I’d hoped this early film about the fictional all-female band The Carrie Nations would prove the point I’m trying to make in my Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers: that these films can’t help but have a feminist message. But Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has proven me wrong. This film is what might result if a crazy person decided to merge together a pre-1962 Playboy bunny party, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Austin Powers (1997) — making me set aside my feminist expectations. Should you watch this film? The short answer is no. But we all know that Feminéma is not given to short answers. Here’s the worst part: this movie has more in common with 2010 than the far more radical films of the early 80s.

The Carrie Nations (from L-R: Pet, Kelly, and Casey) can play a great rock song, but ultimately they’re all big hair, big eyes, and big breasts — and big on hopping into bed with whoever’s available. Created by the notorious breast-oriented director Russ Meyer — you know, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — using the wordiest, weirdest script ever by Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a soft-core feature with a whole lot of women who just happen to like to taking their clothes off. (What, are you objecting? are you some kinda square?) I thought at first this would be one of those Small Town Girls Go To The Big City tale (Texas to L.A., to be precise); but the film’s too chaotic for that. On its 10th anniversary Ebert wrote that Meyer wanted it to “simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose.” I’m not sure I understand the satire, nor did I see those things going on simultaneously, but I certainly see that it moves from one to the next in nonsensical progression right to the abruptly moralizing conclusion.

Remember the scene from Austin Powers in which Vanessa Kensington tries to bring him up to speed after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years? “You know, a lot’s changed since 1967,” she tells him. He responds, for a big laugh line:

“Well, as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I’ll be sound as a pound!”

No one could have captured more accurately the world of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: it gleefully and subversively shows a Southern California that welcomes all manner of (interracial, gay, BDSM) sexual unions with no AIDS, no herpes, no worries. Except that sometimes there are dire consequences indeed: spurned lovers try to kill themselves or others, take too many pills, or spiral to madness. The movie’s schizophrenic view of sex — “everything’s okay, until it’s not!” — seems far too familiar in 2010, an era in which one can see anything, all the time on the internet and the same time schools adopt abstinence-only sex education. So what am I to do with this great song, “Find It,” which begins almost as soon as the film opens?

The disconnect between that singer’s angry voice and her low register (was this inspired by Janis?) and the obvious fact that it’s not really being sung be that Kewpie-doll, baby-voiced Kelly (Dolly Read) continues to leave me baffled. This song is the film’s one gesture to feminist power — and even this is undermined by the overly cutie-pie actors who mouthed the lyrics but can’t muster any of the urgency or the fury of the real thing.

Apologies, readers: the campy pleasure of this film was mostly lost on me. Its anxious undermining of female sexual power was far too familiar to our 2010 world than seems funny; its eagerness to kill off the lesbians, transform the tranny into a demon, and celebrate the Carrie Nations’ ridiculous manager, Harris — himself an unholy mix of Greg Brady and Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s new Sherlock) — all of this didn’t seem funny anymore. I realize I’d feel different if I were in a raucous theater full of howling viewers rather than in my own living room, waiting for my sweetie to get home from work. All of this is a reminder that The Runaways (2010)’s lack of feminist ire shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me when I saw it last year. For that, dear readers, you’ll have to go back to Times Square (1980).

Advertisements

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!

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.