Following a screening of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at my friend Karin’s house, I plopped down on my couch, strummed on my Mako, and watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest. I’d been meaning to watch it for some time, as an acquaintance Tweeted about the scene that captured my interest and will comprise the focus of this post.
Before getting into my thoughts on Elisabeth Welch’s scene-stealing performance, I should preface by saying that I have a tentative grasp on Shakespeare. Like many of my generation, I was certainly aware of various contemporary adaptations following the commercial success of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which moved Jane Austen’s Emma down Rodeo Drive. Unlike many of my peers in media studies, I was not an English major at any point during my college career. I was a jourstory student (a portmanteau in circulation when I was an undergrad that refers to folks who double major in journalism and history). I never had to take any classes on Shakespeare, which I believe is a requirement for English students at UT. As an outsider, I think this is ridiculous, as contemporary literature has been responsible for numerous innovations as well.
But I have no problem with the Bard himself (or Christopher Marlowe, depending on what story we’re telling). In high school, I read Romeo and Juliet, horrifying my English major-Shakespeare enthusiast mother by highlighting passages in her hard-bound, gold-leafed complete works anthology. I read the regressive The Taming of the Shrew, own 10 Things I Hate About You, and played showgirl Lois Lane, who portrays Bianca, in a high school production of Cole Porter’s backstage musical Kiss Me Kate. We read Hamlet aloud junior year in English class. I later saw a woman play Hamlet in an Austin-based production early on in college, but decided against seeing Ethan Hawke’s slacker take on the doomed prince of Denmark.
I did my senior term paper on Titus Andronicus to the chagrin of my teacher, who deemed the play inappropriate and of lesser quality. I read the part of Celia As You Like It for theater class. I played Adriana in a high school production of The Comedy of Errors, which our director regrettably set as a tacky mash-up of 60s kitsch (Laugh-In meets Beach Blanket Bingo!). I liked Emma Thompson and hated Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. I vaguely recall Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as Shakespeare in Love (which time also forgot). I read Othello during college for, you guessed it, an English class. And I didn’t find the Henry V portions of My Own Private Idaho completely distracting.
I also have a tentative grasp on Jarman, having only seen Jubilee. I’m totally willing to get to know his filmography better, as I like how he juxtaposed classical imagery with punk elements. For me, his movies evince the work of a mutual friend at a party who’s charming, smart, arch yet cheeky, and has awesome taste. I’m determined to become besties.
But Jarman is tricky, as I noted upon my screening of Jubilee. His work recalls a conversation I had with my friend Curran about Todd Haynes’s early work, and not for icky “hey, gay filmmakers!” reasons. Apparently, Haynes set out to queer his films in a number of ways. The most obvious of these was through foregrounding gay or queerable characters or putting ostensibly straight women in camp environments, configuring them as allies, or having them cede from the heterosexual marital unit. But Haynes’s key contribution to queer cinema was in challenging audience expectations, experimenting with both the formal and narrative elements of cinema to leave folks unsure of what they’ve seen. To that end, Haynes and fellow Queer New Wave director Gregg Araki are clearly indebted to Gus Van Sant and Jarman.
This brings us to The Tempest , a 95-minute adaptation of the classic play. I’ve never seen or read it, and frankly the movie didn’t help me gather much information. It’s about a magician named Prospero, who was to be Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are stuck on an island after his brother Alonso set them adrift for several years and became the King of Naples. The pacing and commitment to location — in this case, Stoneleigh Abbey — suggests a stagnant insularity from a life in exile. Prospero, the protagonist, is served by a spirit named Ariel, who helps to set right all of the familial discord.
Many old wounds seem healed, as the group set out to return to Naples, and Miranda marries her cousin Ferdinand. But the ending is evasive. In the final scene, Prospero takes it upon the audience to applaud for them in order to determine if they can leave. This makes it one of Shakespeare’s more ambiguous plays, which may have attracted Jarman to the material. At the wedding reception, a goddess appears. Here, she’s played by torch singer Elisabeth Welch in her final screen performance. Somewhat obscure in the states where she was born, England adopted her and she replied in kind by becoming a citizen. Like many chanteuses, she had a significant gay male following. Here she serenades the young couple with a peculiar song.
Yes, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s 1933 standard “Stormy Weather” is strange in its anachronism. It’s also cryptic in its message, thus subverting the role weddings traditionally provide in Shakespearean comedies as a means of tidy resolution. This scene also reminded me of a wedding reception I attended where the band played inappropriate songs like The Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Delivered in a clear, bright tone, Welch conjures up relevant imagery of turbulence while reflecting on lost love. Notably, she’s doing this in front a young, straight couple. Jarman plumbs wedding receptions’ camp potential and indicates the singer’s fan base by surrounding Welch with a chorus line of sailors, masculine figures long integrated into gay culture and iconography. For this perplexed viewer, it’s the stuff that dreams are made on.
So, you may have seen yesterday’s Vulture post on the trailer for Jennifer’s Body, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s anticipated follow-up to Juno. If not, you can view it here.
1. I haven’t seen Megan Fox in anything. I’ve kind of avoided the Transformers franchise because, eh, well, let someone else do it. I’ll definitely see this, though. I wonder how this movie and this role will evolve Fox’s Jolie 2.0 bombshell persona. I’d be curious what my friend Annie has to say about it.
2. I do kinda wish Jennifer was being played by Kat Dennings (Norah from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). I feel like Fox is ripping her off. That and I just want to see Dennings in more movies.
3. I like that the popular girl is a demon. Making the normatively feminine monstrous? Yes. “No, I’m killing boys” might be my favorite line in the trailer (the “Am I too big?” line is a close second). I see some potential feminist commentary.
4. Fox’s “I swing both ways” line to Amands Seyfried suggests one step forward, two steps back. I’d pair this with the shot of panty-clad Jennifer leering at Seyfried’s character and saying “we always share your bed when we have slumber parties.” Hello, boys. I’m sure having Jennifer play for both teams also builds up Fox’s star persona as a lipstick bisexual.
5. Why is Jennifer friends with the nerdy girl? Is it some kind of psychological “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” thing? We know that Veronica Sawyer couldn’t stay friends with Betty Finn to be one of the cool girls in Heathers. I’m intrigued.
6. It’s interesting to me that Cody’s is doing horror (albeit decidedly of the black comic variety). This suggests the influence of movies like Heathers and Scream on Cody as a screenwriter in ways more pronounced than Juno, which was cultivated and marketed as a prestige picture.
7. It’s a little annoying that the screenplay comes from “the mind of Diablo Cody.” Um. Karyn Kusmana directed it too. Plus I’m ambivalent about Cody’s writing style. Kids just aren’t that slick. And even with Daniel Waters’s super-heightened Heathers screenplay, a lot of the banter was slang-based. Or it was gross, which teenagers definitely are. I have an easier time believing a teenager would ask someone if they had a tumor for breakfast than telling a grubby-fingered peer to have a Chinese nail technician “buff your situation.” Plus, points off for reusing the fuck/Phuk Thailand joke.
7A. But the Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue didn’t bother me, in part because it seemed to be making a commentary on other network teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek. We shall see.
8. It seems that the soundtrack may play an important part for the movie’s burgeoning franchise. In the trailer, the soundtrack’s featured artists appear before the production credits and boasts hot acts like Little Boots and Panic at the Disco. Pair this with the prominent use of bad girl hits like The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and you have a potential Billboard contender. This is important. Apart from the Disney machine, I can’t think of a teen movie with a soundtrack so at the fore of its marketing strategy since the mid- to late 90s (ex: She’s All That, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cruel Intentions, Ten Things I Hate About You, and Clueless). I’ll be listening as well as watching.
Recently, I got in a fight with my partner over a minor bit of dialogue from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Please don’t question who was right on this. I was a pre-teen girl in 1995. At one point, I could recite the entire thing. I’m sure, if given a cue here and there, I could do it again at 25.
Not suggesting, of course, that if you were a pre-teen girl in 1995, you have to hold Clueless close to your heart. As a matter of fact, I resisted seeing it until it was out on video for almost a year. We had cable at home when the movie came out, and MTV advertised it all the time. I also remember reading Seventeen and other teen magazines, and it ran stuff on it a lot (though I seem to remember Seventeen actually giving a less-than-laudatory review, criticizing its unrealistic use of hyperbolic slang and schoolgirl chic).
Adding to this, when I originally saw promotional stuff for Clueless, I didn’t see me in it. Cher and Dionne were ultra-feminine and super-rich (if also good-intentioned). Several of the popular girls in my seventh grade class would emulate their look and attitude (some, perhaps instinctively, bringing in a bit of Heathers-style bitchiness). I remember this one girl actually tried to give my friend Jerusha, a Pentecostal who had to wear ankle-length dresses and skirts, a makeover because she had “total Tai potential.” Ugh. I just checked out.
BTW, my seventh grade style was Tai pre-makeover. Minus the drugs, of course. One time a girl in P.E. offered to snort Lucas Limon with me and I ran away in fear.
For readers of the blog, perhaps you can guess my entrance into the movie. Yes, you got it. The soundtrack (which, for those who are curious, was released on Capitol — the movie was a Paramount picture). I couldn’t find a lot of scenes online, but for a sense of sound and image, check out this fan-made video, underscored by The Muffs’ cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” which opens the movie.
I actually never owned the soundtrack. My friend Brandi had it, so I borrowed it from her. The closest I got was my VHS copy of the movie, which contained the music video for Supergrass’s “Alright.”
Maybe I can snag a copy at Cheapo Discs. Because man oh man, is the soundtrack ever a treasure trove of the era. With plenty of alternative musical artists — Radiohead, The Beastie Boys, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Coolio, General Public, Smoking Popes — it’s at once a document to a small period just after Cobain left us and virtually anything could get a pass on MTV or mainstream radio (Beck, for example), as well as evidence for just how important a soundtrack is in selling a movie. Remember how Cher doesn’t want Tai to burn the cassette to Coolio’s “Rollin’ With My Homies” — I always read this as sly product placement.
And lest we forget, the soundtrack is teeming with female artists. Jill Sobule, Salt-N-Pepa, Luscious Jackson, The Cranberries, The Muffs, and a just-about-to-break No Doubt (with a song about girlhood oppression from a woman who does not consider herself to be a feminist). They’re all here.
That the movie is underscored by music by female artists who are, if not all feminist, certainly embrace a pro-woman agenda should not be overlooked, especially in popular music’s larger sociohistorical context. Riot grrrl broke, the kinderwhore look had been made runway-ready, and The Spice Girls happened the following year. But Jill Sobule was singing about kissing girls and MTV played the single’s very post-modern, post-structural, super-campy music video all the time. Beavis and Butthead were also completely dumb about it (intentionally? as a commentary?).
Of course, working within the mainstream is tricky. Just look at the music video for Luscious Jackson’s “Here,” made specifically for the movie. It’s an exercise in compromise. On the one hand, we’ve got a tough group of Noo Yawk broads (one of whom is a lesbian) playing their gig in the middle of a skating rink during a roller derby meet. On the other hand, the derby girls are super-femme and the rink projects images from the movie. Sigh. Perhaps it begs the question “alternative to what?”
The inclusion of artists like No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani may suggest a post-feminist agenda, and the Luscious Jackson music video may hint at age-old tensions between underground and mainstream. However, I think that, in the context of the movie, a song like Jill Sobule’s “Supermodel” being used during Tai’s make-over scene (which I wish I could pull up, but can’t — cue the movie!) is winking at the performative and learned aspects of becoming feminine, which I think at least suggests that the movie’s politics may lean toward its writer-director and actually align with more of a third-wave feminist perspective on gender politics.
Unfortunately, despite the movie’s success, it hasn’t always been easy for Amy Heckerling. Sadly, 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman, a May-December romance starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd that some argued was more explicitly feminist, went straight to DVD. In the “Whatever!” DVD edition of Clueless, Heckerling even discusses how hard it was to get the movie greenlit because there were three female leads and no leading male character. It wasn’t until producer Scott Rudin became interested in the picture that the studios got into a bidding war and Paramount picked it up (after having originally turned it down).
It makes cultural moments like Clueless, as compromised as some may think it to be, a proud declaration of girl. With its soundtrack, it at least suggests the possibility of turning “girl” into “grrrl.”