The damned

Almost two decades after she documented the L.A. punk scene, Penelope Spheeris returns to find its legacy -- and finds no legacy at all.

Published August 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When Penelope Spheeris titled her documentaries on punk and heavy metal "The Decline of Western Civilization," she meant it as a joke. She knew that Aerosmith and X and Kiss and Black Flag weren't sounding Gabriel's trumpet for America, but she had fun thumbing her nose at the narrow-minded folks who truly believed so; she wanted to provoke the Tipper Gores and TV evangelists who claimed that regular doses of Motvrhead and Fear rotted brains and endangered society. It's true that both films showcased some pathetic personalities: W.A.S.P. bassist Chris Holmes downing bottles of vodka in a swimming pool while his mother watches; Kiss bassist Paul Stanley lounging around on an oversized bed with a bevy of over-inflated groupies; just about everything the late Germs singer Darby Crash said and did on camera. But mostly, Spheeris was working hard to redeem her subjects as both normal human beings and worthwhile musicians. Sure they were grimy and sometimes not-so-bright, but symptoms of the decline of Western civilization? Please.

What's disturbing about Spheeris' third installment in the series -- which follows Los Angeles punks in 1996 and 1997 -- is that its title has no irony in it now; it truly does map out a generation in a tailspin. The punks that Spheeris documented in 1979 for the first "Decline" film were a vibrant group of musicians, journalists and scenesters who were mapping out music culture's next turn. While the '90s punks that she tails are in punk bands as well -- groups like Naked Aggression, Final Conflict and Litmus Green -- musically they're simply walking down a trail that Black Flag and X blazed nearly two decades ago. As the film's opening series of interviews points out, most of the subjects weren't even born when the first "Decline" was released in 1981, but most of the ratty T-shirts they wear bear the names of punk's first wave: Crass, the Exploited, the Subhumans, the Misfits, the Business, Fear, Black Flag. And the fans aren't the excited, if sometimes lunk-headed, community they once were. The teenagers Spheeris talks to are rough, homeless gutterpunks. They have no snazzy, hip fanzine to produce, no well-reasoned arguments about punk's musical and social worth, no Baudelaire poems to quote. Most are alcoholics; they get drunk and sneak into punk shows to let off steam. They then go back to the streets or the squats, get drunker and wait to die.

The kids all cop to that pathetic spiral of their lives, and they do it smilingly, blithely. When Spheeris' off-camera voice asks them where they plan to be five years from now, the responses are a series of don't-knows and dead-probablys. It's the assurance in their voices, the sense of inevitability about it, that's so distressing. And when you hear their stories, their fates do feel inevitable: An overweight, slurring, teenage punk named Hamburger recalls how he nearly drowned in a toilet when his father and uncle got him drunk when he was 3 years old, and others argue that the abuse of the streets and the feared Nazi skinhead punks (whom Spheeris either doesn't find or chooses not to) is better than the abuse they received at home. One squatter relates her plans for the weekend: She's started making a circle of cigarette burns around her left biceps, grossly infected. She hopes to get drunk enough to finish the job.

It's not a new story that Spheeris is telling -- teenage homelessness, drug abuse in the L.A. punk scene -- but she deserves credit for stepping away from mainstream fare like "Wayne's World" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (both of which she directed) to tell it properly (the film won a Freedom of Expression award at this year's Sundance Film Festival). She's slid back easily into the stylistic conventions of the first two "Decline" films, right down to the bands' reading disclaimers onstage, to the dangling light bulb during the subject interviews, to another scene of a musician frying eggs. To offer some perspective on the changes in L.A. punk, Spheeris inserts interviews with the Circle Jerks' Chris Morris and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who both argue that life for punks and teenagers in general has gotten more difficult; Flea notes that the homeless punks of the early '80s were protected by "an umbrella of art and punk rock" that doesn't exist anymore. But the most powerful remembrance is offered by Rick Wilder of the Mau Maus, who stuns you with his mere presence on-screen: Backlit and emaciated, he speaks of the damage drugs did to the scene, and he looks like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in bondage pants.

The film's rare moments of humor are infused with rage and irony. A buff, smiling Los Angeles police officer -- the sort of authority figure Henry Rollins has been making fun of for years -- speaks self-importantly about empathy while policing the punks, but hedges when asked if he makes fun of them; cut to a series of punks talking about routine beat-downs by cops, one of whom asks, "Don't they have some kind of rapist to bust?" When Spheeris asks the members of Naked Aggression about the morality of signing with a major label, one musician deadpans, "I'd probably be able to buy car insurance." And one long sequence shows the punks "spanging" -- panhandling for spare change -- with a series of clever come-on lines to passersby; you laugh, even when you recognize that these are people who've hit rock bottom. And even at their worst, the punks emerge as soulful, well-meaning people, who "just cover it up with spikes and color and shit," as a girl named Spoon says. At all times, though, you're deeply aware of how broken their lives are, and how conscious the teenagers are of the break.

Spheeris doesn't present her story as an indictment of punk rock or teenagers, and well she shouldn't; had she cared to make a movie about ambitious, sober and inventive punks in the late '90s, there's ample subject matter to do it with. Perhaps even she thought she would have found that story in Los Angeles again. After all, a scene that inspired the greatness of X and Black Flag must have trickled down to the next generation in some way, right? It didn't. It faded into memory like a T-shirt run through the wash too many times. Spheeris isn't uncovering poetry about nausea and bloody red eyes, or righteous anger about authority and mass consumption. What she finds is loss and death, and all she can do is tag the corpses properly.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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