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.
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.
June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
Some books are just so indelibly etched in your mind, you’ll never forget when you first read them. I bought Valley of the Dolls in a British bookstore in Nerja, Spain, when I was 14, and devoured it on the train as the Mediterranean, the Alhambra, the aqueducts of Segovia passed by in the background. My connection to the book is so intense that, for years, I’ve had little interest in the movie. Its reputation as a horrendously campy cult classic didn’t help, but even had the movie been an Oscar-winner, I’d still be reluctant to have the Neely, Anne and Jennifer in my head replaced by the ones onscreen. I love the book so much that, despite its lack of literary merit, I get mad when people claim they don’t like the book. Prescription drug abuse, casting couches, Golden Age of Hollywood roman a clef–what’s not to like?
The plot, for the uninitiated, follows three young women who become friends over the course of their show-biz careers: the demure secretary-turned-model Anne, the spunky Broadway hoofer-turned-Hollywood star Neely, and the stunning chorus girl-turned-European “art” film actress Jennifer. Although Susann primarily focuses on their multiple engagements, marriages and sex lives, the thing that bonds these ladies together through the decades is their mutual dependence on “the dolls” (prescription pills) of the title. Jacqueline Susann was a minor actress in her youth, and at the time of the book’s release, it was well-known for being a thinly veiled portrait of several major stars she’d both worked and played with. Jennifer North is part Carole Landis, part Marilyn Monroe. Her husband, Tony Polar is a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra hybrid. Neely O’Hara was a little bit Frances Farmer and a lot Judy Garland. The aging Broadway star Helen Lawson was based on Susann’s one-time lover, Ethel Merman. Anne, who hails from a small-town and is new to New York City itself, let alone the glittering world of the stars, is the only one without a real-life counterpart, and that’s mostly because she exists as a stand-in for the reader.
All of that art-imitating-life stuff made for a bestselling book (and in my opinion, an extremely compelling one, especially for anyone interested in Old Hollywood or Broadway). But it also makes for a terrible movie, because even if the script had been any good in the first place (which it isn’t), anybody who’s read the book can’t help but imagine how much better Garland, Landis, or Merman would have been in the roles.
Oddly enough, Sharon Tate as Jennifer comes closest to being actually well-cast in her part, even though she’s given the least to do. It’s hard to combine the two essential aspects of Jennifer’s personality–the Marilyn Monroe and the Grace Kelly, the kittenish sexiness with the European poise–but she manages it in a way that it’s hard to imagine many actresses of the period doing. But Patty Duke is no Judy Garland and thus no Neely O’Hara, and her overacting overwhelms the film’s second half. And while Barbara Parkins is miscast as Anne, the problems go beyond the casting to the writing–Anne is written as far warmer and perkier than she should be. Anne’s appeal is in her coolness, her levelheadedness, the way she slowly weighs one option against the other. We, the audience, are intended to like her specifically because she manages to resist the lifestyles the others succumb to (and that we already know will be their undoing).
The next mistake the director made with the movie was to update the timeline: instead of spanning the mid-’40s to the late ’50s, it only takes place in the mid-60s. This forced the screenwriters to cut plotlines, and it made the plots that they saved seem rushed–events that are supposed to unfold over the course of years do it in the span of months, which sort of butchers characterization when even the most deliberate, cautious characters seem to jump into bed together immediately or make decisions on a whim. But the more important aspect of this is that we lose the 1940s glamour. While a difference of ten or fifteen years might not have seemed like much at the time of filming, to a modern viewer it’s extremely jarring. The 1960s aesthetic is extremely present and totally absurd here–À Bout de Souffle pixie cuts, Annette Funicello flips and big Ronnie Spector-style falls are everywhere, as are shag carpeting and bizarrely patterned wallpaper. Everything looks a little tawdry–the musical that, theoretically, stars one of the biggest actresses on Broadway appears cheaper than a church basement production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sticking to the original timeline and making this a period piece, as it was meant to be, would have left us with a far more aesthetically pleasing film, even if the writing and casting had remained the same.
But more importantly, in the film, we lose the book’s big theme–the way show business chews women up and spits them out. What elevates this book above the level of similar potboilers designed solely to titillate is that Susann was trying to make a larger point about the nature of the fame game and how it destroys women. This use-’em’-up-throw-’em-away approach is true today, too, of course, but what people obsessed with The Golden Age of Hollywood often forget is that it was equally true back then. In fact, that was the major benefit of the studio system–you could force a star to bend to your every whim, and at the point where she’d passed the peak of your beauty or simply refused to comply with your demands, there was someone new, ready and waiting to take her place. In Valley of the Dolls, Jennifer receives everything she has–fame, love–on the basis of her incredible body and face, and yet when she grows older, she also begins to feel like she no longer deserves that fame or love because she’s in danger of losing the body that won them. Anne, too, despite having other good qualities (her intelligence, her loyalty) only ever gets anything–from her secretary job to her lovers–because she’s beautiful. Neely, on the other hand, truly does get where she is due to talent rather than looks, but when the Hollywood producers push her to lose weight, she embarks on a regimen of pills (uppers to lose weight and keep working hard, downers to relax and fall asleep) that will haunt her for the rest of her life. By the end of the book, each of the women ultimately relies on the pills to cope with the pressures of their chosen lifestyles, and the pills lead to their individual downfalls.
A common misreading of the book is that it’s anti-feminist, focused only on men-obsessed bimbos, pushing the idea that if you’re not pretty, you’re nothing–and that ultimately, the author punishes the protagonists for ever wanting anything beyond a small-town life with a husband and babies. In reality, though, the book seeks to condemn the anti-feminist culture in which it’s set. The women aren’t reduced to their looks because they want to be; they’re reduced to their looks because the men around them insist upon it, and the men are the ones who call the shots. This is true even in non-sexual situations–for example, Anne’s future boss is reluctant to hire her, although she’s a competent secretary, because she’s so attractive that he’s worried some man will instantly propose to her and he’ll have wasted all that training. Do the girls behave like men are the most important things in their lives? Yes–but that’s hardly surprising given that they were raised in a world that told them that their men were the most important things in their lives. Despite this, they do display surprising flashes of independence. Anne breaks away from her small-town upbringing (and likely husband-to-be) because she wants more out of life (including a career); later, she wants to stay in New York City so badly that she sacrifices the man she loves for it, when she could have kept him by moving home to the small town she grew up in. A theme that comes up multiple times is that the women lose their husbands and lovers because they end up being the breadwinners, and their men can’t cope–a legitimate fear for women in the 1940s and ’50s. And at the end of the story, the women aren’t punished because they wanted to “have it all.” They’re punished because the sexist world they lived in wouldn’t allow them to have it all. Their downfalls–all linked to the pills that allowed them to escape the pressure of their day-to-day lives–occur because they’re trapped in a society that attempts to thwart the realization of their dreams, not because Susann herself thought that they deserved to have their dreams thwarted.
The movie, however, loses this nuance. (As little as Jackie Susann was capable of nuance, director Mark Robson was even less so.) Robson’s camera lingers on the girls’ successive downward spirals with the intensity of a lover but the empathy of a stalker, which gets uncomfortable after about two minutes. Given that these crack-ups take up the better part of the movie’s second half, it’s secondhand-embarrassment overkill. His lack of comprehension extends to the final minutes: the film’s Anne, instead of staying in New York at all costs because that’s what she wants to do, ultimately returns home to her boring small-town life after her boyfriend cheats on her . . . and this is presented as a happy ending! Dear Mr. Robson, the point is somewhere in the vicinity of Mars; that’s how much you’ve missed it by.
So does that mean I couldn’t enjoy the film, even on the level of camp? It was that tedious? . . . Well, life is short and one must appreciate the opportunities to watch movies featuring sequined, flowered leisure suits and glittery caftans when they arise. Beyond that, though, in a word: yes.
November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment
Spoilers for Black Christmas (1974) ahead.
Halloween is not my favorite holiday. I work at a bar, so most years, my Halloween consists of corralling, baby-sitting, and cleaning up after drunks in unimaginative costumes. This year, I worked both on Halloween night and the Saturday before it–which is when my city holds its big Halloween festival–but I wanted to do something to celebrate . . . so on the Friday before, my friend C. came over with a bottle of pinot noir. We cooked goat cheese and butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce with hazelnuts, made pumpkin brownies, and got sufficiently toasted on both wine and whiskey-apple cider before settling in to watch the original Black Christmas. (Side note: my kitchen is a horrifying, flour-encrusted mess right now.)
Horror and I don’t always get along. I’m prejudiced because it’s the most popular genre that Pretentious Male Film Buffs and Critics watch to relax. That’s fine, obviously–I have musicals and screwball comedies; there’s no reason they shouldn’t have something, too–but it also means that horror gets a lot of essays and blog entries defending and legitimizing its creepy sexual politics by people that filmmakers actually take seriously.
That’s a turn-off. But that’s not horror’s fault, really, so I feel a little bad about avoiding the entire genre. Then again, there are some things that are its fault. Too much old horror comes off as more corny than creepy, and too much new horror relies too heavily on gross-out gags and doesn’t pay enough attention to the suspense and psychological mindfucks. I don’t mind blood, but if a film employs increasing amounts of gore as their chief scare tactic, I start to lose interest. And I’m especially judgmental about the use of rape as a plot device in many horror movies (which is a blog entry in and of itself). The horror movies I like are ones like The Strangers, which, although it had its faults, had enough rare virtues that I was still able to like it: a focus on the fear of the unknown; long, drawn-out, suspenseful shots; unanswered questions and things left implied rather than spelled out; minimal but effective use of blood and gore.
Despite the fact that I don’t watch much of it, I’ve seen just enough horror to recognize the tropes that appear over and over again. (It might have helped that I came of age during–and thus watched the bulk of my horror movies during– the genre-deconstructing Scream era.) During the opening scenes of a horror film, I can usually predict who will be the Final Girl. Not only did my friend and I predict the “Final Girl” at the beginning of Black Christmas, but we managed to predict most of the plot twists and the ending long before they happened. The problem is that I don’t understand enough about horror to know if, at the time this movie was made, those twists were new and different. Give me, say, a musical and I’ll tell you exactly when certain tropes were invented and when they transformed from “trope” to “cliche” and then into “archetype.” But horror? Don’t ask me. During the film, I kept turning to C. and saying “The calls are coming from inside the house!” in a creepy voice . . . but it wasn’t until I checked IMDB this morning that I found out that this was actually the first horror film to use that device (along with originating or popularizing plenty of others, like the killer’s point-of-view camera shot or the high contrast of holiday joy with a murder spree).
That said, I like horror when it’s well-done–most especially when it avoids the sticky complications of the sexual morality plays that many of the worst films devolve into. From a female perspective, horror is a dual genre: when it’s good, it’s the film genre that explores the complexity of female roles the most; when it’s bad, it goes beyond misogyny. Because the hero of a horror film must be reduced to screaming, shaking, crying, and fleeing in a way that the audience would look down on a man for, it’s nearly inevitable that the slasher-flick hero will be a girl. That makes horror the sole movie genre that is aimed primarily at male viewers but forces the viewer to identify with a female protagonist. And yet the way sexuality is employed by many male directors–killing off the sluts and the girls who’ve had abortions and the girls who are having sex with their boyfriends in their car in the middle of the woods, forcing them to run half-naked through the wilderness before they’re finally hacked down–tends to undermine that. It’s a toss-up.
Black Christmas manages to avoid the sluts-as-cannon-fodder trend, sort of–our protagonist not only has had sex but is contemplating an abortion in the movie’s early scenes. As the film opens, she and her sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house are being harassed by an obscene phone caller who eventually takes it to the next level and starts killing them off, one by one. Despite the premise, this is probably the least sexy sorority slasher flick ever made, and with nary a single panty raid, scantily clad pillow fight or implied girl-on-girl make-out session, it easily managed not to ping any of my hair-trigger “That’s-sexist!!!” sensors. The film is smart, for a slasher film, and treats its characters as such–the filmmakers have predicted most potential loose ends and explain them away in a way that’s both logical and believable, as when the murdered characters aren’t immediately missed because they’ve already made plans to head out of town for the holiday. There’s one eye roll-inducing “Don’t go upstairs!” moment (I’ll cut a movie slack for exactly one of these before I start deducting points), and the film telegraphs the decoy killer so early that only a complete novice horror-watcher would be surprised when he turns out to be a red herring . . . but on the whole, the film offers satisfying twists and rationales in a genre that too often seems to argue that its audience doesn’t deserve them.
You know what they say about horror movies reflecting the fears of the society they were made in, and this is almost a comically accurate example of that. Upon Black Christmas‘s release, in loco parentis was basically down the drain–and this in the wake of Roe v. Wade, the rise of second-wave feminism, and the Summer of Love. Parents could no longer count on their college-bound daughters to be protected by the school’s curfews and visitation hours, and their anxieties ran wild about what their daughters were up to with no supervision. In Black Christmas, Mr. Harrison–father of the first murder victim–stands in for ’70s-era parents everywhere when he shows up at the sorority house to pick up his daughter and instead finds only her filthy-mouthed, booze-swilling, premarital-sex-having sorority sisters, guarded over solely by an equally hard-drinking, incompetent housemother who doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of mothering. But Black Christmas refuses to take the easy road and–unlike many of the films that would later rip it off–doesn’t allow its killer to mow down his victims simply based on whether they drink or smoke or what they do in the bedroom. Instead, it offers a much more nuanced take on women who want more than the small lives they’re being offered. And for that reason, Black Christmas was a great way to spend my Halloween.