Sleepless in Seattle and other stories

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everybody has a soft spot for the movies of their youth, for those few brief years where movies were the real thing, before you realized that the cinema didn’t reflect real life. A nostalgia for the trappings and conventions of them will follow you throughout your life. You might grow up to be a famous director, a pre-eminent film critic, or the president of the United States–but no matter how many movies you watch or how respectable your taste becomes, you’re always going to feel a tug for those adventure serials or campy exploitation flicks that you grew up watching.

For me, it’s that late ’80s/early ’90s brand of romantic/family comedies. The female lead is usually played by Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn, Daryl Hannah or some other whimsically goofy blonde designed to resemble them as much as possible. If you don’t want a blonde for some reason, then Julia Roberts will suffice in a pinch. (Brunettes were verboten; to cast a brown-haired actress meant you were making a serious movie.) The male lead is always Tom Hanks, except when it’s Steve Martin. The characters are always from that sort of gracious old-money background that’s never called “rich,” but rather painted as middle-class: they live in a white-columned house in the suburbs of Chicago or San Francisco, their family Thanksgiving get-togethers involve 12 sets of matching china, real silver and elaborate floral centerpieces. They have family heirlooms and the kind of jobs that involve work cocktail parties complete with big bands. The plots center around elaborate romantic situations–usually love triangles, often involving amnesia, comas, or falling in love with prostitutes.

The funny thing is that none of these movies would work for me if they were made today. By the time You Got Mail rolled around in 1998, it already wasn’t working for me. We had done away with the romantic, vaguely historical, pre-cell phone era of my childhood and ushered in a new world filled with “the internet” and chain bookstores. And I know I’m preaching to the classic-movie fan choir here, but who wants that? Why do I have to live in a world where people prefer the version of Parfumerie where Hungarian perfume and love letters are replaced with AOL and the implicit approval of chain stores taking over mom & pops? The problem with modern movies trying to pull off these plots is that it stretches the boundaries of credibility, whereas with classic movies, you can always suspend your disbelief: maybe it was like that in the olden days. Maybe people really did fall in love with someone just by hearing them talk about their dead wife on the radio a few times. Or, as the characters in Sleepless in Seattle surmise about the movies of their youth, maybe people really were fated to be together in the end, back in the golden days. Now, of course, we know better. But the past–that’s different. The past is a country where anything could happen.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

“I’ve got to get on that dance TV show” was the plot–or subplot–of a number of films leading up to Girls Just Want to Have Fun‘s release in 1985. The movie version of Grease used it; Bye Bye Birdie had a variation on it. A few years after Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Hairspray would dedicate a full film to this trope. But while most of those examples were undeniably retro, Girls Just Want to Have Fun updated it for the ’80s. The dance TV show in question–inventively titled Dance TV–isn’t an American Bandstand rip-off; it appears to be something closer to a whiter Soul Train, or maybe a precursor to Club MTV/The Grind. Janey Glenn, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is obsessed with the show, so when she learns that they’re holding tryouts for new dancers, she has to go. Even after Janey’s father puts the kibosh on that plan, her more adventurous friend, Lynne, drags her along–and of course Janey makes the first cut, winning a cute new dance partner as she goes. The rest of the film is a mish-mash of Flashdance-inspired dance rehearsal scenes, Sixteen Candles-inspired take-down-the-rich-bitch hijinks, and the required romantic spark between Janey and her dance partner. As Janey puts it, “Things are going too well. I mean, besides DTV, I have a best friend, and I mean, I’d never dreamed in a million years that I would have a boyfriend!”: all the elements for the perfect ’80s sleepover film in place.

Watching this movie is a weird experience from an adult perspective: both of its stars–Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt–went on to find greater stardom as adults than they did as teens, in television roles that they’ve each more or less become synonymous with.  It’s weird to watch Sarah Jessica Parker mooning over her first boyfriend when you’re used to her being world-weary and jaded with men, weirder still to watch Helen Hunt play the boisterous, boy-crazy half of the pair when her Mad About You character was so neurotic and high-strung. But as jarring as their playing-against-type was, I still enjoyed it. Not that I’m saying it’s a good movie. But it was an enjoyable movie while still being a terrible one.

Eighties filmmakers did the best high school movies, didn’t they?  They were usually still decent into the ’90s, but towards the end of that decade they began their slow, inexorable slide into the mediocrity of the ’00s. The genre has never recovered. As I watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I wondered why that was–how the movie could be so bad and yet so simultaneously watchable–and then I realized exactly what it was: rich kids. In the 80s, the rich kids were always the enemy. And filmmakers knew exactly what to do with them–as Rushmore summed up half a generation later, “Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it.” A decade of teen films is encapsulated in that quote. And it always worked! Even if you didn’t personally have any animosity towards rich kids in your own life, you couldn’t have any qualms about rooting against the entitled brats in the movies. It brought the audience together in a way that hasn’t been recreated since–and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most successful of the last decade’s teen movies, like Mean Girls and Rocket Science, are updated rehashes of the high school class war.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun doesn’t plumb the rich-kid conflict to quite the depths of The Outsiders or, say, John Hughes in every teen movie he ever made. But watching our designated villainess get her comeuppance–not once, but over and over again–is still satisfying. And the movie does us the favor of making her so over-the-top that her repeated humiliations feel less like bullying and a lot more like karma. Yeah, the ’80s knew how to do it. Shouldn’t there be a Pretty in Pink remake coming out one of these days?

Pretty in Pink

November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

The problem with the ubiquitous Duckie vs. Blane argument is that it’s irrelevant. She should have ended up with neither of them. Blane was a freaking pansy who screwed up irreparably, and if their relationship lasted four more months, he would have cheated on her his first week at Dartmouth. As for Duckie, you can spout all the lines you want about how he was the one who really loved her, was always there for her, would never let her down . . . but all of that conspires to ignore the very relevant fact that she just didn’t like him. Wasn’t attracted to him. Thought of him as a little brother. Harbored vague suspicions that he might actually be gay and all these protests of undying devotions were just overcompensating. It doesn’t matter how much he loved her; that she didn’t love him is still an important part of the equation that no amount of lacy dresses and synth pop can overcome. The choice between a lily-livered richie rich and the dude you’re embarrassed to be seen with in public is no choice at all.

Andie, sit tight. Go off to art school in the fall, and I promise you’ll meet lots of chain-smoking, flannel-wearing assholes that make your heart go pitter-pat.

Male screenwriters and directors of romantic comedies, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here that will prevent you from having to run back at the last minute and slap a re-written ending on your movie when the original doesn’t work. That lesson is not, as director Howard Deutch argues, that teenage girls always want to the lead to get the cute guy. It’s that teenage girls do not find the emotionally manipulative steamrolling of the lead into a relationship with a guy she doesn’t even like terribly romantic. Sorry, writer/directors, but teenage girls don’t care about your unfulfilled adolescent geek-gets-the-girl fantasies. They care about their own unfulfilled adolescent fantasies, which generally do not include winning the heart of the guy that creepily rides past their house on his bike multiple times a day. Weird, huh?

The Little Mermaid

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Disney had gotten widespread complaints that their princesses weren’t feminist enough since the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, the fairy tale films that were Disney’s bread-and-butter for many years now seemed archaic. Disney switched to animal-based films instead–cute kitties and puppies are always solid sellers, and animal protagonists allowed Disney to sidestep potential pitfalls regarding gender and race in a world where popular views on what was appropriate seemed to change monthly. But after a string of sub-par animal-based flicks, and the en masse retirement of a number of animators from Disney’s “classic” era, the company was anxious to move in a different direction with a new group of artists. Disney, of course, knew that they had made their name on princess stories, and Walt Disney himself had planned a production of The Little Mermaid as one of the company’s first projects, although it was shelved when he couldn’t find a way to make the storyline work. But the persistent concerns about the princesses’ passivity lingered.

In order to make a princess story work for the new generation, Disney had to make three significant changes in their princess heroines:

1) Take her from dependent to independent. Disney’s Original Princess Trio (Snow White, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) never learn to fend for themselves. When Snow White is ousted from her house, she’s taken in by a handful of dwarves to cook and clean before being passed on to her prince. Aurora gets similar treatment, but the dwarves are replaced by a trio of fairies. Despite Cinderella’s stepfamily’s cruel treatment, she only leaves them when she, too, is rescued by a prince. None of this was particularly suprising when the films were originally made–they’re films that were created pre-women’s lib, based on hundreds-year-old tales–but they wouldn’t work for an ’80s world of shoulder pads and Charlie perfume.

2) Take her from passive to active. Both Snow White and Aurora spend significant chunks of their storylines asleep, and when they are awake, they mostly sit in their cottages or wander through the woods, singing about how someday their princes will come. Cinderella, while awake, spends the bulk of her film on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors, or waiting on her stepsisters. All of this waiting doesn’t make for a very exciting movie, nor for very strong characters. For a modern princess, you needed to make some of the plot dependent on her actions, rather than just making her an unfortunate victim of an ill-timed curse or a jealous stepmother. And if you could make her complicit in her own salvation, rather than allowing the man to do it for her, then all the better.

3) Give her a personality. Make it a good one. The early princesses seemed basically interchangeable, aside from hair color: patient, demure, naive. The takeaway message, then, was that their ultimate fate–the prince and the castle and the happily-ever-after–were a reward for their beauty, not their behavior, and certainly not for their intelligence or strength. For its updated princesses, Disney was going to have to transform them from princess archetypes into individuals with motivations and complexities. Hell, give them a few flaws, even. It’ll make for a better story.

Let’s call Ariel a midway point. A prototype, so to speak. Compared to what came before, she’s a vast improvement. As opposed to the complacent, docile Original Princess Trio, Ariel is fiercely independent. In fact, she’s headstrong to the point of recklessness, as the movie’s very first scene–wherein she almost gets herself eaten by a shark–makes clear. She refuses to bow to the will of male authority figures, whether that authority figure is her physically imposing father or the little red crab, Sebastian. While Ariel isn’t complicit in her own salvation during the final battle, the way later Disney heroines would be, she does manage a role reversal by saving Eric earlier in the film. Nor does she neatly fit the passive damsel-in-distress mode that earlier heroines had. Disney seemed to opt for the best/worst-of-both-worlds theory here; Ariel can more than take care of herself underwater (as that initial shark fight would demonstrate), but on land, she’s utterly dependent on others. Still, unlike the earlier princesses, she’s not merely an unlucky victim of chance; she actively takes a role in everything that happens to her. The loss of her voice, and ultimately of her underwater home, is her choice.

Perhaps the most improved aspect of the story over earlier princess tales is that Ariel actually has a defined personality. Her impetuousness is matched only by her enthusiasm, but her most prominent trait is her curiosity regarding all things human–forks and tobacco pipes and candlestick holders, which she stores in an underwater vault. Societally-stunted intellectual curiosity will become something of a trademark with the early Disney Renaissance princesses: Ariel just wants to see how people live on land, Belle just wants to read books, Jasmine just wants to see something outside of her palace walls. It’s a little overdone by its third iteration, but here at the beginning it’s still fresh and new, and, if we’re taking it allegorically, quite touching: her father, King Triton, is essentially a bigot who’s terrified of those barbaric humans, while Ariel opens her heart to everyone because she can see their essential goodness underneath.

And ultimately there’s something vaguely progressive about the fact that Eric falls in love with Ariel for her voice. With the old princesses, it was clear that their beauty was the major draw–but for Eric, though Ariel looks like the girl he thought he loved, and is clearly gorgeous, it was her voice that he fell in love with. Without it, he enjoys her company, finds her fun enough to be around–but he’d clearly like her more if she had something to say. Come on, people. It’s a metaphor!

Still, there are problems. Significant problems. Like the fact that the woman is ready to make a Faustian pact to give up her legs in exchange for a man–that would be a major problem. And although Ursula is one of the best Disney villains ever created, she was blatantly patterned after drag queen Divine, which creates some troubling subtext–Disney’s queer villain subtext is a post in itself. And Ariel’s excitability and recklessness at times are taken to such extremes that she comes off as a legitimate bimbo, when I think what they were going for was more along the lines of, you know, Zooey Deschanel. But when this is what we have to compare it to, I think Disney deserves a little more credit for busting up the damsel-in-distress mold than they’re usually given.

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