Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Head Under Heels: GIRLY (1970)

Much as I love grindhouse cinema, I'll confess some of the themes--the rape-revenge and WIP sub-genres in particular--often leave me feeling soiled and soured on humanity, walking the streets adrift like a Tennessee Williams heroine, pining for dead ideals and sensing only brusque, licentious hostility all around. As an English major at Syracuse during the mid-to-late 1980s, I was caught up in a time of great liberal backlash/sexual hysteria--Satanic panic and the dawn of PC thuggery--wherein sensitive new age guys like me were conditioned to feel guilty for every impure thought. The thoughts come in certain moments, those 'over the hump' moments, and there's always some post-Christian backlash of my vulnerable hungover Monday morning walk home from work psyche.

That's why, perhaps, I've always long been in love with dangerous women, the type who kick ass, smoke, drink, dose, carry guns, laugh at the cosmic joke and beat a frat boy to death with a champagne bottle all at the same time. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is my guru. Yes, I know that's a pretty bad choice for a guru. I go along way for the glint of true madness, especially in a young Lolita's eye.

And yet, look at America! It's got some bad taste in gurus. I'm right with the times; the poster girl for the era is Sarah Palin, with her tan and form-fitted bright red raincoat and MILF glasses, standing on a podium surrounded by crisp Alaskan snow; her hot breath steaming the microphone, spouting enough fear-inducing fascist rhetoric to make Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate wince. I would never vote for her, but I dig when girls rise up and use their sexual super powers for evil instead of good, and if they can't have their revenge on Seattle like Francis Farmer, let them destroy all the side-burned swingers, angry lawyers, priests, parents, and homeless they can get their claws on! Hence my deep love for: Spider Baby,  Don't Deliver Us From Evil,  Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Vampyres, Mesa of Lost Women, Daughter of Darkness, and so on (if you know any others, do let me know).

Thank heaven, then, for little Girly. The film's treacly decor (lots of dolls and paneling) could have been too much to handle but director Freddie Francis does the impossible and makes the whole dreary Brit tackiness thing seem actually cozy-- the real thing--instead of soap opera imitation that's kept me running from Mike Leigh all my life. And within it all, Girly possesses a sense of giddy feral freedom, a constant children's game with macabre undertones. There's a remote broken down mansion in the Shire, some delusional family members fussing over and doting, and a nubile, precocious homicidal maniac and her equally feral brother--a veritable Alex the Droog if he was from the right side of the railroad tracks and still in schoolboy spats. So what's not to love, even as the axe comes roaring down? The insanity of the depicted matriarchy resembles Grey Gardens at times, but it comes by it honestly: dolls, pre-empathic (latent) sadism, games like 'grocery store' and 'cowboys and Indians' and an array of children's chants and guessing games in a never-ending whirl of hazily remembered (by me, succinctly and vividly recorded by the play) are all part of a devolution brought on by incest and trust funds. They have no father to initiate the children into the social order, so it all comes down to lots of macabre nursery rhymes and chants, strange "rules" of the house, and the way, even here in this macabre paradise, sex destroys everything, but oh! That Girly.

A knock-out of the Sue Lyon in Night of the Iguana /Jill Banner as Virginia (aka Spider Baby) / Carroll Baker as Baby Doll variety, Vanessa Howard captures the spirit of wicked evil as only young pre-empathetic girlies can. Her eyes are alight with unholy mischief, and then -- later -- the guilty pangs of blossoming womanhood--and all the drag that implies. Sexual awakening drives ordinary teenagers insane, prompting a whole slew of irrational behavior; how apropo then that for this insane girl, sexual awakening would mean a kind of awful late-blooming sanity; her rapport with the sad but savvy eyes of "New Friend" causes a rift with the deranged clan, but it's one her craziness fights so she winds up oscillating between compassion and sadism with the same finesse as Jim Siedow in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with Michael Bryant in the Marilyn Burns position). And she's got lovely legs and her straight blonde hair demarcates a princesses and her simmering red schoolgirl uniform is like a pomegranate-squeezed hallucination against the perennial grey and mud green garden fog of parks and the zoo. She bites into her character with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin, even if means she might turn around bite your tongue off. Of course their mansion is a graveyard of dopes who had just that same screwy courage, that special insanity where dashing one's life on the rocks of desire seems the best possible use for it. All the king's horses and all the kings men can't put your humpty ass together again either way, so piece out!

The rest of the cast as a whole is marvelous, too, full of joyous relish in this macabre set-up. We adore the droll restraint of Ursula Howells as Mumsy (the British title of the film is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) and the slow burn of Pat Heywood as the sexually frustrated Nanny, even the interloper who wisely seduces the lot of them, "New Friend" as they call him, is Michael Bryant, who kind of looks like a hungover James Coburn, does a good job in a difficult role (a fusion of aghast and intrigued); Imogen Hassall is his fur and white-dress clad girlfriend, excellent at being bored by the drunken dawn kid games and unaware of immanent danger as they meet and drunkenly cavort at the park playground with Girly and Sonny as the sun comes up. Francis's camerawork is imaginative and rich as always, replete with some good crane shots (he won the Oscars for his cinematography in The Elephant Man and Glory) though some of the interiors seem flatly lit and the palette is very mushy even if there are plenty of dark greens and maroons. Bernard Ebbinghouse's score is a nicely subversive mix of bouncy elevator, pensive classical bits that always seem on the verge of a funeral and add great texture against the nursery school maniacal zest.

Man, this film's got my number. I'm trying to less subjective here but if I love a film I take it very personally. Love kills everything it touches, including objectivity. As Burt Lancaster said in Visconti's The Leopard: "Marriage is six months of fire and forty years of ashes." If you ever were a swinger, you might use that line to justify a lifestyle that includes occasionally waking up from a two-day bender on a stranger's couch, snuggled against a snoring pit bull whom you do not know. To this day, I still don't know what happened that night, or whose couch that was, but I've chosen the swinging path over that of the spouse and ungrey garden and that's my life, and I'll probably do it again. Such is our antihero's lot as the male version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. He reminds me of me. God forgive us both, and whomever'll have us. We've all let ourselves be led by spirited and charismatic blondes into iron maws such as this. Some of us made it out alive, or in a state that resembles aliveness in at least half the usual shambling ways. What have we learned? How to go along with a deadpan joke and how to play the game and the trick to staying alive is going down early and often.

Man, I'm off topic!  Let me pull in some help from one of 60s-70s-era British cinema's best friends, Cinebeat's amazing Kimberly Lindbergs:
Before Freddie Francis started directing horror films he worked as a cinematographer on celebrated British dramas such as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). His unique talents helped give birth to the British New Wave and he was partially responsible for ushering in a new era of British cinema. Francis considered Girly to be one of his best films and I think it’s fascinating to view the movie as an extension of his previous work as a cinematographer. In some ways Girly could be seen as a seamless blend of Francis’ early beginnings as a member of the British New Wave combined with his bleak sense of humor and macabre sensibilities.
Speaking of stingers, I dedicate this blog entry to my favorite new show: Investigative Discovery Channel's TV crime doc series, DEADLY WOMEN! And on that note, free Brenda Wiley!

And strange coincidence, almost all my own films have the same Venus Flytrap / Vagina Dentata theme, particularly QUEEN OF DIC/SKS.

PS - It's filmed entirely on location!


  1. Man, I have been away from movie blogging for too long - Reading your "Girly" review reminds me why I added Acidemic to my blog roll in the first place!

    Agree with you on the difficulties in reviewing something that hits you like that - which sounds like a great post all its own.

  2. I'm really glad you liked GIRLY, Erich. After I wrote up my piece about it last Halloween I got mixed responses from people who didn't care for it as well as those who did. I love the movie myself so I'm glad I'm not alone. It's an interesting and fun film. I love Vanessa Howard in it!

  3. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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