Last night, I cuddled on the couch and read Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition. I needed something to do while my computer burned the mix CDs for Kristen‘s and my Girls Rock Camp music history workshop, which we teach tomorrow. As session #1 is in full swing, it seemed fitting to read two graphic novels from a queer girl cartoonist and avowed rock music fan.
For those unfamiliar, these two books document Schrag’s first two years at Berkeley High School in the mid-90s. She composed them during the summers between each school year. Potential, which follows her junior year and Likewise, which captures her senior year, were published later. If you weren’t aware of Schrag’s work, perhaps you can recall her name being mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” or recognize her as a writer on The L-Word. But Awkward and Definition put her on the map.
I find these two books interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the visual style changes dramatically. Awkward is sloppily put together, with characters resembling melted Precious Moments figurines. Definition has cleaner lines, surer plotting, and better defined character composition. Not that Awkward‘s messiness is in any way a disadvantage. While it may cause eye strain at times, the sheer exhilaration of a girl putting this together was enough for me. That cartoonist and chemistry enthusiast Schrag already had her own voice and vision at such a young age is inspiring to me.
There’s also the matter of Schrag’s fandom, which is a key aspect of her queer girlhood. It’s evident in who she idolizes. Evincing the era, Schrag is a big alternative rock fan who loves going to shows and acquires a Fender Stratocaster from her mom on her 16th birthday. Her idols cover her walls as well, as her bedroom becomes a shrine to L7, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, and Juliette Lewis. It’s also interesting how she uses language to possess her idols. An early male love interest is called “my L7″ because of his coveted band t-shirts. Application of glittery make-up is referred to as “putting on my Gwen.” And Juliette Lewis is simply “my Juliette.” I find it particularly interesting that Scrag watches anything with Lewis in it, but has a particular affinity for Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers.
Schrag is also girl-crazy — identifying as bisexual, but will later come out as a lesbian — and surrounded by girl companions who fall in and out of her social circle. This is refreshing, in part because I grew up in an area where bisexual, lesbian, and transgender girls assuredly existed, but primarily remained in the closet. So perhaps I sound like a West Coast outsider, but it’s staggering to me that Schrag had so many queer and queer-friendly girlfriends she could crush on, but also call upon as friends. Having just read an article about two gay teen male friends in New York who were voted king and queen of their prom by their peers further instills me with hope.
I was also pleased by the depiction of drug use and Schrag’s engagement with the street. I didn’t do drugs in high school and received fairly strict parameters from my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to punk shows in Houston until I graduated from high school. This was primarily because gigs usually weren’t close by and because my mom worried about what dangers could befall a young girl. And while I’m more than a little surprised by how permissive Schrag’s parents were (or perhaps how little they knew about their daughter’s social activities), I’m also pleased that Schrag’s drug experimentation isn’t sensationalized. Pair this against, say, Larry Clark’s Kids, a movie I hate in part because it promises to be transgressive in its representation of urban teenagers but actually espouses a cautionary, conservative ideology (note: I dislike Requiem for a Dream for similar reasons). This isn’t to say that I approve of how often she hits the pipe. I just like that we can see a girl character partake of drugs without dying, getting raped, or contracting a disease. It’s refreshing.
Similarly, I like that Schrag and her friends are sometimes put in scary situations, but are resourceful enough to work through them. This is best exemplified when Schrag and her friend Julia attend a Bush concert (No Doubt cancelled! NO!) for Julia’s birthday. They get dropped off at the wrong venue and have to figure out how to get to the show and get home. This requires the two girls — who are also high — to walk vacant streets, take the bus, ask for help from the useless police, attempt to hail a cab, and finally get a ride home from Julia’s dad. Again, this situation is far from ideal. Yet I like to see girls be tough, resourceful, and successfully get out of bad situations.
Of course, I can’t review the two graphic novels without mentioning the exnomination of racial and class privilege. I’m not sure of Schrag’s socioeconomic background, but she does come from a politically progressive area that appears to be predominantly white. Thus it was probably easier for her to grow up queer than it is for rural, working class young people. That said, I’m still pleased that she possessed the confidence to declare her teen years important enough to capture in self-made panels teeming with wit, anxiety, and glee. I only hope Potential lives up to its title.
When I originally decided to do an entry on Juliette Lewis covering PJ Harvey’s “Hardly Wait” and “Rid of Me” in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, it was to be written about in the spirit of righteous indignation. You see, Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was nominated for Best Picture. Bigelow herself got a nod for Best Director. This is noteworthy because a) The Hurt Locker is awesome despite some minor problems and potential commonalities between it and the Lethal Weapon series, b) it was made for a pittance, and c) Bigelow is one of four women to be nominated for Best Director. And while Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola preceded her, none of them won. So I was certain that James Cameron’s Avatar was going to take home those coveted Oscars.
But it didn’t! Bigelow won both awards last night. Cheers! Suck it, Cameron.
So, I haven’t seen Strange Days yet, as I didn’t get to it before the Oscars. Of Bigelow’s movies, it seems one most people are pretty “feh” about. All my friends seem to love Point Break and many critics champion Near Dark. I’ll get to all of these when I have the time. And from what I can gather from these scenes, Lewis’s Faith is very much to-be-looked-at by Ralph Fiennes’s protagonist Lenny Nero, a criminal who yearns to reunite with his ex-girlfriend. And she’s vulnerable to further objectification as the bad object I always try to problematize: the female singer shimmying about on stage without an instrument.
But I’d like to consider two other things about Bigelow and Harvey.
1. The foreboding attitude behind “Rid of Me” is somewhat poignant in the context of Bigelow’s career. Prior to The Hurt Locker, the last movie she made was 2002′s K19: The Widowmaker, which garnered disappointing reviews and box office returns. Though several other male contemporaries continued to work in that time, Bigelow couldn’t get a project greenlit. And she was only given $11 million to make The Hurt Locker, but clearly didn’t need billions of dollars to create the movie’s taut, gripping, visually spectacular action sequences. You may wish you never met me, but you’re not rid of me, Hollywood.
2. The discussion of Bigelow’s brief marriage to Cameron and how masculine her movies are suggests further kinship with Harvey. Harvey briefly dated Nick Cave in the mid-90s, and people draw comparisons between the two. People have also magnified the masculine quality of Harvey’s sound and lyrical approach, particularly early in her career. And like Harvey, Bigelow really wishes you’d stop focusing on her sex and gender in relation to her work.
While I can’t take emphasis away from these things, I can get excited at the influence these women may have on future generations of musicians and filmmakers. As Kristen at Act Your Age points out, director Emily Hagins may be a sign of things to come. Like Bigelow, who plays with conventionally “masculine” film genres, Hagins makes horror movies, which tend to be a dude’s game. I can’t wait to see and hear what is to come.
The general consensus is that Prey for Rock & Roll is terrible. In fact, the trailer looked terrible.
But it’s about a LA-based band named Clamdandy (shudder) comprised of queer women supposedly past their prime. One of my favorite scenes in Whip It! is when Juliette Lewis’s character Iron Maven admits to Ellen Page’s Babe Ruthless that she didn’t find something she was really good at until after turning 30. I root for the underdog. You know this. Bonus points for a movie that features Lori Petty and Drea De Matteo, the latter of whom broke my heart as Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos and looks like she was born to play in a rock band.
That said, wow what a pile of garbage Alex Steyermark’s directorial debut is. He’s since retreated back to his roots as a music supervisor and I think that’s for the best. I had no idea that a movie which opens on close-up fragments of Gina Gershon’s bare midriff, leather adorned chest, and open pout had nowhere to go but down.
But the movie has bigger obstacles than poor technical execution. It’s hard to overcome a script as hackneyed as the one first-time screenwriters Cheri Lovedog and Robin Whitehouse penned. Let’s count the regressions and clichés. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t worry about the spoilers. You’ll see them coming.
1. Gershon’s Jacki is a bisexual tattoo artist who discovered the power of rock through Tina Turner and Exene Cervenka. She starts the movie with Jessica (played by Shakara Ledard), an African American woman who she casts aside in the name of rock. By the end of the movie, she’s with a white bruiser convict with a neck tattoo who goes by the name of Animal (played by Marc Blucas, who most Buffy fans will remember as Riley Finn). But don’t worry. He murdered his pedophile stepfather to save his sister, Sally.
2. Drummer Sally (played by Shelly Cole, who I’m currently watching play Madeline on another WB/CW teen soap called Gilmore Girls) is not only a survivor of sexual abuse. She also gets raped by Nick (played by Ivan Martin), a junkie with a sick rape fetish who dates bassist Tracy (De Matteo).
3. Tracy’s a junkie too. That damn trust fund is an albatross. But don’t worry — she gets clean after Jacki reveals to Sally that she has a similar family history and the band write a song called “Every Six Minutes” about sexual assault. I should be more excited about a song that confronts and indicts rape, but Lovedog isn’t a good songwriter either. For a good example of an anti-rape song, might I point you toward X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”?
Or, since punk boys often misunderstood its message, let’s listen to The Raveonettes’ “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed).”
4. Sally is a lesbian and is dating guitarist Tracy (Petty). In addition to being punished by having to listen to the half-hearted efforts of lazy guitar students as an instructor, Tracy gets killed by an oncoming car when some no-goodniks of color steal her guitar.
But fear not. The band soldiers on. And yet, I have no real reason to care.
Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.
Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.
And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could).
But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.
Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.
Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked.
But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.
Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.
Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.
For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).
My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell“ vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.
Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.
But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.
Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.
The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors.
So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.
Literally just got back from a sneak preview of Fox Searchlight’s new potential sleeper Whip It! Gotta say, I really enjoyed it. Good job, director-lady Drew Barrymore. Good job, cast of rad ladies. If you follow this blog and like what you read, I think you should see it. Let’s watch that trailer one more time.
I’ll admit that certain things are problematic, like the “hey, we’re at Waterloo! Hey, we’re watching The Jerk at the Drafthouse,” feel of certain scenes. And there’s certain a potential argument to be formed out of how white roller derby appears to be, based on the movie (Eve is the only woman of color I saw represented, playing Rosa Sparks, a member of the Hurl Scouts). Also, Hurl Scout teen rookie and protagonist Bliss Cavender has a coming-of-age romance with an indie rocker named Oliver that, while it ends up being far-from-idealized, is unnecessary to me. Finally, I think the movie gets a little too plot-heavy at the end — I really don’t mind a movie that focuses more on character development instead of pushing action forward. Though most of the movie was shot in Michigan, it takes place in and around Austin. We keep it relaxed here, and I feel like the movie really flies when it keeps story structure loose.
That said, I found it to be a delightful, feel-good movie with a great feminist message: be your own hero. So let’s run through why I think you should see it when it comes out later this month.
1. Ellen Page brings it as Bliss. I still don’t know if it’ll catapult her to mega-stardom, but these sorts of roles fit her like a worn-in pair of jeans.
2. Alia Shawkat plays Bliss’s bestie Pash. She a) is totally awesome and funny, b) should be in more things, c) rocks a hot vuluptuous body, and d) should be my friend.
3. Ellen and Alia are totally convincing as friends, both on- and off-screen.
4. To that end, all of the female homosocial relationships are interesting — especially the intergenerational ones Bliss forms with mentor Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), nemesis Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), and her beauty pageant enthusiast mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). Most of the characters, almost all of whom are female, are thoughtful and well-developed.
5. Some good dude allies, particularly coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) and proud papa Earl Cavender (Daniel Stern).
6. Interesting class touches as well. Bliss is decidely lower-middle class. Her mother works as a mail courier. Bliss’s team-mates seem to suggest similar class backgrounds. Wiig’s Mayhem is a single mom. Kick-ass stunt woman extraordinaire Zoë Bell, who plays former Olympic figure skating contender Bloody Holly appears in scrubs, suggesting that she is either a nurse or a med student. And Drew Barrymore’s Smashley Simpson plays Austin’s most popular Whole Foods bagger.
7. Neat little feminist music geek touches abound. Note that Bliss gets Oliver to start talking to her by escaping a house party scene to play an album in an empty room upstairs. Giggle at the scene when Bliss and Pash dance together at their part-time job at a local greasy spoon, reconfiguring the words to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to be about the sad failure that is their hometown of (fictitious) Bodeen. Show your Texas pride by clapping along to Bliss and Oliver’s a cappela version of “Deep In the Heart of Texas” (we did at our screening). And beam at the realization that Bliss’s beloved Stryper t-shirt comes from her mother’s closet.
8. Girl-on-girl dancing and, I believe, implied girl-on-girl romance between Rosa Sparks and Ari Graynor’s Eva Destruction. When they shoo derby emcee “Hot Tub” Johnny (Jimmy Fallon) away from the jacuzzi at a house party after a meet, I think it’s just as much because they’re into each other as they aren’t into him.
9. Girls fall down and get bruised and get right back up. Sometimes someone helps them. Sometimes they help themselves. But they never stay down, even if they don’t have their next move plotted out yet. Always a good lesson, one that I hope will inspire many ladies to join a derby league or start playing some other sport. Fuck, now I wanna strap on some skates myself.