Penelope Spheeris' "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III" is a tender, strangely moving portrait of a particular pack of nomadic street kids, or "gutter punks."
It's one of the best movies I've seen this year, shockingly incisive work that wounded me more than any moment of clinical bravura in critically praised pictures. Spheeris' subjects are smart, sweet, attractive kids - and also battered, abused, abandoned and resigned to their degradation. They tell their stories with little affectation beyond playful gallows humor.
"I thought about 'The Decline, Part III,'" the director says, "but I didn't get that final little push until I saw an ad in a magazine where a record company had taken [the phrase] to advertise one of its albums and I thought, wait, I need to be doing this movie if people are in the mood to steal this title!"
These drunk, doped, often adorable teens weren't even born when Spheeris' first "Decline," a portrait of L.A.'s then-thriving punk scene, was made. "I developed a great respect for them, because they totally, literally checked out of society. They don't even want to be a part of it, and they live it every day," she says, lighting another cigarette. "We went out, the producer and I, went to a bunch of clubs, saw a lot of music and became more interested, really, in these people who don't have a place to live and roam around and go to hardcore or punk shows around different cities. They travel all around. I didn't get enough of that flavor in the film because I can't travel around, paying for it myself, but I think we definitely get the feeling that they're out there on their own. I don't know if all of them would want to be homeless, but oftentimes it seems a conscious choice."
There's something intensely empathetic about Spheeris' rapport with her subjects, which is what makes the movie so brilliant. She's amused at times: "We went to the outlying areas to shows and a few in Hollywood, but out in San Bernardino, there would be huge shows. In the very beginning of the film, these kids are all lined up in front of the clubs, they're like 13 years old and they're cookie-cutter images of the first movement. They have the stuff down pat."
But at other times, Spheeris sees the painful reality of the lives they've chosen to lead. "It's always an education when you go out there. They don't do anything. They don't want to go out and work a job for five dollars an hour. They're really outcasts in the pure sense of the word."
The trilogy of "Decline" movies have meant more to Spheeris than a respite from Hollywood politics. "In the first movie, it was music you'd never heard before. It was innovative on that level. But inspiration even then was to be more of a sociological study than be about the music. Before I went to film school, I studied psychobiology. I just want to understand what makes people behave the way they do."
The shocking character of this installment contrasts with the more comic heavy metal oriented "Decline II." "Number II was frivolous. Totally frivolous. This one is really eye-opening, I think," she says. "It's discouraging to see so many young people with absolutely no hope. My nature is to be very hopeful and keep on going and try to make something goal-oriented and productive and all that. I don't know where the hell I got it, but that's just the way I personally am. When I see young people who don't have any of that and unfortunately have a lot of talent and creative parts to them, but not having any way at all to express them..." She shrugs.
When Spheeris makes teen comedies like "Senseless," she finds one kind of satisfaction. "It's fulfilling on one level, because you go to a theater and people are laughing." But there's more on her mind, back to her days working with Albert Brooks and a stint as a staff member of the "Roseanne" show. "[The comedies] do not fulfill that need to actually make a statement about where I think society is at today. 'The Decline,' this one, does that in a really clear way. We scraped and made it very cheaply because I was paying for it myself, but I don't think it makes a difference. I wouldn't have taken two or three million dollars to do 'The Decline' from a studio and let someone else have access to controlling the cut, because this is my heart and soul, y'know."
She turns more somber. "I thought I would just make a killing with my box-set of three 'Decline' videos. But once I went out there, I realized that would be the most piggish thing to do, to make a movie about these homeless people and then make money off it. Originally, I was going to buy a home in Hollywood that would be The Decline House that would be a drop-in center for kids. Something like that is tricky in keeping it alive, but in some way we'll help these kids out. If it works right, it'll be the most worthwhile thing I've done as a filmmaker."