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1981 was a diverse year for cinema history, with such classics as The Evil Dead, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, and The Fox and the Hound hitting theaters that year. Among these films celebrating their 40th anniversary is the rebellious and radical punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. Directed and produced by Penelope Spheeris, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker exposed the world to the artistic, social, and cultural significances of the Los Angeles punk music scene despite most of society at the time disregarding punk as worthless noise and violence.
For the 40th anniversary of The Decline of Western Civilization, it was my honor and privilege to interview Penelope. We discussed her influences, connection to the LA punk scene, the process of creating the documentary, and her connection with Orange County.
You spent your teen years and early 20s here in Orange County. What was that like for you?
When my father died, my mother married a guy in the army, and we moved to Southern California from Arkansas. We lived in different trailer parks near San Diego. Then she divorced the soldier, married a sailor and we moved to Long Beach to live in the cockroach-infested tenements. At one point she was able to buy a house and we moved to Midway City and then Westminster.
I went to Westminster High School and got in a lot of trouble hanging out with my lowrider friends. After a bad car crash, my mom screamed at me, slugged me in the face, and said I would never amount to anything in life. That really pissed me off. I think I was fueled by anger ever since then. I had something to prove.
Were you involved in the OC punk scene? If so, who were your favorite bands?
When I lived in OC, which was during the ’60s, there was no punk scene. That scene didn’t happen until the late 70s, but even way back then, we had our own version of disdain for suburbia.
One day it occurred to me that the oldest building in our neighborhood was a 7-Eleven. It’s weird living in a place that has no history. OC does have a history now though and so many awesome bands were created as a result of that suburban boredom.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I don’t know. Think it might be in my DNA if that is possible. I have a very prolific and respected Greek cousin, Costa-Gavras. He’s directed some amazing movies like Z. Costa’s mother and my father were brother and sister.
As the oldest of four kids, I was placed in charge of my two brothers and my sister because our mom always worked 2 jobs, 16 hours a day. We would save up money by cleaning people’s yards and go to Saturday matinees to see double features, usually comedies.
Who were the creative influences on you in your early filmmaking?
Ironically, when I was at UCLA film school, my favorite filmmakers were Costa-Gavras, John Cassavetes, and Frederick Wiseman. I was unaware at that time that I was related to Costa. I just loved the way he could make a scripted movie feel like a documentary. Same for Cassavetes. Frederick Wiseman’s work was so fascinating to me because he was incredibly objective with regard to his subject matter. My favorite of his films is Titicut Follies, made in 1967, right when I started studying film at UCLA.
What inspired you to make a documentary about the LA punk scene as your first full feature film?
I had always been a rabid rock ‘n’ roll fan. I had a massive vinyl collection back then. When the mid-’70s rolled around, however, I decided I couldn’t buy records or listen to the radio any longer. It was all Bee Gees and Doobie Brothers. Unbearable.
Then, when the punk scene started up here in LA, I went to all the underground clubs. I felt so compelled to document the scene because it was unique, like nothing that I had ever seen before or experienced before. I felt instinctively there was historical importance to it.
How did you get the title of the film?
All of us who worked at Slash Magazine were sitting on the roof of the office one evening drinking beers. I was about halfway through filming, and we started talking about what I would title the movie. We all agreed it had to have something to do with respect for entropy. We tossed around ideas about disorder and disruption of the mainstream.
As I was driving home, it occurred to me that it should be called The Decline of Western Civilization, which is a derivation of the book by Oswald Spengler titled The Decline of the West.
How were you able to get so many bands involved with this documentary?
Basically, they were just bands that I knew and had become a fan of. I went out of my way to film the Germs because they were banned from every club. I had to rent a rehearsal studio to film them. And I really knew I needed Black Flag because if you had to name one band that started it all in So Cal, it was them in Polliwog Park in Hermosa Beach, CA.
I am forever grateful to [singer] Keith Morris of Circle Jerks because he helped put together the show I filmed at The Fleetwood [a club in Redondo Beach, CA] in which he performed on the same bill as Fear.
What was the most memorable moment you had during filming?
I had a really hard time convincing Darby Crash (singer of the Germs) to do an interview. He was actually a very shy guy, believe it or not. Unless he was fucked up.
I think the most memorable moment was when I was finally able to do an interview with him. He would only agree to do it if I would bring breakfast over for him and Michelle (Darby’s confidant) because they both had hangovers. So, I went to Ralph’s Market, bought a bunch of breakfast stuff, and asked him to cook it while I filmed them.
What would you consider to be the most difficult scene or scenes to shoot?
Probably the part of the Fear performance when Lee Ving [singer of Fear] got in a fight with the girl on stage. I was very conflicted. I didn’t really know if they were doing it because the cameras were rolling, because they were just trying to be really punk rock at that moment or if someone was going to get hurt. I didn’t know how far the physical confrontation would go, but, at a certain point, I realized that nobody was going to get hurt and that it was all pretty theatrical.
What would you consider to be the most enjoyable scene or scenes to shoot?
I really loved filming the intro, “Please be advised” sections of the film, because each of the announcements were read in such creative and different ways. I still like watching those parts of the movies and I never re-watch my movies.
The film was banned in LA by the Chief of Police Daryl Gates. What caused this ban? Were you able to find an alternative way to show it? When was the film eventually played in LA?
After I finished the movie, I brought it around to the different theaters in LA trying to get a week’s run or at least one night, but everyone shut me down. I practically begged the Mann brothers who owned the Chinese Theater at the time, and they told me that no one would want to see a punk rock movie, especially a documentary punk rock movie.
I was finally able to book one night at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a midnight showing and so many punks came out that they were spilling into the street after packing the theater and the cops shut Hollywood Boulevard down. Then, to keep the rowdy crowd happy, they had a second screening at 2:00 a.m. The brilliant photographer Ed Colver has some great photos of all the kids and 300 motorcycle LAPD cops.
The next day, I got a letter from the chief of police that told me never to show the movie in Los Angeles again. Of course, I ignored it, was able to four-wall the Fairfax Theater and we had a pretty good run there. I noticed after our showings they were able to refurbish the theater!
How does it feel to have this film added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry next to such classics as Psycho and The Godfather?
It feels absolutely flabbergasting! When I think back on all the criticism I got for making the film at the time and how difficult it was to even get it shown, to have it inducted into the national film registry is quite an honor. It just proves that if you really believe in something, keep fighting for it. That’s what I did with The Decline and it has somehow managed to survive and even be given a respected place in history.
How does it feel to look back at a film you released 40 years ago?
It feels like I’m old. Ha!
What are your thoughts on modern punk culture?
Punk has been bastardized, homogenized, ripped off, and fucked over. Especially recently, all the posers have jumped on board without ever understanding the true principles and raison d’etre (the reason of being) of the movement. The shameless fashion industry has stolen elements of punk culture with despicable disregard.
Shameless musicians steal, like unrelenting bandits. They may toss it off as “paying homage”, but it is sad that most of them are not aware of where it all came from and why it happened in the first place. They don’t understand the true original purpose.
Are you still in contact with any of the people you interviewed for the film?
Yes, quite a few. My best friend from the movie is Keith Morris. I have such respect for him in that he has lived his whole life committed to that true punk ethic. He is so smart, so eloquent, so productive and one of the sweetest guys I know. And by the way, the only person who ever thanked me for including them in the movie. But the audiences have thanked me immensely, so that’s enough for me.
Exclusive from John Doe: When asked for comment for this article about his participation in The Decline of Western Civilization, co-founder and singer/bassist of the band X, John Doe, shared, “What an insane adventure those days were. Penelope was a warrior to undertake such a task. Even though most of the filming happened under extreme circumstances, I’m glad the document exists & hope the audience forgives any questionable behavior. We were doing our best”. X, like many of the bands featured in this documentary, became the backbone and icons of LA punk.
Latinos in Punk: Penelope also showed the Latino influence in punk, with Latinos as a part of the pioneering generation of LA punk, such as Alice Bag of the Alice Bag Band and Ron Reyes of Black Flag. With Latinos being the majority of punk fans today, especially in the west coast and southwest, it’s deeply moving to see Latinos as punk pioneers. Though Latinos are a major ethnic population in America (18.5% of the total population), the documentation or acknowledgment of our historical influence in America is still sadly underrepresented. Through this documentary, Penelope challenged the gender and racial/ethnic stereotype of who is a punk, while simultaneously showing another perspective of the American Latino experience.