The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Penelope Spheeris may be best known for Wayne’s World, but her life and films are more than just one movie.

Until the age of seven, Spheeris grew up in a traveling carnival until her father was stabbed after intervening in a racial dispute. After his death, she grew up in California trailer parks with a succession of stepfathers, yet still graduated high school voted “most likely to succeed.”

Working at Denny’s and IHOP in Los Angeles — one wonders if she even encountered David Lynch — she put herself through UCLA and started her career producing short films with Albert Brooks, several of which aired during the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live.

Between DudesSuburbia and two of the Decline films, Spheeris has shown her understanding of punk even as she lays bare some of the sillier moments of the kids caught up in its wake. The decline of Western civilization could mean many things here. It could be a reference to Lester Bangs’ review of The Stooges’ Fun House, where a friend remarked that this album had to be the signal of the end of it all. Or it could be a reference to Germs singer Darby Crash Darby reading Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West).

The bands within this movie — as well as the punk rock fans — gave Spheeris some amazing access to their lives, warts and all. While some bands like Alice Bag Band and Catholic Discipline may not be well known, X, the aforementioned Germs, Fear, the Circle Jerks and Black Flag should be recognized by anyone, not just punk fans.

After the film was screened in Los Angeles, punk music fans got into so many fights and caused so much chaos that L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates wrote the filmmakers a letter asking them not to screen the film again.

This series of movies was only available in bootleg form for years. This was because of licensing issues for all the songs and Spheeris not wanting to go back and relive them. She didn’t need the money, but then she decide dthat she’d rather be remembered for these films than her more commerical work.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime and Tubi. There’s also the official site which has press clippings and more info on the films.

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