Today’s post is dedicated to Caitlin, a friend of mine from graduate school who runs the blog Dark Room. After living in College Station for a couple of years, she and her husband are moving back to the Pacific Northwest. Caitlin taught me quite a few things as a friend and colleague. Perhaps her largest contribution is my appreciation of horror film, which I didn’t have when we first met. Going into our master’s program, I was strongly of the mind that horror is resistant, if not entirely antithetical, toward feminism. But Caitlin, who is both a feminist and horror aficionado, taught me the power of looking and interpreting the genre from a feminist perspective. Like me, she’s a huge music fan and champions the work of independent female musicians. Thus, it seems fitting that the last time we’ll see each other for the immediate future is at the Girls Rock Camp Austin showcase (tomorrow at the HighBall — doors open at noon). In tribute, I thought I’d do a brief write-up on The 184.108.40.206s’ cameo in Kill Bill, Volume One. Grrrl rock and Quentin Tarantino? I can’t think of a better pairing to honor her.
The story goes that director Tarantino was introduced to the band while frequenting a Japanese clothing store and had to track them down. Eventually, he put them in the first installment of his two-part revenge epic about a bride (Uma Thurman) wronged by her groom (David Carradine), with whom she used to work for as a member of his crime syndicate, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In order to seek justice, the bride must slaughter the entire organization. While the second volume is more meditative in its focus on the couple’s final showdown, the first half depicts her picking off her former work associates, employing a myriad of genres for each vignette. It culminates in a battle between the Bride and former DIVA O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who runs a criminal organization in Tokyo. But in order to battle O-Ren, the Bride must first take out her crew in a bar where The 220.127.116.11s are playing.
As you can tell from the band’s sound, cultural references, and performance of The Ikettes’ “I’m Blue,” the Japanese outfit is heavily influenced by 60s Americana, particularly girl groups and surf rock. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, similar interests are shared with Japanese characters in movies like Mystery Train and Linda Linda Linda. But I wonder about the feedback loop between Japan’s cultural fascination with American rock music and 20th century youth culture and Americans’ interest in some of their pop culture being appropriated and reinterpreted by members of an Eastern nation.
Obviously, this exchange can sometimes perpetuate Western assumptions of a cutesy, monolithic Japanese culture heavily rooted in American narcissism. So I feel a bit uneasy when interpreting the band’s appearance in the movie. It could easily be argued that they’re window-dressing, as well as means of authenticating an outsider’s conceptualization of what a “real” izakaya must be like. Yet I still feel that their sound is interpreting American rock music in a way analogous to Tarantino’s celebration of Japanese popular culture, particularly martial arts movies and anime. It may not be an easy pairing, but The 18.104.22.168s rock it out.
Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who is Robin Tunney?
I think Tunney was slated to be a star when she started cropping up in movies in the 1990s. While stardom didn’t happen for her, she’s had steady work, currently starring on The Mentalist, a CBS procedural. She was supposed to co-write a book on feminism with her friend Liz Phair, with whom she worked on the movie Cherish. I’m still waiting for that last one.
For many in my age group, we know her from back-to-back appearances in Empire Records and The Craft. As both movies were slumber party staples in my friend group, featured teen girl characters, and were accompanied by popular soundtracks, I knew I’d need to revisit them.
Empire Records came out in 1995 and developed a bit of a cult following, despite poor reviews and a dismal box office performance. It also instilled a personal desire to work at a record store, particularly an indie fighting to stay that way. At 13, it looked so cool and fun to “work” all day at such a place with hip teens and twentysomethings.
Well, maybe not them specifically, as the characters in Empire Records aren’t believeable as people so much as underwritten Generation X versions of cool kids dreamt up by a team of movie executives: there’s Joe, the anti-establishment boomer-era owner (Anthony LaPaglia); Lucas, the Zen-like hipster (Rory Cochrane); A.J., the sensitive artist in love with the unattainable Corey (Johnny Whitworth); Corey, the wholesome speed freak perfectionist (Liv Tyler); Gina, Corey’s slutty best friend who wants to be in a band (Renée Zellweger); Mark, the stoner (Ethan Embry); Berko, the rocker who clocks in between gigs (Coyote Shivers, who was married to Tyler’s legendary mother Bebe Buell at the time); and Debra, the rebel girl accountant who shaves her head after attempting suicide (Tunney).
The writing is the movie’s biggest problem, though I’ll never understand why casting directors thought someone as boring as Tyler would ever be a huge star (I’d ask this question again later in the decade when Katie Holmes started landing movie roles). The motivations of the characters, though meant to be read as young and madcap, are childish and inconsistent. The boys pine after girls, eat pizza, get high, and glue quarters to the floor. The girls pine after has-been teen idols doing in-stores, alternate between loving and hating each other, and get together with the boys who pine after them. Both sexes deliver such profound lines like “If I can love her in that skirt, than this must really be it” and “I went to rock and roll heaven, and I wasn’t on the guest list.”
That second line is the answer given to a question about bandaged wrists. It’s delivered to withering effect by Debra, potentially the movie’s most interesting character. She’s not glamourous like her female co-workers or sophomoric like her male colleagues. She also seems to have gone through real pain, deeper than the surface angst used to promote OK Soda and perhaps closer to the actual pain brought on by parental neglect and low self-esteem. In the early 1990s, these and other issues were particularly relevant to young girls, some of whom would form or discover riot grrl and queercore and develop their own queer and/or feminist identities. We only get a sense of Debra’s absent mother, resistent intellect, boredom with men, feelings of inadequacy, and the hope for something better.
Note: I’d recommend watching director Allan Moyle’s far-superior Times Square. Rest assured that the tale of two girl runaways falling in love amidst downtown New York’s early-80s squalor will get its due on this blog.
It’s weird that slashed wrists bridge Tunney’s two major performances to date. Clearly suicide, perhaps most unfortunately personified by Kurt Cobain, was on young people’s minds at the time. I’d hedge that this has more to do with class frustration, racial injustice, conflicted feelings about sexual orientation, coming out to unsupportive families and communities, dysfunctional home lives, and a lack of any real support system. I’d also add that it’s an on-going problem.
Absent mothers also connect Debra and Sarah, the latter of whom lost her mother during childbirth. As The Craft was originally pitched as “Carrie meets Clueless,” it seems necessary to point out that these movies feature girls with compromised mother-daughter relationships. Carrie’s mother is a crazed witch. Cher Horowitz, like so many other fairytale heroines before her, lost her mother at an early age and has only an idealized memory of her. Sarah has similar baggage, along with the additional burden of being responsible for her mother’s death. Oh, and carrying on the ability to perform witchcraft. That’s a hell of a lot for any teenage girl to shoulder, especially when she’s moving to Los Angeles with her family.
A heartening aspect of The Craft , no doubt motivated by how successful Clueless was, is the presence of girlfriends. Sarah meets shy Bonnie (played by Neve Campbell) and becomes friends with a trio of Goth girls. Two other movies came out in 1996 that focused on girl gangs — Girls Town and Foxfire. For a more nuanced analysis of these two movies and their depictions of homosociality and developing feminist politics, I highly recommend checking out my friend Kristen’s thesis Revenge, Girl Style.
The Craft entertains the progressive potential of girl friendship, particularly for outcasts. There are also hints at the queer possibilities of homosocial bonding and witchcraft. It even contains racially charged moments, particularly when Rochelle (played by Rachel True), the coven’s lone African American member, casts a spell on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), a popular blonde who is on the swim team with her. After enduring Lizzie’s racist comments about her hair, Rochelle turns her bald, thus rebelling against normative, white-centric notions of feminine beauty.
But these suggestions are sidelined. Because what the movie is really about is the battle between Tunney’s kind-hearted Sarah and Fairuza Balk’s destructive ringleader Nancy, who is jealous of her frenemy’s natural aptitude for witchcraft. It should also be noted that Nancy is working-class and coded as queer. The movie makes a considerable effort to undo her queerness, putting men in between her and Sarah, whether they be ex-boyfriends or Manon, the supernatural male figure that the girls worship. The movie ends with Nancy trying to kill Sarah, resulting in a showdown that tears the group apart, causes Sarah to move, and leads to Nancy being institutionalized. The final shot is of Nancy in a straight-jacket trying to fly out of a padded cell. The movie’s message: we are the weirdos, mister. Just don’t expect us to stay friends or keep a hold of our sanity. So much for sisterhood.
Sisterhood is often lacking in movies, but is emphasized to market teen movies, if only to tap in to the girl market. But much of this was eclipsed in story development to make way for more lucrative prospects, none more pronounced at the time than the soundtrack. A considerable number of American teen movies in the 1990s featured a soundtrack, many boasting songs by alternative rock artists. Unlike The Craft and Empire Records, and more in line with All Over Me, Girls Town and Foxfire paid particular attention toward showcasing female artists, particularly those closely associated with hip hop and the then-waning riot grrrl movement. Scholars like Jeff Smith and Mary Celeste Kearney have addressed this in their work, theorizing that the soundtrack served as a way to cultivate potential audience markets and a source of textual identification for fans.
While female artists are present on the soundtracks to Empire Records and The Craft, they’re not the focus, perhaps out of fear of alienating a broader audience. This might further explain why The Craft soundtrack features covers of popular songs from lesser-known acts. Our Lady Peace contributes a version of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Heather Nova covers Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” and Letters To Cleo take on The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” a tactic they’d repeat when covering Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” for 10 Things I Hate About You at the end of the decade. And let’s not forget the double-nostalgia of former Psychelic Furs’ front man Richard Butler covering The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” with his post-Furs project Love Spit Love.
A major problem both of these movies share, and is evident in other titles of this period and in the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s, is the need to broadly define its characters as members of a generation, rather than as complex young people with particular problems oftentimes informed by their identities. And while ennui and an ironic fluency in popular culture were markers for Gen X, these young adults were more than just sneering (white) kids in flannel, combat boots, and barettes. At least off-camera.
Oftentimes, they were frustrated by how little high school and a liberal arts education could get them in a job market, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy had yet to recover from the 1987 market crash. They were annoyed at the shrine their parents built to the 1960s, as it was clear just how empty and hollow their promises of revolution were. In some ways, they were no different than people my age or boomer hipster Paul Kinsey on Mad Men, turning to interesting records, movies, books, and TV shows, but knowing they wouldn’t make them any happier, politically mobile, or economically viable.
Some of these people formed bands, often annointed with glossy but unremarkable one-word monikers: Sponge, Drill, Lustre, Cracker, Elastica, Spacehog, Dig, Hole, Belly, Hum, Bush, Toadies, Oasis . . . In a particularly cruel example of market imperative, many of these bands broke up or were without major label record deals by the end of the decade.
But it’s hard to convey all of this in a 90-minute movie, especially one that hopes to cash in on the wages of the very demographic these popcorn flicks were hoping to represent. Some did a decent job of conveying this generation’s ambivalence, particularly indies like Kicking and Screaming. I’d also add that Reality Bites highlights these problems, even pointing out the crass ways in which corporate America capitalizes on the very market its created. While I wish Winona Ryder’s filmmaker character Lalaina didn’t end up with Ethan Hawke’s slacker Troy, I understand why she can’t be with Michael (played by director Ben Stiller), who works for an MTV-type network that makes worm’s meat out of her documentary about her friends.
Richard Linklater’s second feature, Dazed and Confused, did a considerable job at suggesting that Generation X inherited their sense of slacker frustration (and detached nostalgia for Schoolhouse Rock and The Brady Bunch) from their parents. That Linklater cast a bunch of twentysomething unknowns like Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, and Marisa Ribisi to essentially play the teenagers and young adults who would become their parents may strengthen Robin Wood’s argument that Dazed is a horror film.
Some television shows also did a good job articulating the nuances of the slacker era. I’d offer up British programs like Spaced, along with MTV’s Daria and ABC’s My So-Called Life. The latter featured an angsty girl protagonist, complex teenage characters, depicted boomer parents being just as clueless and angsty as their brood, and created an immortal stoner heartthrob named Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto), whose band Frozen Embryos changed their name at the end of the series to perhaps the most perfect of Gen X band names: Residue.
But it’s always different for girls, and unfortunate that Tunney and many of the actresses of her generation were not given the consideration they deserved (though I love that Austin Chronicle writer Margaret Moser fancies herself as being like Balk’s character in Almost Famous). Some may attribute this to their flat delivery or lack of believability, but I’d wager that this has more to do with poor character development on the part of screenwriters and the industrial emphasis on youth than it does on the actresses. At 19, Kristen Stewart is playing the slouched-shoulder ingenue of a multi-million-dollar film franchise, its latest installment complete with a soundtrack featuring of-the-moment, indie and indie-friendly artists like Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Lykke Li, Grizzly Bear, and Thom Yorke. I only hope she has that sort of star power at 25.
I recently put together a post on Fantasia for Dark Room, a blog my friend Caitlin runs. As Caitlin is quite the feminist horror film scholar, her blog focuses mainly on movies and some television programs that are either scary, darkly comedic, or both. Appropriately, I wrote about how the movie in question scared me as a kid as part of an ongoing series on childhood cinematic traumas.
It should be noted that I’m a bit of a ‘fraidy cat when it comes to horror movies. Thus, Caitlin is responsible for opening my eyes to the feminist possibilities of watching and interpreting horror. If you’re a feminist music geek who’s a bit skittish about the genre, I highly recommend reading her pieces on Dario Argento’s Opera and horror-informed music videos. I also value her assessments of TV shows like True Blood and movies like An American Crime, Palindromes, Heavenly Creatures, and Jennifer’s Body, among many others.
And if you’re a feminist music geek who loves horror, you should already be reading Dark Room. 😉
. . . So we meet again, Steffie. How are you?
So, I thought I’d briefly mention Lady Gaga’s recent cover story for Out Magazine, which further establishes her recent fascination with monsters and horror (though not, sadly, Muppets). More importantly, it aligns her with a queer audience and as one of the tribe (an extension of an argument my friend Alex Cho made in a column for Flow earlier this month).
Ellen Von Unwerth’s pictorial is interesting — I’ve been a fan since I first saw her cover of Hole’s Live Through This. I especially find the photographs of her wrapped in medical gauze interesting, as it revisits the fixations she has with death and frailty that she brought to light in her music video for “Paparazzi.”
Lady Gaga on the cover of Out seems like a pretty big deal, but one I’m sure is not met without some controversy. While I’m not livid at her being on the cover (the way I was when lipstick chic interloper Katy Perry made the publication’s year-end cover last winter), I hedge. I hedge for a few reasons, the least of which has to do with hailing a queer audience while doing so with a normatively sexy female body, as Lady Gaga did when she conjured up the bath house in Rolling Stone‘s recent Hot Issue.
Principally, I still wonder how queer — not how queerable — Lady Gaga really is. Her bisexuality, which has been well-reported, is not disclosed here, but referred to, perhaps as a given. I do find disconcerting the lack of qualification for an earlier comment that her attraction to women is purely physical (presumably in opposition to men, who she doesn’t make this distinction for). For me, this seems antithetical to how I’ve always defined the philosophy behind bisexuality — i.e., that sex categories and binaries eclipse a person’s romantic, sexual, physical, emotional, and/or cerebral attractions to another person.
And while I imagine the feature was written before Lady Gaga discussed in a recent interview about the double-standard between men and women and rock and pop before immediately dismissing any claim to being a feminist, I would like some acknowledgement of how problematic this moment was.
Also, I find the constant speculation about Lady Gaga being a man or a hermaphrodite interesting, if not a bit limiting. While she’s enjoyed and encouraged much of this rumor-mongering, I’d be more impressed if she incorporated a more subcultural mode of queer address — say, tagging — or went the route of Marilyn Manson and employed prosthetics as part of her costuming. Sure, the appendage would be blurred in UsWeekly, but how awesome would it be to see a female pop star step out of a limousine with a penis peaking out of her avant-garde party dress?
What I wonder about this cover — indeed, Lady Gaga’s success as a queer icon — is how she might be more specifically aligned with a gay male fan culture and how this may speak to the fundamental differences between identity politics within the LGBT community, as well as within factions inside the current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism). Because while this feminist thinks that Lady Gaga’s performance and cultural positioning is interesting (and problematic), it also still has very clear limits.
As readers of the blog may know, I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears on the Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning Runaways biopic. While you may know the leads, the director and screenwriter may not be as much of a household name. But hopefully that will change, as first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi has been making amazing music videos since the early 1990s. Some of her more famous titles include Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid,” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” Also, Sigur Rós’s “Untitled #1” knocks me breathless each time I see it.
In keeping with the spirit of the blog, I thought I’d focus on the female musicians Sigismondi has worked with (click on the artists’ names). Also, having read a delightful post on music videos inspired by horror films from my friend Caitlin at Dark Room, I thought I’d continue in the spirit.
Back to Basics
Quixotic (retitled Anything upon re-release)
“Anything But Down”
The Globe Sessions