O Cinema Screens Punk Documentary Decline of Western Civilization with Director Q&A

"Does Miami have any punks?" director Penelope Spheeris wondered in a phone call with New Times. "I'm surprised when there are any in these fancy resort cities."

Apparently Spheeris has never been to Churchill's, but she has seen her fair share of punks. Her 1981 documentary, Decline of Western Civilization, put a spotlight on the seedy punk-rock underbelly of the most glamorous city in the world, Los Angeles. The groundbreaking movie profiled Southern California punk-rock heroes like Black Flag, the Germs, and X, as well as the audiences who flocked to their shows. "I hadn't seen anything like these bands," she remembers. "I was going to these clubs and — since I had all this film equipment sitting around — I wanted to capture it." 

"The most violent thing any of the punks did was flush one of the usher's jackets down the toilet."

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Film cost a lot of money back then, and even all these years later, Spheeris regrets the bands she was forced to overlook due to funding. "So much got lost. I wish I could have filmed the Gun Club, the Screamers, the Weirdos. I filmed whatever bands were around."

The subculture that the documentary did manage to capture quickly found a worldwide audience, resonating with punks and the punk-curious around the world. VHS copies passed from buddy to buddy allowed lonely punk-rock kids sprawled out in small towns to not feel so alone. But when the movie was first finished, it was hard for Spheeris to find a single theater to screen it. "The Mann Theater chain controlled all the theaters in L.A., and they wouldn't let me screen it since they said no one would come to a documentary. I rented a theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and so many people came. Cops didn't know anything about punks. They were scared and closed down the street. The most violent thing any of the punks did was flush one of the usher's jackets down the toilet."
Decline proved to be so popular that Spheeris got to film two drastically different sequels. 1988's Part II featured hair-rock bands on the Sunset Strip, while 1998's Part III brought attention to "gutter punks," L.A.'s mostly homeless punk rockers, many of whom suffered from childhood abuse. Until last year's release of the DVD box set, the trilogy was almost impossible to find, but the demand for the box set has Spheeris halfway through production on a Part IV, whose subject she was mum to talk about. "I can't say what it is about since then anyone with an iPhone could film it. I'm interested in counterculture and underground scenes. With the internet that seemed to evaporate and everything seemed mainstream. But after releasing the DVDs and seeing the demand, I found some inspiration."

Between her documentaries, Spheeris found a fortune in filming narrative movies, most famously Wayne's World. "If I could have made a living as a documentarian, I would have done that. I was a single mom, so I took those studio jobs. Wayne's World clicked with everyone, and I became an instant millionaire at 45. But I grew up in a trailer park, so I felt like a poor person even when I got rich."

That might be why she was — and still is — able to chronicle the underclass so convincingly, which you'll be able to see for yourself tonight, July 13, at 9 p.m. at O Cinema. Afterwards Spheeris will participate in a Q&A via Skype where you can ask her about Darby Crash, the Circle Jerks, or even Wayne and Garth. "I wish I could be there," she says. If enough Miami punks show up, maybe she'll make a live Miami appearance for a screening of Part II, III, or IV.

The Decline of Western Civilization. O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-571-9970; Tickets cost $12 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novel, The End of the Century, published by Jitney Books, is available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland