“I’m perfect, but nobody in this shithole gets me, cuz I don’t put out!” yells the lead singer of The Stains, Corinne (a very young Diane Lane) to an unhappy audience. A local news anchor later objects to that anthem, telling Corinne, “It doesn’t make sense to wear a see-through blouse and no bra and say ‘I don’t put out.'” But Corinne’s got an answer to that: she snaps back in her characteristically surly tone, “That’s not what it means. It means don’t get screwed. Don’t be a jerk; don’t get had.” It doesn’t matter, really, whether the 30-something anchor buys it (actually, she does): Corinne’s female fans go berserk with this profound statement and mimic everything she does. Even more important than wearing see-through tops is to mimic Corinne’s hair: they dye it two-tone, and call themselves Skunks.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains makes a great cult punk movie, and that goes for more than the fashion and the hair. Most of all, it’s got a crazily appealing feminist screed at the center that makes it look far more radical than last year’s The Runaways. It’s also stacked with good actors at the beginning of their careers. Lane was 15 when the film was shot, still only a year or so out from her little-girl début in A Little Romance (1979) and long before her descent into middle-aged chick-flick pablum; she was backed up by a 13-year-old Laura Dern, Ray Winstone, and Christine Lahti, all still basically unknown. And those are only the actors. Paul Simonon from the Clash, ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick all populate the film and alternately mock themselves and put on a good show. The music is great, and those skunk hairdos — damn, I would’ve dyed my hair too in 1981 if I’d known. The thing is, no one knew about this movie — it received no theatrical release at all until 1985, and only in the late 80s and 90s did it gain its true/cult audience by means of late-night screenings on cable TV. Is this a great example of film art? No. Does it offer an interesting take on women, feminism, music, and the media nevertheless? Damn straight.
If there’s one thing Corinne has learned in her short, unhappy life in that miserable Pennsylvania factory town, it’s that the older generation doesn’t have much to offer her. But she’s also learned that no matter how old people view her, people of her own generation respond to what she says. The opening scene consists of Corinne being interviewed on a local TV station about her disaffection with the world: as the interviewer tries to discredit her, she simply snarls at him, refuses to succumb to his girl-gone-bad narrative, and slowly paints herself with vivid red eyeshadow (is that where Lady Vengeance got it from?). Perhaps due to that experience, Corinne treats the media as yet another adversary. But no matter how much middle-aged TV anchors might disapprove, her words speak to a world of young girls: “She said things I’ve always wanted to say, but wasn’t able to,” gushes one be-skunked acolyte. And when a woman TV reporter begins to champion her in the news, she reports that Corinne has articulated something new: “the power of young girls to resist life as we know it.”
That’s why this makes a great cult film — those glimpses beyond the film’s flaws to a message of resistance that speaks to a grassroots audience. Even more specific: for girls to resist. The dialogue may not be Shakespeare, but it’s always surprising and actually weirdly riveting. Critics have mentioned this film’s influence on the Riot Grrls of the 90s, but let’s be historically specific here: even if this message resonated later on, the early 80s was a nightmare for both feminists and nonconformists, at least in sad-sack remote locales like the rural Pennsylvania depicted here.
I want to be careful in touting its feminism, as this film like all other similar films curtails and “complicates” the feminist message, ending up ambivalent about both Corinne’s and her fans’ possibilities for liberation. But the film’s 80s-era ambivalence about female resistance still looks radical by today’s standards. When Corinne yells out a bunch of questions to her female audiences — “What’s so wonderful about getting married?” — they scream back, “Nothing!” And we know for certain by the end of the film that even if The Stains won’t always reject mainstream values, they’ve lit a fire for at least some of their fans.
It’s exhilarating to see Lane use her narrow eyes and pouty lips to such unsmiling effect, particularly after all those recent rom-coms in which she seems too eager to please. Most of all it’s great to see an alternate message about why girls turned to rock music as liberation from social expectations, a theme The Runaways seemed to miss entirely. Written by top-shelf, Oscar-winning screenwriter Nancy Dowd (of Slapshot, among others) with help from consulting journalist Caroline Coon, who’d documented the London punk movement of the late 70s, the story of the film’s creation and disappearance is almost as interesting as the film itself — and has been told in a 2000 documentary available on YouTube. In fact, Dowd ultimately removed her name from the film due to pervasive sexual harassment on the set. It got no video release; fans taped copies off TV and passed them around amongst themselves; somehow members of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, and Hole became big fans and even considered recording covers of the film’s songs. Eventually the film made its way to the art-house circuit and got itself onto DVD in 2008. So watch Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains with a healthy dose of generosity; but I still think you’ll be impressed and surprised. In the end, isn’t that one of the reasons we keep watching?