Wednesday, August 11, 2010

All the Usual Vices: THE RUNAWAYS (2010)

From a very pedestrian viewpoint, The Runaways were a scruffy chick rock L.A. version of that original pre-fab/anti-fab combo, the Sex Pistols, aimed at a fucked-up demographic by nutcase impresario, Kim Fowley. But then there's the 'enlightened' viewpoint which was like whoa, these chicks rawk! Kind of confused about whether its a tired meditation on dues, fame and girly girls, ala LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, or drugs and excess, like ROCK STAR, the RUNAWAYS has a little of both: lots of dues-paying, the girls deflecting tossed beer cans and dried excrement with their guitar necks, dealing with small hotel rooms, blossoming lesbianism, and Cherie Curie's terrible music taste. Little things add up to an uneasy feeling, like CROSSROADS welded on THE DOORS and clanging the loosey-goosey 70s 'kids are all wrong' bell of OVER THE EDGE (1979), still the greatest kids amok film after all these years!

Too bad about Dakota, though... tick tock. RUNAWAYS misses some grittier possible marks in order to coddle blonde "Cherry Bomb" lead singer Curie's bratty myopia, a bad decision considering Fanning's halfhearted performance. Or is it just that Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett rocks harder and mopes so much mopier than Fanning that the movie grows lopsided? See that picture above, of the real Cherie? She may be acting as coy as Carmen Sternwood but those eyes are feral and dangerous, like a wild tigress we have known, like Carmen Sternwood in fact. Now look at poor Dakota below, blank as the freshly fallen snow. Carmen wouldn't even waste a bullet on her.

I say this as someone who loves Dakota, but she's not even the rather alarmingly focused creature belting out an a capella "Hound Dog" in the 2007 movie of that name (my review here). There are 16 year-olds out there who are going on 23 and there are 20 year-olds out there going on 11. Dakota was an 11 year-old going on 30 but now 12 seems to have caught up with her, while the real Cherie was clearly still 'advancing' to an alarming degree. Maybe the studio hoped Fanning would mature during the filming, for certain she's due to pop into womanhood any day... if she lets it happen. There are ways that girls can prevent it, and I shudder to think that Dakota's following in so many young girls' DSM IV-certified child actor anorexic stunted growth footsteps. In THE RUNAWAYS she's still just a deer in the headlights, not yet a she-wolf eating said deer, as nature intended. Fanning lets Kristen Stewart do all the eating while she sits in the corner, sucks her thumb, and acts coy. Is she even having fun? Does she still like to pull the wings off flies? Are you getting all these super-droll BIG SLEEP references?

Despite the Dakota handicap, THE RUNAWAYS has things going for it, like an awesome soundtrack dialed cleverly to the left of cliche'd expectation: The film opens with Cherie Curie's first menstrual period, reddening in a gas station bathroom to the tune of Nick Gilder's "Roxy Roller" (though you'd think the obvious Nick Gilder choice would be "Hot Child in the City," and since they didn't use it, right there that's an extra point for not being blatantly obvious). Meanwhile Joan Jett's jamming to Suzy Quatro's "All my life I wanted to be somebody now here I am! I'm the wild one," and huffing glue with her less-than-Cherie-level-hot girlfriend. Cherie meanwhile is cutting her own bangs and punking out her lingerie before hitting the high school talent show in a glam rock Bowie lip sync, getting cheered on by the sisters and booed by the fellas.  But hey, all she's doing is lip syncing and posing, Joan at least learns guitar, though her first teacher is a clumpety old man who wants to teach her "On Top of Old Smokey." This is later followed by a walk through the empty parking lot as "This is a Man's World" nods sympathetically from the soundtrack, and not the James Brown version, but MC5! Again, cliche' sidestepped, by a sole-scrape.

But even though Cherie lights a cigarette at the wrong end and dances around dressed as Stevie Nicks we're still never quite sure what drugs she's doing or what kind of rock star she really wants to be. Joan gets to fill her squirt gun with vodka and urinate on the douche bag headliner's guitars --she really is the wild one, and you hope some of that wild stuff might rub off on Fanning's Curie and for awhile it does. When their plane's about to land in Japan, the pair quickly wolf down their coke and pills in the airplane bathroom to avoid trouble with customs and suddenly the film speeds up for the butterfly stomach sweaty-palmed high of being cranked up onstage, twirling under the hot lights, merging like a playback pitchshift melt with the slow-downs of their first kisses in the dark of post-show euphoria, drenched in crimson light and scored to a slowed, druggy  "I Wanna Be Your Dog" that makes you ache in rock and roll remembrance of the first trip on acid or the first trip on ecstasy, the first kiss backstage; first time on stage on acid, making out with a cigarette; the blazing red lights in your face as you sing turning into flames forming a holy funnel around the microphone and your mouth becomes the size of a black hole in outer space, spewing flaming lyrics into the clenched alien insect fangs of the microphone, and outwards in waves of pink that wash over the melting-faced fans. It's a first kiss that starts as a gentle shotgun from a joint and slowly tentatively becomes a supernova of blinding white light. From their first gig to Cherie passing out in Japan, the film is alive with pleasure.

Fanning's good in these moments of stoned triumph and good much later as a zonked junky in the grocery store, using her cart for support as she glides through the aisles. Trying to buy two large onions and a liter of vodka from a skeptical cashier who looks distrustfully down at her blank eyes, bruised arms and shitty ID. We like that she steals her dying aunt's medication, and that she plays mind games with her copycat sister, but it's one thing to be believably fucked-up, another to turn that fucked-uppedness into rock and roll gold. Brando was a believable working class slob in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, for example, but that's not why the role made him an icon. He brought ferocious animal grace. Fanning needs that.  She's still eerily mature like she was in I AM SAM, but now she's clinging to a blank DARIA-style po-faced apathy, trying to stare down adulthood in the mirror, and who can blame her, considering the horrors she's seen herself go through on film? Speed, anorexia and self-loathing keeps a girl 'forever young' until one day she just turns to dust or goes to rehab, or is saved by rock and roll. Yeah baby, rock and roll. But Dakota, if rock is to save your life you have to at least give a shit about it. You have to thank it, bathe in it, love it unconditionally. Otherwise you're just a poseur looking for a validation hand-out.

In the end, Kristen Stewart pulls off being a rock and roll survivor just like the real Joan Jett, and Keith Richards, because she taps into that feeling of how passion and genuine interest in something other than yourself can save your life, even if it makes you a little grubby in the process. Fanning / Curie never finds that, never deigns to look outside the mirror for her raison d'etre.  But in Joan, Kristen, and Keith's cases, it's a love of one's craft. No doubt rock and roll is what keeps death at a respectful bay for Keith and his guitar, and by the end, once Joan's suffered and lost her mind and got it back through writing "I Love Rock and Roll," she has earned the right to be a rock goddess the way she hadn't while in the Runaways. She suffers and survives through rock in a way Dakota's Cherie never accepts, admits, or apparently wants.

It's the Keith Richard life preserver, keeping you above the sharks that saves one even as the other metaphysically drowns. It's like selling your soul to the devil. You may smell bad and look hungover as hell, but the devil always keeps your love lamp lit because you've found something to hold onto, something with six strings that can't just leave you or turn against you, a creative outlet you can practice and play on forever and never stop improving until in this one thing you are good enough to hang your head high. Art is like a crack in a prison wall and you know that the more you scrape at that hole, the wider your glimpse of daylight 'til one day you can just escape. Escape isn't even important as long as you are comforted by the OCD notion you never have to stop scraping, so the scraping becomes the love --that's the Robert Johnson crossroad devil's bargain. Joan and Kristen signed the Satanic contract but Cherie and Dakota just fold it up, asking the devil if they can hold onto it and "think about it"...  until indecision becomes their whole persona, and that's death if you're in a rock band. You may as well bring your mother along, like Cameron Crowe does in ALMOST FAMOUS.

As a child actress coming into fruition, Dakota's heading into some treacherous waters... she needs a Keith Richards life preserver. She seems to have forgotten she used to have acting. She's a lost little girl and making personal lostness part of the role isn't the same as playing a lost little girl in such a way as to make us swoon from the cinematic complexity of your acted lostness, to bemoan our own lostness reflected but in a cathartic not depressing manner. It's not just Cherie throwing a tantrum of indecision, it's Dakota throwing a tantrum by draining Cherie's tantrum of cinematic resonance. It's kind of like when your trying to do improv with someone who wont obey the first rule of improv (always say yes) and so every attempt to start a scene is shot down by them without even thinking. Another example is Don Rickles whose act is insulting people in the audience. No one minds getting insulted because the love in his heart is palpable, that's the trick of Curie's rock moxy and Dakota's problem. She's the Rickles where the same insults fall flat and bruise feelings, escalating the urge to quietly leave the club.  She's become like another child star whose precocious genius has seemed to fade, Christina Ricci (as Nathan R. writes about on Film Experience). If moviedom was their parents, Christina and Dakota would be going through a phase, a kind of passive aggressive tantrum, like Richard Burton in EXORCIST 2 (below). Sometimes too, as with Burton, if you have a rep of being a great actor, directors are skittish about telling you how bad your sucking. And you go on auto-pilot, not realizing future generations will be cringing over your hammy bad vibe hangover of a performance for aeons to come.

Since we never see the Curie spark in Fanning we never really see what it was she lost, or if she even lost it. We can only discern that that some people were born to rock, and others to fold napkins at a gift shop and occasionally dress like Stevie Nicks. I'm not knocking napkin folding or Stevie Nicks. Most of us--myself included--leave the rock world for folding napkins sooner or later. Maybe napkins are all we can handle once the devil collects his first chunk of his due.

Only a few go the distance like Joan and Keith, for whom no drug will ever supplant their rooted allegiance to rock, which is why they're free to do as much of them as they want. The rest of us may have rocked and had a good time, but love of rock never really supplanted our love of drugs or our longing for a sense of rooted creature comfort. We'd rather stay home and listen to music and get high than go out on the road and deal with afternoon sound checks in barrooms still reeking of smoke, booze, sweat and vomit from the night before. We'd rather not have to worry about staying more or less sober until after the first set. And we hope Dakota doesn't turn out like us, but on the other hand, you can't hang in the doorway forever. As for the real Cherie Curie, she finally found her own Keith Richards life preserver...with chainsaw sculpture! Big sister, burn on! 


  1. While reading your article I also thought of other child actresses who burned out like, Drew Barrymore. Dakota is simply trying to prove she gots what it takes to become something more than what she is perceived as, she is trying to break her mold and evolve, I respect her for that.

    Gonna have to check this one out soon, thanks for that review!

  2. Thanks, Dr. Gonzalez! I agree and respect Dakota's urge to 'break out' but she's done that many a time already. This could have been a 'break out' role, and I might be too controversial to say this considering her age, but I think it would have helped her to do some of the drugs Cherie did, in real life, to sort of expand and contract into the character. I have a feeling she's surrounded by too many handlers to get the freaky distance needed. Who knows, I might see it again and totally change my mind about her performance, but when it was all over, I still didn't know much about the character except she let her team down, and was a quitter, and a lightweight. And I know Cherie was a lot more complex than that. "You can tell by the eyes, Manolo. The eyes never lie." - Tony Montana

  3. And really, can we all say we don't secretly want to be chainsaw sculptors?

  4. Great review! I'm a fan of The Runaways. I've read so many review for this film, I guess I'm going to have to check it out.