Author Archives: Sam Price

The problem with “quirk” (and how it used to be so different…)

Queen of quirk - Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

In critical terms “quirky” is a much-derided word these days, often with good reason. It’s twinned with derisory adjectives like “arch” and “knowing”, and screenwriters like Diablo Cody get taken to task for cobbling together character from a series of meaningless phrases like “honest to blog” and “homeslice”. Look around, though, and quirk is everywhere; widespread and readily accessible. Quirky Zooey Deschanel has made a career out of it. Quirky Natalie Portman won an Oscar by subverting the common perception of her as a sweet nothing who coaxes Zach Braff out of affected bouts of melancholia that involve paralysing his mother with a dishwasher. Her quirky predecessor and Black Swan co-star Winona Ryder regained some credibility by playing off a similar typecasting that had stuck with her since Reality Bites. There are countless other examples of women quirking it up in different films over the years – Parker Posey for Hal Hartley, Christina Ricci for Vincent Gallo, Renee Zellweger for Cameron Crowe, Meg Ryan for Rob Reiner – to varying degrees of success. Currently Greta Gerwig reigns supreme amongst her peers, occupying roles for Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman identical to the ones she played in the string of meaningless mumblecore movies years earlier, and which require her to do little more than spout ponderous drivel about the futility of her existence.

Quirk has become accessorised and streamlined to an absurd degree – the cynicism of which can be observed in the likes of already largely forgotten efforts like Smart People and Adam.  In cases such as these, wayward protagonists make some profound mystical connection via music or a film, or are otherwise reduced to a series of thuddingly obvious pop cultural clichés. Juno strums out a meaningless ditty by The Moldy Peaches. Portman insists Braff listen to The Shins. Deschanel implores the viewers that one day they’ll be “cool” in Almost Famous with her bug eyes and a box of old vinyl.  Deschanel, again, woos Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer with a mutual admiration for The Smiths (appropriate – everyone in that film appears to think the sun shines out of their behind) and sobs at the climax of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. He repays the favour by getting drunk and belting out ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by The Pixies at a karaoke bar and dancing with cartoon birds to Hall & Oates. The madcap family in Little Miss Sunshine, riddled with more diarrhoeic quirk than Pauline Quirke on a prune-only diet, work out their collective differences by bopping to ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James at a talent contest.

If there a was modicum of ingenuity about any of these choices – say Deschanel was a massive fan of Delta 5 and The Wild Swans and broke up at the end of Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (tagline: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States!”) instead – perhaps I’d have more tolerance for this sort of thing. As it is, I usually leave the cinema feeling sullen, wonder if I’m secretly a replicant incapable of feeling human emotion, and entertain for a moment punching out the next passer-by who has the temerity to venture that if I cheered up and started feeling good about myself “it might never happen”. Perhaps if we all made an effort to be quirky and ironically wore pork pie hats at a jaunty angle, life would be better. We could all wallow around in this fetid pool of mutually-agreed cultural epithets (usually they involve making a Star Wars reference), and everything would be ok. Personally it makes me feel like the harried Laura Linney barking “von Sternberg!” at her confused lover in The Savages, after he’d mistakenly identified Eric von Stroheim as the director of The Blue Angel, but instead of cinematic trivia pedantry I’m screaming in the rain at holistic Seth Rogen-esque dickheads doing their zillionth Darth Vader impression whilst pimp their Animal Collective EPs as if they were the first people in the universe to happen across them.

Nowadays “quirk” in film and TV terms is a by-word for normalcy and banality. The attractive kids from Glee are supposedly quirky outsiders, not the ones from My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. The word “kook” is similarly debased – once used to describe Julie Christie in Petulia, now more likely to be about the simpering Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By or It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But then mainstream comedies used to look like Shampoo and not I Don’t Know How She Does It, Jack Nicholson used to make films like The King of Marvin Gardens, and Robert Pattinson and Orlando Bloom had yet to be born. The genuine daring of independent films in the 90s like Citizen Ruth, Pi, Schizopolis, Slacker, Spanking the Monkey, Stranger than Paradise and Poison have never seemed further away, with their respective directors advancing into more mature territory, leaving no-one to pick up the slack. Even a tough-edged film like Brick saw its director Rian Johnson follow things up with the arch, knowing and – yes – quirky as hell The Brothers Bloom.

PTA's Punch-Drunk Love - endures with lasting vitality

Fittingly, Gus van Sant doesn’t make films like Mala Noche anymore. He makes films like Restless. Viewers have been keen to point out van Sant’s liberal lifting from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as inspiration, though it superficially appears to have more in common with the recent Kate Hudson/Gael Garcia Bernal terminal illness rom-com, A Little Bit of Heaven. Elsewhere the specificity of Wes Anderson’s vision is often lifted wholesale and rammed into conventional shit-your-pants bad material (Ceremony; Rocket Science; Charlie Barlett) or conjured for effect, and the only independent alternative going is the last-gasp wheeze of the rapidly aging ‘iconoclasts’ of yore, Harmony Korine and Gregg Araki, who wave around their moth-eaten pom-poms in an effort to still seem ‘with it’. Perhaps only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy from 2003 about an emotionally-stunted man-child who appears to be genuinely suffering from crippling depression and not a loose approximation of the real thing, seems to endure with any sense of lasting vitality.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying things were better for American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s. “No shit”, you might mutter, with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and all the other classics that are wheeled out, usually in the summer months when critics have tired of sitting through The Smurfs or Marmaduke. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs dedicates a large chunk of a recent, wide-ranging interview to discuss that very subject. One thing that stuck for me as slightly incongruous was Dobbs’ antipathy towards the period when the rot of quirk had begun to take hold. In his words:

When we talk about how “great” the 60s and 70s were, if you forced me to discard or discount certain movies, it would probably be those ones that anticipated the kind of shit we get now — those films that were prematurely quirky, that were then referred to as “offbeat” or “oddball.”  I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to even the best or most highly-regarded of them.

It struck me that of the “prematurely quirky” ones Dobbs’ cites by name – Where’s Poppa?, Lord Love a Duck, Little Murders and Stay Hungry – the writer’s diagnosis is a little off. Stay Hungry, granted, has Jeff Bridges doing the dirty with Sally Field on the stairs, a fitness instructor who insists on being called “Thor” and a madcap jet-skiing sequence set to wacky music that has little bearing on the plot. But it also has some of the most disturbing and incongruous sex scenes in cinema history, as Thor has his way with a prostitute and finishes the deed by hanging her up on some gym equipment, whilst his co-worker Wamba (supposedly the “Jungle Bomb”) ties a buxom woman to a massage table and gags her mouth shut to keep her quiet. Not one screaming out for a Zooey D and JGL remake.

The other three are similarly stuffed with acts of obvious provocation.  Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, for instance, opens with George Segal calmly getting out of bed, donning a gorilla suit, before bursting into the bedroom of his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) and attempting to scare her to death. To his dismay, she survives. Moments later he fantasises about her being eaten by a dog or – better yet – simply shrinking into nothingness. Gordon’s degenerative mental illness is played for broad comedy. In one memorable sequence she pulls down Segal’s trousers, mistaking him for her dearly departed husband, and kisses his bare backside whilst declaiming, “I’d know that tush anywhere!” This zaniness extends to Segal’s professional career as a defence lawyer. Having recruited a nubile young nurse with a chequered sexual history (the last man she loved “made a caca on the bed”) to take care of his demented mother, he spends some time mounting a defence of a “punk” who called out an army colonel for being “full of shit”. The colonel initially wins the judge’s sympathy, before descending into an anti-hippie tirade about the amount of “gooks” he shot through the brain in Vietnam and revealing his son keeps one of the offending organs in a jar as a bedroom souvenir. Shortly thereafter Segal returns home with the nurse he’s sexually attracted to and assures his mother, “If you mess this one up, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” She reveals his penis size over dinner, and he eventually commits her to a retirement home.

The bizarre Little Murders

Reiner’s film also contains one particularly indefensible scene, in which Segal’s brother, dressed in the aforementioned gorilla suit, is forced by a group of African-Americans to rape a woman in a park. The character is overcome with wanton carnality (shockingly the men tell him it’s part of their natural “heritage” and scream the victim is “rape tight”) and he proceeds to carry out their instructions with seeming delight. Upon being arrested and detained at the local police station, it transpires the person he violated sexually was actually a male police officer or, more specifically, “one of those guys who walks around in drag, looking for purse snatchers.” Fearing he’ll be locked up forever, the situation soon dissipates when a guard produces a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from the victim, with a card asking for his phone number and inscription “Thanks for a wonderful evening.” He’s flattered by the gesture, and coos about the flowers in a taxi on the way home. This is comedy in horror-film garb and arguably as black as anything Todd Solondz ever produced, though there are shades of Jack Lemmon being briefly mistaken for a child molester in The Out-of-Towners and chased down by the police for his troubles.

Little Murders is equally bewildering. One of Alan Arkin’s early directorial efforts, it boasts Gordon Willis as cinematographer and Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) as screenwriter, whose career as a cartoonist speaks for itself. It features a mortally jaded Elliot Gould as a photographer who “shoots shit” for Harper’s Bazaar, marching slowly towards marriage with Marcia Rodd, whilst both are plagued by a mysterious breathy caller who never reveals his or her identity and a city that boasts 345 unsolved or “little” murders. Early on in the film Rodd ventures of Gould, “Are you really so down on people or are you just being fashionable?” and introduces the man to her parents over dinner. The result is a scene almost Dadaist in its abstraction. Gould is presumed to be a “fag”; we learn Rodd’s younger brother is a layabout at graduate school reading something called Lesbians of Venus. When Rodd bursts into the room, her parents start giddily screaming “Patsy!” in unison like something out of The Evil Dead and she rugby tackles her little brother to the ground, claiming she’s “always head this mad thing” for him and panting sexually. The evening takes a turn for the worse when, having scrutinised their daughter’s use of eyeliner by candlelight, her father degenerates into a fit of hysteria over being called “Carol”. It’s a nightmarish hellscape – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of the Leatherface family.

When the two finally do attempt to get married, it’s by the only pastor (Donald Sutherland) who’ll consent to a Godless ceremony (though Gould insists he’s more an “apathist” than an atheist) who starts the proceedings with howlingly inappropriate anecdotes about the futility of marriage and trills about having married off a musician the preceding week “who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating”. The ceremony devolves into a violent free-for-all between various members of the congregation. Later Gould tries to identify the root cause of his general disdain for humanity by interrogating his parents with a tape recorder. Unable to communicate with their son outside of incoherent psychobabble – they chalk it up to “sphincter morality” and his subconscious desire to rob his father of his penis – the most substantive fact Gould coaxes out of them is that they “don’t remember” much of this upbringing. Later he bonds with his would-be wife’s immediate family by taking pot shots out of a window with a sniper rifle. They have dinner afterwards, throw lettuce leaves about and fall about laughing. Though it goes without saying, this is a million miles away from Garden State

Roddy McDowall in Lord Love A Duck

Meanwhile the protagonist of George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck is equal parts Billy Liar and Mick Travis, a florid fantasist who anticipates and transcends the flights of fancy conjured up in the likes of Altman’s Brewster McCloud and the recent Submarine. Styling himself as “Mollymuck”, a bird thought to be extinct “but isn’t”, the then middle-aged Roddy McDowell plays ostensible high-schooler Alan Musgrave, a man with a “psycho-suicidal personality” who squawks incessantly and is prone to running over members of his graduating class with diggers. He’s hopelessly in love with Barbara Ann (Tuesday Weld), a “total vulgarity of our time”, whose mother is a cocktail waitress but dresses like a Playboy bunny, insists that “Everybody has got to love me. Everybody,” is named after Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan and longs to be a movie star. Barbara Ann melds two of Axelrod’s chief concerns in his work as a screenwriter – the sweat-soaked male gaze of unrequited sexual rapacity in The Seven Year Itch and the oddball female kitsch of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and drags them kicking and screaming into the tail end of the 1960s, and arguably several decades beyond that.

As you’d expect, Lord Love a Duck is summarily obsessed with sex. Barbara Ann and Alan happen across a movie producer who suggests she star in I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire on Some Kind of a Fish for him. The school principal upbraids a botany or “plant skills for life” teacher for teaching the kids about plant reproduction and “the stamens and the pistons”. “Get your mind out of the gutter, man!” he barks. In the film’s most disturbing sequence Barbara Ann and her estranged father visit a sweater store in order to join the school’s prestigious “Kashmir Sweater Club” (don’t ask). She tries on the garments one by one, begins fondling the material and orgasmically screeching their suggestive names like “Periwinkle Pussycat!” and “Papaya Surprise!” with her father braying in the background like a crazed donkey. Eventually they roll around in the clothes in ecstasy, maniacally laughing. It’s a terrifying scene, topped only by the revelation later in the film that Barbara Ann’s mother has overdosed on pills and killed herself. Upon learning the news, Barbara Ann entertains becoming a prostitute and Alan remarks that the woman’s tragic death has rejuvenated his “faith in suicide.”

At one point during Axelrod’s film Alan pours out a bottle of wine, admiring the drink’s “impudent artlessness”, in oblique acknowledgement to the film’s inherent absurdity. But if we are to have ‘quirky’ films that are essentially conciliatory, marred by distasteful feel-goodery and ones which propagate nonsense about the nature of modernity and romance; I’ll stick with the beserko-comic, horrifying, artlessly impudent run of films during the 70s over the bland homilies of (500) Days of Summer any day. The true horrors on the cinema screens of our own time are not the unexploded taboos of rape, incest, murder, mental illness and the other societal mores the films listed above attempted to interrogate, but the insufferable, rampantly merciless ennui of Post Grad and – God forbid – Away We Go. But what’s that, you say? Cheer up? It might never happen? Too bad. It already did.

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Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #8 – Mikey and Nicky (1976, dir. Elaine May)

John Cassavetes as the wide-eyed Nicky

No-one tends to come out of Peter Biskind’s books particularly well. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the key pop-history text on ‘New Hollywood’, is marked by the author’s heady brew of salacious tittle-tattle and unsubstantiated rumour; maintaining claims to historical accuracy whilst engaging in the sort of schoolyard ‘who-blew-whom’ gossip unseen since the likes of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. This reached new, dizzying heights in the author’s recent Warren Beatty biography, Star. Beatty is portrayed as a lascivious playboy and a control-freak megalomaniac, whilst Five Easy Pieces screenwriter Carole Eastman comes off like a woman in need of psychiatric help for her part in blundering through the making of 1975’s The Fortune. Beatty’s high profile ex-squeezes Julie Christie and Diane Keaton, too, are written as mercurial creatures enslaved by Beatty’s carnal gaze, kept, in Biskind’s eyes at least, as the actor’s on-call bitches-in-chains.

One of the other women in Beatty’s life, Elaine May, is treated with a similarly mercenary approach. May, a writer and comedian probably still best known for her partnership with Mike Nichols in the late 1950s, is painted by Biskind as an ethereal kook who lucked into career as a major film director almost by accident. Here was a woman who “could get lost in a closet” with her madcap, uncontrollable behaviour, whose reckless impulses were to spectacularly boil over in the late 1980s during the filming of mega-turkey Ishtar and eventually end her career behind the camera.

Whatever the case, Biskind’s sensationalist claims about May’s inherent nuttiness – for good or ill – seem to hold water once we delve into the production history of the film that predates her dalliances with Beatty, Mikey and Nicky. The film, shaped by Biskind as the root cause of her professional madness, was a small, improvisational, blackly funny crime drama that would eventually grow into a monster and display “the full flowering of [May’s] looniness”. Mikey and Nicky famously burned through three times the amount of film Selznick did for Gone with the Wind, and spent over two years in an editing suite before being unceremoniously dumped by a changed regime at the studio who had apparently been expecting – somewhat amazingly given the film’s content — “a comedy for the summer”.

Thematically, the film has little in common with May’s earlier comedic successes, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, and is riddled with (presumably deliberate) continuity errors. Its two stars, John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, were hardly known for their conformist behaviour either. Added to this, the film’s plot is throwaway. On paper it reads like a reheat of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, only with most of the religious issues excised and the two leads aged ten years or so. Crucially both the successes and weaknesses of the film hinge on the chemistry between Falk’s straight-laced Mikey, with Cassavetes as the wide-eyed Nicky – a vainglorious, proud man whose reckless behaviour informs the film’s louche attitude towards its own plotting.

The film opens with Nicky holed up in a hotel room, gun in hand, sweating bullets, greased all to hell and contemplating suicide. Mikey hammers on the door, insisting he be let in. We quickly learn that Nicky is being pursued by a gangster named David Reznick (Sanford Mesiner) for embezzling money, and a lackey (Ned Beatty) has been deployed to bump him off.

"Whaddya mean there's no ice? You mean I gotta drink this coffee hot?" Mikey (Peter Falk) takes exception to some sub-standard service.

After Nicky warbles, “I don’t shave, you know that? I don’t wanna take care of myself. I think if I don’t care of myself and I sit still and don’t move then maybe they’ll forget about me”, the two spend the rest of the night in transit, ostensibly en route to the airport so Nicky can skip town, but are perpetually waylaid by his impulsive tomfoolery and their fractious, adversarial relationship which stems from their time together as younger men and their respective frustrated ambitions.

Most of the film’s scenes are vignettes that play like the flip side of the Seinfeldian Schadenfreude that Larry David has since made the norm for American sitcom, only where David plays society’s inherent foibles and frustrations for laughs, May splices them with the intensity of Cassavetes’ own Faces. There’s a rawness to her exposé of the underside of civilisation’s inveterate ugliness and absurdity, one prone to descend into petty violence and petulant squabbling at a moment’s notice. This is truly what marks the film out as exceptional and unique, replicating the aesthetic of the films Cassavetes directed himself, but recasting the man as a bullish, asinine thug.

There are several examples of this. Early in the film, Mikey vaults the counter at coffee shop and starts beating up the attendant for his lax commitment to serving his complicated order. Falk’s explanation? “Cause I’m crazy!” Later the pair frequent a bar peopled mostly by African- Americans. Nicky wilfully goads most of the bar’s patrons to the verge of a fistfight by provoking racial tensions (“How come you’re black?”) seemingly not out of any entrenched bigotry on his part, rather for the hell of seeing what would happen. In one of the film’s toughest sequences, Mikey strikes out with a girl that Nicky assured him puts out to all the boys. When she rebuffs Mikey’s lecherous advances – particularly galling, given that he spends much of the film’s running time on the phone to his wife and fretting about his son – he smacks her round the face. “I guess most girls are pretty dumb,” is all she ventures. Nicky goes back to her apartment towards the film’s end and slaps her about some more.

It’s a barbed, vacillating performance from Cassavetes, and he plays every scene with a jackal-like grin on his face, whether he’s blowing up at random members of the public, teetering on the brink of emotional anguish, or bickering with Falk about who should wear his coat when crossing the street in order to avoiding getting shot by unseen goons. Falk and Cassavetes had already played this game to perfection in 1970 with Husbands, and would repeat the trick four years later for A Woman under the Influence. In the hands of lesser performers, one can imagine the conceit not coming off at all, but although the film is sometimes prone to getting lost in its own conversational dead-ends, the chemistry between the two is dynamite, a relationship that explodes the limitations of the dumb critical criterions we’re often beholden to in our own times (to wit: ‘buddy movie’, ‘bromance’) and a filmic alchemy that can’t be matched.

The stand-out scene of the film is one on a public bus, where May’s shoot-from-the-hip freewheeling attitude pays off most richly. After Nicky lights a cigarette, a passenger takes him to task for flouting the rules of the bus. “I’m gonna tell the bus driver,” she insists. “I’m gonna tell your mother,” Nicky shoots back, before blowing a loud raspberry in her face. He then verbally abuses the driver (veteran character actor M. Emmett Walsh) for not letting him flout “company regulation” and exits via the front door. The driver initially tries to stand his ground, but Nicky grips him in a headlock until he relents. In the next scene, Nicky breaks up hysterically laughing at his mother’s grave whilst Mikey attempts to recite the Kaddish from memory, having already been thrown by Mikey’s dismissal of a conversation about his own mortality as “stupid”.

It’s frustrating that May’s career has been defined in the shadow of the men with whom she worked (Beatty, Nichols), or otherwise remains largely unknown by the general public. Mikey and Nicky, too, would likely not have been possible were it not for the presence of Falk and especially Cassavetes, whose insurrectionary approach to American independent cinema had begun with Shadows a decade and a half prior. Only in the case of The Heartbreak Kid did May’s specific brand of frantic humour, simultaneously a self-loathing neurosis and a morbid narcissism, really seem to shine through. There are flashes of that same mad energy in Mikey and Nicky, though May herself simply states her run of bad luck stems from her “just be[ing] a pain in the ass.”

Mikey and Nicky hangs in an odd limbo between comedy and drama; between financial disaster and artistic accomplishment. It’s a maudlin, fitfully comical piece that always feels as if it’s on the verge of darting off a precipice – something that was surely mimicked off-screen as well as on. But what Peter Biskind pejoratively wrote off as May’s downfall – her “looniness” – I see as her primary attribute as director. In Cassavetes on Cassavetesthere’s an anecdote that bears this out. Falk describes Cassavetes mounting the table they were sitting at and crying out:

What do you think? I don’t know Elaine May can write? I don’t know you can act? You think I’m one of these businessmen! You think I am like you and have to have everything figured out before I begin something? That I have to have all the details in place? That I’m afraid to take a chance? Elaine’s making it; you’re in it; that’s all I need to know.” 

It’s a story that takes on a ghoulish and depressing quality if you take account of a recent Q&A May gave. When asked by a member of the audience what she was up to in these days of unadventurous studio comedies starring Adam Sandler, May simply replied, “Nothing.”

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

‘The sweetness of doing nothing’: When did comedies stop being about anything?

Bridesmaids

There’s a film out at the moment called Bridesmaids, you might have heard of it. You won’t need to look far to find a columnist’s opinion on the film, usually with regard to the bit where Maya Rudolph evacuates her bowels in the middle of a busy street. Never before has hot filth spewing forth from a woman’s rectum inspired such heated debate. The argument surrounding the film has thus far been largely semantic and can be summarised thusly: “Women shitting, eh?” on the one hand, and “Women shitting…. EH?!” on the other. It’s all pretty wearying and stupid and boiling any film down to its base constituents to make a point about a specific moral and cultural issue (take a bow, The Killer Inside Me) has a lot of self-evident problems, particularly when the person in question isn’t particularly au fait with cinema history. Quicker than you can say Tootsie, Irving Rapper and the “women’s picture” or the selected back catalogue of George Cukor, the commentariat line themselves up in the street, drop their britches, and commence plopping out flaming bricks of human faecal chocolate, Rudolph-style, whilst the general public are left to slide about in the resulting crap-storm. It’s a scene, all right.

Ask which films have betrayed the female cause in just the last few years, and you provoke a lightning storm: When in Rome, The Switch, The Back-Up Plan, 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, Letters to Juliet, Leap Year, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, The Bounty Hunter, Bride Wars to pick but a few. Invert the question and ask which have been bad for men, and the list is equally exhaustive: Miss March, The Virginity Hit, Observe and Report, Hall Pass, The Hangover, The Hangover Part II, Due Date, Hot Tub Time Machine and, whatever your view on the man, the collected oeuvre of Judd Apatow, both as producer and director. There are other films, like Love and Other Drugs and Couples Retreat, which arguably do equal damage to both parties. In all the above cases, we rarely have any insight into the characters’ motivations other than who they’d like to sleep with, and they also have a ready supply of disposable and anonymous best friends upon which to dump their problems. Furthermore, they usually have a successful ‘career’ of some description that’s barely mentioned unless it’s part and parcel of the plot and/or the insane achievement of a strong, successful, likable, complex, opinionated woman who manages to juggle a career in the city whilst navigating her ungainly love life. Morning Glory and the upcoming I Don’t Know How She Does It fit into this camp. Generally speaking, though, the most galling attributes of all these films is that none of the characters have any money troubles. At all. None. Outside of the myriad travails concomitant with ramming each other sexually, the rest of their lives barely register in the events of the narrative. There are bigger problems afoot here outside of gender.

Just Go With It, starring Adam Sandler as a "lovable" plastic surgeon

That the affluence of these characters is taken as a given strikes me as odd, particularly since we’ve been in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s for three years now, with only Confessions of a Shopaholic for comfort. Take a look at a similar list of films produced in the period which fall under the banner of ‘screwball comedy’ which cast its either self-consciously ‘daffy’ rich protagonists as either dunderheads, hapless married couples or out-of-touch fools: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, The Great McGinty, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, Nothing Sacred, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century and Easy Living. Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be managed to interrogate Communism and Nazism respectively, whilst The Shop Around the Corner casts its leading man and woman as mismatched lovers in the retail sector. The best we can currently muster is Adam Sandler as a ‘lovable’ plastic surgeon in a film whose very title seems to expressly summarise our era’s louche and blasé attitude towards romantic comedies: Just Go With It.

Whilst American independent cinema has made some strides to tackle the subject of poverty with the likes of Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, Wendy and Lucy and The Company Men which treat the subject with a po-faced seriousness that would have given Stanley Kramer a boner, mainstream comedy completely flounders. It’s either stuck in the mire of Fox Searchlight-produced boutique comedies (Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is the only notable exception) or floundering in a pit of effete mumblecore, a movement that was barely interesting in the first place, which has seen most of its primary players (the Duplass Brothers, Greta Gerwig) co-opted by the studios and nullified anyway. They seem to have heeded the advice of John Lloyd Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels (“Don’t you think with the world in its present condition, with death snarling at you from every street corner, people are a little allergic to comedies?”) and implemented it a little too literally.

I’m not particularly interested in unpacking the existing gender-based arguments of Bridesmaids or any of these films that reduce half the adult population to catch-all demographic rarely seen outside of a promotional campaigns for Boots, and I’m not particularly interested in joining in the heralding of a new comedic ‘era’ for humans that happen to carry a Y-chromosome and menstruate every month until they hit the menopause. What interests me about Bridesmaids is its most unique aspect: its protagonist’s crummy, cash-strapped lifestyle. Its main character is Annie, a single, 30+ woman who, at one point in her life, ran a bakery. Though it’s not the only dilemma she faces during the film, Annie is presented with two men as potential partners – a sensitive new man in her life who supports her former occupation, and an on-again/off-again fuck buddy with an unbridled sexual rapacity and the emotional inarticulacy of Tommy Cooper’s scrotum. She ends up with the sensitive guy.

It's Complicated - "'hilarious' vagina-patting sessions"

The above description might sound familiar. That’s because you saw a similar film two years ago called It’s Complicated, directed by Nancy Meyers, which made all the mistakes Bridesmaids did not. It’s Complicated similarly boasted an erstwhile baker with a rocky love life, only this time she was played by Meryl Streep.  Streep, in that film, was – to put it mildly – a shrieking harpie who wailed about “remodelling” her cavernous luxury home in-between ‘hilarious’ vagina-patting sessions with two men: Alec Baldwin (the rapacious fuck buddy) and Steve Martin (the sweet guy who supports her bakery business). Streep ends up with Steve Martin. Presumably they bake cakes together.

The difference between the two films? In Bridesmaids Annie’s bakery went under during the recession. She lives in rented accommodation and works a menial job, until both prove untenable and she has to move in with her mother. Streep, by contrast, romps around a boundless patisserie of wonders stuffing pie crust into her and Martin’s faces like a pair of contented suckling calves, footloose and fancy free. Streep also has three disgusting grown-up children who are a straight replay of the snots from Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, without the social commentary. Personally I find Meyers’ Wonka-style baking fantasy-land far more offensive than a talented comedienne taking a dump on the street. Take a gander at Meyers’ previous films – What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday – and she’s done almost as much to injure the face of contemporary American comedy as Paul Haggis did to drama with the misplaced berserko-hysteria of Crash.

But wait, there’s more. Like any rational carbon-based life form, I’ve avoided the two Sex and the City films but from what I can surmise from the critical reaction most of the plot seems to revolve around aging rich spinster Kim Cattrall’s preternaturally talented and ethereal vagina, which she uses to trick shoe salesman into giving her freebies and amassing her capitalist empire of battery-powered dildos. And this is without mentioning the mirthless and bankrupt Eat Pray Love –wherein a successful author hotfoots it from New York – to stuff her face with pasta and revel in the ‘sweetness of doing nothing’ whilst cramming food she knows is bad for her down her gullet in penance for a lifetime of capitalist myopia. Ho fucking hum.

The thematic overtures of It’s Complicated, Sex and the City and the cod exoticism of Eat Pray Love are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the spell cast by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan  – whose knowingly ironic dilettantes proudly strut around with the moniker UHB or “urban-haute bourgeoisie” – has since been perfected by Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Holofcener. Running with Scissors, Smart People, Lymelife and the Meet the Parents franchise toy with similar themes. Alexander Payne and David O Russell, previously two independent filmmakers whose debut pictures dealt with abortion and incest in an uproarious fashion, now wax and wane on the spiritual chasm awaiting bourgeois complacency, as witnessed by Sideways and Russell’s manic self-parody, I Heart Huckabees.

What’s most important about Bridesmaids, though, is that its character’s spiral to hit rock bottom feels real, and real in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. The few films in cinemas this year which pay lip service to the problems of encroaching poverty, Bad Teacher and Larry Crowne, set breast enhancement and motivational speaking as lazy thematic crutches on which to hang their hats, rather than engaging with the subjects proper. In 1964, whilst Robert Benton and David Newman were writing Bonnie and Clyde, the Esquire journalists called the era’s receptivity to cultural trends – and its willingness to plough through them – the New Sentimentality, a sweet name for a tough proposition, that promised to either violently explode the assurances of Eisenhower-era affluence and complacency, or rake its condescending assumptions about consumerist society over the coals. Bridesmaids aside, I call ours the Eternal Mediocrity.

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.

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Films that you probably haven’t seen but definitely should #7: Massacre at Central High (1976, dir. Rene Daalder)

We are told on director Rene Daalder’s website that Massacre at Central High, a forgotten 1976 horror-thriller, “predicted punk and Columbine”. It’s a bold claim, but one not hard to substantiate once you take into account its subject matter: teenagers that kill people. It’s a rough, tough, divey little film that presents a portrait of humanity at its bleakest. Education, in the film’s eyes, is nothing but a horrorshow parade of grotesques, with its denizens either suppressed by their fascist overlords or clamouring for power themselves. It doesn’t care if you like it, but it demands your attention anyway.

Not that you’d know it to look at. Compositionally, it’s a total mess. Corridors that are populated one second are empty the next. Characters’ eye lines barely match up. There’s leaden acting to put cinema’s current Queen of Lethargy, January Jones, to shame. All the characters, apparently high-schoolers, look double their ostensible ages. The more laudatory quotes about the film being a socio-political allegory in the vein of Animal Farm (Daalder’s own website collates the best ones) tend to overlook the fact that any connoisseur of low-rent 1970s pornography would likely feel at home with its intermittent bouts of softcore canoodling on beaches by firelight. This skin-flick titillation is even deployed, most shockingly, to enliven a scene of attempted rape. When the body count begins to mount up, the period 1976 dialogue tends to undercut the dramatic tension. “It’s time you all dug it! We’re talking heavy changes.” spouts one of the teens after a number of students have met with unfortunate ‘accidents’.

What Massacre at Central High has going for it, though, is a brutal originality. Already lionised by Danny Peary in his second volume of Cult Movies, its exploitation title may conjure associations with the telekinetic horror of Carrie, the demented array of killings in Happy Birthday to Me, Stockard Channing’s plastic-surgery vengeance in The Girl Most Likely To and the dull carnage of forgotten shocker Slaughter High. But its protracted ‘massacre’ remains mostly bloodless; its indiscriminate killings more disturbing by their lack of accompanying real-world context. If the film does have a cinematic cousin, it’d probably be Larry Clark’s Bully which, like most of Clark’s work, writhes around looking for exploitation credentials with a look-at-me desperate audacity to compensate for a lack of profundity. Massacre at Central High, though is less concerned with such histrionics, even if its killings, which include a dolt skydiving into some power lines after his equipment is sabotaged, are in the end more eccentric than shocking.

The film opens with a tonally ambiguous display of ‘social protest’ – a hippie scrawling a swastika on a locker door to stick it to “the little league Gestapo” terrorising the school – and ends with a thwarted attempt to blow up the entire school. That last narrative trick is, by now, old hat. Buffy Summers managed to do it in the late 1990s, though in that case she was keeping the evil contained inside the building (a demonic Mayor and petulant Principal) from getting out, rather than incinerating everyone inside with the blank, violent and unexplained nihilism of Massacre at Central High’s David (Derrel Maury) whose psycho-pathology is chalked up to a case of him merely being a self-declared “madman”.

David enters the film supposedly as our moral guide. He’s a transfer student who’s following in the footsteps of his jockish buddy Mark (a young Andrew Stevens, later to crop up in The Fury). Stumbling through a corridor looking for the student lounge (we’re later told it’s like “the fucking country club”), he hits on the school hottie Theresa (Kimberly Beck). David, at the behest of Mark, is invited to join the influential power clique of four boys that run the school: Bruce, Paul, Craig and – somewhat reluctantly – Mark himself. David goes along and witnesses the gang’s several acts of bullying. The four hi-jack and trash an idiot’s car with glee. They bully “lardass” Oscar for not being able to jump rope very well and then kick him about in the locker room. They harass a nasal student librarian, Arthur, about an overdue book loan and then wreck the place. Unimpressed, David shuns the group.

The boys think David’s spoiling for a fight but Mark insists “He’s just aloof, that’s his nature” and that he doesn’t “understand how things work around here”. But after the boys drop a car on David’s leg for his insolence, he goes on a calculated killing rampage to enact revenge after being made a “cripple” by the accident. In actuality David’s physical disability amounts little more than to a slight limp but – no matter! – he uses this as a pretext to engineer the deaths of the bullies. When he runs out of these antagonists, he fixes his gaze upon their former victims, who now are looking to muscle in on the action. He kills them as well. Finally, when killing everyone else in the school proves untenable, he kills himself, either in a confused act of martyrdom or by accident.

Many are keen to point out the similarities between Massacre’s central nutcase David and the psychopath at the heart of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, Jason ‘J.D’ Dean. Sometimes these exercises can be useful. Most people recognise Black Christmas as a forerunner to Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. Everyone accepts Reservoir Dogs owes a heavy debt to City on Fire. Forcing a lineage between an influential film (like Thelma & Louise, say) and a cult flick that came before it with tangentially similar subject matter (like Assault of the Killer Bimbos, say) is more problematic. It’s true that what’s explicit in Heathers – J.D wants to create a warped “Woodstock for the 80s” where people will observe “there’s a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because that school was society” – is subtextual, or at least unspoken, in Massacre at Central High, which tends to solve its problems by having its characters violently explode when they’ve outlived their narrative usefulness. But, thematically speaking, the two are poles apart.

A useful comparison is between the uses of music in both films. Heathers is shot through with snippets of a fictional song penned by Big Fun, ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)’, which is an indication of the wicked-black, fickle satire at the heart of Daniel Waters’ screenplay. Massacre, by contrast, opens with a drippy love ballad that opens with the line “You’re at the crossroads of your life/A runner chasing dreams that could come true…” which seems thoroughly unironic in its sincerity. What separates the two out from each other is the Massacre’s moral void. It’s hard to tell if its scenes of macabre death – such as a luckless swimmer headplanting into an empty swimming pool in the dark – are intended to elicit cackles or genuine chills without the ballast of Winona Ryder’s reluctant killer Veronica Sawyer at heart of it all. Similarly the film’s understanding of power structures (any position of authority corrupts absolutely) is too simplistic to be read as anything other academic posturing.

With all its self-evident low-budget foibles, it’d be shame for the film to pass into further obscurity, given that the words ‘high school’ and ‘horror’ are now more commonly associated with the self-aware irony of Scream, The Faculty, and Cherry Falls. What was given shonky sub-Mel Brooks treatment in Student Bodies is now either recognised as standardised horror fare to be recycled (Tamara, Jennifer’s Body) or rendered the stuff of stony-faced ‘social commentary’ (Elephant). But the dark heart that beats at the core of Daalder’s film is one that teen cinema has never bothered to reclaim. In its unremitting impurity it’s a film with no parent, and few children. Something to bear in mind when you next happen across an episode of Glee.

Contributor Sam Price runs the film blog A Tremendous Amount of Wheat. You can follow him on Twitter @_wheat.