Wednesday, August 11, 2010

All the Usual Vices: THE RUNAWAYS (2010)


From a very pedestrian viewpoint, the Runaways were a scruffy pre-packaged all-girl rock L.A. version of that original pre-fab/anti-fab combo, the Sex Pistols. The Runaways were aimed at a fucked-up demographic by nutcase impresario, Kim Fowley, just as Malcolm McLaren aimed the Pistols. But then there's the 'enlightened' viewpoint which was like whoa, these chicks rawk! And they did lots of drugs, and were lesbians! And broke up mere minutes after reaching stardom. With both pedestrian cynicism and fanboy admiration, THE RUNAWAYS remains kind of confused about whether its a tired meditation on dues, fame and growing up lesbian, poor and/or ostracized, ala LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, or drugs, phoniness and flame-outs, like ROCK STAR, the RUNAWAYS has a little of both. Deflecting tossed beer cans, spit, and dried excrement with guitar necks, cramming into small hotel rooms, the girls pay their dues. Soon they're on top of the world, then Cherie throws a hissy fit tantrum and the band is over. Little things add up to an uneasy feeling throughout, like CROSSROADS welded on THE DOORS and FOXES 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 so much harder and mopes 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, like Carmen Sternwood in fact. Now look at poor Dakota below, blank as the freshly fallen snow. Carmen Sternwood 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 2007 (my review here), she's just blah. 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. Maybe the studio hoped Fanning would mature during the filming but there are ways that girls can delay womanhood's onset, 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, opening up on 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." Which alas impels 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 Currie 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 blazing 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 playing and singing while the microphone spreads out before you like an insect highway, the blazing red stage lights in your face 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 highway, 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 all the way to Cherie finally 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, he made the brute sexy in his savagery. Fanning needs that kind of ferocity. 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 because she taps into that feeling of how passion and genuine interest in something other than self pity can save your life, even if it makes you a little grubby in the process. Fanning / Currie never finds that, never deigns to look outside the mirror for her raison d'etre.  But in Joan Jett/Kristen Stewart's case, it's a love of one's craft. I call it the Keith Richards life preserver. No doubt rock and roll is what keeps death at a respectful bay for Keith Richards, his love of rock and love of his guitar. 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 on the fast track through Fowley's hype in the Runaways. She suffers and survives through the Keith Richards life preserver, the lifelong mastery of craft that keeps you afloat, above the AOR sharks, big money, ego stroking, and drug abuse. It's like selling your soul to the devil like Robert Johnson, it's a marriage between artist and instrument. You may smell bad and look hungover but 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. That guitar stops you from sinking into the mire, and from floating away into space as well.  It's 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 walk right out. Alas, there is no 'out' to escape to, but you can take comfort in the fact that you'll never run out of scraping; the scraping becomes the spiritual practice --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 one in 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 and thus to recognize cathartically our own lostness. It's not just Cherie throwing a tantrum of indecision, it's Dakota throwing a tantrum by draining Cherie's tantrum of cinematic resonance.  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 eons to come.


Since we never see the Currie 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. 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, our love of the stage, fans, and jamming out never supplanted our longing for 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, which means approximately five hours in some bohunk town with nothing to do and nowhere to go except wait in a smelly bar that reeks of booze and you're not allowed to drink until a half an hour before the first set, so you sit there in the corner and the pre-show jitters and last night's hangover make every hour stretch like days. But then, Boom! A double shot of tequila, lemon, hit the stage and it's all worth it. That's the rock and roll experience, or it was for me. So I quit, and while I hope Dakota doesn't turn out like I did,, but on the other hand, you can't hang in the doorway forever deciding if you want to be an actress or not. As for the real Cherie Curie, she finally found her own Keith Richards life preserver...it wasn't a rock band so much, but chainsaw sculpture!

Burn on, big sister, burn on!

4 comments:

  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!

    ReplyDelete
  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

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

    ReplyDelete
  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.

    ReplyDelete