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, like true fucked-up badasses. With both pedestrian cynicism and fanboy admiration, then, THE RUNAWAYS remains kind of confused about whether its a tired meditation on girl's voices LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, sisterhood via semi-edited lesbian attraction ala, TIMES SQUARE or drugs, phoniness and flame-outs on the pursuit to one's own original artistic voice after being moulded, like ROCK STAR. What it is, well, is a little of all that, a film well-crafted to tell its tale, and maybe that's the problem.

It starts well enough as far as the rise: Joan's first guitar lesson; the band learning to deflecting tossed beer cans (a punk show problem) with their guitar necks thanks to manager Fowley's extensive training; cramming into small hotel rooms, dealing with hostile club managers, etc. In short, the girls pay their dues. Then, soon enough, 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. It's CROSSROADS if they welded on THE DOORS and FOXES and clanged the loosey-goosey 70s 'kids are all wrong' bell of OVER THE EDGE (still the greatest kids amok film after all these years) before running back to rehab.

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 half-hearted blank slate interpretation. Or is it just that Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett rocks so much harder and mopes so much mopier 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 I have known, like Carmen Sternwood (the nymphomaniac druggy sister in The Big Sleep) 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, or loved (past tense). Despite the cliche-bound script I was touched by her gut wrenching a capella "Hound Dog" in 2007 (my review here), but here she's just a shell of a phoned-in blank nothing, snarling on cue and looking cute but lacking any kind of self-assertion. There are 16 year-olds out there who are going on 23 and there are 20 year-olds out there going on eleven. Dakota was an eleven year-old going on 30 but now the age of twelve seems to have caught up with her. Maybe the studio hoped Fanning would mature during the filming, that maybe she wouldgrow into the role, but there are ways that girls can delay womanhood's onset. I shudder to think that Dakota's following in so many young girls' DSM IV-certified child actor anorexic stunted growth footsteps, but in THE RUNAWAYS she's still just a half-starved deer in the headlights, not yet a she-wolf, eating that deer, as nature intended. Fanning lets Kristen Stewart do all the eating while she sits in the corner, sucks her thumb, and looks 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." 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. Now that's rock and roll. 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, if any, or what kind of actress Dakota wants to be, for that matter. Stewart's Joan fills her squirt gun with vodka and urinates 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 eventually...  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 or 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 fiery Bosch triptych 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 hatched web 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 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. She's the FUGITIVE KIND Brando, trying to stare down adulthood in the mirror while passive-aggressively parodying her character's archetypal punk oomph.

Well, 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, the addictive high of adulation is an excuse that prevents you from actually interacting with lesser (and everyone else is lesser) mortals.

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 (getting better at guitar, for example) is a lifelong pursuit that saves you from all self-defeating distraction. Fanning / Currie never learns this, 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 that I call the Keith Richards life preserver. She has her guitar, and she'll never need to look farther than its strings to find her own backyard.

No this same guitar playing focus is what keeps death at a respectful bay for Keith Richards. It's what lifts him above the druggy waves that drown lesser rock mortals, that lets him soar past the trials of bad trip overdose and grubby hangers-on that drag other rock stars down. His guitar is his magic charm, like Tamino's Magic Flute in Mozart's same-name opera, steadying him through trials that would panic and drown rock stars whose focus drifts to groupies, money, fame, or the terrors of bad trips and relentless dehumanizing crowd adoration. Joan loses all her fame and rep when the band crashes and she burns, and she's so young and overwhelmed she can't pull herself out. BUT once she's suffered and lost her mind and got it back through writing "I Love Rock and Roll," she has found her Keith Richard life preserver and earned the right to be a rock goddess, the way she hadn't while on the fast track through Fowley's hype machine thresher in the Runaways. She suffers and survives by grabbing onto the Keith Richards life preserver, focusing on her guitar and the craft, the playing. It keeps her afloat above the AOR sharks, big money, fame's rises and falls (and the only thing more jarring than sudden fame is its sudden absence), romantic love (which women are taught should be their 'ultimate'), and drug abuse. Guitar - it's a creative outlet she can practice and play on forever and never stop improving, a focus that keeps her head down and her attention rooted on the next step ahead, instead of all the side distractions. She can bring it everywhere and never stop playing. That guitar lifts her from both sinking into the mire, and from floating away into space. 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 (just don't forget your trowel).

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 Jett and Kristen Stewart signed the Satanic contract (Stewart with acting - continually seeking out good directors, scripts and new challenges) but Cherie and Dakota (through phoning it in) just fold the devil's contact up and ask 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 on tour, like Cameron Crowe in fucking ALMOST FAMOUS. Yeccch!

As a child actress coming into adulthood, 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. Instead, 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 II. Sometimes too, as with Burton, if you have a rep of being a great actor, directors are skittish about telling you how bad you're 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 is 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, because a beer-soaked, cigarette and vomit-scented bar is a terrible thing for a sober person to have to smell for hours on end, with nothing to do and nowhere to go until the set starts (a bass is pretty easy to set up), just forced to just hang out in a bar and not drink while coping with the twin anxieties of a) what if no one shows up? and b) what if a lot of people do and you suck? It's a nerve-wracking strain that has your whole psyche screaming, hour after hour, smelling that stale beer/puke/urine/sawdust smell, staring at the shelves behind the bar, shivering in the cold caused by the wet-mopped floors.

All worth it with that first flush of the double shot before the show starts, sure, but the strain!

Man, it's hell getting up to heaven. For me it wasn't worth it, so here I am. I hope Dakota doesn't cop out if acting is her passion, but if not, well, you can't hang in the doorway forever deciding if you want to endure that horrid 5-hour wait in the vomit-and-beer smelling soundstage, all made up and clutching a sweat-stained script like the hand of your mother when being led to the doctor's office for your first shot.

As for the real Cherie Curie, she finally found her own Keith Richards life preserver... chainsaw sculpture!

Saw strong, big sister! Saw that shit STRONG!


  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.


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