In 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris presents the punk scene of early-’80s Los Angeles with a fascination for rebellious youth. In one scene, Darby Crash, lead singer of the band Germs, stands in his kitchen recounting a time when he found a man’s dead body in an abandoned field. According to Crash, the police were unable to identify the man, so they referred to him as “José Doe” rather than “John Doe” because he was Hispanic. Crash expresses no lament for the man’s demise, shrugging off death and making racist comments of his own. From off screen, Spheeris asks Crash to explain himself further but offers no judgment of him, despite his outrageous and offensive choice of words. The Decline of Western Civilization, then, is like Spheeris’s version of Grey Gardens, capturing subjects who display little self-awareness for how they will be perceived by those who exist outside of their hermetically sealed realms.
Suburbia, Spheeris’s 1983 debut narrative feature, is best understood within the context of The Decline of Western Civilization for how it melds her approach to documentary with the structure of tragedy, particularly that of Italian neorealism and Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine. That Suburbia begins and ends with the violent yet accidental deaths of children suggests contemporary Los Angeles, much like postwar Rome, as a place where any sense of security for the vulnerable or the indigent has been lost in the reality of poverty within capitalism.
Spheeris establishes the pathway to so-called juvenile delinquency through Evan (Bill Coyne), who runs away from home after an argument with his mother, Tina (Donna Lamana). Evan finds his way to a punk show where, after being slipped a roofie, he winds up face down in his own vomit. Thanks to Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen), Evan is rescued from further harm and taken to an abandoned tract house where other rejects and runaways live, among them Sheila (Jennifer Clay), who hitchhikes into L.A. during Suburbia’s opening scene, and Skinner (Timothy Eric O’Brien), who functions as the house’s ringleader.
The film’s characters view nostalgia as a kind of death, an idea best articulated in a scene where Evan reads from his mother’s diary about her hopes upon arriving in L.A. in 1968 and sees the diary snatched from his hands and tossed out the window by Jack. Later, when the punks attend a funeral for one of their friends, much to the dismay of the friend’s mother (Ilene Latter), they’re denied even the comfort of closure. Much like vandalism is often an expression of being excluded from a community’s economy, the punks’ subsequent trashing of the funeral is a motivated expression of discontent. Rather than conform Suburbia into a coming-of-age story about superficial forms of maturation into adulthood, Spheeris positions her film’s group of punks as a testament to the dissonance between failed baby boomer ideas of material comforts and the poverty generated in its wake.
It’s initially curious, then, why the film’s villains aren’t city planners, but a pair of gun-toting working men (Lee Frederick and Jeff Prettyman) who view the punks as scum to be wiped off the streets. As in Shoeshine, these antagonists are moralists who feel the need to treat those who look different than them into easy targets. On this point, Spheeris makes a slight misstep by representing part of the working men’s hypocrisy in the context of their frequenting a strip club. While the pair discuss their retaliation against the punks for crashing the funeral, a dancer (Suzann Schott) smiles and performs her routine behind them. While Spheeris’s point about the men’s unawareness of their surroundings is apt, the scene also dings sex work in the process by framing the dancer as a ditzy, willing enabler of the men’s seedy lifestyle.
In the end, Suburbia’s greatest strength lies in its assertion of youth as a political state of mind. What’s less clear, and perhaps unresolvable to this day, is how the punks’ rebellion cuts across racial and gender lines. Jack’s rejection of his stepfather (Don Allen), a police officer, stems in part from the fact that the man is African-American. Skinner initiates a violent assault early in the film on a young woman who’s stripped nude and humiliated at a concert. Spheeris presents these perspectives and acts as realities of everyday life. While the film makes no excuse for them, it also doesn’t try and forge their resolution either. Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Suburbia recognizes in its own way that rifts predicated on power and difference cannot be adequately handled at the microcosmic level. It takes systemic focus at the level of practice and reform to see actual change take shape.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray boasts a remarkable 4K scan of the original film elements, with most signs of image defect and discoloration eliminated. The 1:85.1 framing reveals Penelope Spheeris’s attention to widescreen composition. She treats the streets of L.A. like the vistas of a western, with wide shots of abandoned buildings and decrepit homes comprising her version of what it means to visually render the American West. Image consistency is a slight issue at times, as there seems to be a trembling effect that compromises some of the focus, especially when the camera embraces depth of field. While not a perfect transfer, it certainly marks a significant stride forward from previous home-video releases of the film.
The first of two feature-length commentaries belongs to Spheeris, who contextualizes the film’s origins in newspaper stories about displaced youth and explains how she sought out non-professional actors to play the teens. The filmmaker touches on her working relationship with Roger Corman, the film’s producer, and how Suburbia fits into her overall project of dramatizing the lives of teen punks and rebels in L.A. on screen. The second commentary features Spheeris again, this time sitting alongside producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay, who plays Sheila in the film. While the first commentary certainly yields worthwhile insights about the production, the second finds Spheeris more open about her contemporary feelings about Suburbia. For example, Spheeris claims the scene in which a female teen is stripped nude and humiliated during a concert was Corman’s idea, because he’s “the exploitation movie kind of guy.” When Spheeris further says she thinks the scene lasts too long, Dragin and Clay agree. Taken as a whole, the commentaries find Spheeris willing to peel back the film’s layers and not treat them either preciously or with excessive nostalgia. The disc also includes Suburbia’s red-band theatrical trailer, TV spots, and a stills gallery.
An essential entry in early-’80s independent American cinema, Suburbia receives a radical Blu-ray upgrade from Shout! Factory, along with a pair of commentaries worth hearing in full.
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