Arts Preview: The Decline of Western Civilization

Jim Fischer

When filmmaker Penelope Spheeris is asked a question about how she gained the trust of and access to the bands featured in her 1981 documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization," which chronicled the burgeoning Los Angeles punk subculture of the late '70s and early '80s (Circle Jerks, X, Black Flag), she laughs.

"The joke I tell is that I paid them and gave them beer," Spheeris said. "The reality is it was my scene. I was a part of it.

"I had just come out of UCLA film school, and I knew how to shoot music (Spheeris' first efforts were music videos for LA bands), but when I saw this movement, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before – or since."

Spheeris' daughter, Anna Fox, recalled the familial atmosphere.

"I was around 9. These people felt like extended family," said Fox, who coordinated the newly-restored "Decline" trilogy for DVD release (Part II was released in 1988 and dealt with LA's heavy metal scene; Part III, released in 1998, chronicles thegutter-punklifestyle of homeless teens).

"They were our friends, and then I made a movie," Spheeris, perhaps best-known as director of "Wayne's World," said.

Absent major studio support, the films gained cult status. The stories they tell are often as difficult as they are enlightening.

The most poignant is the story of Germs frontman Darby Crash. Shown in one scene having a tender moment with his pet tarantula, Crash committed suicide between the film's completion and its release.

The most well-known piece comes from Part II, as W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes is interviewed, drunk and depressed, while lounging on a raft in his swimming pool and with his mother seated poolside.

"I did think it was going to be more about the music of the time. In retrospect, it really had more to do with young people's behavior and how people looked and dressed," Spheeris said.

Fox, who assumed the daunting task of re-watching hours and hours of archived footage, said revisiting the material both sequentially and in a short time frame provided different perspectives of the films.

"You can really see the shift in social situations, in trends, in the way women were treated. Twenty years' time had some real big sociological shifts," Fox said.

Spheeris said the third "Decline" film is the least-seen of the three, but it's her personal favorite. Inspired by the homeless youth depicted in the film, Spheeris and Fox are selling signed movie posters at screenings, donating the proceeds to local charities supporting homeless kids.

Spheeris and Fox will introduce a screening of "Decline" at the Wexner Center this Friday. Parts II and III will be screened Sunday, Oct. 25.

Wexner Center for the Arts

7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23

1781 N. High St., Campus