Tagged: goth

Robin Tunney double feature: “Empire Records” and “The Craft”

Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who is Robin Tunney?

Robin Tunney; image courtesy of tvdramas.about.com

I think Tunney was slated to be a star when she started cropping up in movies in the 1990s. While stardom didn’t happen for her, she’s had steady work, currently starring on The Mentalist, a CBS procedural. She was supposed to co-write a book on feminism with her friend Liz Phair, with whom she worked on the movie Cherish. I’m still waiting for that last one.

For many in my age group, we know her from back-to-back appearances in Empire Records and The Craft. As both movies were slumber party staples in my friend group, featured teen girl characters, and were accompanied by popular soundtracks, I knew I’d need to revisit them.

Empire Records came out in 1995 and developed a bit of a cult following, despite poor reviews and a dismal box office performance. It also instilled a personal desire to work at a record store, particularly an indie fighting to stay that way. At 13, it looked so cool and fun to “work” all day at such a place with hip teens and twentysomethings.

Well, maybe not them specifically, as the characters in Empire Records aren’t believeable as people so much as underwritten Generation X versions of cool kids dreamt up by a team of movie executives: there’s Joe, the anti-establishment boomer-era owner (Anthony LaPaglia); Lucas, the Zen-like hipster (Rory Cochrane); A.J., the sensitive artist in love with the unattainable Corey (Johnny Whitworth); Corey, the wholesome speed freak perfectionist (Liv Tyler); Gina, Corey’s slutty best friend who wants to be in a band (Renée Zellweger); Mark, the stoner (Ethan Embry); Berko, the rocker who clocks in between gigs (Coyote Shivers, who was married to Tyler’s legendary mother Bebe Buell at the time); and Debra, the rebel girl accountant who shaves her head after attempting suicide (Tunney).

Oh, they are so selling out; image courtesy of chartrigger.blogspot.com

The writing is the movie’s biggest problem, though I’ll never understand why casting directors thought someone as boring as Tyler would ever be a huge star (I’d ask this question again later in the decade when Katie Holmes started landing movie roles). The motivations of the characters, though meant to be read as young and madcap, are childish and inconsistent. The boys pine after girls, eat pizza, get high, and glue quarters to the floor. The girls pine after has-been teen idols doing in-stores, alternate between loving and hating each other, and get together with the boys who pine after them. Both sexes deliver such profound lines like “If I can love her in that skirt, than this must really be it” and “I went to rock and roll heaven, and I wasn’t on the guest list.”

That second line is the answer given to a question about bandaged wrists. It’s delivered to withering effect by Debra, potentially the movie’s most interesting character. She’s not glamourous like her female co-workers or sophomoric like her male colleagues. She also seems to have gone through real pain, deeper than the surface angst used to promote OK Soda and perhaps closer to the actual pain brought on by parental neglect and low self-esteem. In the early 1990s, these and other issues were particularly relevant to young girls, some of whom would form or discover riot grrl and queercore and develop their own queer and/or feminist identities. We only get a sense of Debra’s absent mother, resistent intellect, boredom with men, feelings of inadequacy, and the hope for something better.

Note: I’d recommend watching director Allan Moyle’s far-superior Times Square. Rest assured that the tale of two girl runaways falling in love amidst downtown New York’s early-80s squalor will get its due on this blog.   

It’s weird that slashed wrists bridge Tunney’s two major performances to date. Clearly suicide, perhaps most unfortunately personified by Kurt Cobain, was on young people’s minds at the time. I’d hedge that this has more to do with class frustration, racial injustice, conflicted feelings about sexual orientation, coming out to unsupportive families and communities, dysfunctional home lives, and a lack of any real support system. I’d also add that it’s an on-going problem.

Absent mothers also connect Debra and Sarah, the latter of whom lost her mother during childbirth. As The Craft was originally pitched as “Carrie meets Clueless,” it seems necessary to point out that these movies feature girls with compromised mother-daughter relationships. Carrie’s mother is a crazed witch. Cher Horowitz, like so many other fairytale heroines before her, lost her mother at an early age and has only an idealized memory of her. Sarah has similar baggage, along with the additional burden of being responsible for her mother’s death. Oh, and carrying on the ability to perform witchcraft. That’s a hell of a lot for any teenage girl to shoulder, especially when she’s moving to Los Angeles with her family.     

A heartening aspect of The Craft , no doubt motivated by how successful Clueless was, is the presence of girlfriends. Sarah meets shy Bonnie (played by Neve Campbell) and becomes friends with a trio of Goth girls. Two other movies came out in 1996 that focused on girl gangs — Girls Town and Foxfire. For a more nuanced analysis of these two movies and their depictions of homosociality and developing feminist politics, I highly recommend checking out my friend Kristen’s thesis Revenge, Girl Style

The Craft entertains the progressive potential of girl friendship, particularly for outcasts. There are also hints at the queer possibilities of homosocial bonding and witchcraft. It even contains racially charged moments, particularly when Rochelle (played by Rachel True), the coven’s lone African American member, casts a spell on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), a popular blonde who is on the swim team with her. After enduring Lizzie’s racist comments about her hair, Rochelle turns her bald, thus rebelling against normative, white-centric notions of feminine beauty. 

But these suggestions are sidelined. Because what the movie is really about is the battle between Tunney’s kind-hearted Sarah and Fairuza Balk’s destructive ringleader Nancy, who is jealous of her frenemy’s natural aptitude for witchcraft. It should also be noted that Nancy is working-class and coded as queer. The movie makes a considerable effort to undo her queerness, putting men in between her and Sarah, whether they be ex-boyfriends or Manon, the supernatural male figure that the girls worship. The movie ends with Nancy trying to kill Sarah, resulting in a showdown that tears the group apart, causes Sarah to move, and leads to Nancy being institutionalized. The final shot is of Nancy in a straight-jacket trying to fly out of a padded cell. The movie’s message: we are the weirdos, mister. Just don’t expect us to stay friends or keep a hold of our sanity. So much for sisterhood.

Nancy's farewell; image courtesy of channel4.com

Sisterhood is often lacking in movies, but is emphasized to market teen movies, if only to tap in to the girl market. But much of this was eclipsed in story development to make way for more lucrative prospects, none more pronounced at the time than the soundtrack. A considerable number of American teen movies in the 1990s featured a soundtrack, many boasting songs by alternative rock artists. Unlike The Craft and Empire Records, and more in line with All Over Me, Girls Town and Foxfire paid particular attention toward showcasing female artists, particularly those closely associated with hip hop and the then-waning riot grrrl movement. Scholars like Jeff Smith and Mary Celeste Kearney have addressed this in their work, theorizing that the soundtrack served as a way to cultivate potential audience markets and a source of textual identification for fans.

While female artists are present on the soundtracks to Empire Records and The Craft, they’re not the focus, perhaps out of fear of alienating a broader audience. This might further explain why The Craft soundtrack features covers of popular songs from lesser-known acts. Our Lady Peace contributes a version of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Heather Nova covers Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” and Letters To Cleo take on The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” a tactic they’d repeat when covering Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” for 10 Things I Hate About You at the end of the decade. And let’s not forget the double-nostalgia of former Psychelic Furs’ front man Richard Butler covering The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” with his post-Furs project Love Spit Love. 

Cover to "The Craft" soundtrack (Sony, 1996); image courtesy of thesoundtracktoyourlife.co.uk

A major problem both of these movies share, and is evident in other titles of this period and in the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s, is the need to broadly define its characters as members of a generation, rather than as complex young people with particular problems oftentimes informed by their identities. And while ennui and an ironic fluency in popular culture were markers for Gen X, these young adults were more than just sneering (white) kids in flannel, combat boots, and barettes. At least off-camera.

Oftentimes, they were frustrated by how little high school and a liberal arts education could get them in a job market, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy had yet to recover from the 1987 market crash. They were annoyed at the shrine their parents built to the 1960s, as it was clear just how empty and hollow their promises of revolution were. In some ways, they were no different than people my age or boomer hipster Paul Kinsey on Mad Men, turning to interesting records, movies, books, and TV shows, but knowing they wouldn’t make them any happier, politically mobile, or economically viable.

Michael Gladis as Paul Kinsey, proving the every generation has its hipster; image courtesy of readingunderthecovers.blogspot.com

Some of these people formed bands, often annointed with glossy but unremarkable one-word monikers: Sponge, Drill, Lustre, Cracker, Elastica, Spacehog, Dig, Hole, Belly, Hum, Bush, Toadies, Oasis . . . In a particularly cruel example of market imperative, many of these bands broke up or were without major label record deals by the end of the decade.

I still have Elastica's debut album!; image courtesy of forgottenfavorite.com

But it’s hard to convey all of this in a 90-minute movie, especially one that hopes to cash in on the wages of the very demographic these popcorn flicks were hoping to represent. Some did a decent job of conveying this generation’s ambivalence, particularly indies like Kicking and Screaming. I’d also add that Reality Bites highlights these problems, even pointing out the crass ways in which corporate America capitalizes on the very market its created. While I wish Winona Ryder’s filmmaker character Lalaina didn’t end up with Ethan Hawke’s slacker Troy, I understand why she can’t be with Michael (played by director Ben Stiller), who works for an MTV-type network that makes worm’s meat out of her documentary about her friends. 

Richard Linklater’s second feature, Dazed and Confused, did a considerable job at suggesting that Generation X inherited their sense of slacker frustration (and detached nostalgia for Schoolhouse Rock and The Brady Bunch) from their parents. That Linklater cast a bunch of twentysomething unknowns like Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, and Marisa Ribisi to essentially play the teenagers and young adults who would become their parents may strengthen Robin Wood’s argument that Dazed is a horror film

Some television shows also did a good job articulating the nuances of the slacker era. I’d offer up British programs like Spaced, along with MTV’s Daria and ABC’s My So-Called Life. The latter featured an angsty girl protagonist, complex teenage characters, depicted boomer parents being just as clueless and angsty as their brood, and created an immortal stoner heartthrob named Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto), whose band Frozen Embryos changed their name at the end of the series to perhaps the most perfect of Gen X band names: Residue.

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) with the object of her affection; image courtesy of thefbomb.org

But it’s always different for girls, and unfortunate that Tunney and many of the actresses of her generation were not given the consideration they deserved (though I love that Austin Chronicle writer Margaret Moser fancies herself as being like Balk’s character in Almost Famous). Some may attribute this to their flat delivery or lack of believability, but I’d wager that this has more to do with poor character development on the part of screenwriters and the industrial emphasis on youth than it does on the actresses. At 19, Kristen Stewart is playing the slouched-shoulder ingenue of a multi-million-dollar film franchise, its latest installment complete with a soundtrack featuring of-the-moment, indie and indie-friendly artists like Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Lykke Li, Grizzly Bear, and Thom Yorke. I only hope she has that sort of star power at 25.

Kristen Stewart at the "New Moon" premiere in Los Angeles; image courtesy of justjared.buzznet.com

“Changing Tunes” for changing seasons

Cover of Changing Tunes; image courtesy of musicweb-international.com

Cover of Changing Tunes; image courtesy of musicweb-international.com

Since a lot of folks (including many friends) are back in school, I thought I’d do another book report. Tonight, I’ll jot down my notes on Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film. Just as my friend Kit pointed me in the direction of this useful, diverse anthology, I thought I’d do the same, especially for any other burgeoning feminist soundtrack/score enthusiasts there may be. Term paper deadlines will come closer than you think.

As Robynn Stilwell was one of the co-editors of the collection who penned the particular essay Kit recommended to me, what better place to start? After all, her piece is called “Vinyl Communion: The Record as Ritual Object in Girls’ Rites-of-Passage Films.” Here, Stilwell looks at four movies featuring girl protagonists and preoccupied with such themes, two of which I’ve yet to see (Little Voice and Heavenly Creatures) and two of which are all-time favorites (Ghost World and The Virgin Suicides). As Stilwell’s reading of Little Voice aligns with Pamela Robertson’s, I will refer you to a previous entry where Robertson’s essay is discussed. And while I would’ve liked more development of each text (hell, I could read a whole book on each of these movies) and would have appreciated some movies that consider the mediated representations of vinyl practices from girls of color, I still found Stilwell’s insights valueable. And obviously, I’m going to need to watch all these movies.

To Stilwell, Ghost World‘s Enid believes that vinyl, and its technological apparatus, has no instrinsic value as an object. In one scene, she pretends to break her record collector friend Seymour’s vintage LP. She also has no interest in creating an authentic listening experience, playing old vinyl releases on a  33 1/3 record player that were meant to be played on a 78. Instead, Enid turns to record-playing for its transportive and transformative qualities. She wants a form of escape from her suburban SoCal surroundings, trying on punk, retro, and gothic fashions and turning to Bollywood, Indian rock music, and blues singer Skip James’s hauntingly androgynous tenor in “Devil Got My Woman.”

With Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, itself based on the Pauline Parker-Juliet Hulme murder, the schoolgirls’ fandom for tenor Mario Lanza serves as a buffer for true homosexual feelings, a development that Stilwell explains by using late theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s notion of the homosocial triangle.

Thus, in order to own those feelings, Pauline and Juliet must disavow themselves from Lanza, burning their records to aver these feelings in the process.

Record burning is considered in a much different context in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, instead constructed as authoritative punishment rather than a declaration of one’s identity. The Lisbon girls, a mysterious and cloistered quintet, consider records to be a form of communication between one another and to the neighbor boys with whom they’ve been forbidden to interact with by their parents. Songs like Heart’s “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” speak on their behalf, conveying the lust and sexual agency that girls feel and Lux Lisbon acts upon for high school heartthrob Trip Fontaine. Thus, mother Lisbon’s command that Lux burn her rock records after Trip Fontaine sleeps with and abandons her on the football field after the Homecoming game suggests a tragic loss of voice, demanding that she align with soft rock male singer-songwriters like Gilbert O’Sullivan and Todd Rundgren instead of continuing to listen to libidinous cock rock bands like Aerosmith.

With Vanessa Knights ‘ “Queer Pleasures: The Bolero, Camp, and Almodóvar,” we have a consideration of how Pedro Almodóvar asserted a queer identity in his earlier films, utilizing the campy potential of bolero, as well as acknowledging the contributions bolero singers like La Lupe have given to queer fan culture, particularly among gay men.

While Almodóvar may have more often utilized Cuban musicians’ contributions to movies made within a strictly Spanish context, Phil Powrie’s “The Fabulous Destiny of the Accordion in French Cinema” considers the accordian, originally an Italian musical instrument, as a French national symbol. He considers the accordian’s heroic period between 1930 and 1960 and how the instrument was used as an audiovisual marker of utopian community in movies like René Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris. While Powrie does not make it clear, I hazard to guess that there may be some connection, however tenuous, between this period and the chanteuse réaliste movies Kelley Conway has discussed elsewhere.

By 1949, Powrie notes that movies like Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête were commenting on the decline of the accordian’s ubiquity in French culture as the country shifted from a working-class country with a strong sense of history to a modern society with tremendous interest in other cultures and a particular interest in American life. This is a point Powrie argues that Tati makes aurally, as Jo Lefevre’s accordian opens and closes a film about a character who tries to emulate American customs, cued through the film’s use of swing music.

The move away from the accordian’s aural connotation of national identity is evident in 80s French cinema. The accordian instead becomes a visual, unheard marker of community demise in movies like Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva. From the 1990s on, the accordian has become a post-modern instrument for French cinema to Powrie, suggesting both a utopian ideal and evident of self-aware nostalgia, most evident in Yann Tiersen’s score for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie.

And finally, we have Ronald Rodman’s “The Popular Song as Leitmotif in 1990s Film,” which considers how the use of theme music written for specific characters in classical music and film can be translated into contemporary film’s use of popular music and how leitmotif is used as a connotative signifier. This seems like a tremendously useful exercise that I’ll make sure to remember when I get to be a boss professor lady.

Rodman considers Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting, two successful movies made noteworthy, in part, because of their exclusive use of popular music. With Pulp Fiction, protagonist hit man Vince Vega becomes associated with surf rock and Elvis as a means of connoting his class and white ethnic cultural positioning as an Italian American with a working-class background. In Trainspotting, Scottish heroin addict Mark Renton is associated with art-damaged, anti-establishment classic rockers like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, before getting clean and making his classed ascent into the bourgeoisie, which is highlighted by his musical association with Brit pop and popular techno.

While I appreciate Rodman’s argument for Trainspotting, I do wonder what he’d make of the wave of regional pictures in the UK during the 1990s and early 2000s. Just as Trainspotting focuses on Edinburgh, so to did 24-Hour Party People depicted Manchester’s singularity. That said, I do value Rodman’s effort to reconsider how popular music functions similarly to classical music in movies, and look forward to reading more on the interplay from similarly-invested scholars. Please feed me titles if you’re so inclined.