Friday, October 28, 2005

Day 28: Female Trouble

Dawn Davenport: “Pretty pretty?”

I went to elementary school at a time when VCRs hadn’t yet taken over completely. There were times when a film projector was brought into class, the teacher would thread a movie up, the lights were turned off, and soon the rapid click-click-click of the projector would fill the room as we watched an educational film. The subjects were wildly divergent, and the only ones I remember specifically are a grisly eye injury film and a bus behavior film that both, at least in my memory, featured gore effects worthy of Tom Savini. What sticks in my mind particularly is the aesthetic of the educational film. It was a simplistic one featuring static camera shots, bad acting, and severely degraded film stock. While watching Female Trouble, it dawned on me that the film played like a mix between one of these old educational films and feature-length cautionary films like Reefer Madness, but from a culture vastly different than the one I grew up in. Female Trouble is an early John Waters film, a gleeful, kitschy mess that borders on annoying and boring, but is far too endearing to really quibble with.

If you’re wanting to watch a movie for revolutionary (or even competent) filmmaking, then move on. The movie is staged like an early sound film with static camera shots and characters gathered around a central location, talking to one another. The sets are cloistered and claustrophobic, as cheaply made or photographed as any Ed Wood production. The acting is, well, as far from naturalism or Stanislavski as you can get. This is all beside the point. It becomes apparent from the moment the title song plays, sounding as if it were recorded in someone’s basement, that it’s foolhardy to watch this movie with any attention or expectation with regard to production values. I bring it up only because it took me a few scenes to get into the movie’s rhythms and appreciate what was going on. (It should be noted that I’d blown my capacity for critical thinking on Robocop 2 the night before.)

The movie coasts on a joyous, sometimes shrill performance by Divine, playing “Dawn Davenport.” It tracks Dawn’s life in stages, from a high school student to a single mother living a life of crime, through a career as a model for grotesque forms of beauty. The climax of the film occurs when Dawn is given her own stage show, and it is marvelous. Divine jumps up and down on a trampoline, sits in a box of dead fish, and delivers a passionate monologue about the beauty of crime. All of this is met with thunderous, enthusiastic applause, hilarious in its improbability and, as far as the movie’s concerned, its inevitability. Female Trouble sketches a world of repellent characters celebrated for their audaciousness: there’s a hair salon where people have to audition to get their hair cut, but they’re chosen based on their repulsiveness. Dawn is a shoo-in, and after some time as a client (and a marriage to one of the hair dressers), the owners invite her to be a model for their photography project. Their project is a kitschy, ironic, post-modern deal in which Dawn is asked to commit crimes for the purposes of photographing them. It’s not entirely clear if the owners of the salon are taking these photos for their own enjoyment or if they plan on exhibiting them, but the joke is that Dawn takes their offer to be “in show business” seriously, believes she’s a famous and celebrated model, and, even after having her face scarred by acid, thinks she’s beautiful in response to the egging on from those involved in the project.

So, things get pleasingly out of hand. Along the way, the movie deals with topics as audience-friendly as bodily mutilation, sexual fetishism, incest, intravenous drugs, and child murder. What’s enjoyable in Female Trouble is how, despite a pervasive feeling that some of these things are included in the movie, partially, to shock people, they’re shocking in the same way a two-year-old is when it swears loudly in public. The makers of this film, it would seem, can’t help it, and so an aw-shucks cuteness emerges amidst all the (surface level) ugliness. It’s a bit like seeing a seven year old tell the joke from the recent movie The Aristocrats. Unsettling, but hilarious.

There’s a pretty awesome story here too about the nature of beauty and the insidious, influential nature of cloistered groupthink. Dawn’s character is similar to the one Nicole Kidman played in To Die For. Unlike To Die For, Female Trouble sides completely with the character and her point of view as she quests for beauty, fame, and freedom from her annoying and disturbed daughter (this is the kind of movie where the daughter is played by an adult wearing little girl’s clothes with her hair in pig tails).. When her fame develops into the criminal sort of fame, Dawn embraces it; loves every minute of her trial and eventual imprisonment. No such thing as bad press and all that. Because the movie sides so completely with this character, the pathos that emerges from the collision of Dawn’s worldview and that of society’s is genuine, even though the movie exists in an ironic, repurposed world in which the quest for beauty involves mainlining eyeliner.

Overall, Female Trouble is a very good time. Funny, irreverent, and purposefully, unabashedly silly. It suffers from bloat quite a bit, with scenes going on far longer than they should on a regular basis, and the crux of the narrative doesn’t really kick in until about halfway through. It gets a bit shrill at times, and so crosses from endearing to annoying during some scenes. But this is a movie that knows it’s a “bad movie” and revels in it, laughing at itself from the outset. At the same time, it believes in its badness the same way Schindler’s List believes in its goodness, and so it rises above being a kitsch-for-kitsch sake movie. It uses its unconventional quality to successfully examine a character that, due to the influence of powerful people, begins to believe that “bad” is “good.” And, accordingly, the movie had the same effect one me while I watched it.


psychofe69 said...

The days of film strips. Wasn't it great to watch movies when the characters didn't move??

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Harry "broadcastellan" Heuser said...

Female Trouble is Waters at his subversive best. A Dirty Shame the director kept circling around the same kind of trash without ever producing anything close to this shockingly moving portrait of post-modern perversity. This is his Mildred Pierce.