Sunday, June 06, 2010

Blades in the Apple: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, The Village People, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER & WINDOWS (When the Rainbow is Enuff)

It's easy to come across a "torn from today's swinging singles nightmare" headline movie like LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977) or CRUISING (1980) and think they're just exploitation fearmongering "scare" films that just kind of appeared at the side of 70s mainstream cinema road like mutant babies left to die (as IT'S ALIVE, PROPHECY and THE MANITOU), but you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. And those of us who vaguely remember the thrilling danger of local drive-in movie and newspaper ads in the 1970s have a wide-eyed respect for the potent sexual menace of pre-GIULIANI Manhattan - it was scarier than Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman combined, and sexier than Barbarella with doll-bitten stockings.

From the safety of drunken wife-swap American suburbia, the weird mix of leather, queerness, and something called "a singles bar" seemed to be a provocation, almost a challenge. The sex in the suburbs was 'safe' but the "city" brand was cinematic. 70's Manhattan was a nightmare, a tourist freak show that was fine to pass by and gawk at but you just didn't want to dive right in and actually rescue a teenage prostitute or get mugged. Just as now tourists come to go to gawk at vast displays of WB and Disney goods, in the 1970's tourists would go to gawk at X-rated marquees and a street theater ballet melange of strutting pimps, jittery winos, wobbly hookers, and shifty-eyed junkies. As we got older, the idea was to sneak up there and find Plato's Retreat, a club where apparently everyone walked around naked and had sex in the open. My mom even helped us look for it, that will give you an idea of the weird sexual permissiveness of the era. By the time we were even older and actively looking for the "sleazy theater experience" ( if the word grindhouse was popular then, I don't remember) it was all winding down, way down... but I still remember the grisly, soul-stunning smell of the Roxy.

I remember, too, going in to see "a Broadway show" in scary old Times Square as a kid with my family, and waiting in the big outdoor, middle-of-42nd Street Cheap Tickets line and getting permission to run off by myself and get a coke from a nearby deli, weaving my way past shocking X-ray marquees and tons of depressing urban dirt, trash, grime, and decay. I was horrified, traumatized, turned-on, and nauseated. I'd barely even ever seen black people in real life, or naked breasts, and didn't know quite what sex entailed yet, so it all had the bizarre effect of a dream.

 Letting a nine year-old kid run loose through that sort of neighborhood would be considered negligence today, but back then sleazy sex had a detached aura; we were exempt from harm by virtue of our disaffected stances. We weren't saints like kids are today, we ran loose all through the neighborhood from the age of four or five onwards.  I was plenty scared going to get that Coke, but that just heightened my senses: cigars and asphalt tar heavy in my nose; the roar of jackhammers and the groans and blaringly loud Kung Fu kicks coming from loops playing on a television in the marquis windows and an overabundance of naked female flesh and twisted title marquis swirled together and coalesced into the faded sadness of the woman's face on the pre-dirty and pre-faded Subway-style poster advertising For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff. As I walked I ran through the crowd, it seemed like the denizens of the street began performing bizarre street scenes for my amusement, demanding only my feigned nonchalance and thinly feigned horror as payment.

Safely back in the suburbs, films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), MEAN STREETS (1973) and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) provided the artsy boilerplates for not just our tourist perceptions, but a whole genre of 1970's films that used the vice-gripped city as a backdrop, from early 1980s video rentals like MS. 45 through to bigger budget mainstream grindhouse that capitalized on the 1970's suburban yen for singles bars and "aren't we glad we moved to the suburbs and had kids instead of staying single in the city" cautionary tales like DEATH WISH (1974), LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (both 1977). All you had to do was point a camera in New York and you had a movie about grime and vice, from graffiti-covered trains to wino-drenched stoops and garbage strike mountains.

It's bizarre to think that William Friedkin was ever given a budget to make something like CRUISING (1980), as the sadomasochistic homosexual environment of the West Village couldn't possibly turn on straight America and gay America was protesting it even before it was finished. Straight sex in NYC was freaky enough to provide the suburban thrill-seeker with a lifetime of prurient gawking. Producers must have presumed the mainstream's yen for inner-city sleaze extended to queerness, but for all its medallion-on-the open chested liberalism, white middle class (straight) suburbia was still pretty provincial, and being very frank and open about your hatred and fear of gayness was how we knew you weren't gay, because there was so much loosey-goosey touchy-feely swinging going on, you needed to be clear up front, if only to yourself. And as a kid especially you were always worried gayness might strike you like a virus, constant demonstrations of manliness were required, and no one suspected those demonstrations themselves were a telltale sign.

To give you an example, none of us knew The Village People singing "Macho Man" was at all gay. We thought it was, you know, Burt Reynolds-style cowboys and Indians... for the kids. If we'd have known the truth, "Macho Man" wouldn't have been the first .45 single I ever bought, that's for sure. I would have been afraid of reprisals and dints on my manly armor. We learned instead about the 'gay agenda in our midst' via Anita Bryant, who was always on the news, ranting and raving about gays corrupting our kids' morality, until even the starchiest parents figured that if an obviously evil old broad like this (the Sarah Palin of her era) was so anti-gay, then homosexuals must be all right... wherever they were. Thanks to Bryant we were guided from hating them as straw dogs to fearing they were amongst us to siding with them against the real menace, rabidly intolerant orange juice shills

Even so, at the pre-AIDS awareness moment of Friedkin's CRUISING (1980), gays were still pretty reviled outside city limits. The only "out" celeb of the day was Elton John, and he was British and already covered in so many feathers it made tarring redundant. Lesbians were a slightly different matter: sexy as long as they weren't too butch, we were fascinated by them and by another now almost impossible to find film about homicidal queerness called WINDOWS (1980), starring Talia Shire as the victim of an obsessive dyke stalker.

WINDOWS got terrible reviews, caught gay rights flak, and everyone seems glad to have forgotten it today. Everyone, that is... but old Erich, who's still traumatized by seeing it reviewed on some local Philadelphia news show back in 1980 (they called it depressing and hateful - I was instantly thrilled).

I guess it's easy to sum up a decade as being sinful or doomed by its propensity to abuse newly found freedoms--especially in the US., where even the backlashes have backlashes--so for every starry-eyed examination of the polyester scene there's going to be three pieces of nihilistic dread-mongering like Richard Brooks' LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977).

Out of circulation for a long while (presumably over music rights) there's no denying the power of a film that dares to star Diane Keaton and Tuesday Weld--two of the most brilliant comedic actresses of the era--only to proceed to throw them to the wolves with no regard for audience emotional endurance, making every single guy in their lives an unrepentant sleazy jerk, including dad and brothers-in-law, and leaving the girls no place to turn but between the sheets with any poisonous ogre who cuts them a line.

GOODBAR's best scenes involve Keaton getting off over her fear and ambivalence towards Richard Gere as a coked-up rentboy mix of ROCKY (1976) and John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). But for all his kinetic air-punches, Gere's character is still a stereotype of Vinnie Barbarino barbarousness. Meanwhile, Keaton's so good you want to abduct her in a white van and drive her over to a better film. But you can't, and the only glimmer of light is an in-joke scene where she picks up Richard Gere via small talk about Mario Puzo's The Godfather (which of course, Keaton co-starred in as Pacino's wife). In the light of what's to come it's an insult.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER  is a film that too many people--including my mom who took us to see it as children at the drive-in--thought was a dancing rags-to-self discovering class hero epic like ROCKY or BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) and instead turned out to be depressing and way-too-sleazy for children, no matter how many kids birthday parties I'd attended we were danced to the double album. It was 'the' album for years, along with Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" and "Frampton Comes Alive."

The main drag is Travolta's posse of youthful Italian-American hoodlums hanging out under the Verrazano bridge, balling their collective whore/gang deb played achingly well by Donna Pescow, and generally fuming with working class self-loathing and thick New Yoahkka accents. I haven't seen FEVER since that night with mom at the drive-in but I remember how much I hated all the characters and shuddered in sympathetic horror at the sad sexual desperation and abuse of poor Donna Pescow... and I remember only one line "Ah, they're spics, they're greasin' up the floah." a remark made against a competing Latin dance couple. Now what does that tell you about the power of racist evil to endure in an innocent child's memory? We all grew up wanting to be DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978) or have Patty Duke for our mother in LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY (1976), but we didn't want to do it in fucking Brooklyn, especially goddamned Bay Ridge! Yeeeeesh. I still hate Brooklyn, even though I'm sitting in it right now! At least it's Greenpoint, or Fort Greene, I can never tell them apart, but not because of reasons you think, playa. That's racist.

Of course by now you know I'm a sensitive soul, so please sympathize when I tell you that one lazy Sunday in the very early 1980's I caught the last 30 minutes of MR. GOODBAR by accident at a friend's house on the Movie Channel.  I was around 13 or so, and I was alone (my buddy was out mowing a lawn), I thought it was ANNIE HALL at first, which I'd never seen but heard was great (I recognized Keaton). Of course it was not the case.

I was so traumatized I couldn't even look at a Playboy for six months.

Seeing the film in full for the first time last night--some 30 years later--made me realize it's still way too shocking for my poor system. Sexual violence is something much better digested when unrealistic, as in bad, as in fake-looking.  Little winks of Brechtian narrative disruption do much to relieve anxiety in the viewer, or at least me, but when full-on Hollywood muscle is applied to giving you a strobe-light asphyxiation panic attack then Mr. Brooks, you should be ashamed! This nasty little ending traumatized me in 1981 and it traumatizes me now, worse than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM which used a similar eye-rape strobe technique brutalizing shock ending and left me feeling similarly in need of a Xanax, which I didn't have. Where's the cinematic Xanax for our come-down for this daring but misogynistic and undeserved ending, Mr. Brooks?  Even Buck had a Ratzo! Give Keaton a break, like a sympathetic girlfriend who isn't a knife-wielding psychotic. Why not give her a friendly, protective dog? She's a beloved saint at her school for the deaf, but the one time she fails to show up on time, all the kids instantly hate her. The minute the one good guy in her life starts to seem human enough to waken her from her nympho slumber, he starts acting as shady as Jackie Earle Haley in LITTLE CHILDREN (2006). It's like Brooks was still angry the censors wouldn't let him castrate Paul Newman at the end of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1963) and he's been castrating us all by proxy ever since.

At any rate, back in the day, as I well recall, GOODBAR was on everyone's lips (adults had all read the book) as the cautionary buzzword that kept 70's singles ever alert for signs of derangement in their take-home projects, razors in their Halloween apples if you will. A 'Goodbar' was slang for a dangerous date ("watch out for the Goodbars!") that we kids didn't understand, associating it with the candy bar and wondering if it had something to do with getting in cars with strangers or accepting opened candy bars (before the Tylenol scare of 1982 for example, there were very few protective coverings on bottles). But that was the attitude of the time: safety and security took a backseat to getting your kicks and rocks off. There were no 24/7 hall monitors, no racing to pick the kids up from school rather than letting them walk home alone through the spooky park. The complete reverse of how it is now, when all our liberties are slowly stripped away and we're glad to get rid of them, tightening our security systems until we choke on boredom and claustrophobic anxiety but aren't as afraid.

Long unavailable on DVD, GOODBAR is currently on Netflix streaming and see it if you can, before they yank it down again, but just remember that this film really should have a tag like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, or a warning like a Gaspar Noe movie, for epileptics if no one else. Just keep repeating "It's only a movie, it's only a movie," or in this case, only the first sparks of the early 1980's anti-sexual backlash hysteria. What it's not is what the ads and stills all promise (the 'danger' cautionary tale aspect perhaps forgotten by lazy critics who never saw it through to the end), a dramedy where a girl runs with a dangerous crowd in pursuit of herself, and then probably winds up with Gerard Butler or some nice Jewish boy, and her klutzy best friend cries at her wedding and winds up with a caterer.

In 1977 things were still good. The cocaine was flowing and the hospitals had yet to fill up with heart murmurs. We still had some time to sleep around and not fear the AIDS reaper. But when the change finally came, we were ready. We were exhausted. We were sorry. We  learned to be politically correct and gay-friendly at first just because we hated the haters more than the hated, and because America naturally sticks up for the underdog. Then VHS arrived and slowly emptied the adult theaters and a decade later; and later Disney cleaned up Times Square. Now we can't even dance or smoke in most NYC bars, and we can't drink outside in brown paper bags or smoke cigars in the Broadway theater lobby. But everyone's 'happy' (thanks to SSRIs and Viagra). And no matter how hard we looked--and still look--through the trash of 42nd Street, we never did, and never will, find Plato's Retreat. When I finally did stumble into that orgy I'd always wanted it was Halloween night of 2003, and before I could strip off my tie I mumbled an excuse and ran outside to smoke a cigarette, panicky, hand shaking as I lit in a way that would have made a Corleone wince, then ran home on shaky legs to call my sponsor. Vomiting B&T revelers in shitty pirate costumes splayed before me like a gauntlet. I leapt over them and ran from it all.

God help me, I ran from freedom.


  1. I watched SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER again a few months ago and was struck by how gritty and downbeat it actually was! The film ends on an oddly melancholic note. Yeah, Tony makes it out of the ghetto but at what cost? I always felt that it would make a good double bill with Scorsese's MEAN STREETS.

  2. I'm glad to discover your blog (linked by Moon in the Gutter). I remember enjoying your pieces on Bright Lights. I, too, was subjected to a drive-in screening of Saturday Night Fever by my hippie parents at about age five or six. They thought I was asleep in the back of the car, until I couldn't bear it anymore and asked, "What does 'knocked up' mean?" I'm fascinated by this sub-genre of 1970s cautionary tales and wonder what the modern-day equivalent would be (Requiem for a Dream, as you mentioned? The Rules of Attraction?). I did not experience Times Square as a kid (that must have blown your mind!), but I did make it there for the last gasp of pre-Giulaini-era sleaze, where I paid to probe the bodies of women desperate enough to rent out their body cavities in peep booths. After five years of treatment for sex addiction, I can't say I miss those "politically incorrect" times (and anyway, they're not really gone; you may not be able to smoke in bars, but if you want to have sex with a stranger, it's always available for a price; you might even say the Internet has brought about a new "Golden Age"). Nice to know we can always revisit the era via our fancy, flat-screen Jetsons TVs, and with a heavy dose of moral judgment, to boot! Thanks for the post, looking forward to digging through the rest of the site.

  3. Hey Aaron, thanks for your comments. Sex addiction aint no joke, that's for sure. If anything's steered me from it, it's probably films like GOODBAR, that always tainted things too traumatically for me. I look forward to reading more of your comments!

    And thanks J.D., that's just what my friend who saw that film recently said, too. I don't remember what I felt about that ending, except grateful to be away from the rest of Barbarino's pack of braying thugs.

  4. Really enjoyed this installment of your blog, Erich.Growing up in the Philly burbs as a "Kennedy" baby, I have many similar thoughts and recollections of that era. Your expose of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" was spot-on!!!I still cannot bring myself to watch it again after seeing it for the first time in'81 on cable while in the Air Force as a still naive, virginal young man.Being raised by God-fearing parents who stressed treating women respectfully seemed at times corny; however this movie was a sucker punch to help me realize how truly right they were.To find now that Judith Rossner based the novel on the life (and tragic, grisly death)of a young woman named Roseann Quinn makes it unwatchable a second time. I feel by doing so I may lose some part of a love for humanity. Thanks for your blog, and please keep up your great work.


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