The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

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To view The Decline of Western Civilization click here.

To view The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III click here.

It was in January of 2001 while I was talking to Ozzy Osbourne about David Bradley’s They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968) that I first met Penelope Spheeris. She and Ozzy were doing press interviews at a posh hotel in honor of her Sundance screening for We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll (2001), her documentary about the ’99 Ozzfest Tour. I talked with Ozzy first, Penelope second. The contrast in demeanor could not have been starker. Ozzy was amiable but absent-minded, all twitches and trembles. Penelope was sharp as a razor and extremely relaxed. I should have used my short time with Penelope to dig up details on Ozzfest, but instead found myself talking mostly about her The Decline of Western Civilization documentary trilogy. Of the first two (the original and Part III can currently be seen on FilmStruck), Marc Maron in his podcast with Penelope Spheeris told the director: “You captured the essence of punk, and the essence of what killed it.”

As a young filmmaker from UCLA Penelope Spheeris spent most of 1969 working on a Richard Pryor film (Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales). Penelope thinks the film was bought and scuttled by Bill Cosby (“the premise of it was that there is a white guy who had raped a black woman and that he was on trial for doing so with an all-black judge and jury”). Either way, it never saw the light of day. It was during this time that she at one point fainted and Pryor, dressed in a white pimp coat, looked at her and said “that bitch is pregnant!” She was, and soon thereafter gave birth to Anna Fox – the daughter that would later become the raison de’etre for the 2015 box-set release of The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which Penelope hails as “my life’s work.”

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Rewinding back to her early years, Penelope worked on some Saturday Night Live (1975-2017) skits and taught Albert Brooks how to make movies, but with the birth of Anna it became time “to pay the rent and to feed my daughter,” which is how The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) was born. Midwives included the influence of Frederic Wiseman (whose quiet and contemplative fly-on-the-wall documentary style is desperately needed, now more than ever) and a businessman from the valley by the name of Jeff Prettyman, who originally wanted to make a porn film. However, after seeing a live Germs concert, Jeff came around to the idea that documenting what was happening with the local music scene was far more important than a skin flick. Thus, a project originally envisioned to be shot on Super 8 film for $12,000 ended up costing ten times more. It didn’t make back any money, but as Penelope recounts: “it was the most written about movie of 1980, so that’s kind of cool. It put me on the map as a director.”

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) was Spheeris’s first (released) feature and chronicled the L.A. punk music scene, and kicks off with a title card that reads “filmed December 1979 through May 1980 Los Angeles, CA.” What follows is raw footage of punks, both fans and the musicians, in very close quarters. This includes such acts as Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs and X. I’ve always fantasized about what might have come from a collaboration between Penelope Spheeris and Alex Cox of Repo Man (1984) and Sid & Nancy (1986) fame, both of whom graduated from the UCLA film school and both of whom stand out as two of the most iconoclastic directors to traffic in not just punk music but everything it represented, from its down and dirty do-it-yourself ethos to all the spit and spunk it directed toward the money men in charge of operations. Sadly, the Ven diagram of that interaction is fleeting at best, although an online search does find a few words of encouragement from Penelope toward Alex while he was working on Repo Man.

Not wanting to make fun of heavy metal music, she took a pass on directing This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and instead did The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), which chronicles the L.A. Heavy Metal scene of the mid 1980s. Small wonder that both this experience and her earlier time helping film SNL skits with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey would result in helming Wayne’s World (1992), which remains her biggest hit-to-date.

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The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998) has Penelope following homeless teenagers, gutter punks, “the crusty kids.” (“I love ‘em though. Those are my family. Those guys in Decline III, I love those guys.”) For a long time, barring a $200 VHS copy that you might purchase online, it was the hardest of the three to find. Now, thanks to the box set released by Shout! Factory, the whole package is readily available. Penelope credits The Decline of Western Civilization Part III for how she met her still-and-current schizophrenic and bipolar boyfriend. I remember her describing him to me as having the kinds of amazing street-smarts that allow one to survive even the worst kind of societal breakdowns – a good man in a tight corner. Since then, however, her boyfriend took an ill-advised trip to Florida to help his dad where he missed out on some necessary medication and, due to an ensuing altercation, is no longer free to roam.

Penelope Spheeris is on record as saying “I would love to do a documentary on the sad condition of the mental health system in the U.S.” This sounds a bit like the documentary she almost made instead of Wayne’s World, one that is long overdue, and one that would surely compliment her passions and true life’s work.

This post is highly indebted to Marc Maron’s June 29, 2015 podcast (Episode 615), which I highly recommended: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_615_-_penelope_spheeris

Pablo Kjolseth

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2 Responses The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2017 9:46 am

The film had a big influence on me at the time of its release, I was already a fan of bands like X and Black Flag, and without any kind of alternative video channel, this was the only way to see them perform in my far-flung neck of the woods. And given how little footage there is of Darby Crash and the Germs, this film is a valuable document of a brief spark on the L.A. punk scene, since Crash died only a few months after filming wrapped.

Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2017 9:48 am

Also, I enjoyed that Marc Maron interview with Spheeris back when it was first posted, but you need to subscribe to his archive now in order to hear it. But it’s also available to those who use the premium versions of the apps Howl or Stitcher.

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