In the classic 1980 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris filmed an insider’s view of the burgeoning LA punk scene led by bands such as the Germs, X, Fear, and the Circle Jerks. For its sequel (of sorts), 1988’s The Metal Years, she was a bemused observer to the starry-eyed ’80s metalheads careening up and down the Sunset Strip.
The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III
opens Friday, January 15, at Varsity
Now Spheeris returns to LA’s punk-rock underground, and she finds it a colder, darker, and altogether scarier place. The scene in 1980 was rife with alcohol, drugs, and violence, but the exhilaration of watching an embryonic musical revolution infused her first film with a sense of liberation. In contrast, The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III is all about enslavement: The music takes a back seat to mere survival for the gaggle of homeless teens Spheeris chronicles.
These gutterpunks squat in abandoned buildings or sleep on the street. They’re unemployed, uneducated, and caught in a contradiction: They reject society’s rules yet
depend on other people’s charity for their most basic necessities. But Decline, Part III is not without humor, particularly when Spheeris restages signature bits from the previous films, including a scene of egg-frying domesticity with Eyeball, the mohawked lead singer of the Resistance (following the footsteps of Darby Crash and Ozzy Osbourne, who manned the stove for the first and second Declines respectively).
Homeless kids are obviously a personal subject for Spheeris, whose 1983 film Suburbia told the fictional story of a group of punk teens living in an abandoned building. Her own views seem to be summed up in Decline, Part III by a trio of punk 魩nences grises: Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, former Fear/current Red Hot Chili Pepper bass player Flea, and the skeletal Rick Wilder of the Mau Maus. They see the current environment for disenfranchised urban youth as far less hopeful than it was in even the Reagan-addled ’80s.
Spheeris talks to some tough cases, but there are also instances when the kids show a surprising idealism. One teenager nicknamed Why-Me?, clad in studs and leather, smiles shyly when asked what he’d like to do when he grows up, then describes living on a big farm with his friends. It’s moments like this, amid the endless beer-hazed days and nights that Spheeris filmed at shows, squats, and on the street, that gives the latest Decline its unromanticized intensity.