Tagged: lesbianism

Scene It: Kara Walker and Arto Lindsay in I Am Love

Last summer, I watched I Am Love and broke my weakly held resolve not to watch Tilda Swinton movies. I briefly attempted to boycott the actress’ work following her decision to stand with Roman Polanski in 2009. I can’t justify the revocation. But I remain invested in her career, as well as her sartorial choicesmusical collaborations, and commitment to global cinema. While I’m disappointed that Swinton (among folks like Martin Scorsese) signed a petition demanding Polanski’s release from Zürich, I think she makes cerebral professional choices and is one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation.

Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi in I Am Love; image courtesy of theawl.com

I was interested in I Am Love for a few reasons. For one, I love passion project collaborations between friends. Director Luca Guadagnino spent several years trying to get the project off the ground and Swinton was instrumental in getting the film made. Also, she speaks Italian in the thing. To add a layer of complexity, her Italian is inflected with a Russian accent, as her character Emma escaped the Soviet regime through marrying into a wealthy Italian family who made their money in textiles. Also, after reading Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema, I have renewed critical interest in costume design for film. Thus, I also have an investment in the ongoing discourse surrounding the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ inattention toward achievements in costuming beyond period films (an argument in conversation with critical pushback against the Academy’s definitions on what constitutes an “original” film score), I was interested in how designer Antonella Cannarozzi dressed the film.

Though I Am Love takes place at the turn of the 21st century, and is thus ultimately a period film, it challenges Molly Lambert’s assertion that, in the 90s, European fashion foregrounded excess while American clothing design privileged simplicity. While some of her extended family may take to lavish high couture, much of Emma’s wardrobe consists of minimalist shift dresses and twinsets. The exceptional fit and versatility of a garment seems to justify its cost rather than its opulent detailing. Given German designer Jil Sander’s involvement in I Am Love, we might need to complicate our assumptions about how clothing designers use clothes to signify material wealth and nationhood. Though it seems as though Emma looks toward American society wives like Jacqueline Kennedy when she puts together an outfit, we might want to remember the First Lady’s obsession with French designers. However, just as with everything else in Emma’s life, her clothes confine her as much as they announce her station.

Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy in "the Chanel suit"; image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

Many people describe the film as a story about a woman breaking free from societal restriction. They would be right in that summation, though short-sighted if they solely attribute her awakening to taking a lover. True, Antonio is an important figure. He’s a chef and of a lower class position than Emma. But while much has been made of the “prawnography” scene and the sequence where Emma finally pursues her desire, all of Emma’s decisions are motivated by the understanding that her daughter Elisabetta is as a lesbian. This bit of news–and the implication of her daughter’s rebellion against her mother’s life decisions–seem to initially disturb but ultimately transform Emma. If her daughter can follow her heart and own her desires, why can’t she? This redefines their relationship and places Elisabetta in something of a mentorship position for her mother, who is only finally learning how to love after taking to her daughter’s example. As an adult woman whose mother just turned 65 yesterday, I take enormous comfort and pride in how she seeks to learn from me as much as I do from her.

Arto Lindsay's Salt (Righteous Babe, 2004); image courtesy of amazon.com

This brings us to the scene where Emma discovers her daughter’s orientation. Emma finds Elisabetta’s copy of Arto Lindsay’s Salt, a token from an ill-fated affair with another woman. She keeps this album as a reminder of what they shared and a means through which to process her grief and find catharsis. Lindsay’s status as a post-rock avant-garde composer may now be a signifier of affluence, as Krin Gabbard argues as jazz’s function in American film after the 1970s in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Lindsay drove Caetano Veloso from the airport during the Brazilian musician’s first trip to New York. This may have represented a reassertion of a fringe or outsider identity in the 1980s, as Lindsay and Veloso were associated with politically reactionary musical subgenres like no wave and Tropicália at the time. But twenty to thirty years later, it may also just mean that more rich people can throw on a Caetano Veloso record for a dinner party. However, I don’t think those affiliations necessarily presume a degradation in quality or emotional significance for the listener. What’s more, subversion can happen in a concert hall or a boat party as surely as it can in a punk concert in someone’s basement.

It should not be ignored that Lindsay’s Salt uses a Kara Walker piece as its cover art. As many recognize and I discussed elsewhere, Walker’s confrontational body of work is loaded with rich, complicated, and troubling assertions and surreal reimaginings of America’s racist cultural history. Thus it might be just as upsetting that Emma’s daughter has an album with a cover that appears to have an image of a man examining and invading a black woman’s anatomy. What’s especially disconcerting about this image is its ambiguity–is the woman helping or controlling her examiner? Agency is not clearly established here, nor are power relations fixed. This conscious decision to position the art within the abject and play with societal boundaries would seem just as upsetting to a woman who built her life on being the perfect mother, wife, and hostess. These are the imposed borders through which Emma traverses. Her daughter, along with Lindsay and Walker, provides a compass.

Listening to Daisy Chainsaw records in my room with Darlene Conner

I fell in love with a girl for the first time in the sixth grade. I didn’t conceptualize it as a crush at the time, because I was supposed to be having those on some white boy in Tiger Beat. My taste in men was influenced by Spin and Rolling Stone—Dave Gahan, Jeff Buckley, Damon Albarn, Beck. I got it up for Christian Slater and an androgynous Leonardo DiCaprio, couldn’t get it up for Tom Cruise, and had an alarming (and mercifully brief) infatuation with Robin Williams.

The feminine masquerade that comes naturally to Becky confuses and annoys Darlene; image courtesy of taylorcolemiller.com (click on image to read Miller's piece on reading Darlene as a rebuttal to postfeminism)

My affections turned toward Darlene Conner, Roseanne‘s jaded middle child. In high school, I would more likely have palled around with her honor student older sister Becky (or at least until she started dating Mark, because Becky’s totally the kind of girl who has girlfriends when she’s single and his friends when she’s in a relationship). But through junior high, I was enamored. She was unimpressed and angry and also had a mischievous smile and killer delivery. I didn’t know Bikini Kill existed until Roseanne and Jackie picked up Jenna Elfman’s riot grrrl hitch-hiker in season seven. But I wanted to take Darlene home, try on her clothes, dye her hair black, and play her Daisy Chainsaw tapes. Ughn!

Darlene and I met some time in Roseanne‘s second season when my parents started watching it. No doubt the Conners’ doomed entrepreneurial spirit spoke to my parents, who ran a fledgling print shop. Roseanne became a site of multi-generational female bonding, as did many feminists and like-minded women on prime-time network television at the time, including Dorothy Zbornak, Khadijah James, Murphy Brown, Clair Huxtable, and life partners Mary Jo Shively and Julia Sugarbaker. All these women, including my mother, contributed to my insistence that I bellow the 19th Amendment at my fifth grade open house. But Darlene was the first girl character on television who really resonated with me. I had intermittent cable access, so Clarissa Darling and Alex Mac weren’t always around. Plus they were plucky and blonde. I was not, and neither was Darlene.

Apparently a friend of a friend wrote "Sara Gilbert forever" in her copy of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse--I concur; image courtesy of tumblr.com

I began to relate to Darlene when I caught season two’s “Brain-Dead Poet’s Society” in syndication. This is the episode where she begrudgingly read “To Whom It May Concern” at her school’s culture night. It’s a major turning point. Prior to that, Darlene was a gifted athlete who was quick to defend herself against the world with a joke, usually at Becky’s expense. Season one hints at Darlene’s interiority when she gets her period and has her appendix removed. It was clear that Darlene was far brighter than her below-average grades indicated, much to the bemusement of her parents and sister. I was famously useless in athletics, so we couldn’t play horse together. Instead, I was my room drawing or writing something for myself. So I felt this moment in my bones. I wanted to give her a hug and my diary.

Once Darlene started high school, she stopped playing sports and returning her friends’ calls. She started wearing black, writing comics, and refusing meat. Luckily she found someone who pulls her out of her existential crisis. No, it wasn’t David Healy. It was Karen, a local bookstore owner, with whom the Conners have misgivings.

I forgot that Karen isn’t a lesbian. I sublimated that Darlene’s parents don’t like their daughter hanging out with her because of what it might suggest about their daughter’s sexuality. They just think it’s weird that their daughter would spend so much time with an adult. Still, I think there’s queer anxiety embedded into Roseanne and Karen’s meeting in season four’s “Santa Claus.” Roseanne is hurt that Darlene found another mother figure in whom to confide. But she’s also uncertain about who her daughter is. So Karen and Darlene could still scan as mentor and baby dyke to me.

I might be assuming network imperative here. It’s been reported that actress Sara Gilbert, who came out privately during the show’s run, wanted Darlene to be a lesbian. ABC was reticent. To Roseanne‘s credit, alongside its consideration of working-class angst, the show forged a space for queer visibility before Ellen DeGeneres came out on the network and Will and Grace skyrocketed on NBC. It could have done a lot more for people of color, though I’d attribute the success of Friends and Seinfeld on NBC’s Must See Thursday line-up, a marketing construct that rose to popularity with The Cosby Show, to the whitewashing of the sitcom in the second half of the 90s rather than blame Roseanne exclusively. But for a show that featured a bisexual female character, a lesbian character, and a gay male character in the supporting cast (along with the reveal of a gay principal character in the series’ finale), it’s vexing that the one queer person in the main cast played straight. At least we had Sandra Bernhard.

Nancy (Sandra Bernhard), with Anne-Marie (Adilah Barnes); image courtesy of ilovecatparty.com

A friend made a convincing argument for why it’s okay that Darlene was straight. She pointed out that there aren’t many heterosexual masculine women on television. Fair point. She may have pointed out that queer actors shouldn’t be relegated to playing queer characters, which is also true. But if Darlene had to be straight, couldn’t she have had some female bonding? Her mom and aunt were tight and had several lady friends. They started a restaurant with Nancy. They hung out with childhood pal Crystal. They reconnected with high school friend Anne-Marie (one of the few women of color on the show). When Roseanne waited tables at a diner, she brought coworker Bonnie over for girls’ nights. And in a regrettably truncated season two narrative arc, Roseanne befriended young newlywed Debbie, refugee Iris, and haunted widow Marsha when she briefly works at a hair salon. Seriously, Pedro Almodóvar could have turned those few episodes into a feature.

I knew I loved Darlene when she started dating David in season four. Yes, I was jealous. No, this isn’t why I haven’t watched Gilbert reunite with Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory (credit creator Chuck Lorre, who was on Roseanne’s writing staff for a few seasons). At first, I thought it was cool that they made comics. But as their relationship developed, it was apparent that he was manipulative and insecure over Darlene’s talent. David was a textbook emosogynist. As the series focused on Darlene and Becky’s relationships and growing resentment, it never recovered.

Season five is when the show falters. After Becky elopes with Mark (an Amy Sherman-Palladino masterstroke that so totally informs Rory’s romantic trajectory on Gilmore Girls that it’s pretty surprising Roseanne didn’t hail her in her New York Magazine essay), sexpot neighbor Molly Tilden (Danielle Harris) is the token good girl gone bad. Darlene is threatened by her boyfriend’s attraction to her. When Molly strands her at the Daisy Chainsaw concert, any possible good will between the two is gone. Then Darlene goes to art school in Chicago. We hear some talk of friends, but never see them. Ultimately, she marries David and has a daughter. I watched all of this, and rooted for Darlene to complete school and help her mother live through her dad’s heart attack. It’s revealed in the finale that Darlene paired up with Mark, but this seemed incongruous with Roseanne’s vision for her daughter, so she fictionalized a romance between her and David. Sadly, this felt disingenuous to me too. I hoped she kept in touch with Karen.

Tears for Julie Johnson

The other night, my friend Erik brought Bob Gosse’s Julie Johnson over. This American indie film about a bored New Jersey housewife who enrolls in a computer course at community college, dumps her chauvinist husband, and embarks on a tentative lesbian relationship with her best friend did the festival circuit back in 2001. Lili Taylor plays the titular disaffected wife. Courtney Love and Liz Phair provide the feminist music geek intrigue as co-star and film composer. Spalding Gray is involved for some reason. Regrettably, this is not enough. The problems begin with Gosse’s and Wendy Hammond’s script and snowball from there. And even though Erik and I talked through the whole thing (while eating these delicious vegan lemon maple scones), I believe we had a handle on what was going on. Johnson is supposedly a mathematical genius on par with fellow working-class northeasterner Will Hunting. But like Good Will Hunting, the movie’s not that deep.

Taylor and Love look as disappointed as I am; image courtesy of mtv.com

First of all, the script is terrible. New Jersey’s transportation department can’t fix these plotholes (SLICE!). Johnson is a mathematical genius who hasn’t finished high school? Sure, there are lots of brilliant high school dropouts. But the movie explains that she has an intuitive understanding of abstract mathematic and scientific applications from reading scientific magazines. While many people display mathematic aptitude regardless of whether they complete school, I’m pretty sure you can’t divine this kind of ability, especially from magazines that contain verbiage you don’t understand. Articles like Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World” were revealed to be fabrications, in part, by sloppy characterization that didn’t make sense. A child heroin addict can be gifted in math, but can Jimmy do exceptionally well on his homework if he is usually truant? Math builds on concepts. People don’t understand probability if they’re shaky on ratios. 

This extends past math. I’ve been faking my way through “gender performativity” and “repetition” for years. I’ve yet to successfully read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter cover to cover. I know doing so will require a thesaurus, a dry erase board, a study group, and probably some sock puppets.  

Also, Johnson keeps these contraband “scientific” magazines in the pantry so her husband (Noah Emmerich) doesn’t see them. You get it? Because cooking is woman’s work. The woman’s place is in the kitchen, not at school. Still, are we to believe he wouldn’t throw together a sandwich and not see the archive she’s keeping behind the peanut butter?

Mischa Barton plays Johnson’s petulant daughter, Lisa. As an O.C. fan who knows Leighton Meester is Joan Collins’ true heir apparent, I relied on Barton’s acting to be stiff and her accent inscrutable. But there’s a paper to be written about Barton’s involvement with projects that contain lesbian storylines, however disappointing. I’m not sure if it is to be read, but I know there’s a through line. Actually, I tried writing it as a grad student when I turned in my final essay for Feminist TV Criticism on Marissa and Alex’s arc as lovers on the second season of The O.C. Shortly after Johnson, Barton and Evan Rachel Wood played girlfriends on Once and Again. She also starred as a Russian girl in love with her friend and t.A.T.u. in You and I. I kinda want to watch the t.A.T.u. movie with Erik at some point, but don’t expect a blog post on it. The movie sat on the shelf for three years and it used t.A.T.u. as a point of identification and marketing tool–we know it’s terrible.

"Hey! Remember me? I liked girls for about nine episodes in season two to help boost ratings."; image courtesy of nypost.com

Phair’s contributions leave much to be desired. I’ll go along with comparisons between Funstyle and Girlysound, but I cannot abide the forgettable shlock turned in here. Unlike the thirty seconds of Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset” that loops throughout Somewhere, Phair actually wrote some new material for Johnson and collaborated with composer Angelo Badalamenti. Julee Cruise is one of the few things I like about Twin Peaks (beyond Nadine and the Log Lady, of course). Suffice is to say, Liz Phair is no Julee Cruise. She’s also trying so hard to sound like Sheryl Crow at this point in her career that it makes me sad. Musically, Johnson opens with whitechocolatespaceegg clunker “Uncle Alvarez” and declines. Montages unfold. Hearts break. Lessons are learned. Guitars are strummed. No one cares.

Taylor is fine here. She deviates very little from the accent she gave Patti in Girls Town, but thankfully dispenses with the chola minstrelsy. Love is clearly trying really hard to lose herself in hardscrabble Claire. She’s slightly better here than she is in 200 Cigarettes and The People Vs. Larry Flynt, which is kind of an insult, but I enjoy on some level how Courtney Courtney is in both of those ostensibly bad movies. Drea De Matteo would have been better.

Gabby Hoffmann and Christina Ricci, two of the three true stars of 200 Cigarettes (the third one is obviously Dave Chappelle); image courtesy of agentlover.com

Regrettably, the leads don’t have chemistry with one another. This is ultimately Johnson‘s true failing. I’m sad that Claire goes back to her lobotomized meatloaf of a husband, but the creature comforts heteronormativity provides do break apart some queer couples. On some level, I’m actually glad they break up. If Claire is scared she’ll lose friends if she embarks on a relationship with her closest confidant, Johnson deserves someone better. However, the script comes to these events in such haste that I’m unsatisfied. Johnson finds peace with the loss of her closest friend somehow, and the movie ends with her gazing at stars with her lecherous professor (Gray, typecast). Maybe among the cosmos, Johnson can find how this movie lost its way.

My thoughts on Ariel Schrag’s Potential

I’m stretching my parameters with tonight’s entry, as Ariel Schrag’s Potential has very little music-related fodder. She doesn’t jam on the guitar or obsess over bands or go to many shows during her junior year of high school — at least she doesn’t devote panels to it. But I’m something of a completionist and I know a few folks were interested in my take on the third volume of Schrag’s high school series. Also, Kristen at Act Your Age forwarded a link from Tegan and Sara’s Twitter feed to Ariel and Kevin Invade Everything, Schrag’s comic with Kevin Seccia, I figured we could get all bendy here.

Cover to Ariel Schrag's Potential; image courtesy of sfgate.com

In fairness, I don’t know how Schrag would have time to think about music. Potential represents a relentless shit storm that was her junior year. I understand why Killer Films would work toward adapting it for the screen, as it has social relevance toward queer youth and has the most straightforward narrative of the three issues I’ve read. I’d certainly see it, but I’d bring a box of Kleenex.

The least of Schrag’s concerns is coming out as a lesbian, which she tidily resolves in the first few pages. It’s well established in the first two issues that her environment and friend group afford her safety and support. I also like that she commemorates coming out by picking up a box of black hair dye. I thought her sartorial commentary about the importance of balance was hilarious and strangely dated, as the tight pants and slouchy shirt look she eschews for her belted jeans and tees are now ubiquitous. 

Teenaged Ariel Schrag would NOT approve of M.I.A.'s outfit; image courtesy of thefashiondose.wordpress.com

Schrag’s pride in her lesbianism is not shared with her girlfriend Sally, who is ambivalent about her sexual orientation, harbors huge reservations toward their relationship, and clearly has a cloud of depression hovering over her. The scenes where Schrag tries to make their relationship work but Sally pushes her away out of disgust and self-loathing were wrenching.

As if it wasn’t enough to endure a relationship with someone who not only doesn’t want to be with you, but may in fact be ashamed of your relationship, Schrag’s parents embark on a nasty divorce that rips at the familial tapestry, neglecting and damaging their two daughters in the process.

Finally, Schrag loses her virginity. I use the term’s strictly heteronormative useage (i.e., it only counts when your hymen is broken by a dude’s penis, ladies), as she has sex with former boyfriend Zally, who clearly wishes she could reciprocate his feelings. I was troubled that she believed having sex with a boy, an act from which she derived no pleasure, was necessary to reach this milestone (that we consider it a milestone further suggests staid sexual norms). But I also found macabre amusement in the impossible situations and the stress caused in the pair’s efforts to “seal the deal.” I also like that Schrag was always upfront with Zally about her lack of romantic interests in him, and thought it was cool that both of them wrote down how they felt afterwards. I just wish she didn’t think she needed cock to cross over when she obviously didn’t want it.

Apart from recurring characters and a continued interest in science, I liked witnessing Schrag’s style evolve within the series. As with Definition, Potential depicts a few moments where she and her friends discuss her work and opine as to whether certain scenes will be included in subsequent issues. I was intrigued when she revealed while stoned with Sally’s sister that she sometimes sees events in her life as if contained in panels. But I particularly fascinated by how the protagonist renders dreams, as she departs from warped cartoonist caricature to a more realistic yet transient visual style. It’s an interesting way to represent our unconscious thoughts as being more faithful to our true selves.

Potential was released in 1997, and it would take several years to follow it up with Likewise. As Noah Berlatsky notes in the preface to his interview with Schrag for Bitch, college and a stint writing for The L-Word delayed the author in writing about her senior year. But I’d also like to think she needed time to recover. I on the other hand am ready to blaze through the series’ final installment.

Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition

Cover to Awkward and Definition; image courtesy of amazon.com

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.

"Whoo! Ariel Schrag!"; image courtesy of timeoutnewyork.com

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.

Grace of My Heart gets a “meh” from me

Poster to "Grace of My Heart"; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Last night, my friend Erik came over with a copy of Allison Anders’s 1996 feature Grace of My Heart. As it’s loosely based on Carole King’s life and I read Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us this past summer, I was eager to see it. I haven’t watched Anders’s Mi Vida Loca or Gas Food Lodging, but I have seen Border Radio, which she co-directed. While Border Radio lacked much of a story, it looked great and is a necessary document of the 80s East L.A. punk scene. Thus, I thought Anders could bring something to a music biopic.

I also miss Illeana Douglas, who I used to see in more things. Remember how rad she was as Nicole Kidman’s sister-in-law in To Die For? I skate on your grave, honey.

Erik told me that Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” was originally written for the movie and later added to Washing Machine. In fact, the movie’s songs were written and performed by then-contemporary artists channeling pop nostalgia to evoke the Brill Building, The Beach Boys, and King’s Tapestry. This was a 90s hallmark evident in tribute compilations to Saturday morning cartoons and The Carpenters, as well as with supergroups formed to accompany biopics on The Beatles and glam rock.

So how would the musical contributions and on-screen appearances of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, Red Kross, For Real, Jill Sobule, and Juned inform the viewer’s understanding of the period? Also, would they work with compositions written by Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, and Joni Mitchell?

As it turns out, the music is the movie’s best asset. The movie has considerable promise and starts off well in its documentation of Edna Buxton’s professional ascendancy as songwriter Denise Waverly at the Brill Building and her struggle to become a female solo artist at a time when female musicians were either singers or songwriters. Thus, sexism and shifting gender norms is at the fore of the movie, which is great, as is its uncommented-upon racial integration. There’s also special attention paid to female collaboration between Waverly and various female pop acts. The movie also foregrounds the kinship between Waverly and songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit), who tap into teen singer Kelly Porter’s (Bridget Fonda) closeted lesbianism — she’s clearly meant to stand in for Lesley Gore — when they write “My Secret Love” for her.

I also like that the movie ends on Waverly cutting her first solo record, Grace of My Heart, which becomes hugely successful and era-defining in much the same way that Tapestry was and continues to be.

The movie’s main problem is that it simply packs too much in and resorts to awkwardly executed high melodrama in the second half. And for some reason, the movie thinks it also needs to tackle Brian Wilson’s onerous pop genius and descent into madness, and thus marries its avatar Jay Phillips to Buxton. There’s the additional misfortune of casting Matt Dillon in the role, who operates on only two modes as an actor: dumb and really dumb.

I’m also not fond of Douglas’s faked singing. While part of this is the movie’s fault, as Kristen Vigard dubbed singing isn’t a convincing match for Douglas, I have a hard time buying the actress’s musical performances throughout.

But to Douglas’s credit, amidst all that goes on in this overstuffed movie, she does a great job conveying how Waverly’s resultant experiences age, jade, and strengthen her. It’s a shame that the movie can’t always rise to the occasion.

Check out “Times Square”

Promo for Times Square; image courtesy of theauteurs.com

A few years back, I became interested in Allan Moyle’s 1980 feature debut. Times Square stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as two teenage girls who escape from a mental institution, live on the streets, form a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, drop televisions off buildings, occasionally rule local station WJAD, and creates some underground infamy that anticipates the groundswell Corrine Burns and The Stains would cause two years later.  While Moyle was fired by producer Robert Stigwood fired so he could remove explicit lesbian content and include more musical sequences in the film, the director later went on to make music geek teen pics like Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. But his first movie was praised by Kathleen Hanna. While Hanna and I disagree on the quality of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, I’m always willing to give the riot grrrl pioneer the benefit of the doubt. Plus, that soundtrack is a beast.

I saw Times Square two summers ago with a bunch of friends, including Caitlin at Dark Room and Kristen at Act Your Age. I remember a few things surprised me upon initial viewing.

1) Despite cuts, this movie is still explicitly queer. It centers on a female friendship that is romantic and liberating for both parties. And drifter Nicky Marotta, wonderfully rendered by Johnson, is assuredly a young lesbian who is starting to formulate how her sexuality shapes her identity. She often does this alone and with Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” rumbling in her broken heart, but sometimes with enough room to let in Pamela Pearl (Alvarado), the daughter of a politician she meets in a mental institution and creates a life with on the mean streets.

2) Girls like Johnson don’t star in movies much anymore, which is a shame. Little Darlings came out the same year. Kristy McNichol’s Angel Bright may have been looking to get laid by a boy in the movie, but she reads to me as a baby butch.

3) New York City doesn’t look like this anymore, and I’d love to read a history of how the city and mediated representations of it changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the 1980s, the city continued to endure escalating crime and drug rates from the decade before, as the area had not yet been gentrified and “cleaned up” to attract tourists. This is something Taxi Driver made central to Travis Bickle’s mental decline and that I hope Mad Men incorporates into the series.

By the time Sex and the City became part of the lexicon, it had. Now teenage characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and New York Minute gallivant around the Big Apple. When at the time of Times Square‘s location shoot and subsequent release, the city was far from being the tween amusement park it would later seem to be. As a matter of fact, Pearl’s father is running on a platform to clean up New York City. Thus, you really get a feel for the danger, vastness, and anonymity of the big city that informs the girls’ existence.

But you also get a sense of solidarity amongst them and other street denizens. While the movie could perpetuate racist stereotypes of predatory people of color serving as crack addicts, pimps, and whores, most of the folks the girls encounter are nice. When Pearl applies for a dancing job at a dive cabaret and refuses to perform topless, the owner (who appears to be Hispanic) praises her on being classy and holding on to some mystery.

However, I don’t want to overemphasize the treatment of race in the movie. For the most part, people of color are depicted as supportive, but they are usually without names and relegated to the background. In the rare instances that they aren’t, they can sometimes be viewed as siding with the establishment. Hence how I read Anna Maria Horsford’s Rosie Washington, who is Marotta’s case worker. While Washington understands that Marotta, whose parents are M.I.A., has been failed by the system, she’s still in cahoots with Pearl’s father and writes a letter to his daughter urging her to part ways with her “unstable” new friend.

The girls also have a troubling relationship with people of color. At the beginning of the movie, Marotta rehearses guitar. She sets her amp on the hood of a night club owner’s car. When a Latina matron complains of the noise Marotta’s making, she responds by smashing in the owner’s headlights. She’s also rude to Washington. And perhaps most disconcerting, Marotta and Pearl associate Washington with voodoo and proclaim themselves to align with various homophobic and racial epithets in their song “Your Daughter Is One.” Good that they’re pushing back against the systemic oppression they’ve endured. Bad how they’re using language to express it.

I also find Tim Curry’s role as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, who documents the girls’ story and later becomes something of an ally to them. Both girls are fans of his radio program on WJAD. Pearl actually wrote to him about her unhappy home life prior to being institutionalized, signing the letter as “Zombie Girl.” Pointedly, he insinuates himself as their ally. At first, I thought I was projecting those feelings onto LaGuardia because Curry has one of the most sinister voices I’ve ever heard. But when LaGuardia shows up at the girls’ flat with a bottle of vodka for Pearl and an interest in how “wild” Marotta is, his cover’s blown.

Upon review, I’m basically of the same opinion of it as I was before. This movie is poignant, though I do wish the original footage that documented the girls’ romance was kept intact. I also wish Marotta wasn’t depicted as crazy and escorted off at the end, while Pearl watches the mob disperse with her father. But I also have no doubt Marotta will escape once more, perhaps with Pearl by her side. She may prompt dozens of other girls to follow in her path and pen their own rock anthems.