“It’s All About Shocking People”: Penelope Spheeris on Her Iconic Film ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ and Punk in 2015
“It’s my life’s work, here. I don’t want to fuck it up,” director Penelope Spheeris tells me by phone about Shout Factory’s Decline of Western Civilization Collection, released on June 30. We’re joined by her daughter Anna Fox, who helped produce the deluxe box set, which includes all three Decline documentaries restored in high-definition. But the retouched celluloid can’t destroy the grit and grime that clings to Spheeris’ curious lens as it chronicles some of punk’s most legendary bands in the first film (which screens in New York City on June 19 at BAMcinemaFest with the director in attendance): Black Flag, Fear, X, the Germs, and the Circle Jerks, to name a few. Throughout the trilogy, Spheeris is granted access to ratty clubs and gutter haunts, an outsider looking in. But the filmmaker knows what it’s like on the other side, having spent her formative years in a traveling carnival where her parents worked — strangers in strange lands. We discussed living on the fringe; the filmmaker’s 1983 film about teenage runaways, Suburbia; and the meaning of family.