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.


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.

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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