Friday, October 10, 2008

Your Audience Is One

Superfluous plus: maybe in the wake of this financial crisis people in Hollywood will begin to remember the poor, and to deal with the everyday fact of difference. Hollywood can do "Derelicte," really earnestly too, but it can't really deal with the poor. (If and when transnational media corporations produce works that, for whatever reason, once again engage these issues, I hope Andy Rector will start to trace this progression at Kino-Slang, regardless even of the films' aesthetic worth.)

This is a point I have made a lot, but: one of the interesting things about teen movies in the 1980s vs. their late 1990s counterparts is that the former are generally much more class-conscious. Still "Hollywood," plenty of wish fulfillment and obfuscation, sure, but they acknowledge certain disparities in the way communities are separated, how individuals are thereby classified and subjected to different social options. These disparities are plasticized out of existence in (most) recent teen films. Have you seen Step Up? 10 Things I Hate About You? These are films where the outsider/underdog is never really poor. They are coded as bohemian instead or, more precisely, bobo. I kind of enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada, but Anne Hathaway's living a life of relative privilege, albeit stressful privilege, in that movie, and would not be able to afford her apartment with a live-in cook boyfriend—if I recall—unless there was some serious trust fund support. Why can't there be more studio films with cramped, imperfect apartments!? Or—God forbid—living conditions that require one to interact and compromise with their neighbors. A striking feature of The Karate Kid is that little Danny Russo meets people right away in his surroundings. Most importantly, Mr. Miyagi. Hollywood fantasy, especially today, it seems to me, is about being able to live without interference from neighbors, without being in a situation where one is forced to negotiate space, noise, bills, chores, commutes. I haven't analyzed large bodies of films to be sure of it; it's simply an impression of aggregate generalities. It's a potential shortcoming of mainstream American film that corresponds to the giant, malicious bubble under which so many of us here have lived for some years.

When 'Hollywood' (which is not run by the poor) can more honestly represent workers, mass media entertainment will: we can all claim in the theater that "I Got a Name" once again.

Truth: on a blog that I read which hosts sociopolitical opinions decidedly different than my own, a commenter recently commended Sarah Palin, in the VP debate—which I mostly didn't watch, and clearly didn't need to—for using the phrase "working class" rather than "middle class." I, too, cringe at the meaningless ubiquity of this phrase in the political media spectacle: middle class, which is peddled to represent the self-respecting aspirations of the working poor as well as the self-deprecating pretensions of the rich. So why is it that fringe rightist-libertarians are cheering on La Maverick when they would surely froth at the mouth if Obama or Biden were to speak in such terms (inciting "class warfare" no doubt)? As if the Republican or Democratic establishments would every honestly care about the majority ...

Continuing on.

As I posted on Girish's blog recently, I am a big fan of Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1981), and I am a big fan of this scene in particular, which energizes a seriously fantastic and obscure pop tune with a remarkable bit of performance/filmmaking. From seconds 0:18 to 0:55 in this clip, the camera pans from left to right, starting with the character Nicky (Robin Johnson) and moving across the floor—over the owner/manager, waitstaff, patrons, multiracial, spanning in age from adolescence until middle years, none of them exactly privileged—to the spot in the curtains from which Pammy (Trini Alvarado) will emerge. Cut to the original angle of Nicky for a moment, then an over-the-shoulder medium of shot of her, from her height, giving us a long-shot view of poor Pammy's "striptease" debut. This final shot literalizes the communality and desire implicit in the long tracking shot, which in its own way and context echoes our hero M. Lange (only lacking his armed figure to bring us, in cold righteous murderous rage, to absolution). In the absence of this Langean absolution—i.e., retaliation against our oppressors—we have a moment of supreme ecstacy, arrived at slowly, once the body armor has been let down. "In this material world run on injustice and terror, where "popular" is confused with "industrial," any cultural expression that does not hurl an angry cry or wail a song of mad love (often one and the same) merely collaborates in the regulation and preservation of this world." (Nicole Brenez, Abel Ferrara, trans. Adrian Martin.) Listen to the "na-na-na-na-na-na" part, where Johnson's throaty cackle mixes with Alvarado's progressive confidence. The stage routine began with disembodied laughs on the soundtrack, but it arrives in an orgasmic affirmation of communal pleasure.

In the mainstream cinema this is a commodity more precious than gold, and it is doled out in dust and leaf form most of the time; rarely do we witness it really.

In a few minutes of a mostly-forgotten teen film we have a passage that can sit in dialogue with Renoir, Prévert, Makavejev, Reich. I'm not saying it's great cinema in the same sense that Peter Kubelka is great cinema. But it's a rich and wonderful accomplishment of some genuine kind.

If we listen to this song from the film we witness something fascinating and, also, rare. (Cf. this bell hooks quote.) This is a politicized identification across groups, a communal act of siding with the underclasses and all the "lower" categories of people in the social sphere. "Your daughter is one."


Anonymous said...

I'm far from an expert on the subject (my little sister is better than me at this) but you might want to look at dance films as a sub-division of teen-age films that's more in touch with some aspects of reality, and more violently out of touch with some others.
My experience is limited to Step up 2: the Streets, which I intensely disliked as a film but has a few very good dance scenes which are actually not badly filmed, at least compared to ones from other films my sister has shown me.
But what's interesting is that because of the context (black urban culture, namely hip-hop and break-dancing) the films have to face a certain extent of social consciousness, but this one at least became a huge con job: essentially, it's made to reassure little white girls on the account that they can be ghetto, while justifying the fear that lower-class hip-hop groups are, in the end, dangerous criminals even if they don't start out that way.
Just thought I'd point it out. If you're interested in the recycling of lower-class culture by the upper classes that end up excluding the originators of the movement from their own creations, then what little I know of those dance films serves as a very interesting laboratory for it.
Anyway, good post, thx.
Best, nathan

ZC said...

Nathan, thanks for your comments. I haven't seen Step Up 2. But the first one is definitely a case of a certain gesture towards "social consciousness" that is, as you say, a huge con job. To a certain very limited extent that film is about misconceptions and stereotypes: I remember one scene where, IIRC, a "regular" black kid makes a comment about how he's surprised that some other, "cool" hip-hop students go to the local arts magnet school--and one of those students gets gently righteous on him ("What's someone who went to art school supposed to act like? Mos Def went to art school," etc.) At the same time the whole is about a primary white couple crossing class lines and a secondary black couple (both well-off I think), and of course money & class aren't so much political issues as they are narrative obstacles to be overcome by "understanding."

Beat Street and the Boogaloo movies, on the other hand, still seem to me fairly indicative of their times: '80s teen movies were better about representing lives which knew & felt lack, and teenagers whose lives were not necessarily directed into either the 'extracurricular' or the consumerist.

Anonymous said...

When I was a tender 21, I wrote a (mercifully unpublished) ideological slam of TIMES SQUARE !! 'Untrue to punk', or something other, I angrily claimed at the time! Boy, do I need to revisit this film. Moyle is an intriguing figure. You know that he makes his living as an often uncredited Script Doctor, flown in to 'save' films during shooting? One very Moylesque teen/music film he contributed to in a big way is Bogdanovich's 1993 THE THING CALLED LOVE (with a very doomed River Phoenix and a very perky Samantha Mathis). He once 'told all' about his secret, lucrative career at a Screenwriting conference here in Melbourne. Such 'salvage jobs' obviously help fund his own teen movies: it's a genre he really has 'held the line' on for many decades.

BEAT STREET is a great film, by the way! Very political teen film, about the 'politics of mourning'. Ah, those were the days!!

Frank Partisan said...

I go often to screenings.

I recently saw Death Race. It was about all prisons in the future run by free enterprise, and making moneu with to the death auto racing pay per view. Eagle Eye was about a computer programed to overthrow the US government, if it curtails constitutional rights. The more radical themes may be in action adventure.

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