American Graffiti

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Smug self-aggrandizing baby boomer bullshit. Is that too harsh?

The funny thing is that if I’d seen this five or ten years ago, I probably would have loved it. It’s got nostalgia for a bygone era (complete with malt shops!), a coming-of-age story, and a mix of lighthearted plots paired with serious themes–all movie elements I’m drawn toward. But the spending the last five years reading lots of obnoxious, baby boomer-penned New York Times columns about the millenial generation’s inability to move out of their parents’ houses, buckle down and get a job, et cetera et cetera has built up a certain animosity towards the fuzzy-wuzzy, romantic conception of the good ol’ days.

Let me get more specific.

  1. ┬áThis movie is so damn George Lucas-y. I’ll cut its initial audiences some slack, since the Lucas gimmicks that we’ve all come to know and hate weren’t yet defined. But to a generation raised on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they grate. The entire character of Terry–the nerd of the group–exists solely for comic relief, and the kind of Lucasian comic relief that isn’t particularly funny to anyone over the age of 6 (see also: Jar Jar Binks, Short Round). His inclusion in the film makes about as much sense as Screech’s in the Saved by the Bell gang.
  2. This is more of a personal gripe, but god, I hate movies where we’re supposed to see a character as adorable and amusing while he takes advantage of older or disenfranchised people who haven’t done anything to him. I hate it ten times more when that character is an insufferable snotty teenager. This happens multiple times in this film (Terry hitting another car with his and then driving off, ordering food at the drive-in and leaving before he pays for it). Yes, I get this is supposed to be the sort of teenage fantasy world where the kids can get the best of cops, principals and other authority figures without having to pay for it–but I guess I’m a little too removed from that time in my life to find that kind of narcissism appealing. Also, get off my lawn and stuff.
  3. Fine, okay, most of the things on this list could mostly be summed up as “I hate Terry.”
  4. The movie treats its female characters as simply underdeveloped extensions of the male protagonists. While this certainly isn’t unique in Hollywood, the fact that it’s so blatant about it–and so lazy about not providing what could have been easy fixes–makes it stand out from its peers. The most obvious example of this is one that Pauline Kael once called Lucas out for: the fact that he only provides character epilogues for the four male leads at the end of the film. Lucas’s excuse for leaving the women out? That it would have taken up another screen. I rest my case.
  5. The women-as-wish-fulfillment-for-nerds angle is taken to absurd extremes here. Terry –have I mentioned that I hate Terry?–manages to pick up a beautiful but spacey blonde, and then, despite mucking up everything he could possibly muck up–failing multiple times to procure liquor for her and eventually having to borrow money from her, getting his car stolen–still manages to land a second date. And women throw themselves at Ron Howard, of all people. Ron Howard! Meanwhile, the two guys who you’d think might actually have women fighting over them–the hot rod racers played by Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford–end up alone. I think George Lucas may have been working out some of his nerd-revenge fantasies here.

I’m calling it now: this is one of those films whose legacy was based almost entirely on timing. As baby boomer critics are replaced with younger ones who don’t have a personal connection to the time period, its star is going to fall quickly. On the plus side . . . great soundtrack, though. But not great enough to make me forget how much I hate Terry.


It’s a Bikini World

January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m kind of a sucker for beach party movies. I always have been, even before I started watching old movies in earnest. I should probably clarify, though, that when I say “beach party movies” I don’t actually mean Beach Party movies, the classic AIP series–you know, Frankie and Annette fighting about whether or not they’ll get married via song, while Eric Von Zipper engages in Kooky Capers in the background. The emphasis on Kooky Capers and Wild Hijinks is, actually, what kills that series for me; I can put up with them in small doses, but the AIP series has no sense of restraint. What I really love are the precursors (Where the Boys Are, the Gidget series), the shameless and usually terrible rip-offs (It’s a Bikini World, Girls on the Beach), the imitators who were at least original enough to shift the action elsewhere while still ripping off the plots (Palm Springs Weekend, Get Yourself a College Girl). Some of these blended the frothy bikini-laden plots with drama, some of them simply melded the plot with a sense of humor that dialed back the wackiness just ten percent or so–and either way, for me the result is 90 minutes of pure guilty pleasure.

While watching It’s a Bikini World, I realized exactly why I’ve always loved this genre so much: a beach party movie is essentially an extended episode of Saved by the Bell. Like most kids who came of age in the early ’90s, I literally grew up with Saved by the Bell–two or three hours of episodes were on every day when I came home from school, from age 8 on up. There are episodes I’ve seen–literally–20 or 30, maybe even 40 times. Even now, fifteen years after I’ve watched the show with any regularity, I could still turn on an episode and tell you how the entire plot will unfold after watching about ten seconds. Saved by the Bell has pretty much fused itself to my DNA, predisposing me to like anything that shares enough similarities to it. And the similarities between a beach party movie and a Saved by the Bell episode are many: attractive California teenagers in bikinis, broadly drawn personality “types,” the token nerd friend who’s infiltrated the clan of popular kids, goofy plots often centered around battles of the sexes or elaborate deceptions, a cool hangout where the whole gang congregates, a general lack of parents, maybe one authority figure that makes sporadic appearances, gags that are run into the ground, the occasional musical interlude. Zack Morris even stole Frankie’s gambit of talking directly to the camera! Peter Engel must’ve been a hell of a fan of Muscle Beach Party.

The movie that prompted me to connect the two was It’s a Bikini World. In it, independent Delilah (Deborah Walley) spurns cocky surfer Mike (Tommy Kirk), so he invents a shy, dorky twin brother named Herbert in order to win her affections. (That’s a Saved by the Bell plot if I’ve ever heard one, complete with the only difference between Mike and Herbert being a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.) Delilah spends the rest of the film’s running time competing with Mike in various competitions–skateboarding, boat racing–and wondering why Herbert never comes to support her. Of course, she ultimately figures out that they’re the same person, and Mike must properly atone before they can get together for real. The plot is punctuated with appearances by the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (they also appeared in Get Yourself a College Girl), the Gentrys (best known for “Keep On Dancing,” although they don’t sing it here), the Castaways, and girl group the Toys. My favorite part was the monster mouth-shaped stage the bands performed on, making them look as if they’re about to get swallowed alive, Jonah-style.

The movie’s wikipedia page describes it as a pro-feminist film, probably because of its battle-of-the-sexes plot . . . but “girls consistently losing to boys and ultimately only beating them because they lost on purpose” doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist, even for the ’60s. Maybe the most feminist part of the movie is that it was directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman, in a time where female directors were almost freakishly rare. Rothman, the first female director to gain entrance to the Directors’ Guild of America, eventually became associated with her later exploitation flicks, although she insists that she did them not because she wanted to but because no other paths were open to her as a female director.

I should probably clarify that when I say I prefer movies like this to the real Beach Party flicks, it’s not because they’re better movies. They are, in fact, significantly worse in pretty much all ways that count–the production values are lower, the story is a blatant rip-off, Tommy Kirk is very Disney Teen Star as the leading man. But somehow–at least for me–all that actually works in their favor. The slick packaging of the AIP series always leads me to expect more than they deliver. But in a movie like It’s a Bikini World, I can enjoy the last wacky race sequences as a little bit of goofy fun rather than getting exasperated they’re not dishing out something better, the way I always do with the Beach Party movies. Small blessings, I guess.

Holiday Affair

December 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a cute little confection of a holiday movie, although–in my admittedly biased opinion–it suffers from the same problem as a lot of holiday movies, which is that it’s overly reliant on a Cute Kid to tug at our heartstrings and move the plot forward. I’m biased against Cute Kids. I want them out of my movies. As children go, I suppose this one isn’t that bad, though, and the lightweight little love triangle works for me. Janet Leigh tries to decide between just-fired toy salesman Robert Mitchum and steady boyfriend/lawyer Wendell Corey–although, as Mitchum points out late in the film, it’s really not just a triangle since Janet’s dead husband is still just as alive to her as any of the men courting her. Throw in a little bit of Christmas shopping, some roasted chestnuts, and a picturesque snowfall or two, and you’ve got a solid movie to watch while you curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a blanket or two.

And this is how you do a love triangle, folks. No making the original partner an obviously weaker option than the secondary partner. No making the original partner a jerk, leaving the audience to wonder what the protagonist saw in them in the first place. No last-second personality whiplash on the original partner’s part, justifying the protagonist leaving them. No killing off one party or forcing him to cheat or moving him halfway across the country. You just have two equally “worthy” candidates and you let the protagonist choose the one she likes best. The one who loses bows out gracefully–or, in this case, bows out gracefully in anticipation of a loss. This is a love triangle for grown-ups.

Of course, the risk you run with a grown-up love triangle is that it doesn’t successfully convince your audience that your protagonist made the right choice. I like to call this Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome. “But Bill Pullman was such a nice guy!” they say. “Why would she leave somebody she’s stable and comfortable with? He didn’t cheat on her, he treated her well, he supported her. She’s going to regret that.” The answer, being, of course, that sometimes people fall in love with people for no logical reason whatsoever. That’s love. It’s what it does.

How to Be Very, Very Popular

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

How to Be Very, Very Popular is a bizarre little comedy from 1955. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. The premise isn’t too off-the-wall for a mid-century comedy: two strippers witness a murder, and in order to keep from getting killed themselves, they go undercover, hiding out in the fraternity hall at Bristol College. (Substitute “convent” for “college,” and now you know where Sister Act got its plot.) Apparently the novel this film was based on involved the two of them dressing up as men as part of their disguise, but why pay all that money for Betty Grable and Sheree North if you’re not going to keep them on permanent display? Thus they wear their spangled leotards throughout the entire movie, hiding them under jackets and graduation gowns when the plot calls for it.

So yes, the premise seems similar to a number of other college-based 1950s films. The execution, however, is just . . . strange. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was off about it. Sometimes, watching old movies like this, I wonder if the weirdness is due to the age gap–sometimes I just don’t get the jokes or the slang or the name-dropping or the references to then-current events. Especially with comedies, I always have to wonder if the style of humor just hasn’t aged well or whether or not it was just as unfunny then as it is now. With this movie, I’m going with the latter. For example: One of the strippers, Curly, spends the vast majority of the film in a hypnotic trance, a gag that might have been funny for about ten minutes in a better film, but isn’t even funny for five minutes here. And most of the minor characters exist solely to incite bafflement. Why does the fraternity house mother have such a salami fixation (not a euphemism) and speak only in poetry fragments? Why is a litter of kittens living in the fraternity house basement? Why does one of the policemen wear a brown toupee over his gray hair? None of this is ever explained.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why Fox thought we’d buy a bunch of 30-something-year-old actors as college students. Heroine Stormy, who’s supposed to be roughly the same age in the film as 23-year-old Sheree North, was actually played by a 39-year-old Betty Grable. Neither do any of the middle-aged male leads look like college students. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic commencement scene, where a hypnotized Curly whips off her graduation gown and performs a frenetic striptease to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”–a scene that’s energetic enough, it would have charmed me in a film that had done more to earn it–I’m ready to quit.

This film was originally designed to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe after the success of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. But Monroe, who was in the prime of her career and hungry for better parts, steered clear. Fox, who had been grooming Sheree North as Marilyn doppelganger that they could pay less and boss around more easily, stuck North in the role instead. Perhaps Monroe could have introduced a little more charm into the lightweight role of Curly than North did. But then again, probably not. She is hypnotized for most of the movie’s running time, after all.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream

May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

When did the east coast versus west coast thing start? During the California gold rush, did moms try to persuade their sons to stay home in the east with arguments like, “Well, sure, the weather’s great and you can get rich out there, but it costs three dollars to buy an egg, an anyway, I hear all the women are shallow gold-diggers and prostitutes”?

I thought of this recently while I was watching Teenage Rebel, which played up the east coast versus west coast tug-of-war in a way that portended The Parent Trap. The Parent Trap, in turn, takes the rivalry almost as seriously as Biggie and Tupac. But these two films are far from the only offenders. (A more modern example: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) When I was growing up, I read a lot of really formulaic girls’ series fiction–and in every single series, there was usually a character meant to stand in for the coast opposite of wherever the story took place. In the Baby-sitters Club books, which are set in Connecticut, the west coast is represented by the transplanted-from-southern-California, beach-loving hippie Dawn, who only eats health food. Invariably, if a character is meant to stand in for the west coast, she is: a) blonde, b) laid-back, c) from California (Washington and Oregon do not exist in series fiction, point blank), and d) a natural beauty. In return, east coast girls are allowed a little more variety in home states (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut are popular, but Vermont and New Hampshire are also allowed, as are the occasional appearances of Philadelphia and D.C.)–but they are consistently brunette and uptight. Alternately, for Sweet Valley High fans, it’s a running joke that if a female character from the east coast shows up, she will be a manipulative dark-haired snob whose entire purpose in the narrative was to ruin the (blonde, Californian, naturally beautiful) Wakefield twins’ lives. As a kid, I wondered where this trope had come from, and blamed it on the Beach Boys. Now I know better: it came from the movies. The Midwest, which had been the default setting for many movies in the 1930s and ’40s, was by the late ’50s being phased out in favor of an east/west culture war. And Hollywood, sick of the east coasters treating them like some backwards cow-town that knew nothing of class or elegance, came down pretty hard in favor of California–and convinced generations of movie-lovers of the certainty of Californian superiority as a result.

“Ohh . . . Boston.”

The Parent Trap is the quintessential realization of this trope. While the twins were, for the sake of the plot, required to have the same hair color, almost all other coastal stereotypes apply. Susan, the California twin, is the laid-back, outdoorsy, “modern” one (as evidenced by her short haircut) who lives with her father on one of the most gorgeous ranches ever committed to screen, where she enjoys activities like camping and horseback riding. Sharon, the Boston twin, is the “proper” one, as evidenced by her old-fashioned dresses and aversion to slang–as well as that fussily decorated Boston brownstone where she lives with her mother (whom you can bet she calls “Mother” rather than “Mom”). And while the point of the story is that the twins eventually rub off on each other and each reach a happy medium–while finagling and scheming to get their parents back together, naturally–it’s no surprise that they ultimately end up one big happy Californian family. (Of course, with that ranch, who can really blame them?)

The Parent Trap‘s California ranch.

That California wins out in most of these bi-coastal dilemmas was not always a given, but a device that coincides with the growth of Los Angeles and the rise of Hollywood itself. Prior to the 1960s, the Midwest was the American ideal. Back then, girls’ serial fiction heroines like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames almost invariably called the Midwest home–as did big-screen serial leads like Andy Hardy. Even all-American beauty Barbie originally hailed from the dairy state. But starting in the 1950s, Midwestern heroine Nancy Drew was replaced with a new ideal: Gidget. In the Gidget films and follow-ups like the beach party movies, teenage culture and California culture are depicted as being virtually synonymous. Old teenage film cliches like the big dance and the malt shop were replaced by the bonfire on the beach and the surfing lesson. California was shown as some sort of latter-day Garden of Eden, and teenagers were its Adam and Eve. Most of this was simply due to laziness: screenwriters wrote what they knew, and there was no reason to head off to Idaho or Iowa to see what teenagers do in locales where surfboards are scarce. But certainly there was an element of self-satisfaction, too.

Unfortunately, this has led to a lack of balance. Midwestern teenage protagonists have all but disappeared from the screen since John Hughes stopped featuring the Brat Pack, and even east coast adolescents have been increasingly marginalized, mostly only popping up in darker teen films like Cruel Intentions where sunny California would ruin the carefully cultivated atmosphere. Your best bet for a non-California setting is one where the movie’s based on source material that dictates otherwise. And even that doesn’t always work–the 2007 Nancy Drew movie relocated the girl sleuth and her father from Midwestern River Heights, where they’d lived for three-quarters of a century, to boring ol’ southern California.

Filmmakers, I’m begging you: bring back the Midwestern heroines! I won’t even complain if you take the lazy way out and use “Midwestern” as shorthand for “naive” or “average” and “east coast” as a synonym for “sophisticated.” Just give us some face time. At this point, I might not even cringe too hard if they’re shown doing nothing more exciting than riding on tractors. Just leave Nancy Drew out of this.

Teenage Rebel

May 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

The movie is called Teenage Rebel, and here’s one of its promo posters:

(I also dig this Italian one.)

But far from the visions of black leather and liquor flasks that this marketing campaign conjures up, the most rebellious thing that anyone does in this movie is to leave her mother’s house without asking in order to hit up the malt shop. Literally. The malt shop.

The film is frothier than a root beer float, and while the producers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Rebel without a Cause the year before, it’s hard to see how they thought they were going to get away with it. It’s got Ginger Rogers in it, for pete’s sake!* And malt shops! But while their promotions department was ripping off Rebel without a Cause, somebody who would eventually contribute to the 1961 film The Parent Trap must have had their eye on this movie . . .

While Deanna Durbin’s Three Smart Girls is generally regarded as the forerunner for The Parent Trap, and Lotte and Lisa is the acknowledged source material, I’d hazard a guess that somebody at Disney liked this Ginger Rogers vehicle an awful lot, too. Teenage Rebel has no twins, but there’s an awful lot of other plot recycling going on. Let’s recap: Its protagonist is a child of divorced parents who live on opposite coasts, one in California and one in the Northeast. The California parent is cool and relaxed–the “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” kind of parent–while the east coast parent is uptight and high-strung. Their respective houses, too, reflect their personalities, with the California house warm and sunny and the east coast house stuffy and imposing. The plot revolves around the father getting remarried to someone the daughter perceives as a gold digger. Also, there’s a Big Dance where Everything Changes.

Granted, these are pretty standard movie tropes–and The Parent Trap uses them in much more enjoyable and effective ways than Teenage Rebel tries to. I’m not alleging plagiarism, just inspiration. Still, it’s odd that so many of the same stereotypes would be employed in exactly the same ways from film to film . . . and I’ll touch on the whys and wherefores of that in an upcoming post, “Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream.”

* This film is worth watching if solely to see how good Ginger looks at 44. But that’s pretty much the only reason.

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