Kurt Cobain's shirt on display at the EMP

I hate being a One-Note Nancy, but Seattle’s Experience Music Project is a real sausage-fest. In fact, that’s exactly what one of its employees admitted to my partner when he complained about the lack of women represented in the museum and the gift shop. So, for example, when I entered that flashy gift shop I was prepared to buy (retail!) any one of the following books:

Turns out you cannot buy anything having to do with any female rocker — not even a refrigerator magnet — nor will you see much about them in the museum overall. So what’s new? And why am I bothering to work up a lather about it?

Here’s what I decided after watching (and writing about) all those cult movies about female rockers last winter: rock is still liberatory. For women, making music rather than just admiring the snarling, strutting, misunderstood dudes who’ve been celebrated for their art ad nauseum can be downright incendiary. It’s because women have been painted as the admirers of male rockers — a dynamic that portrays women as sexual rewards for worthy men rather than aggressive sexual figures themselves — that reversing roles seems so fantastic, so revolutionary.

Thus, how great was it to leave the extensive exhibits of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and the evolution of the electric guitar and turn instead to the Hands-On Lab upstairs, where piles of children and adults were going inside little studios to do computer-led lessons in playing instruments, singing, and mixing songs. And here they were — girls getting the hang of the drum set, the guitar, or screeching along to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” (Oh wait — that was me.) Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but after finding none of those great women rockers I grew up with represented in the museum downstairs — Blondie, Lydia Lunch, Joan Jett, Tina Turner, the early Liz Phair, Chrissie Hynde, Queen Latifah, Courtney Love — it was in the Hands-On Project that I started to see that gleam in girls’ eyes as they got over feeling self-conscious and instead focused on getting the beat right.

Which brings us back to feminism, doesn’t it? Is it just me, or does feminism have to fight the same fights over & over again, such that women rockers still have to fight for a place at the table? The only upside, as I see it, is that when women do get onstage, they still have the capacity to blow your mind.

 

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Watching this film made my previous forays into my Cult Marathon for Movies about Female Rockers look like High Art. I guess you know that when a film’s opening credits announce that it was written, directed, photographed, and edited all by the same guy (David Markey, who was 19 when this was made), you’re getting a very particular kind of viewing experience. In Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, the obviously non-professional actors sometimes giggle their way through scenes, cross-dress when necessary to staff a role, and do their best with campy dialogue (“Thanks for killing my mom”). Most of the time you’re laughing at them, which they fully expect. But you won’t be bored.

I loved it the minute it opened with its grainy, hand-held Super-8 footage of heroine Kitty Carryall welcoming her best friend Bunny Tremelo back to town at the Greyhound station:

Kitty:  Even though Alexandria was committed I’m not gonna let that stop us. Now that you’re in town I’m gonna get the band together and we’re gonna rock L.A.
Bunny:  Rock L.A.?!? The Love Dolls are gonna rock the world!
Kitty:  Fuck yeah!

They score some drugs, steal a guitar, and lurk around the Venice, California boardwalk where they eat some cotton candy out of a garbage can. It would seem from these scenes that Markey was influenced by early John Waters films — I watched a super-realistic shock scene of Alexandria, the mental hospital escapee, shooting heroin and remembered almost vomiting during that final scene of Waters’ Pink Flamingos. (Divine was a much more convincing female character for Waters than Markey’s cross-dressed characters, however.)

Messing around with the guitar on a sidewalk, they’re discovered by a big-shot record producer, Johnny Tremain (!), who tells them, “I think I could do for you girls what God did for mankind,” by which he means more specifically that he’ll transform them into “the hottest rock goddesses in town.” Too bad he’s also a sleazebag with a penchant for wearing bright blue running tights to show off his man-parts — and it’s while wearing them that he manages to rape Bunny. But Johnny’s better than the vicious gang, the She Devils, who lurk around Venice and harbor a vendetta against the Love Dolls, especially after the Love Dolls score their #1 hit single.

Doesn’t this shot of Kitty (Jennifer Schwartz, above right) look reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991)? As the body count rises in Desperate Teenage Lovedolls one begins to overlook the dialogue, acting gaffes, and narrative gaps in favor of what it does so well: capture what had happened to teenage rebellion in the early ’80s when it was no longer just rebellion, but ironic rebellion. Even the terrific soundtrack for the film, featuring a whole host of early ’80s L.A. punk bands (Red Kross, Black Flag, The Nip Drivers and more) seemed less oriented to rebelling than to making a statement about style; subverting social norms was enough, it went no further. (I haven’t yet seen its sequel, Lovedolls Superstar Fully Realized, but I’m not convinced from the plot summary that it’s going to go further.)

All of these early-’80s films — Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Times Square, and Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) — paint a different picture of the Reagan era than we’ve preferred to remember. Honestly: I’m riveted. But I’m leaving that era for my next two Cult Marathon screenings. Stay tuned for more on

  • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970 schlock melodrama from big-breasts obsessed Russ Meyer; screenplay by Roger Ebert!)
  • Prey For Rock & Roll (2003, with the perpetual hottie Gina Gershon!)
  • and Lovedolls Superstar Fully Realized if I can find a DVD copy.

Rock on, ladies. Fuck yeah!

Let’s face it: most films about bands should be called “The Rise and Fall of [band name].” The Runaways (2010) is a classic tale that follows this model: band gets together, writes some great songs, has some personality clashes, has a big big show, and breaks up in dramatic and tragic ways. There are other narratives that have them selling out (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains) or being misunderstood — but in general it’s odd that these movies tend to tell stories of decline. In contrast, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda meanders a bit but ultimately ends with the triumphal appearance of a great high school girl band. There’s no way you’ll finish this film without wanting to scream along with the power-pop chorus — which, conveniently, is the title of this film. Thus, in this continuation of Feminéma’s Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers, we travel to Japan for an altogether new story about the girl band. (And a quick shoutout to Feminist Music Geek whose site I just discovered and you should too, and who wrote a great piece about this film.)

Rinko and Kei (Yu Kashii, the guitarist with the angelic face above) are mad at each other. Normally this might just seem like the usual ups and downs of high school girls’ friendships, but the problem is that the Shiba High Hiiragi-sai festival is coming up and without Rinko they don’t have a singer. Drummer Kyoko (Aki Maeda) and bassist Shiori (Nozumi Shiroko of the band Base Ball Bear) won’t pry into it, but they seem to agree that finding a replacement singer is Kei’s problem. So when Kei gets put on the spot — is the band going to play the festival or not? — she recruits the first girl she sees: Son (Doona Bae). Problem is, Son only recently arrived from South Korea with a limited command of Japanese, and has never sung with a band before.

If this were a Hollywood film, Son’s questionable language/singing skills might be hyped up for Big Dramatic Effect — but that’s what’s different about this film: it’s subtle, even quiet. Kyoko and Shiori give the slightly depressive, almost sullen Kei a lot of space to work out whatever’s going on in her head (is it the fight with Rinko or the ex-boyfriend?), while Son practices at a local karaoke bar and watches the rest of them from her wide, lost-in-translation eyes. But if she doesn’t quite follow all the conversation or understand the girls’ long histories together, she’s certainly determined. The story of this film is about girls who eventually become a unit — practicing till exhaustion and then putting on a show.

Guys seem to circle around these girls, but they don’t really matter much — and what a relief that is when you consider how even The Runaways seemed more oriented to the band’s Svengali-like manager than to each other. Kei’s fight with Rinko is far more disruptive than her breakup with her now ex-boyfriend; likewise, when a shy boy named Mackey arranges a complicated secret meeting with Son to ask her out, the whole scene is played for cringe  comedy when Son expresses no interest whatsoever. In fact, I think she exaggerates her geekiness and limited Japanese skills in this scene to heighten the sense of distance between the two of them and get him off the hook. This film is about how the four girls form a bond together, rehearsing during long nights such that they collapse for lack of sleep the next day. The only way that boys matter in this film is that the band decides to cover songs by the 1980s Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts rather than write their own material; they even call themselves Paran Maum, or Blue Hearts in Korean. In doing so, as Feminist Music Geek points out, they voice the sentiments of the Blue Hearts men who wrote songs about women, engaging in that queer act of identifying as men but in the bodies of women, no more so than when they race through the rain to perform for the first time the song “Linda Linda”:

As the film ends they’re singing another Blue Hearts song, “Owaranai Uta,” with terrific outsider punk lyrics:

Let’s sing an endless song
For this asshole of a world
Let’s sing an endless song
For all of the trash
Given the cold shoulder from life
I cried alone at night
Until now there were many times
I thought I couldn’t make it
The moment of truth is always
Something scarier than death
Until now there were many times
I just wanted to run away
Let’s sing an endless song
For me, for you, and for them
Let’s sing an endless song
So we can laugh tomorrow

Fantastic. Rock on.

Once upon a time a director named Allan Moyle bought a secondhand sofa, and as he was cleaning it he found a diary stuffed into its cushions. As he read through it, he realized it had been written by a young woman, one who’d lived on the streets and had probably been emotionally disturbed. Even though Moyle had only directed one film in his career, he used the diary to start writing a script, and eventually came up with Times Square. There aren’t many movies about female rockers, but the few that exist have become cult favorites — hence starting Feminéma’s very first Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers.

When I say cult movie, I don’t mean the big-budget numbers like last year’s The Runaways or 2006’s Dreamgirls, nor do I mean the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2003). The very term evokes little-known movies, or films that died at the box office, or were critically panned and went undiscovered for a while — like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which I wrote about last month. Thus, I’m not writing about films that were wrongfully denied prizes; on a strictly critical level, these films have their problems. The pleasure of the cult film comes in other, secret, subtextual meanings — occasionally demanding that we read against the film for the things it implies yet seems to reject. Times Square is just such a movie; and for some of those readings and/or personal responses to it, check out this fanblog, DefeatedAndGifted, or this response by the author of the PussyRock Fanzine (and many thanks to both of them for these great screen caps):

When I first saw this movie, it was a fucking epiphany. I was 14 years old, hospitalised in a psychiatric unit and just getting into alternative culture. Times Square was a revelation. It showed you how exciting and chaotic the big city could be and how it would inspire and stimulate you as well as scare you. That was my dream — to run away to the bright lights and have my own creative renaissance and be discovered by some cool alternative media Svengali. It seemed like Nicky and Pamela represented the 2 halves of my personality and my 2 possible futures. … This movie seemed like the only thing remotely resembling and evoking my mood and hopes and fears at the time.

Pamela (Trini Alvarado, left) is the über good-girl daughter of the NY city commissioner, but being good has left her feeling like a soulless zombie; Nicky (Robin Johnson, right) is a street tough with disruptive, antisocial tendencies. They meet in the mental ward of a hospital being checked out for similar conditions — how else can adults explain these girls’ unwillingness to be “normal” and “happy”? — and despite the differences between them, they recognize one another as similar souls, so they run away together to live in an abandoned building near the downtown docks. At first they focus just on surviving. But because of Pamela’s father’s efforts to find her using posters and radio notices that emphasize Nicky’s mental instability, they gradually start to articulate a reaction against the normative world around them. Those articulations are easier for the educated, poetic, gentle Pamela; but they’re more explosive from Nicky, who embraces their new underworld identity as The Sleez Sisters:

The film’s fame comes from moments like that — the girls’ energizing, exuberant defiance of the status quo. It also comes from the queer relationship between them which, though never explicitly sexualized, is clearly the real story of this film. In fact, the original cut had far more lesbian content; due to radical conflicts between the film’s producer Robert Stigwood and director Moyle, who eventually quit the project in frustration, Times Square was brutally edited — and it shows in choppy and nonsensical narrative leaps. (Do any diehard fans out there know whether that cut footage still exists? What a great addition it would make to a DVD.) The only way men matter to the lives of Nicky and Pamela is as conflicting authority figures — Pamela’s uptight father and, at the other end of the spectrum, a local radio DJ with his own agenda (Tim Curry) — these girls are primarily dedicated to one another in a way that goes beyond simple friendship and even simple love.

The most poignant and perfect expression of their bond is a beautifully-shot scene in the drydock, looking out over the harbor. They’ve just found it and have decided this’ll be their home, and they need to adjust to their new style of life. Nicky tells Pamela that if either one of them is ever in trouble, they should scream out the other’s name for help: “PAMMY! PAMMY! PAMMY!” she screams to demonstrate; Pamela responds: “NICKY! NICKY! NICKY!” It’s the equivalent of one of those male bonding scenes in which two dudes slice open their hands to exchange blood with one another, but this is more subversive; it signals that these girls might well face sexual violence or attack while living on the street. Yet screaming together gives them a voice (just like we were taught in those self-defense classes in college) and it makes them giddy and giggly, too; it’s like a spell they cast around them that cements their tie to one another. It’s specifically a feminine bonding moment based on female danger and a rejection of female victimhood — no wonder the film reads so obviously as queer despite the heavy editing.

Watching this film reminds you of the commentators in the amazing documentary The Celluloid Closet who describe watching certain films over and over and over just to catch that one amazing queer moment. No wonder Times Square was “a fucking epiphany.” The rock/punk scenes — “I’m a Damn Dog Now” in the above clip, and the “Your Daughter is One” scene you can find on YouTube — don’t just confirm the girls’ outsider status, but show how that music looked different if it was done by girls, and how subversive it might be if they embraced a whole lot of racial and sexual epithets. So what if this movie’s crazy storyline leaves you scratching your head a bit (who ever saw homeless girls with such enviable wardrobes? with such a great furnished “apartment”? who so easily get jobs in a topless joint, yet don’t have to go topless?). I can be snooty about such things (remember my unwillingness to overlook the narrative gaps in Easy A?), but I finished watching it and only wanted to return to certain scenes over and over and over. One of the last scenes, in which an army of teenage girl fans of the Sleez Sisters show up wearing the same black-mask makeup as Nicky, didn’t make any narrative sense but made me wish the statement would come back, even thirty years after the movie’s initial release.

One final note about that army of teenage girl fans: there was a similar plot element in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, although it was deeply troubling in that later film. Clearly, films of this early 80s generation realized that teenage girls were looking for an outlet, a leader, someone to articulate their frustration. Was this how filmmakers addressed the question of feminism as it pertained to a young generation? Or was it a more ambivalent gesture — in Susan Douglas’s terms, filmmakers “took feminism into account” for a brief moment and then ignored it? I’m left on the fence…with only a long list of more cult films about female rockers to help me answer it. Rock on, readers.

“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?