Bunheads

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m pretty sure that I wrote this novel when I was in high school. Then I threw it out because I realized it was too much like Center Stage. And then Sophie Flack dug through my trash, changed some names and rewrote a couple scenes, and handed this over to a publisher.

Side note: Seriously, the problem with Center Stage is that it used four of the five available ballet-related plots and thus ruined ballet story-telling for anybody else, lest they want to look like they’re ripping it off. And who wants to be caught ripping off Center Stage, of all the things? The Five Ballet Plots, for the record, are as follows:

  1. Girl tries to make it in the competitive world of ballet, but does she have what it takes? Often involves eating disorders or other health problems to up the ante.
  2. Unconventional ballet dancer (too mouthy, too overweight, whatever) chafes against the harsh restrictions of the ballet world. Often resolved by having her turn to modern dance or ending up at a less traditional ballet company.
  3. Ballet dancer is torn between the all-consuming world of dance and her other interests (usually these “other interests” involve “having sex with people who aren’t ballet dancers”) . Always resolved by her leaving the dance world.
  4. One or more “nice girl” dancers compete against the resident bitch (who is almost always a better dancer than they are). If this is a story aimed at children or young adults, the resident bitch usually turns out to be not so bitchy after all.

Number five is “ballet dancer goes mad due to the pressures of the competitive ballet world,” which obviously The Red Shoes and Black Swan have cornered the market on, so if you’re not ripping off Center Stage then you’re ripping off one of those. There are also the stock characters that turn up again and again: the charismatic but emotionally distant (or manipulative) head of the company, the strict former dancer and current instructor, the naive blonde ingenue. I’ve been writing a story set at the San Francisco Ballet for, oh, about six years now . . . Every three months I realize what I’ve written sounds way too much like Center Stage and am forced to start from scratch. It might be time to just give up entirely.

Back to Bunheads: It also uses the same four plots as Center Stage and most of its stock characters, albeit in a more condensed form, as it follows Hannah, a young corps dancer at a New York ballet company. Hannah is torn between staying with the demanding dance world or giving it up to go to college, and has a love triangle to match (college student versus balletomane). The ending is never really in doubt; the story is more about how Hannah will get to that conclusion. Sophie Flack’s main draw is ostensibly that, as a former professional ballet dancer, she’s in the position to give us some inside knowledge. Unfortunately that insider’s knowledge largely consists of “Ballet dancers are always on a diet and they hate dancing the snowflake piece in The Nutcracker“–the latter of which can be discerned from basically any dancer’s autobiography and the former of which is obvious to anyone with eyes.

Ms. Flack herself was famously fired after several years dancing for the NYCB, and a handful of interviews make it clear just how autobiographical Bunheads is. But Sophie’s Hannah isn’t fired; she chooses her destiny on her own terms. You can sense that this book worked as a kind of therapy for Flack, allowing her to write herself a happier ending, allowing herself more power than she actually had. Nothing wrong with writing a book as therapy, except that they generally do more for the authors than for the readers, and that’s certainly true here. Maybe I’m being a touch harsh–this book probably worked just fine as a guilty pleasure for the young adult audience it’s aimed at. I would have loved it at 15. (Then again, I had a raging eating disorder at 15, so of course I would love this.) As for the adult me, I guess it’s back to watching Center Stage.

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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 Student Prince

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, when most people didn’t go to college, it held a certain mystique that it’s since lost. College, to outsiders, wasn’t about academics. It was about fraternity rituals and goldfish-swallowing, phone booth-stuffing and raccoon coats–with a side of copious drinking. Most people saw college as a bourgeios waste of time, a glorified finishing school for rich kids. But for those who had the money to attend, it had an entirely different appeal: college was where you went to become a man. (See: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.)

The Student Prince makes it clear that this is not just an American thing. The film, based on an operetta taking place in 19th-century Germany, follows the prince of a small German kingdom as he’s forced to attend one of Europe’s oldest universities in Heidelberg against his will. In the silent film adaptation that preceded this, he’s sent by his family to finish his education before he can take over the country, but in this film–playing up its more romantic recital of the story–he’s sent to develop his charm because his princess fiancee finds him stilted and contentious, trained for war rather than wooing. Unfortunately for her, at the university he finds himself developing a little bit more charm than she probably had in mind, ifyouknowwhatImean and I think you do.

At the inn where he’s spending the semester, Karl falls immediately for the sweet barmaid Kathie, who serves as his guide to student life at Heidelberg, which he initially finds baffling and raucous. The fact that nobody there gives him the full respect that his title commands is another wound. But with Kathie beside him, he quickly adapts–eating knockwurst like the other students, slamming his mugs of beer like a champ, following her advice on which student “corporations” (the German equivalent of fraternities) to join. In fact, he soon realizes that he’d rather hide his royal identity altogether.

Some things about college haven’t changed.

The Student Prince goes surprisingly deep into the traditional trappings of German student life. (This is all in the source material. What, you thought 1950s MGM would do historical research?) While the silent film largely had glossed over the depictions of college life in order to focus on the romance, The Student Prince goes so far as to integrate the German university traditions into the plot of the film. Two rival student corps fight over him–the snobbier of the two only once they learn that he’s a prince, the down-to-earth one from the very beginning. When the leader of the snobby Saxo-Borussians is offended that a prince would rather join the less prestigious Westphalians, they even settle the matter the same way turn-of-the-century corps members would–in a fencing duel. The winner is the one who manages to leave a permanent scar slashed across the loser’s cheek! Kathie’s fear over the result of Karl’s duel with the leader of the Saxo-Borussians is what forces her to acknowledge her heretofore hidden love for him.

One can’t talk about this film without talking about Mario Lanza’s beautiful voice, which–due to a casting dispute–handles the singing while Edmund Purdom appears on-screen. Purdom actually does a phenomenal job of the lip-syncing–I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t him had MGM not plastered Lanza’s name all over the bill. Ann Blyth is often underused, and this film doesn’t give her a whole lot to do besides look pretty and sing pretty, but she brings a sense of warmth and intelligence to Kathie’s character that I didn’t find in Norma Shearer’s silent version.

The film’s ending is surprisingly touching. The silent film gives the romance a different treatment: while watching the romance unfold is fun, you’re always aware that it’s a diversion, that at the end of the day he’ll have to go home and own up to his duties. But–unsurprisingly for a 1950s MGM musical–The Student Prince puts Karl and Kathie’s romance on display. You understand why they fall for each other, even after his nastiness at the beginning, and it’s genuinely crushing when you realize, right along with them, that they have no chance.

But despite the focus on the romance, that was never the point of the story in the first place. The point was that Karl had to leave home to become a man–to shift from his rigid, immature views on war being the focus of life. Through Kathie and his time at the university, he didn’t just learn about love. He learned about people. And when he returns home, ready to marry the princess and run the country after his grandfather’s death, we know he’ll be a success. (At least until World War I rolls in and kills off half his subjects.)

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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