"The Decline of Western Civilization Collection" presents filmmaker Penelope Spheeris as the interpreter of bored teenagers in California.
In his 1939 classic Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West wrote of Los Angelenos:
They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.
All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?
Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.
Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.
In her The Decline of Western Civilization series, director Penelope Spheeris asks what happens to those who grow up in the shadow of Hollywood. Those as bored as the people West describes in punishing detail, but who never knew any other life. Those who grow up with the knowledge that every dream and vision in Hollywood is photoshopped and CGI’ed, and that nobody gets away from celebrity itself unscarred or unindicted. Those who’ve always known that the city itself is a mishmash of unconvincing poses, but that it’s all they have because the hillside communities an hour outside town house the chuds freaks and meth heads.
Recently, all three of Spheeris’ documentaries about young people who find their identities in rock ’n’ roll were released as a box set, including the never-officially released third installment, which focuses on gutterpunks.
The first in the series came out in 1981, and it focuses on L.A. punk community, where everybody her camera found fought the world they inherited by matching it defect for defect. Exene of X answered conventional wisdom ironically, drunkenly reading lines from Christian pamphlets that she’d found on the street written to scare the God into you. Almost everybody in the original Decline of Western Civilization is as style-obsessed as any star, but it’s a homemade, thrift shop, razor-cut glamor.
With nothing else to do—or nothing anybody wants to do—everybody in the film turns to punk as way of giving L.A. the finger. Today, the movie is notable for having great early footage of X, Black Flag, and The Germs, but based on the evidence of the series, Spheeris lucked out in band choices. It’s clear in Parts II and III that she’s not in the game of picking winners. Spheeris’ movies are about rock ’n’ roll as a relief from boredom, and the bands that are struggling make that clearer than those who succeed.
Because of that, her treatment of musicians is refreshingly uninterested in celebrity. They sit around. They make breakfast (a motif that runs through all three movies). They give each other homemade tattoos. They’re not heroes or stars as she presents them; they’re simply the people onstage, the on/offstage distinction being a fluid one. The bands frequently perform on low risers and/or end up in the audience. Singer Ron Reyes is in frantic motion throughout the Black Flag live sequences, as contorted and energetic as the audience. Spheeris’ cameraman plays visual whack-a-mole trying to keep up with him, and the result is the visual equivalent of punk—thrilling, kinetic, chaotic visuals, but not so chaotic that you lose the thread.
The live shots in The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years (1988) reveal an important difference between the punk scene of the first movie and the hair metal Sunset Strip scene Spheeris documents in the second film in the series. The punks scrabbled together a homemade alternative culture shaped by outlaw artists (musicians, writers, designers) to confront the world they inherited. In The Metal Years, Spheeris doesn’t have a shot where someone in it doesn’t find the camera and look into it.
As was the case in the first movie, the line is thin between the hair metal bands and their fans, but they all seemed to accept the value structure they’d inherited without question. Stardom? They want it. Everybody wants to be discovered, or at least in the movies. In a revealing montage, all of the talking heads who appear in the movie are positive that they will become stars. They lack all traces of doubt and any trepidation about the cost of fame.
Much of the movie was shot in 1987, and four years later “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would pants the entire hair metal scene and everybody’s celebrity dreams, but you know while watching the film that it won’t take Kurt Cobain to torpedo their dreams of stardom. The bands and fans were living through a Reagan-era inflated sense of self-worth, but like the punks of the first movie, they don’t see a future in the straight world. That’s partly the product of choosing rock ’n’ roll hair and style and focusing so much on one dream that it’s hard to see the merit in other ones, it’s also the result of a culture that hides whatever positive it offers young people. If you’re a dude facing the prospect of a mind-numbing minimum wage job, sponging off of a hairdresser girlfriend and living the rock ’n’ roll life doesn’t seem like much of a quandary. It doesn't help that few of the people Spheeris talks to in any of the films come off as thinkers, but they likely stand for more people than we'd like to believe. The possibilities our culture offers are likely as easily missed by others as they are by the people she talks to.
The Metal Years is Spheeris’ bid for the big time, and while the bands that she focuses on go nowhere—the biggest that she spends any time with is Faster Pussycat—she also has interviews with Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss. With the exception of Lemmy, they all seem as relevant and leathery as grandparents. Stanley and Simmons present a Penthouse Forum vision of rock ’n’ roll that’s obviously phony, and the one necessary moment comes when Wasp’s Chris Holmes floats in his backyard pool getting black-out drunk on bottles of vodka as his mother watches. The unhappiness hardwired into that scene says celebrity costs far more than any of the fans and bands could imagine.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III was finished and screened in 1998, but it was never released. It comes the closes to living up to the series’ title as Spheeris focuses on gutterpunks, none of whom can imagine being alive in five years. The documentary marginalizes bands because the story’s different from the first movie. The idea that society offers these people nothing extends to their bands as even their punk seems secondhand. Their ripped, faded T-shirts are for old-then bands like The Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun, and the sexual and political confrontation in the bands’ songs had the whiff of boxes stored too long in the attic.
Their rebel stance is to opt out of society altogether. It’s tempting to write “give up,” but that’s more judgmental than the movie Spheeris made. Repeatedly, the gutterpunks she interviews find the world around them hopelessly, irredeemably corrupt down to the family level, where many were victims of domestic abuse. When they talk about much of this—domestic violence aside—their language is maddeningly vague and familiar. One says, “Things are so fucked up that there’s no goals, not for me anyhow,” and like so many of their answers, it feels like a cop-out, like a party line more than a genuine understanding. But there’s truth in it, enough that they can’t imagine other possibilities. It’s a real enough truth to them that they’re checking out of the world because of it.
Spheeris’ camera loves the gutterpunks and finds beauty and charisma in most of them. Actually, that’s one of the threads throughout the series. No matter how dim her subjects—and many of them seem to be—she treats them lovingly, so it’s easy to connect to them. They’re all gentle in interviews, but Spheeris avoids sugarcoating them. She films the interaction most of us are familiar with as gutterpunks stem for change with dark, self-mocking humor that has a curdled edge of hostility toward those not interested in their need or street theater. It’s a dynamic they create by putting themselves in the position of relying on others to get by, but that doesn’t make people’s refusal to acknowledge their existence less dehumanizing.
In general, Spheeris’ gutterpunks are likeable on their own and harder to connect to in groups. The two party scenes bleakly depict people drinking to get out of their heads, which is never pretty. But just when their hopelessness starts to feel frustratingly circular, events give The Decline of Western Civilization Part III additional gravity.
The films have been collected into The Decline of Western Civilization Collection, and watching the movies as a series takes some of the laughs out of The Metal Years. Seen on its own, the meatheads and their estrangement from reality is funny in a derogatory, reality television kind of way. Fit them into the continuity created by the other two and it’s clear that they’re affected by the same boredom and inability of our culture to imagine how young people could enter the working world in any but the most demeaning way.
Add to that the specifics of Los Angeles and the narrative our culture tells each new generation about how the good stuff happened just before you got here, and each of Spheeris’ movies have real gravity, even when the hair doesn’t.