Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Penelope Spheeris, Keith Morris, Eyeball, and Anna Fox
Last Friday night, July 24, 2015, the American Cinematheque welcomed four very special guests to the historic Egyptian Theater. In all of their punk glory, director Penelope Spheeris, her daughter Anna Fox, musician Keith Morris, and original cast member Eyeball took some time to chat with a very enthusiastic audience in between a special screening of Spheeris' Suburbia and The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III.

Spheeris' groundbreaking film Suburbia was screened first. Still highly regarded as a breakthrough of its kind, the tale of runaway  punk kids in early 1980’s Los Angeles still remains as thrilling as it was upon its initial release, both shocking and riveting. As Spheeris explained when asked about her inspiration for the film, “they told me I couldn’t get documentaries into theaters; which you couldn’t really do until Michael Moore.” Spheeris continued that the characters she created in Suburbia are a perfect example of life imitating art, or art imitating life, depending on how you look at it.

Adding to Penelope’s thoughts was Keith Morris, lead singer for punk bands Black Flag, and Circle Jerks. Growing up in Los Angeles, Morris added that he always enjoyed Spheeris' vision in Suburbia because he “grew up with those kids”.  In response to a question about the difficulty in booking punk bands at venues, Keith explained that “there will always be that underground element to punk.”

Giving more insight into the creative production of Suburbia, an audience member asked “how many of the kids from the film were actually real-life punk squatters?” In response, Spheeris explained that actually none of the kids were really squatters at the time. She continued that most of that concept came from visiting the boarded up and abandoned homes in Downey, CA (which she explains, was formally known as “Downer”, given its grim landscape.) Adding to the explanation on why the movie is highly violent and graphic, Spheeris clarified “that was the Corman formula (referring well-known producer Roger Corman): sex or violence every ten minutes.”  
Penelope Spheeris and fan
A majority of the discussion, however, surrounded the release and legacy of Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy and its long-awaited box-set distribution. Audience members ardently discussed their views on the trilogy, given its highly controversial content. Offering insight into the inspiration of the second screening of the night, Spheeris' daughter Anna explained that “she waited until she could do it right." Anna continued that she initially refused to offer to assist her mother in filming, given that the rights to the first two Decline films had been sold by Spheeris.

In reflecting on the importance of Decline: Part III, Spheeris said that “[Decline III] changed my life.” She explained, “after all of the 90’s big budget studio comedies that I had done [referring to her highly successful films Wayne’s World and The Little Rascals] I felt that I had forgotten who I was, so I decided to make a documentary again.” She remembers in the late nineties driving down Melrose Avenue and seeing  "gutter punk" homeless teenagers. She recalls pulling over and after speaking to them, noting that she had found her inspiration for Decline III. Further, she revels in the memory that in creating Decline III, “I got to know there are really kind people in the world - so much more important to me than money. My films in the 90’s up until Decline III were rewarding financially, not creatively.”


Adding to the discussion was Eyeball, an original cast member of Decline III. “I find it so appropriate that we are screening this film in this theater tonight.” Chuckling, he continues, “we squatted here after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, watching Home Alone 2 while drinking forties."  Eyeball’s girlfriend at the time and another friend figured out how to thread the projector so they could watch the film they found in the projection booth. But they couldn’t figure out how to turn on the sound and they threaded it upside down, so they watched it silent and upside down. Eyeball further explained how he was “floored” when Spheeris approached him to do work in Decline III. “We were living that Suburbia lifestyle at the time”, he recalls.

Both films generated a theater full of fans, especially the seldom-screened Decline III.  Applause filled the theater as Spheeris and her crew exited, signaling the "rock on" hand gesture to their audience; a crowd decorated in mohawks, black punk band tee-shirts, and plenty of studded belts.
- Jared Thompson, with photos by Margot-Robin