So I was originally gonna roll up all cavalier-like and blurt out my opinions on Tank Girl, which I watched for the first time a few nights ago. I had some pre-conceived notions about the movie and what I’d think of it, as the film adaption of the beloved Jamie Hewlett comic is widely regarded as a commercial and critical flop.
Now I’m not entirely sure how to approach the subject matter, because a) I’m not sure how to read this movie, as it is disjointed and oftentimes inscrutable, b) I didn’t realize going into my viewing that several friends were fans of both the movie and the comic, and c) . . . I haven’t gotten around to reading the comic. I’m more than willing to read it, especially since I’m a fan of Hewlett’s work with Damon Albarn on Gorillaz and am interested in their ongoing professional relationship. I simply haven’t had the chance yet, as I just finished Truman Capote’s super-dense In Cold Blood and started Margaret Atwood’s promising The Blind Assassin. If anyone has a copy they’d like to push into my hands, my palms are flat and open.
But I still wanted to see the movie and write about it because:
1. Lori Petty stars as Rebecca Buck and I wish her career had taken off instead of stalling around the time of this movie’s 1995 release. While she’s recently run into some legal troubles and I still haven’t seen Point Break or Prey for Rock’N'Roll, I’ve long had a soft spot for this tough, mouthy, gender-queer tomboy ever since her turn as Kit Keller in A League of Their Own. It’s too bad that she was replaced by Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man and that Gwen Stefani sounds just like her, with both women having more visible, financially successful careers.
2. Speaking of Stefani, did she rip off Tank Girl’s style to cultivate her own look, because oh my damn do they look alike.
But maybe I’m being unfair in pitting Petty/Tank Girl against Stefani against one another and instead should remember the cultural context from which they were formed. I’m reminded of my thesis adviser Mary Kearney, whose dissertation focused on contemporary discourses around girlhood and youth culture. Joy Van Fuqua draws on Kearney’s work in her essay ”‘What Are Those Little Girls Made Of?’ The Powerpuff Girls and Consumer Culture.” In her discussion of the show’s popularity, Van Fuqua borrows from Kearney to suggest that, like many other girl characters during the 1990s, Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom had to embody both genders in order to succeed in athletics and other male-dominated activities.
3. Speaking of promising actresses, Naomi Watts plays her sidekick and was a total nobody in the states when the movie was originally released. She’s also rockin’ a brunette bob haircut, which I appreciate.
4. Speaking of wacky ladies, Ann Magnuson makes an appearance as a madame who runs a state-of-the-art brothel where folks like Iggy Pop run around in drag and the talent break out into Busby Berkeley-esque routines to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”
5. Speaking of musicians, the soundtrack is an alternative rock behemoth. Hard to imagine many of the artists represented here got radio play in 1995. Alternative was commercially successful, allowing rock music to splinter off in various, musically diverse directions. Hootie was a major player, but Pulp could get a hit single. Beck was at this point a one-hit wonder, but was working on an era-defining record that would come out the following year. The bubble hadn’t burst yet. Man, 1995 was a strange and amazing time. Bush, Björk, Veruca Salt, L7, Belly, Portishead, Hole. They were all on commercial radio playlists and they’re also on this soundtrack.
6. Speaking of Hole, note that Courtney Love was the movie’s music consultant. Now, I’m not entirely sure what her title means here. Titles like “music consultant” and “music supervisor” tend to be flexible. The latter term is usually held by people who work closely with the director, the editor, and multiple representatives from various record labels, as well as help tend to legal matters like acquiring publishing rights, and clearing songs to be used in the movie and often the accompanying soundtrack.
My hunch is that Love’s duties were picking what songs she liked and would work with the movie, but had little involvement in the production. After all, she was a busy lady who was trying to heal from the death of her husband, raise her daughter, become a respected actress, and headline Lollapalooza with her band Hole. I don’t think she had time to field phone calls with label execs, although I’d like to imagine what those conversations might be like.
7. Oh, and since the first six points all involved women, let’s add the cherry on top. Tank Girl was directed by a woman named Rachel Talalay.
But as far as reading this movie . . . hummina. I don’t know what I saw. I know it takes place in what is now a not-too-distant, dystopian future and involves our fearless heroine leading a rag-tag group of girls and mutant kangaroo boys against a corrupt faction that control the earth’s water supply. Still with me? Here’s the trailer.
So, things I enjoyed or found interesting about the movie.
1. Naomi Watts kicks ass as Jet Girl. At first shy and fretful, she learns to embrace her intellect and technological savvy and develops the confidence to take charge of the crew and help beat the cast of baddies.
2. Tank Girl has strong relationships with Jet Girl and Rebecca, Tank Girl’s boyfriend’s young daughter. Homosocial bonding and female mentorship, holla!
3. OMG, the costumes. They could be a chapter in a dissertation on third-wave feminism’s fragmentive, performative, and self-reflexive relationship with fashion (note: if such a chapter exists, I want to read it). Tank Girl never wears the same outfit or hair color twice, and her wardrobe toys with historical periods, film genres, youth culture movements, often playing with age, gender, and race as well.
4. I can’t tell if Ann Magnuson’s Madame, who briefly kidnaps and attempts to employ Rebecca, is a sex-positive feminist, a critique against the then-timely rise of media’s interest in d0-me feminism, or just morally bankrupt.
And then there were things I hated.
1. While Tank Girl’s costuming is fascinating, that’s really the extent of her characterization. Much of this seems to be the fault of the writing. Petty is engaging enough, but Tank Girl is written as less a complex action heroine and more of a buzzword-and-slogan dispenser. Thus, she brings to mind characters like Itchy and Scratchy‘s Poochie, who was created to make fun of corporate-friendly extreme, in-your-face, subcultural cash cows. Perhaps her perceived lack of depth speaks to the awkward process of adapting a comic book into a movie, but her cinematic flatness betrays the torpedo bras.
2. Tank Girl also kicks a disappointing lack of ass here and has questionable methods. I can’t speak to her defense strategies in the comic, but the movie repeatedly has her lure disgusting men with her feminine wiles. Sometimes they get kicked in the balls, but she still shows them her bra or promises sexual favors beforehand.
3. Man, how did Malcolm MacDowell fool people into thinking he could act? He’s the villainous Kesslee here and is making himself quite the ham sandwich. Some may bring up Al Pacino and note that certain actors deliver progressively broader performances as they age, but I think MacDowell’s accent played a role in snowing audiences as well. I think his Britishness even convinced people he was better in If . . . and A Clockwork Orange than he actually was. Charismatic and handsome? Yes. Once a great actor? I don’t think so.
4. I feel like there’s something racially problematic about the mutant kangaroo soldiers who take up with Tank Girl’s crew. Thoughts?
In short, Tank Girl makes for a maddening but interesting spectatorial experience. Now to get a hold of the source material . . .