Posted by Susan Doll on March 21, 2011
This session of Night School, the midnight movie series at Facets Multi-Media, has just passed the halfway point. Night School does not run consecutively but is offered in sessions of five to ten weeks. Over the past two years, our unique take on the midnight movie has attracted several regulars who show up most Saturday nights to hear a Facets staff member introduce the film and then moderate a Q&A afterwards—in the wee hours of the morning.
The familiar faces who drop by each week have made the Night School experience much more than I imagined when my colleague, Phil Morehart, originated the program two years ago, and I signed on to help. The atmosphere has always been informal—as most midnight series tend to be—but this session has been especially warm and friendly. Groups of regulars return each week to mingle in the lobby, sign up for the raffle prize, grab an accompanying handout, and then saunter into the theater. The aura of familiarity has created a cine-club vibe that makes the interaction between the presenters and the audience more relaxed and has turned the post-movie Q&As into discussions.
Each session, our knowledgeable Night School presenters select a film to introduce, then offer their perspective on what makes it unique or notable. Though often billed as cult favorites in our promotion, in truth the selection of films varies widely. Peppered among the cult titles are unknown exploitation flicks, recent Hollywood films that deserve a second look, and Hollywood movies from the Golden Age that never cease to entertain. This time around, I asked the presenters to select a movie with a female protagonist partly because I wanted to give this session—dubbed “Heroine Addicts”—a distinction and partly because I am fed up with most of the female characters in current mainstream Hollywood features. I was eager to see how the presenters rallied to the theme and how our audiences responded to it. And, I have not been disappointed.
Night School favorite Lew Ojeda launched “Heroine Addicts” in February with a lecture titled “Why Size Matters in The Boneyard.” Lew’s specialty is rare or offbeat horror, exploitation, or non-mainstream movies, and this time around, he selected The Boneyard, a 1991 indie horror film about a group of people trapped in a morgue inhabited by zombie children. Shot on location in North Carolina, the film costarred comedienne Phyllis Diller and TV actor Ed Nelson, and included an obnoxious yappy poodle who transforms into a giant zombie canine. The latter made The Boneyard great fun to watch, but Lew’s angle on the film was quite serious. Highly unusual for a leading female character, protagonist Alley Cates is overweight, unglamorous, and depressed, and yet her appearance is not a factor in the storyline, nor is it presented as a condition to overcome. Lew began his introduction by noting how our overweight society is overly fixated on weight issues, which is reflected in our popular culture by an obsession with young, ultra-thin female characters. The Boneyard defies this trend by casting heavyset Deborah Rose as Alley Cates and 74-year-old Phyllis Diller as Miss Poopinplatz. Lew added a historical context by noting Hollywood stars from past eras who would not fit today’s narrowly defined standards, including plump, matronly 64-year-old Marie Dressler, the top box office star of 1933. His introduction provided fuel for the post-screening discussion in which our savvy audience of Night School regulars, college students, and horror film buffs discussed the depiction of the protagonist and also noticed that certain scenes involving the zombie children brought out other gender issues, including motherhood.
This edition of Night School also included two contemporary Hollywood films that fit the “Heroine Addicts” theme—Mulholland Dr. and The Long Kiss Goodnight. A cult-film favorite, David Lynch’s most widely known film drew 35 cinephiles and movie buffs on a snowy night made treacherous by ice-slick streets. The group was eager to talk about their interpretations of the doppelganger story and the surreal imagery. Facets staff member and presenter Lauren Whalen included an interactive element to her introduction by passing out a list of ten clues that Lynch himself has deemed important for figuring out the narrative. Viewers were instructed to note when certain heavily laden dream images occurred, including the blue box, the key, and the telephone on the night stand. Other clues told viewers to pay attention to the pre-credit sequence because it offered important information, and to keep track of the real director of the film-within-the-film. Deciphering the clues and decoding the film kept audiences in the theater till 3:15am.
Later in the month, Facets staff member Miguel Martinez presented “A Girl and a Gun: Geena Davis Takes out the Bad Guys in The Long Kiss Goodnight.” One of my favorite action movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight offers Geena Davis in the story of ex-CIA agent Charly Baltimore who loses her memory and becomes a housewife, though remnants of her violent but exciting past begin breaking through the veil. The action film is one of the most conservative genres in terms of its conventions and subtexts, but The Long Kiss Goodnight, released in 1996, stands out because it reverses gender roles. Davis’s character is the action hero in this film; she brandishes large weapons, maneuvers a variety of vehicles, survives torturous assaults, and engages in feats of derring-do—the hallmarks of this larger-than-life archetype. Her inadvertent sidekick, Mitch Hennessey (played by Samuel L. Jackson), is a character similar to “the girl,” who generally gets caught up in the caper with the hero. He is brave and loyal but lacks Samantha’s skills, experience, and confidence. Davis’s decision to star in this film and Cutthroat Island, both directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin, resulted from fan reaction to the action-packed Thelma & Louise. Women identified with the characters of Thelma and Louise and felt empowered by them. Davis realized that there were few female characters in Hollywood movies that left women viewers feeling empowered. Later, Davis funded four studies at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication on women’s roles in children’s entertainment. In 2007, she launched The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to further research the presence and image of female characters in the entertainment industry.
Film historians Stephen Reginald and Michael Smith chose movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age to present at Night School. Conventional wisdom maintains that mainstream Golden Age films are not hip enough for a midnight movie crowd, but Stephen and Michael were so pleased with the turnout for their presentations that they snapped photos of the audience for their blogs (top photo). Stephen offered the Oscar-winning classic Johnny Belinda (1948), starring Jane Wyman in a sterling performance in which she doesn’t utter a word. Her character, Belinda, is a deaf-mute who is misunderstood by her family and mistreated by the fishing community where she lives. Despite the limitations of censorship and Hollywood convention, Johnny Belinda includes a rape scene and offers a leading character who gives birth out of wedlock. However, her character overcomes being a victim of violence and prejudice through the love and responsibility she feels for her child, Johnny. Stephen placed the film within the context of Wyman’s career and pointed out how her performance relied on gestures, body language, and facial expressions, accompanied by perfectly timed close-ups for maximum effect. Johnny Belinda was scheduled the night before the Academy Awards, and Wyman’s subtle handling of a showy role was on my mind as I watched the awards show. In comparison to the Best Actress nominees from this year, I found Wyman superior in her performance and her character more admirable—even heroic.
Equally as enlightening was Michael Smith’s presentation “Burlesque vs. Ballet: Having a Ball with Dance, Girl, Dance.” Directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of only a handful of women to buck the boys’ club during the Golden Age, Dance, Girl, Dance costarred one of favorite actresses, Lucille Ball. I had never seen this film, released in 1940, which stars Ball and Maureen O’Hara as two dancers with opposite temperaments who compete for the same man. Lucy plays the wise-cracking, immodest burlesque queen Bubbles, who hustles men and then plays them for money and expensive presents, while O’Hara costars as the innocent, naive Judy O’Brien, a classical ballet dancer stuck doing chorus and burlesque work. Dance, Girl, Dance is not a great film, but two things make it interesting viewing—Ball in a pre-Lucy role and specific details that hint that this musical melodrama was directed by a woman.
In the introduction, Michael offered an overview of Arzner’s chief characteristics as a director: Despite the restrictions and conventions of the Golden Age, Arzner used her films to examine gender roles; she featured strong-willed female protagonists; and, she had a knack for casting actresses in her films who were on the cusp of stardom. Michael also talked about Dance, Girl, Dance as an example of a film that intentionally subverts the male gaze. The “gaze,” a theory first purported by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, maintains that Hollywood films unfold from a male point of view, in which women characters are presented as passive figures to be looked upon by active male characters who drive the storylines. By introducing the idea of the gaze, Michael gave audience members something to concentrate on while viewing the movie. In the post-screening discussion, viewers noted scenes in which Arzner depicted men not just watching women, but leering at them, giving the male gaze a negative connotation. And, we were all astounded by the climax of the film in which Judy O’Brien stops dancing to admonish the burlesque audience for abandoning their wives and families to come stare at her—a damning indictment of the male gaze.
As a Lucille Ball fan, I focused on her performance as Bubbles, which included several song-and-dance numbers in a burlesque vein. Charismatic and larger than life, Ball overshadowed poor little Maureen O’Hara. There was a physicality about her interpretation of the role that reminded me of the way Ball portrayed Lucy Ricardo. In Bubbles’s signature burlesque number, a powerful wind machine blows her clothes up over her hips and straight back as she tries to keep her balance. Staggering backwards on the stage and grabbing at her clothes, Ball displays her talent for physical comedy, which would make her famous a decade later.
Night School continues for the rest of this month and into the next. This Saturday, staff member Michelle Zaladonis presents “The Western: All Damsels Are Not in Distress” as her introduction to the 1970s western Hannie Caulder, starring Raquel Welch as a revenge-seeking gunfighter. In April, staffer Katherine Rife lives up to her reputation for unearthing the most offbeat films with “Song of Vengeance: Art House Meets Grindhouse in the Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion Series.” Katie’s selection, Female Prisoner Scorpion #701: Beast Stable, is a women-in-prison flick in which the protagonist is an avenging angel fighting for wronged women everywhere. Young film scholar Dominick Mayer wraps up this session of Night School with “Welcome to the Dolls’ House: Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Dominick offers a new spin on the infamous exploitation flick written by Chicago’s own Roger Ebert.
If you visit Chicago in the next few weeks or during the summer, when Night School returns for the next session, be sure to drop in and catch our act. We’re the coolest ticket in town.
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