PENELOPE SPHEERIS

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— In 1980 when I made The Decline of Western Civilization, it was impossible to get distribution. The theater owners said no one cared about punk rock, no one would come to theaters to see a documentary. I finally convinced one unsuspecting Hollywood Boulevard theater owner to give us a single midnight showing. So many punks showed up that the LAPD sent out what appeared to be the entire force. Edward Colver, a brilliant photographer that had himself documented the scene in still frames, captured the moment as proof. Had he not no one would have believed it — hundreds of cops… astounded and bewildered by the sea of Mohawks, leathers and studs. I soon received a letter from Police Chief, Daryl Gates, requesting that I not show the film ever again in Los Angeles.

Realizing the difficulties with distribution of a non-narrative film, I wrote Suburbia. I was fascinated with the movement, especially the squatter aspect. Suburbia only made it into a limited theatrical run, but somehow survived as a cult classic. In 1997, while totally disenchanted with making ‘Hollywood movies’, I saw a resurgence of punk rock and shot The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III. The new punks were virtual replicas of the originals in many ways — music, attitude, style and principals, except now so many more were living on the streets or in squats. If there was anything redeeming about their circumstances, it was the fact that they banded together and formed new families. Most of the kids came from broken homes with abusive parents. I had set out to make a feature documentary about the new music, but as documentaries often do, I was led down a different path. Decline III turned out to be about gutterpunks… squatters, just like in Suburbia.

The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III never got distribution, because the only way for me to get it was if I gave up my rights to the first two films, which I would not do. It’s hard to believe that I made the first Decline thirty years ago. In retrospect, I wonder: does history impact art or does art impact history? As I was making Decline III, I began to notice that so much of the scripted, imagined story of Suburbia which I had written in 1982 had become reality. Maybe I saw it coming or maybe Suburbia paved the path.


Edward Colver, THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION OPENING NIGHT, 1980


SUBURBIA, 1984


THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION: PART III, 1997
Photo by John Joleaud

Penelope Spheeris is often referred to as a Rock ‘n Roll anthropologist. Spheeris currently lives in Los Angeles with her six cats and four dogs.