Cleansing the Doors of Cinematic Perception, for a better worse

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, resentful of having my empathic response and innate chivalry used as a cheap fuel for 'sharpening me up' and conservative catharsis (that never full catharts). Walking the streets afterwards, in a state of semi-shock, like a Tennessee Williams heroine pining for dead 'friend' and sensing only brusque, misogynist licentious hostility all around, it takes me weeks to recover, memories of the vile recreations I endured dredging up at the oddest times. I've been told by many girlfriends that this venomous anti-misogynist rage is not sexy but what am I to do? 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 and meanwhile our friends in the dorm were being date-raped before there was such a phrase, and too cowed to go the cops. By senior year, there was "take back the night" marches, but by then militant feminist backlash had so overreached it targeted even me!


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 who don't need to be assaulted before they've earned the right to beat a frat boy to death with a champagne bottle. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is my guru. Yes, I know that's a pretty bad choice for a guru --but it's movies, man --not reality --reality died in the 80s. trouble is 99% of films don't know it.

As such, I'm always ready to walk a long way for a glimpse at the glint of true madness in a young Lolita's eye, the kind that's not kindness-of-strangers-dependent/delusional but the opposite. They absolve me of a great burden, for they don't need my anguished pounding at the ovular gates of the screen, offering like some interdimensional woodsman to enter frame and rescue them. If these women could traverse the other way they'd likely kill me instead, and I like that.



And now, I'm right with the times: the poster girl for the current era is Sarah Palin, with her tan and form-fitted bright red raincoat and MILF glasses, standing on a podium surrounded by crisp white Alaskan snow; her hot breath steaming the microphone, spouting enough fear-inducing fascist rhetoric to make Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate let loose a dove. 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 one day will, let them destroy all the side-burned swingers, angry lawyers, priests, parents, and homeless they can get their drive-in 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 but rundown dead flowers and sickly sunshine decor (lots of dolls and paneling) could have been too much to handle but cinematographer-cum-director Freddie Francis does the impossible and makes the whole dreary Grey Gardens-gone-quite-gold-from-grief Brit tackiness thing seem actually cozy in its overgrown gone-to-seed, dead plant and smashed china kinda way (a good DVD transfer helps immeasurably I'm sure). Girly is the exception to the 'dotty gentry' Brit genre, that offshoot of the Baby Jane tree, for it is truly mad. Rather than the visualized madness and soapy starvation of the horror hag genre, it possesses a sense of giddy feral freedom, unwinding as a constantly devolving children's game with endless chanting and macabre undertones, sexually voracious (or arrested) family members fussing over and doting on innocent debauched wayfarers, the sort of raincoated men who seem old enough to vote but surely have no ID or worried next-of-kin. So what's not to love, even as the axe comes roaring down? The insanity of the depicted matriarchy is more honest in its scripting than Little Edie was in her imrov. Their dolls, pre-empathic (latent) sadism, games like 'Grocery Store' and 'Cowboys and Indians' and other sexy macabre head games seem all of a piece, part of a devolution brought on by incest and apparent lax mansion real estate tax, and/or big 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 strange "rules" of the house, and the way, even here in this macabre paradise, sex destroys everything, but oh! 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, unsocialized wild-and-ever-nubile 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 even ordinary teenagers insane, prompting a whole slew of irrational behavior, so how crazy then must this insane girl get? Sexual awakening might even mean a kind of awful late-blooming sanity! Her rapport with the sad but savvy eyes of "New Friend" --who learns to play the game pretty damned fast--causes a rift within the deranged clan, but it's one her craziness fights against, so she winds up oscillating between compassion and sadism, or-- illustrated in a great single long-held shot of her face as she lies in bed and he goes down on her (below camera) a slow change from childish joy to passion to sadness to contentment to guilt, with the same finesse as Jim Siedow in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with Michael Bryant in the Marilyn Burns position) if harnessed to Jane Fonda in that similar scene from Coming Home. And she's got lovely legs which in little socks and schoolgirl maroon skirts are fit drive straight male viewers like myself into moaning fits and seizures; her long long straight perfectly dirty blonde hair demarcates a princesses of the late 60s/early 70s variety; 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's a great complex character and Howard bites into the part with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin, even if means she's going to turn around bite your tongue off.


Full of joyous relish in this macabre set-up, the rest of this all-Brit cast eats it up too, this being the land of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Joseph Loesy, the C-of-E, and Shakespeare, they're more than capable of nailing every nuance in these bizarre characters. We simply adore the droll restraint (and throaty seductive purr come late night bed jostling) of Ursula Howells as Mumsy (the British title of the film is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) and the simmering of Pat Heywood as sexually frustrated murderous Nanny, with her bottle of acid and long needle ala the poison used in Hamlet. There are all sorts of sly references to decadent English royalty going on I'm probably too Yank to get but I can recognize the Shakespeare references -- at time Girly herself even rocks a Lady Macbeth-style hallway creep and murderous intent range of emotions. Even the interloper who wisely seduces the lot of them, "New Friend" as they call him, Michael Bryant (who kind of looks like a hungover James Coburn), does a good job registering a fusion of aghast and intrigued, the louche swinger slowly triumphing over the reactionary; giallo fixture Imogen Hassall is his initial fur and white-dress clad girlfriend, who dies early-on. She's 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). Some of the interiors seem flatly-lit and the palette is very mushy, but that's the style of the weird kitchen sink-upstairs/downstairs Pinter-esque dramas Girly slyly satirizes. There are still plenty of dark olive greens and seething maroons. Bernard Ebbinghouse's score is a nicely subversive mix of bouncy elevator muzak and pensive classical bits that always seem on the verge of a funeral, running antithetical and brave 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, so bear my prejudice in mind. 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. God forgive us ("no blasphemy here," notes mumsy when New Friend tries to mention the lord at  dinner). men like New Friend, me, and countless others have let ourselves be led all through history by spirited and charismatic emotionally-unstable blondes into iron maws such as this. Some of us made it out alive, or in a state that resembles aliveness (the usual shambling relic, shivering over park bench muscatel). What have we learned? That insanity is as easy to absorb in cloistered surroundings as a local accent, that survival can depend on one's being open to the rules of childish lunacy (as true in life as in sexual procreation), that movies don't need moral centers (no bobbies or barristers appear here like unwelcome censor-demanded buzzkills to decry such upper crust depravity), that clinging to worn-out ideals can be fatal, and that the trick to staying alive--as a man trapped in a crazy woman's world--is going down early and often.




PS - And strange coincidence, almost all my own films have the same Venus Flytrap / Vagina Dentata theme, particularly QUEEN OF DIC/SKS. Will you see it?

3 comments:

  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.

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  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!

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  3. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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