This week on TCM Underground: The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998) and Over the Edge (1979)

pizap.com14454515523791 This kids are most definitely not all right this week on TCM Underground. Penelope Spheeris Last long enough in Hollywood and you will be remembered as much for the jobs you turned down as the ones you took on and such is the case with Penelope Spheeris. After producing Albert Brooks’ faux documentary REAL LIFE (1979), she rejected a job offer to direct a skin flick to make THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981), a documentary about the Southern California punk rock scene as it was between 1980 and 1981. Given her background in “mockumentaries” and rock music, Spheeris was considered the logical choice to direct THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984); rather than poke fun at heavy metal bands, Spheeris made THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS (1988), a look at the careers, philosophies, private lives, and fans of such headbanger headliners as Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, W.A.S.P., and Motorhead. Wayne's World Long interested in the subject of mental illness, Spheeris was poised to spend more of her own money to make a documentary on the subject when the offer came via old friend Lorne Michaels to direct WAYNE’S WORLD (1992), a movie spinoff for characters created by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey for Michael’s long-running SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Spheeris would later brand these as her “sell-out years,” during which she banked her share of WAYNE’S WORLD’s $120 million boxoffice take and put her energies into such cineplex fodder as THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1993), THE LITTLE RASCALS (1994), and BLACK SHEEP (1996), another SNL spinoff starring Not Ready for Prime Time Players Chris Farley and David Spade. After dragging herself through production of the Miramax college comedy SENSELESS (1998), Spheeris was ready to channel her energies into something more meaningful. Decline III02 THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III (1998) focuses on a subset of Southern California’s teenage homeless population – underage runaways and street smart tearabouts who have accepted the nickname “gutter punks.” Largely born after the heyday of punk rock but adhering with an almost Pentecostal fervor to its tenets and fashions, the subjects of <b>Decline III</b> cloak their true identities under such Dickensian street names as Squid, Filth, Spinner, Troll, Pinwheel, Little Tommy the Queer and Why-Me? but remain to a man (and woman) unable to keep the truth from Spheeris, or to hide their essential innocence and eagerness to please. In a 2015 interview conducted at the time of the long overdue DVD debut of the THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION trilogy, Spheeris told writer Laura Snapes:

“What I found interesting is that it’s human nature to have a family, so they formed new families. They were very protective of each other and still, to this day, so many of them are just as close.”

Finding a distributor for THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III proved as frustrating for Spheeris as it had been eliciting sympathy and understanding for her gutter punk friends. “I showed it to my agent of the time,” she told Eric Ducker for “I asked if we could get distribution for it and he just threw his hands up and walked away.” DECLINE III While THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III lapsed upon completion into a kind of limbo (since rescinded), Spheeris was sufficiently inspired by her time with homeless teens to become a Foster parent – a role she has played for half a dozen kids since 2013. For Spheeris, the act is far from community service, reinforcing a sense of family that she never knew as a rootless trailer park kid whose father had been murdered when she was 7 and whose mother subjected her children to multiple, often wildly unstable stepfathers. “DECLINE III is my favorite movie I ever did,” Spheeris recalled in the summer of 2015. “And the people in DECLINE III are my favorite people I have ever worked on a movie with.” Over the Edge 02 I was a senior in high school when Jonathan Kaplan’s OVER THE EDGE (1979) came out; I didn’t see the movie until I was in college a year later, but that just gave me twelve months or so to live with its reputation via word of mouth. Even back then, the movie sounded scary because deep down we all know what kids are like when left to their own devices and the supervision of the inexperienced and like-minded. OVER THE EDGE opened in November of ’79, about ten months after 16 year-old Brenda Spencer used a .22 caliber rifle to open fire on students, faculty, and staff on the grounds of San Diego’s Grover Cleveland Elementary School; killed that day were a custodian and the school’s principal. My dad was my high school principal, so this incident certainly hit home, and OVER THE EDGE fed into that mounting sense of teenage dread. Thirty-six years later, post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-Dunblane, post-Virginia Tech, post-Umpqua (shout out your own favorites!), it’s still scary — you should pardon my language — as fuck… and not just because of the gun issue (which plays a smallish but not insignificant part in this story) but because of its knowing angle on American purposelessness and our shared penchant for being mean. I caught myself thinking with this pairing, “What would OVER THE EDGE have been like if Penelope Spheeris had directed it?” but we already have that answer in her own SUBURBIA (1982) and THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985). Which is to say there’s a considerable body of work about our twinned compulsions toward violence and self-destruction within the scope of 80s and 90s cinema, both in this country and abroad, and we might talk more about these things… you know, after we’ve all seen the new STAR WARS movie.

1 Response This week on TCM Underground: The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998) and Over the Edge (1979)
Posted By swac44 : October 21, 2015 8:05 pm

Really happy to see that Over the Edge is getting an airing on TCM, I remember having the terrific soundtrack album as a kid, but could never seen the movie, since the music rights to those terrific songs seemed to be what was keeping it off the home video market.

That name Brenda Spencer seemed really familiar to me, wasn’t that the incident that inspired the Boomtown Rats (featuring Sir Bob Geldof) to write and release their breakout hit I Don’t Like Mondays?

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