-forgotten footage of her “goofy outfits with these funky hairdos” she said—but she’s also deeply apologetic to her fans. The question is, what took so long? “Everybody always thinks it’s a rights issue as to why the films aren’t out there but it wasn’t,” Spheeris said. “It was just me not wanting to do it and preferring to do other things and then Anna coming to me and saying, ‘Mom, you’ve gotta do it.'”

It’s not as if she hadn’t tried before. In the years after making “Decline of Western Civilization Part I,” she directed two narrative films which covered some of the same territory she mined in “Decline,” “Suburbia” and “The Boys Next Door.” In the years that followed, she found plenty of mainstream studio success directing broad comedies, including “Wayne’s World,” “The Little Rascals” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But her favorite film remains the most tragic: “Decline of Western Civilization Part III,” a lesser-known portrait of homeless teenage punks trying to get by on the streets of Hollywood. In the late ‘90s, she turned down a distribution deal to release it because it would have required her to give up the rights to Parts I and II (which initially had very limited theatrical releases).

“It was heartbreaking, really,” she said. “I spent my own money on it and I couldn’t get it released, you know, without a gun to my head to give up the rights to the other ones. I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to go do something else man, screw it.'”

In the meantime, she busied herself with other projects including “We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll,” a 2001 documentary about Ozzfest and “The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron,” a 2003 TV movie about the Enron scandal. The “Decline” movies, still on a variety of different film formats, sat in an underground vault in her home, but demand for them never let up. Spheeris resolved to ignore it. “I can’t go on Google and look at myself. I can’t go on YouTube and find out what’s been stolen. I can’t go on eBay and all those other sites because they’ve got these shitty DVDs and things ripped off on there,” she said. “It’s like, you’re stealing my identity. You’re stealing my soul. It’s not the money—fuck the money. You’re stealing me.”

Even Thom Anderson’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” perhaps the only movie about L.A. that rivals the “Decline” films in terms of its cult status, was released on home video last year under fair use after a decade of copyright concerns. But the footage in Spheeris’ films was deeply personal. Just talking about it makes Spheeris turn existential, as if she were describing an abandoned child or an old lover. “It was almost like I was on my deathbed and I was watching my life flash before me,” she said of watching the old footage. “I didn’t want to do it because I knew it would be painful. I knew it would be drudgery. I knew it was going to be just soul-searching psychologically freaking out.”

Fox ultimately convinced her mom to do the soul-searching work by giving her an ultimatum. “I asked Anna to come work for me because I needed help with some other things with our life here and she said, ‘I will come to work for you but only if the first thing we do is put the Decline DVDs out,'” Spheeris recalled. “At that point my answer was, ‘DVD is dead, it’s too late.'”

Ironically, it’s nearly the same thing she was told when she tried to get distribution for “Decline of Western Civilization Part I”: punk is dead. No one will be interested, studio executives told her. “That shows you what studio executives know,” Spheeris said. All those years later, the films remains a rite of passage—required viewing material—for new generations interested in punk rock, including Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl, who was such a fan that he got in touch with Fox and volunteered to record the DVD commentary.

The mother-daughter duo are now working together on a fourth Decline film, which Spheeris said is still about punk, but also involves another kind of music. “If we told you we’d have to kill you,” Spheeris joked. Fox, too, is working on a documentary inspired by painful family history—Spheeris’ dad, a carnie, was murdered while protecting a black man in the South—but the racially-charged subject matter might be more relevant than ever.

The “Decline” DVD box set won’t stop the countless black market VHS tapes floating around online, but for Spheeris, it’s a form of justice against her bootleggers. Mostly, it means that after all those years, she’s finally overcome her past—and restored it to cinematic perfection. She hopes it will define her legacy as a filmmaker. “If they can remember me at all then it would be for the Decline,” she said. “And if I’ve left anything behind when I’m dead, it’s a document that a lot of people should know about.”

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