Friday, December 22, 2017

The heightened cartoon-brilliant art direction of "Dick" (1999)

Has anyone checked in with Dick lately? Directed by Andrew Fleming from a script by Fleming and Sheryl Longin, starring young Michelle Williams and even younger Kirsten Dunst as endearingly dumb best friends, Dick came and went in 1999.

Mashing together the teen comedy with political satire is a challenging task and Dick struggles with its premise, especially attempting to answer the question of who is the audience for this movie: Teens living on the cusp of the 21st century, who have little to no knowledge of the Watergate scandal and its myriad of corrupt players? Adults who lived through the 1970s, watching as intrepid journalists and the legal branch took down paranoid would-be despot Richard Milhouse Nixon? No one was sure how to market this one for maximum audience.

One aspect of this film is crystal clear in its premise and its execution—the art direction by Lucinda Zak, who took all that was hideous, deformed, brilliantly muddy and wrong-headed about 1970s style and ran straight down the field for touchdown after touchdown with it. If you're looking for a feast of 70s oddities for the eyes, this is your movie; sit back and enjoy.

A slew of amazing comedy talent co-starred as historical figures of the Nixon White House era, including Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward, Bruce McCulloch as Carl Bernstein, Dave Foley as Bob Haldeman, Ana Gasteyer as Rose Mary Woods, Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, which is a comedy of riches, but then it's all topped off by Dan Hedaya just throwing himself into the role of Dick Nixon, plus the great Teri Garr as a Watergate-Hotel dwelling single mom who, like most of the adults in this would-be teen-comedy/political satire, has no idea what's going on under her very nose.

And now, Dick.

Title features a manual typewriter with psychedelic bubble font

Our protagonists, bubbly Betsy Jobs (Dunst) and her romantic best friend Arlene Lorenzo (Williams) are two high-school sophomores who can't wait to win a date with their idol Bobby Sherman. But when they sneak outside of Arlene's Watergate apartment's bedroom to mail in their contest entry, stumbling upon a late-night break-in, fate has other plans in store for them.

The detail in every upper middle-class set of this film is astonishing. Note Arlene's trendy TV and bedroom phone (both luxuries in the inflated 70s) alongside her crafty Bobby Sherman shrine.

According to the DVD commentary (yes, as a dedicated chronicler of obscure film history, I listened to that) a warehouse full of period-era polyester fabrics was discovered pre-production and so Dunst and Williams were treated to a wardrobe of custom-made clothes made from unbreathable synthetic fabrics—great way to get into character—the 70s were colorful but uncomfortable for most of us.

Some major polyester going on here

This is a cartoon version of the Watergate scandal, but perhaps that's what's needed after a dark political corruption storm of this magnitude. Wait, was I just describing the early 70s or today? Either way, over time, the sociopaths at the center of corruption tend to look more absurd (but just as creepy) with hindsight. And also, look at the 70s—this art direction is only a slight exaggeration of certain 70s concepts, and when I say slight, I mean the width of a polyester thread.

Betsy gets the "cool" history teacher and it shows in her presentation.

While poor Arlene gets the "uptight" teacher. This was the extreme cultural divide that we found ourselves in after the social upheaval of the 60s.

Betsy and Arlene are solidly upper middle-class and have plenty of leisure time to enjoy the latest in 70s fads and fashions. The last of the baby boomers, allowance-dollars in hand, had plenty of recreational and consumer activities to partake in. I don't know who on the film crew painted and lit this roller rink, but I want to shake your hand.

A typical (hyper-real) hip girl's room of the era. Canopy bed, lots of orange, textiles, pastels, brights, patterns, flowers and a collie lamp to add a touch of whimsy.

The heady days of trying to make sense of a world gone mad through the prism of girlhood friendship.

Featuring David Cassidy fandom. RIP.

Ana Gasteyer as Nixon's extremely dedicated secretary Rose Mary Woods.

Dick sets in motion a series of events that filter the Watergate scandal through the actions of two bumbling sub-intelligent girls. It's purposefully silly as hell, but the girls, as performed by Dunst and Williams, are endearing. And their dum-dum legacy is a sort of prequel to another cult film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which remains the pinnacle of dumb friendship movies as far as I'm concerned.

Nixon recorded everything he said—leading to the downfall of a paranoid would-be zealot

More polyester in our nation's capitol.

Ryan Reynolds, in one of many effective and very funny small roles, and a muscle car.

And here's a typical teen-boy room of the era. Trophies, plastic skulls, groovy love poster all framed in brown plaid (not shown: beer bong).

According to the DVD commentary, once Will Ferrell was on board playing straight-laced Bob Woodward to Bruce McCulloch's preening, narcissist Carl Bernstein, a flock of funny people joined the fray.

Best use of Yes's "I've Seen All Good People" in a scene of journalistic triumph

Comedy goddess Teri Garr, long may she reign.

This Watergate Hotel room cannot get any more 70s than this

Also on hand is Devon Gummersall as Betsy's stoner brother Larry, who might be the most insightful person in this satirical world, albeit while being very, very high.

Do you like brown? Then you'll love the 70s

Dan Heydaya firing all his guns as, at the time of filming, one of our freakiest most corrupt Presidents.

I would never make any effort to rehabilitate Nixon's image. He was a criminal, a freak, and deeply flawed on many levels. But the orange person currently residing in the White House makes Nixon look a lot more like an actual human. Sad.

Just here for the poncho in the foreground. My aunt made me one of these for Christmas one year and I was kicking it in second grade in my swinging poncho—thanks Auntie Joan.

A tight shot of a period department store demonstrates what creative art direction and a decent budget can accomplish.

For the girls, the Watergate conspiracy comes to its ultimate conclusion. At the mall. Which is very 70s.

So long, Dick.

In conclusion, I would like to see Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Reynolds do more comedy—they have the chops and they're both so effortlessly charismatic onscreen. I would also like to update Dick for the Trump era and I would call it Shit. But that's just a working title. And the story would begin in the 80s, because imagine the art direction!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Songs About Treating Women Right

Everyone coming forward with your testimonies of sexual abuse and harassment, I honor your courage and thank you for helping all of us to make a better world for women (and men) going forward. Speaking out is so hard, but as painful as it is, it seems to be having more of an affect than at any other time in our history.

This is a story that happened when I was 16 years old in 1980. I was bussing tables at a somewhat fancy little French restaurant in Clayton, California, where the prices were high, the food  sub-par, and the owners not top-quality people. It was only one in what would become a series of shitty jobs of my youth, but at the time I didn't realize that. It was my third job though, and they were all turning out to be awful experiences due to unscrupulous, sexist, cruel and unlawful creep bosses.

My co-worker, another teenage girl from my class, who I'll call Joanne, came running out of the kitchen one night, and into a dark hallway that led to the dining area, chased by the scuzzy old chef who all gave us the creeps and looked like a decrepit wax image of Keith Moon from the demon universe. He was, as usual, very drunk, and proceeded to chase her down to do something horrid to her. He cornered her and kissed her, trapping her with his hands, which Jesus, the horror, especially because he was oily and three times our age. She screamed and slapped at him and managed to escape his clutches, marching through the dining room to the bar, where our boss was pretending to be a jolly proprietor alongside his brittle wife.

There at the bar, shaking and white-faced, Joanne told our boss what had just happened, ignoring the stares of the diners around us. Our boss listened, expressionless, while she squared herself and shakily described her assault, finding her strength by declaring, "And THAT ISN'T RIGHT!" I was standing there, probably holding a plate with escargot shells rolling around, my mouth hanging open. Joanne's bravery in the face of grotesquely inappropriate behavior really froze my feet to the floor. I had already learned, at age 16, that there was little to no recourse for such things. I had internalized and surmised that we were supposed to take it for the rest of our lives if we wanted to have a job.

Rudy told Joanne he'd take care of it. Hah, I thought, I bet. Keep in mind my boss had once told me that "sure, Hitler did some bad things, but he did invent a car that most people could afford." And he had been sued by a former busser (always teenage girls at that restaurant—they never hired boys) for back wages after our boss and his coworker friends had kept all the tips for themselves. He had already reneged on this lawsuit, within a year of losing the case, by keeping all of our tips now that the original busser had moved on to greener employment pastures. So I wasn't expecting much other than the chef would get a scolding, Joanne would probably quit, and we'd all continue to be terrorized by the lech in the kitchen.

But I was wrong. our boss returned from the kitchen, assuring Joanne that he had fired the chef. Right then. He was gone. Wow, I thought--that was decisive. He also apologized to Joanne. He did the right thing, out of sudden moral imperative, or fear of another lawsuit. We went back to work, and didn't get any tips still, but at least the chef was never to return. It was a powerful moment for me, knowing even a crumb-bum like our boss could step up and do the right thing by firing the miscreant immediately.

But mostly I was impressed by Joanne for not hesitating one instant to report the abuse. She went from being attacked to reporting it all in one swift motion, channeling her anger and indignation for the greater good. What a brave girl. I salute you, Joanne (not her real name), and wish you the best, as I wish the best to all people who come forward for yourselves and for the rights of all of us. Hail.

Let us pay tribute with song.

Lesley Gore - "You Don't Own Me" (1963) The classic "Back off, Jack, I'm my own person and don't you forget it" sentiment from waaaay back in 1963, predating the second-wave feminist movement by nearly a decade. Nice work, Lesley Gore.

Jeannie C. Riley - "Harper Valley PTA" (1968) Jeannie C. Riley is not putting up with hypocritical small-town values judging her. It doesn't matter what she wears or who she dates. You can hear it in her voice.

Aretha Franklin - "Do Right Women, Do Right Man" (1967) There should be a statue if Aretha Franklin in the Public Mall in Washington D.C. and as comedian/social-activist Greg Proops has rightfully proposed, our National Anthem should be a different Aretha Franklin song every day.  I concur.

Pat Benatar - "Treat Me Right" (1980) Pat Benatar! She burst on the scene, her husband and collaborator Neil Giraldo playing gnarly guitar leads behind her onstage, showcasing the crazy-wide vocal range coming from her petite but mighty presence. She's always had one of those voices that cuts through a lot of bullshit in the music biz—no breathy little-girl vocals for Pat Benatar. Her new song "Shine," inspired by the Women's March 2016, is priced at 69 cents to highlight the wage gap for women. Proceeds benefit a nonprofit that supports women going into public service and government. Give it up for Pat Benatar, people.

Donna Summer - "She Works Hard for the Money" (1983) Donna Summer was a huge star on the dance floor during her long run throughout the 70s and early 80s, but she never got the critical acclaim she deserved. I remember one reviewer stating her voice didn't "have much of a range." I'm still livid. Her phrasing was Sinatra-like in its understated manner. When you heard a Donna Summer song on the radio, your brain immediately perked up and you knew it was her. She was distinct, soulful and commanding. Someone kindly uploaded her Grammy performance of "She Works Hard For The Money" with the dance line of working women. I admit that I may have slightly teared up a wee bit the first time I saw this video on MTV. I mean, its theme was rare. It still is. Thank you, Donna Summer.

Queen Latifah - "U.N.I.T.Y." (1993) Who is the most charismatic personality of the 90s? Queen Latifah, that's who, and she lives up to her name, looking regal whether hanging from a crane, leading the neighborhood down the street, riding a motorcycle in leather, or demanding respect from men in no uncertain terms. I love her.

Janelle Monáe - "Q.U.E.E.N." feat. Erykah Badu (2013) Janelle Monáe wants to be her freaky funky self in sci-fi history-referencing black & white menswear, without being judged, thank you very much.

If you need help, the National Domestic Hotline is a resource. You can also report abuse to your doctor and get a referral for services.