In 1981, Penelope Spheeris released the first Decline Of Western Civilization film, a landmark documentary on L.A.'s early punk scene that ranks alongside Repo Man, Rock 'n' Roll High School, and Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains in the punk-movie pantheon. Since then, Spheeris has made a slew of exploitation films, a second Decline film, one good studio comedy (Wayne's World), and some of the worst Hollywood movies of the decade (The Beverly Hillbillies, Black Sheep, The Little Rascals). Thankfully, however, Spheeris has returned to her roots with Decline III, a documentary that travels back to the streets of L.A. to explore the lives of the city's gutter punks, alienated outcasts for whom homelessness, poverty, and despair are a way of life. While the first Decline focused on some of the seminal bands coming out of the late-'70s and early-'80s punk scene (X, The Germs, Black Flag), Decline III focuses on the people who spend what little money they collect panhandling on punk shows, beer, and other bare necessities. One of the truly striking things about the movie is how eerily it resembles the first Decline: Almost 20 years have passed between the films, yet the clothing and hairstyles haven't changed a bit. But while the bands in the first installment—a number of whom have had long and influential careers—at least had musical talent to carry them through the wreckage of their lives, most of the youths in Decline III seem to be perpetually on the verge of fading into oblivion. Responding to their miserable lot in life with a mixture of gallows humor, nihilism, and weary acceptance, the kids emanate a peculiar sort of childlike innocence that lends a touching, understated pathos to their plight, even at their hedonistic, masochistic worst: vomiting in kitchen sinks, burning themselves with cigarettes, and boasting of their petty crimes. Directed by Spheeris with a winning mixture of empathy, concern, and bemusement, Decline III is a funny, insightful work that's every bit as satisfying as its legendary predecessors.

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