Speedway

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Speedway

Speedway is where Elvis’s on-screen fling with little girls comes to full flower. We’ve seen it before in limited doses: the little girl he shimmies with in Harum Scarum, the tagalongs in Girls! Girls! Girls!, the would-be ballerina he serenades with an ode to “Confidence” in Clambake. Elvis’s kiddie counterpart in It Happened at the World’s Fair even gets to split screen time with him. But his relationship with World’s Fair’s Sue-Lin is a model of restraint compared to his relationship with Speedway’s Ellie. Ellie is one of several adorable blonde daughters of the homeless Abel Esterlake, who Elvis bails out of a jam by buying him a new car to live in. (This is only one of several good deeds Elvis performs for the less-fortunate in this movie, all of them designed to convince us that he’s a Really Good Guy but all of which have the added bonus of convincing us he’s a total idiot, financially speaking.) Ellie clearly develops a crush on Elvis, telling him, “I wish I was big enough to marry you.” Which—okay. It happens. Little girls get puppydog crushes on older men all the time. But Elvis responds with the uber-creepy “Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby,” a musical number which importunes the six(?)-year-old to wait a few years until she’s grown up a bit, and then they’ll see what happens. “You’ll be a beautiful woman,” Elvis tells her, “because you’re such a beautiful child.” The song ends with Abel “giving” Ellie away to Elvis in a mock wedding, as wedding bills chime away in the background. I know, I know, times were different then. (A former coworker and I who used to listen to the oldies station at work had a running tally of how many of the songs were about wanting to bone high school girls.) But given Elvis’s totally inappropriate relationship with the young Priscilla Beaulieu just a few short years earlier, how can it not come off as creepy?

The actual plot of this movie is standard Elvis fare, which means it’s a lot less bizarre and compelling than the Freudian stuff in the background. Elvis is paired with his second-most famous love interest (after Ann-Margret), one Miss Nancy Sinatra, who plays . . . a sexy tax inspector. Seriously, this is word-for-word how the DVR blurb described her. Ladies looking for fresh Halloween costume ideas for next year, take note. She’s assigned to reign in the financially incompetent race car driver because he owes thousands to the government. They fight, they flirt, they (presumably) fuck. Elvis races some cars. I was starting to fall asleep by that point in the movie, but I’m fairly sure he wins, because, you know, it’s Elvis. He probably also doesn’t get married at the end of the movie, because a) it’s Elvis and b) he’s saving himself for Ellie in 10 years. Maybe six.

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?

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.

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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