The Trouble with Angels

April 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s movies like this that make me regret the fact that I have no desire to have kids. My childhood was shaped by my dad’s taste in pop culture: The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones series made frequent appearances; on the other hand, I didn’t see a Star Wars movie until I was 19–despite seeing Spaceballs at a fairly young and impressionable age, and no, I did not get the jokes. So naturally I have the same desire to torture my future, nonexistent children by ensuring that they’re the only ones in their kindergarten class raised on a steady diet of Esther Williams and Hayley Mills flicks in which they, too, fail to get the jokes.

What I love about this movie–which I will stop and watch any time I catch it on TCM–is that it has layers, alternating sweet and bitter. First you get the overarching plot: two girls get a Catholic boarding school education. Throw in the fact that it stars Hayley Mills, and immediately you think: God, it’s one of those movies. Cloyingly sweet and sentimental, a Catholic Pollyanna. But then you start watching, and you realize that Hayley Mills’ character is . . . well, kind of a bitch. Some of the things she does are mostly just naughty by 1950s standards–smoking cigarettes and mouthing off to an older woman in the opening scene, for example–but some of them are a little startling even by modern standards, like her response to the Mother Superior about the takeaway message from the heartbreaking Christmastime visit of a bunch of lonely grandmothers from a nearby nursing home: it’s that she hopes she dies “young . . . and very wealthy.” And then, just when you think that you’ve got the movie figured out, that it’s just about two girls rebelling and getting into and out of a bunch of wacky scrapes–then the movie’s ending gets all sentimental on you again. But the movie earns it, because slowly, over the course of all those wacky scrapes, you realize that the film has sneaked in little bits of background information that made you care about the characters on a deeper level, and that–although you didn’t realize it–you were witnessing Hayley Mills’ growth as a character the whole time. It’s really well done, but it’s one of those things that’s so well-done that it makes it look much easier than it is.

Bonus: it’s a coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with men. It takes place at an all-girls’ school, with an entirely female staff. Every relationship contained in it has to do with women: their friendships, their rivalries, their role models and teachers. Okay, there might be a hint at some latent daddy issues, but that’s it. Try finding that in a modern movie.

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?

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.

Like Searching for Meaning in a Pauly Shore Movie: Why Clueless Is One of the Best Comedies Ever Made

August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Clueless turned 15 this summer, which means it’s high time I catalogued its virtues for you. In a blog dedicated to women in film beyond Twilight and its ilk, why start with a romantic comedy? Because I’m a firm believer in the fact that chick flicks don’t have to insult our collective intelligence. Clueless is a rom-com done right–truly funny, charming, and smarter than it’s given credit for. Here are six reasons why Clueless is one of the greatest comedies ever made:

1) You may or may not know that Clueless is an updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Updates are tough. Adhere too slavishly to the source material, and the new version seems stilted. Deviate too far from it, and you might as well not even call it an update. Clueless is one of those rare films that works perfectly either as an adaptation or not; you can watch it either way without losing a thing. Watch it as an adaptation and you find that every plot note and character is pitch-perfect compared to the novel. Watch it as an original work and it stands on its own. This doesn’t sound that hard, but just try to name an equally seamless update. (If you want to make it hard on yourself, eliminate anything based on the works of Shakespeare.)

2) Amy Heckerling did more world-building in this movie than your average fantasy novelist. In order to not make the movie’s slang and fashion seem dated by the release date, she created all of it from scratch. It worked; the movie now seems suspended in some faux-1990s wonderland that never really existed. The movie had a big impact on fashion–babydoll dresses and thigh-highs were huge–but some of the invented slang (“I’m Audi,” for example) soon entered the real world, too.

3) There are so many allusions that fly over your head when you watch this movie as a kid–the parodies of Gigi, the clues sprinkled throughout to Christian’s sexuality–but perhaps my favorite is the fact that Cher and her friends attend Bronson Alcott High School. Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was a teacher best known for his idea that students should discipline their teachers rather than the reverse. Fitting!

4) Alicia Silverstone nails Cher. Jane Austen once described the character of Emma (on whom Cher is based), as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” While society’s tolerance for spoiled brats has increased somewhat since the Regency era, let’s face it–it’s still a hard sell to turn a  heroine who is rich, gorgeous, shallow, selfish and irresponsible into someone likable. But the self-deprecating charm of Alicia Silverstone manages it from the opening line.

5) It’s infinitely quoteable. “That’s Ren and Stimpy; they’re way existential.” “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” Almost every joke in the movie is funny, but the humor transcends verbal wit into the visual and physical realms as well.

6) Clueless is Paul Rudd’s major movie debut. I have a major thing for Paul Rudd–in his Clueless incarnation, in his Knocked Up incarnation, probably even in his Anchorman incarnation. Paul Rudd can do no wrong. I once described his portrayal of Josh in this movie as “the perfect man, except for the fact that he wears tapered jeans.” (A friend whom I was watching the movie with at the time said that this quote inspired him to stop wearing tapered jeans, and he’s been a ladies magnet ever since. See, Clueless changes lives!) The Opposites Attract theme is one of my favorites if it’s done well, and the final ten minutes of this movie still tug on my heartstrings every time I watch it.

Of course, that brings us to the movie’s only significant flaw: the fact that, as former stepsiblings, Cher and Josh hooking up is . . . just a little bit icky. I know, some of you can get past that. You’re probably also the kind of people who didn’t mind Margot and Richie’s being secretly in love in The Royal Tenenbaums. You probably rooted for Marcia and Greg to get together on The Brady Bunch. You’re weird. In Emma, the Josh equivalent was a family friend; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have been the same in Clueless. Still, dealing with this singular flaw is minor enough when contrasted with watching the movie’s infinite virtues. Put the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on your CD player, bust out your best plaid, and prepare to get nostalgic.

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