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Punks, headbangers & homeless kids: Penelope Spheeris on ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’

Penelope and Eyeball
Penelope Spheeris and her boyfriend, Eyeball

Penelope Spheeris, creator of The Decline of Western Civilization series, is a veteran Hollywood filmmaker, a “den mother” and most importantly, a cheerleader for punk rock. Spheeris got her start with filmmaking with her company, Rock N’ Reel, that specialized in music videos. She first got the idea for The Decline of Western Civilization during this time. “I was going to all the punk rock clubs here in Los Angeles and simultaneously I was filming bands for record companies. I always had equipment so I thought why not use the equipment to shoot the cool bands instead of the not cool ones I was having to shoot.”
 
Darby Crash
Darby Crash and friend

Featuring X, Black Flag, The Bags, The Germs and many more, Spheeris says the bands featuring in Decline had a lot to do with the “access factor.” “Most of them were my friends. I reached out to some bands that didn’t want to do it. There were some bands like The Screamers that I really wanted to have in the movie but they were too die hard punk so they didn’t ever do any publicity or filming or pictures or anything.” While making the film, Spheeris had no plans to make a sequel, let alone, two. “I was still going to lots of clubs and around ‘83 or ‘84 there was kind of a shift in the club scene here in Los Angeles and all of a sudden the whole look and feel changed and the music changed towards metal. At that point, I happened to coincidentally be asked by a producer if I could do any movie what would it be and I said Decline Part II. So, that’s how that one happened.”
 
Penelope And London
Penelope Spheeris with London
 
A huge component of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is the idea of the male musician as all powerful, getting all the women and never needing to work a day in his life. Spheeris reflects on the sexism that appears in Part II: “The fact of the matter is, that’s just the way it was at the time. The girls and the guys both bought into it. You look at it in retrospect and it is disgustingly offensive and it would hopefully not happen today. But it’s just the way it was back then. As I look back over the different musical trends over the years that I’ve experienced, there’s just different situations that women have been in and the good thing about the punk rock movement was that women started to really stand up and object to discrimination and sexism.” While no female bands were filmed playing in The Metal Years, members of Vixen were interviewed as well as some other female musicians. “The guys back then really liked the women bands and respected them and still today women that sling a guitar are pretty well-respected.”

By Part III the music scene had once again drastically changed. “When I started the third Decline I really thought it was going to be about a new era of punk rock. What it turned out to be about was gutterpunks, the homeless kids that took on those punk rock ethics. What happened when I was filming was I started to turn away from shooting so much music. I focused more on the social aspect.”
 
Gutterpunks
 
It can be said that between the first and third Decline films, there are fewer and fewer female musicians featured. Part I has Exene Cervenka and Alice Bag as well as many other women who had parts in the punk scene. The Metal Years brings on the height of the heavy metal groupie era. By Part III, the only female musician featured is Kiersten “Patches” Ellis of Naked Aggression. “Just because they weren’t represented in the movie doesn’t mean there weren’t female punk rock bands. Hard to find, but they’re there. Let me just say this, Kiersten Ellis is equal to ten women instead of one. She’s one kickass bitch. She teaches middle school in South Central Los Angeles. She teaches school in a place where the children going to school have to go through a metal detector.”

Making Part III deeply affected Spheeris. “That film for me is the film that I loved the most out of all the films I’ve done in my career, it’s the one I’m most proud of and it affected me the most in terms of my values and my choices about what to do in life and how to decide my future. When I saw such a terrible problem out there on the street, and mind you that in the 19 years since I shot it, the problem has gotten worse with homeless children and children being treated badly and abused. So I said to myself, what’s more important, trying to help with this terrible situation or making more money in Hollywood? I decided it was more important to be a foster parent. I’ve had six foster kids. You gotta put your money where your mouth is, if you really believe in something. Having a kid and helping a kid is so much more gratifying than making a movie. It was a good choice.”
 
Punk Life
 
But Spheeris hasn’t turned away from filmmaking. In fact, Decline Part IV is in the works. “My daughter and I are working on that right now. I have to be real hush-hush about what the subject is. A documentary has a life of its own.” Spheeris thinks it will be well over a year until the movie is completed.
 
Anna and Penelope
Anna Fox and Penelope Spheeris, photo by Suzanne Allison
 
Spheeris’ daughter, Anna Fox, is the reason the box set of The Decline of Western Civilization came out on DVD. “I asked her to come work for me and she said ‘I will but only if the first thing we do is put Decline out.’ I didn’t really have any inspiration to do it, I just like to keep moving forward.” Currently, her daughter is working on a movie about Spheeris and her mother, Gypsy. Gypsy was a travelling circus performer so Spheeris spent her early life travelling with the circus. Penelope Spheeris will produce the film.

Posted by Izzi Krombholz
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