penelope spheeris on bringing her iconic punk films to new york
Next week, the director will present her enduring portraits of Los Angeles’s vibrant hardcore community, 'The Decline of Western Civilization' and 'Suburbia' on the East Coast. Here, she explains why.
Punk was born in the United Kingdom, but it didn't take too long for the movement to cross the pond; throughout the late 1970s and 80s, regionally distinctive punk scenes concurrently developed throughout the United States. The Ramones and poetess Patti Smith laid the foundations for New York proto-punk, but elsewhere in the country, a new breed of fast-paced, political, abrasive music incubated: hardcore. Though D.C. is often credited as its home — thanks largely to Bad Brains and Minor Threat founder Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records — hardcore flourished on the opposite coast, in Southern California, where bands like Black Flag, The Germs, and Circle Jerk ignited a truly radical new form of expression. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris documented each of these bands, and the riotous youth-quake they caused in Los Angeles, in The Punk Years, the first iteration of her seminal three-part documentary series, The Decline of Western Civilization.
Decline's second (1988) and third (1998) installments focused on L.A. metal and homeless gutter punks, respectively. But the documentary's first part was very literally sensational (the LAPD shut down Hollywood Boulevard upon its release in 1981, and its Chief of Police wrote an open letter demanding the film never be shown in L.A. again). It features concert footage of and interviews with Black Flag, the Alice Bag Band, and X, as well as contributions from the publishers of the totally excellent Slash zine and fans themselves. Spheeris followed up the powerful, intimate chronicle with Suburbia, a 1983 scripted film about a tight-knit tribe of suburban punk kids who ran away from home to squat in abandoned tract housing buildings off the L.A. interstate.
In the intervening decades, punk has exploded into a global musical movement and rich community. Spheeris's front-line documentation of its most influential eras hasn't simply achieved cult status — her films are must-sees for anyone even remotely interested in music and subculture. Fortunately, New Yorkers who fit that bill will have a chance to do so: Spheeris will present The Decline of Western Civilization on November 3 at Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema, and Suburbia at the brand new Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn on November 5.
"The release of The Decline box set opened up an exciting new world for me. It is the world of the art house theaters," Spheeris told i-D over email of the film's recent DVD release (last year, Spheeris and her daughter, producer Anna Fox, completed a tedious restoration and re-release which has introduced a new generation to the punk film's urgent legacy). Spheeris will host post-screening Q&As at both New York events, and says she's energized by audiences of "true film fans" who relish the opportunity to discuss the films. "I've always loved doing my indie work and focusing on the underground."
Though these screenings often sell out, Spheeris has said that she often gets nervous no one will show. "The reason I have trepidation is because historically when my indie and doc films are first released, they have gotten terrible distribution and usually nobody showed up." She says her studio films like Wayne's World and Black Sheep benefited from "optimum positioning and exposure," and generated massive audiences. "It's strange though because it's the indie movies like Suburbia, Boys Next Door, Dudes, and the Decline docs that have the lasting power and the cult following status, not necessarily the studio movies."
While Spheeris is well aware of her indie film's fervent following now, she wasn't aware that they'd be considered so culturally important when she was making them. "I was just shooting the scenes I loved and very few other people were shooting back then, especially punk rock. So much of today's music, social-political attitudes, and styles were born in that time and kids today don't get that until they see the films," says Spheeris. And though its focus is still under wraps, Spheeris says the long-fabled fourth Decline documentary is indeed in the works, and has been "for a while now." We cannot wait to see which scene she captures next.
Text Emily Manning