presents... Interesting Motherfucker: (noun)
An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.

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By Wil Forbis

I've always been very upfront about the fact that I'm a huge fan of heavy metal and a lot of people have pestered me with the question, "How, Wil? How did you come to be a huge fan of heavy metal?" so let me tell you because it's a fascinating story. In the summer 1988, when I was 16, I stayed at a friend's house for several weeks. Being piped into to the living room of this hovel was a relatively new invention that had the ability to transform teenagers into unmoving blobs: cable television. And the shining beacon of cable television was MTV. Back then, MTV played these things called "music videos" which were like little films of band performances or story narratives that would be synched up to the music of rock and roll artists. MTV also had a show called "Headbanger's Ball" which focused exclusively on heavy metal videos, but pretty much all of MTV back then was "Headbanger's Ball." Heavy Metal, particularly the strain called "Hair Metal," (A phrase that Rikki Rockett personally admonished me for using) was having its heyday. Bands like Def Leppard, Guns and Roses, Cinderella and AC/DC were being broadcast 24/7 on the network. And for a number of reasons, I fell for it big time.

In a roundabout way, Penelope Spheeris' movie documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years" was one of those reasons. It wasn't the actual viewing of the film that did me in, but rather the act of observing some newfangled MTV special that heavily promoted the film and heavy metal in general. It was this special that gave me the first impression of heavy metal excess in all its splendor - the craziness, the women, the history, the women, and some truly great music. (I know that many of you hate metal and will object to me saying that, and in response I would like to offer a line from "The Boys Next Door," another of Penelope's films: "Eat my fuck!") I can't remember when I got around to seeing actually the whole of "Decline of Western Civ II," but it was like, years later.

That same summer, my dad sent me to this weird "media camp" in L.A. It was like summer camp, except we went around and looked at various aspects of the modern media - we toured the L.A. Times, observed a lecture by the director/actor, Harold Ramis, watched the process of sound dubbing for the then current Dirty Harry film, "The Dead Pool," and had a Q&A session with a female director who had just released a successful documentary. Who was this documentarian but a coal-haired and nubile Penelope Spheeris. I even asked her a question of which I've long since forgotten the gist though I think it was something stupid about Ozzy. (I was a pretty lame teenager.)

"Decline of Western Civilization Part II" was one of many movies Penelope Spheeris has directed in her career. She started out making short films with the comedian Albert Brooks, several of which ended up on the first season of Saturday Night Live. The first  "Decline of Western Civilization" was about the L.A. punk scene and came out in 1981, establishing her reputation as a cinema maverick. Throughout the rest of the decade of excess, Spheeris did a number dark films that had a quintessentially 80's feel to them: "Suburbia," "The Boys Next Door," "Hollywood Vice Squad," and "Dudes." Then, in 1992, she directed "Wayne's World" and her career shifted towards big budget comedies like "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Black Sheep," and "Senseless." In the past couple years, a vastly wealthier Penelope has moved back to her original interests, doing a third installment of the "Decline." films and directing "We Sold Our Souls to Rock and Roll," a documentary about the Ozzfest tour.

For this article we're only going to look at the films I give a shit about which are primarily the eighties films and not those crappy comedies. (Though I'll give a shout out to "Wayne's World.")

Much as I dug "Decline. PT II" it was the first installment that Penelope will be remembered for. Punk had been born in England, and when it came across the Atlantic it principally set up shop in two American cities: New York and L.A.*. When this new form of music and culture started germinating** on the streets of Los Angeles, Spheeris, who at the time was making some of the early rock videos for her company, Rock and Reel, knew she had to do something, so she grabbed a camera and filmed the explosion. The result is a thoroughly entertaining, funny and sometimes tragic film documenting the lives of teenagers who, caught in the cogs of society's unforgiving machinery, drop out to create their own tribe that idolizes the art of being a misfit. (I don't know what the preceding sentence means either, but, boy, it sure sounds purdy.) Probably the most memorable character in the film was a chubby punker named Eugene who had an endearing dimwitted charm. (In 1990, when I lived in Hollywood, I met a guy who said he'd recently bought acid from Eugene, who was now calling himself, "The Euge.")

*Note to punk historians:  Before you send me a series of angry emails about how punk really goes back to MC5 and the Stooges let me inform you that a) I don't care, and b) eat my fuck.

** Yup, this is a very subtle joke referencing the premier band of the L.A. punk scene: The Germs. If you caught it, give yourself a pat (smear) on the back. If not, eat my.

"The Decline of Western Civilization," received critical acclaim but Penelope had a difficult time getting it distributed because, after all, it was a documentary, and the only people who like documentaries are the queers at PBS. So Spheeris decided to tackle the same subject matter in a narrative format and the result was "Suburbia" (1983.) "Suburbia" was basically a fictionalized version of "Decline." featuring a number of young actors who were essentially playing themselves. (Including - get this - FLEA! That's right, the future Chili Peppers bass guitarist appears in "Suburbia" as one of the film's youthful protagonists.) The movie follows the adventures of a "The Rejected," a group of teen punks who have fled their painful family existences and moved into an abandoned house on the dark edges of the American suburbs. Of course, the "straight" members of society - church going, beer drinking, strip bar patronizing, gun toting white males - can't tolerate the thought of anyone different in their midst and they clash repeatedly with The Rejected until the film's predictably tragic ending. I have a blase attitude towards the film's campy morality (PUNKS=GOOD, EVERYONE ELSE=BAD - oh, except for the black cop who is all too familiar with society's lash of bigotry.) but "Suburbia" is definitely worth seeing, and stands alongside "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy" as one of the great punk films of the 80's. (It helps that they're pretty much the only punk films of the 80's.)

But next up is my favorite Penelope Spheeris narrative film, "The Boys Next Door" (1986.) This one is plain evil, y'all. A young and frighteningly thin Charlie Sheen joins Maxwell Caulfield (the pretty boy from "Grease II") in a story of two wayward youths from the bowels of Nowheresville, U.S.A. who, upon graduating high school, decide to have a weekend of fun in Los Angeles before starting work at the local factory. Upon arriving in town, the rage that's been gestating in Caulfield's character, Roy, explodes and he attacks an Arab gas station attendant. Later that night, the boys (inadvertently) hit a gay nightclub and get picked up by a chickenhawk. Back at the fruit's apartment, Roy again goes ballistic and kills the guy, and the pair find a handgun. You can pretty much write the rest of the film from there: Roy and Bo embark on the dandiest killing spree L.A.'s seen since Helter Skelter.

But what makes "The Boys Next Door" truly eerie is its characterization. Roy is clearly a dark soul, someone lacking any empathy for his fellow humans. But Sheen's Bo is more of a clueless accomplice along for the ride. After the lads kill a young couple in their car, you can see Bo's mind whirring in confusion, as if he's dimly aware of the immorality of the act. The film also is also makes disturbing premonition about American society. Thirteen years later, two young men driven by an angst similar to that which pervades the subjects of "The Boys Next Door" would carry out even more heinous crimes on the hallways of Columbine high school.

Yeah, "TBND" is kind if a downer, so that's why it's nice that we've reached the point in this article where we can talk about my favorite Penelope film, "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II." Like I was saying before, this film aims the camera at the hedonistic excess of the late 80's L.A. metal scene and, boy, does it look like a swell time. Groupies, drugs, alcohol, loud music and everything else that made America great are on full display in the flick. Most movie critics, who tend to be dickless twerps with a BA in English Literature, raise their noses at the film and what it represented (In all fairness, it's hard not to detect an air of condemnation, or at least exasperation, from the film itself.) but I think "DOWC PtII" rawks. One thread of the film follows the travails of various youths determined that if they can't be rock stars, they will at least live like rock stars. Another section features numerous big name heavy metal icons being interviewed in a variety of settings, often with hilarious results. Ozzy is there, cooking breakfast and recalling his drug addled past in a scene that could be viewed as the first episode of "The Osbournes" (As Penelope has said of the scene, "It's kind of hard to lose with Ozzy. You just put a camera in front of him and he goes on.") Another oft talked about episode from the film is W.A.S.P. guitarist, Chris Holmes, guzzling booze in the swimming pool of his million dollar mansion, while his prim and obviously distraught mother looks on. The film, or at least its subjects, advocated a form of profligacy that directly contradicted the PC mentality  that was only a few years away. And yes, it was wrong, and yes, its exponents were stupid, but damn, it sure looked fun. (Penelope has commented on the self righteousness and (supposed) piety of the grunge scene that toppled hair metal by saying,  "The fact that Kurt [Cobain] blew his brains out. was a poetic conclusion to a big fucking downer. Grunge music was too self-pitying.")

The second "Decline" film came out in 1988, and released that same year was another Spheeris punk rock adventure called "Dudes." It starred "Pretty in Pink's" Jon Cryer, Daniel Roebuck, and. FLEA! Yes, Flea is in this one as well, though he gets killed early on.  "Dudes" is a punked out retro western in which three urban youths find themselves forced to take the law into their own hands when.. Awww, I can't fool you guys. I haven't seen "Dudes" since the late eighties and have only the vaguest recollection of what it was about. All I know about it is what I read in the Yahoo Movies guide entry. Rent it out and let me know what you think. (Hey - this one also has Flea!)

But "Dudes" was the conclusion of the independent, low budget, eating ramen noodles and the occasional cockroach while failing to pay the rent phase of Spheeris' career.  In 1992, her longstanding connection with "Saturday Night Live's" Lorne Michaels paid off and she was called on to direct "Wayne's World."  (She got the film because she understood the complex social hierarchy of the heavy metal scene that was the setting for Mike Myers laughfest.  She alone understood their ways and mating habits and could walk amongst them as an equal. ) "Wayne's World" was a huge success and Penelope was typecast as a comedy director, which led to a series of movies starring comedy geniuses like David Spade*** and Marlon Wayons. She tried hard to make the kinds of films she wanted to make, but could not escape the shadow of "Wayne's World." I only hope the millions of dollars she made on these films provide at least some momentary solace.

***Aww shit - sarcasm aside, the Spadster is pretty funny on "Just Shoot Me." And how 'bout the rack on that Laura San Giacomo?

However, in recent times, Spheeris has bounced back with a third "Decline." film (haven't seen it) and the Ozzfest rockmentary, "We Sold Our Souls to Rock and Roll," (also haven't seen it.) Both films indicate a Penelope Spheeris returning to her early fascination with rock music's subcultures which is where she does her best work. It just goes to prove the old saying: You can take the documentary film director out of the rock and roll but you can't take the rock and roll out of the documentary film director.

Or something like that.

Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!

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