Monday, May 23, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

Remember Night Flight? It aired on USA from 1981 through 1988 and they played videos and movies and stuff? Things that never wound up on MTV or most anywhere else really?

I remember they played videos of lots of LA Punk and New Wave bands, but I mostly remember the movies. Breaking Glass, Rude Boy and some of the Paul Morrissey directed Warhol films. And best of all, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains starring a barely turned fifteen Diane Lane. I think I watched it every time it aired which was fairly frequently as they didn't have too many movies in their rotation. But then it disappeared. I left home and more or less forgot about it.

Since it had aired so many times during my formative teenage years, I had no idea how obscure and hard to find it would prove to be over the subsequent decades. There were all sorts of problems behind the scenes, and it never received any sort of proper release. The screenplay was written by Nancy Dowd who won the Oscar for penning Coming Home a few years earlier. She subsequently removed her name from the project for reasons that remain obscure. There is apparently only one print of the movie in existence and for many, many years it was pretty much impossible to see.

No more! In this age of accessibility, one can now stream The Stains via Netflix. Which is precisely what we did here at Cabinet Headquarters recently, and I got the chance to watch it for the first time in over twenty years.

First things first: it holds up. Truly. Recently, I've been watching lots of movies from the 80s and early 90s and it really makes one realize how strange and/or sanitized American films have become. Diane Lane plays Corinne Burns, a young girl who lives alone with her younger sister as their mother has just died of cancer (at 38). The two girls and their cousin (played by an extremely young Laura Dern) have started a band. They live in a dying coal town in Western Pennsylvania, where there's nothing for them. In a subtle way, the film correlates growing up working class and disenfranchised in Middle America to growing up working class and disenfranchised in London. Punk speaks just as well to kids in either place.

The film starts with a news interview with Corinne as a local station reports on "The Town That Wouldn't Die". Really, the moment you say that about a town, you know it's dead as hell. Corinne spouts teenage nihilism at the camera, calling herself, "Third-Degree Burns". Lane is remarkable with her tough little face and her eyes so full of hurt and anger. She's doomed and she knows it, all she has left is her rage and teenage bravado. She's about to lose her apartment, she can't find a job, school is a non-starter, she doesn't get along with her aunt (Christine Lahti), when she goes to see whatever band is playing at the local club that night. As Corinne watches The Looters, a punk band from London play, she first looks as if she's been hit in the face with a plank, then a look of recognition and joy plays across her face as she realizes this is it. This is what she's been looking for her whole life.

The fictional Looters sound as realistic as any fictional punk band in the movies, probably because it's comprised of two Sex Pistols and a member of the Clash (Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Paul Simenon). They are on a depressing, low-rent tour opening for an aging Spinal Tap like band of dinosaurs (the lead singer is hilariously played by Fee Waybill of The Tubes). The Looters have been promised sunny California, but have wound up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky. The tour is being run by a Rasta named Lawnboy who meets Corinne, and having seen her on the news report asks them to join the tour. Despite her bandmate's understandable reluctance (they've had all of three rehearsals), she jumps at it. The Stains are born.

Their first performance is something of a fiasco, and Corinne's frightened bandmates leave the stage when they're laughed at (cut them some slack - they're like 14 years old). But then Corinne reveals the look she's invented for herself in all its proto-Riot Grrl glory: striped hair, red eye shadow, see-through red top and tights. She sneers at the audience: "I'm perfect, but no one in this town gets me. Because I don't put out." As the tour goes on she develops a tentative relationship with the lead singer of The Looters (played by a very young and hunky Ray Winstone), but she's emotionally cut off and made of pure aggression and ambition, so he doesn't really stand a chance. Corinne's ability to grab media attention is worthy of Madonna (who I bet watched this movie with great attention). A local reporter knows she's news and starts following the tour. As little girls across the heartland start worshipping her and dressing like her, Corinne becomes something of a monster. But she's a pretty glorious one.

This movie is amazing in the way it anticipates both Madonna and the Riot Grrls. Dowd clearly knew that something was in the air, that girls were waiting for something, that there was so little out there for them. There are also shades of The Go-Go's who began as an LA punk band, but sold millions of records when they started playing sparkly incandescent pop. The Runaways may have also been in her mind, as the ultimate proto-punk teen rock band. Corinne is a creature of pure resentment and anger and carries a gigantic chip on her shoulder that causes her to do some pretty unforgivable things (mostly to Winstone, who proves to be something of a romantic), but that doesn't mean what she says on stage or in interviews is wrong.

The media satire is dead on and I'm always a fan of movies where the girl doesn't get broken. Let the girl be a monster, or a jerk, that's fine - just please don't grind her into powder. Enough of that. Third Degree Burns tells girls: "Don't get had". And the movie, remarkably, doesn't punish her for it. Awesome.


Danny Bowes said...

Nancy Dowd really had an interesting career. I had no idea she wrote this. She wrote one of my favorite movies---that probably occupied a similar place in my adolescence as this did in yours---SLAP SHOT. Another really unsparing look at a screwed-over blue-collar town. Here's to her! (Now I want to do some research for a Nancy Dowd post...)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Love love love this movie. Such great visual observations---the hair montage, when The Stains first come on stage and all the women in the audience react, is a moment so sharp that it surprised me to discover that an avuncular straight man directed the movie.

And you're absolutely right about Corinne as "a creature of pure resentment and anger"---very, very few movies have the nerve to make their female protagonist such a jerk as this one does. But unlike the heroine of Election, Corinne is nobody's fool. And that's a big part of her ultimate monstrousness. Most movies romantically cling to the idea that suffering ennobles, but this one has the guts to show someone who's suffered enough to cut out her own humanity, which is precisely what makes her so charismatic.

I also love how Stains applies a punk critique to the standard rock-movie template. Unlike in damn-near-every-other rise-and-fall rock movie, Stains suggests that becoming a monster isn't a character flaw inextricable from genius, it's the goal of the system. But---and this distinguishes it from some of the more sour satires of rock culture---that doesn't invalidate the fans' love, and the real inspiration they get from the band even as the band is drifting away from their own inspiration. At the end of the movie, when the Stains' ripoff hit single becomes a completely toothless New Wave hit (complete with dumbass Pvt. Benjamin-style video), the original Shaggs-inspired song-from-the-heart, "Waste of Time", lives on in the circle of girls in the parking lot party, and Corinne's final look suggests that she knows exactly what she's unleashed, even though she can never be part of it.

I often say that the distinguishing characteristic of a truly smart piece of art is its ability to keep two ideas in its head at the same time. This one has five or six, many of them in direct opposition. It's freakin' brilliant.