Tag Archives: Deborah Harry

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

154. VIDEODROME (1983)

“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jack Creley, Sonja Smits

PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.

Still from Videodrome (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
  • CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
  • Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
  • The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
  • Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
  • At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome[1] is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.

That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.


Original trailer for Videodrome

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of Continue reading 154. VIDEODROME (1983)

  1. Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome. []

CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Celine Danhier

FEATURING: Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, ,

PLOT: This documentary examines the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film

Still from Blank City (2010)

movements and their connections to performance art and punk rock in New York City circa 1977-1985.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely a supplemental feature for your weird movie education, giving background information on a significant underground DIY film movement.

COMMENTS: “It felt like our lives were movies,” says Debbie Harry early on in Blank City. “It was very cinematic.” Perhaps this explains Celine Danhier’s choice, which earned her criticism in some quarters, to place the focus more on the filmmakers than the films in this documentary. Based on the No Wave film clips which illustrate the story, this was the correct angle to take on the material. Most of the “greatest hits” Super-8 highlights consist of grungy hipsters smoking cigarettes in grainy black and white, or walking around dirty East Village streets in washed-out, home-movie color. By contrast, the Bohemian lifestyle the filmmakers fondly recall—sharing $50 apartments in burnt out tenements with cockroaches, shooting on the street on the spur of the moment whenever they could assemble a crew, sneaking into locations to film without permission or permits, and heading off to CBGB’s after a hard day of scraping together footage to drink and dance the night away while a pre-fame Blondie or Television played on stage—is a lot more interesting. The No Wave scene flourished during New York City’s downbeat phase, when the burg was deep in debt, full of abandoned buildings, and riddled by crime and heroin abuse (basically, the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The city in the late Seventies was nasty and dangerous, but for nouveau-beatnik types it offered cheap rent, cheaper Super-8 film stock, and the company of like-minded free spirits. Although it grew out of the ashes of the previous New York avant-garde exemplified by and Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith, movement godfather Amos Poe explains that this wave rebelled against the Continue reading CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)