monday, march 23, 2009
Valley GirlValley Girl is a film that really had no right to be as good as it actually turned out to be. It emerged from the odious low-budget teen flick genre that was almost inescapable the early '80s.
Most of these films consisted of a threadbare plot, a surfeit of scatological humor and a minimum number of breasts to keep the audience interested. The vast majority were completely forgettable with, perhaps, a few dozen or so being memorable for a particular sequence or, perhaps, the presence of an actor far better than the material. But maybe a handful were very good and one or two absolutely superb.
And in 1982, director Martha Coolidge made one of the very best with Valley Girl. Although she had the sparse budget typically given to these efforts she was determined to make a movie that told a story. In doing so, she created a film that became a truer document of a particular place and time - Southern California in the early 1980s - than any number of cinematic efforts that followed in its footsteps.
Story wise, it's a pretty simple boy meets girl/boy loses girl drama between Julie (played by a radiant Deborah Foreman), an upper-middle-class girl from the valley, and Randy (Nicholas Cage), a working class, quasi-punk boy from West Hollywood.
What is clear from pretty much the start is that Coolidge obviously had an idea of the film she wanted to make and had spent considerable time looking back at older works to get a sense of pacing, tone and nuance. While perhaps it isn't necessarily art, Valley Girl is a fantastic example of film as craft - and that's often where the subtle glories of nuance start to seep in around the edges.
The film was clearly designed to cash in on the Val-speak phenomena that had entered the national consciousness via Frank Zappa's 1981 hit "Valley Girl." The sprechgesang approach of the song featured Zappa's then 14-year-old daughter, Moon Unit, speaking in the distinctive manner typical of upper-middle-class girls who inhabited California suburbs such as the San Fernando Valley (thus the name).
In retrospect it seems more of a weird mutation of surf lingo and the now pretty much forgotten preppy stereotype but it clearly had a pejorative insinuation from pretty much the get-go. The archetype was a ditzy, self-centered, materialist bimbo more interested in social status than personal development.
Instead of taking the easy option of making a film that mocked the phenomena (which is exactly what Zappa did) Coolidge cannily decided to play against type and chose to make Valley Girl about why teenage girls would participate in such seemingly ridiculous behavior. The answer she came up with was pretty simple actually - protection.
Their parents, when not totally absent, are almost as emotionally undeveloped as themselves. Their teachers seem only slightly better by virtue of the fact they are actually present.
Their relationships with boys are possibly even worse. They are seen, at best, as objects for simple possession and, at worst, completely disposable. One of the most painful but brutally honest scenes of the film is at the party when Julie's now ex-boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen) tries to have sex with her best friend Loryn (the vastly underrated Elizabeth Daily).
The scene captures the terrible moment in a teenage girl's life when she longs to be physically close with someone and the crushing fear of the emotional vulnerability it entails. The disappointment she suffers when she realizes she has been taken advantage off is palpable and, as hard as it is to watch, its lack of sentimentality is actually refreshing.
(It's telling the only scene that comes close to matching it is the opening sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High - a teen-genre film of the era also directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling.)
One interesting thing about Valley Girl is how, despite it's clear lack of pretension, it's almost a neo-realist classic. There is a verisimilitude to the film that is partly due to the way Coolidge chose to film it but also because of the bare-bones necessity forced upon her due to the miniscule budget.
As a result it presents the characters completely in their environment - not in a staged formal setting that would interrupt the attention on them. So you find yourself watching them interact with each other rather than how they exist in the world around them. And the fact she chose a fantastically talent group of actors didn't hurt her chances any either.
Even the montages in Valley Girl - the most unreal technique Coolidge utilizes - add to the realism of the work, developing character and the films strong sense of place geographically. And the fantastic selection of music didn't hurt either.
That's partly because Coolidge understood the distinction was a fallacy to begin with. The valley kids define themselves through what they buy while the Hollywood kids do it by what they don't - but they still show their allegiances via what they wear. And it's important that, in Valley Girl, when Julie and Randy first see each other - first become interested in each other - it's at the beach when they are not in the usual garb of their tribes. It's also no accident the film starts inside a mall but ends outside it.
Neither knows it but they both are looking for something more than what their own corner of the world offers them. Because she's actually looking for something that goes deeper than just the surface impressions that make up the bulk of her world and he's really looking for something more hopeful than the dour cynicism begat by being too cool too much of the damn time.
At its core, Valley Girl is dealing with divisions - cultural, generational, geographical and even those of gender - and the importance of crossing them, of bridging them in a meaningful manner. Coolidge sets this up from the very start beginning the movie with a sweeping aerial shot of the famous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee above Griffith Park. The camera rises over the Hollywood Hills and then pans across the vast suburb of the San Fernando Valley on the other side.
(To make the point even clearer, the opening features a radio announcer at a Hollywood rock station but then, as the valley comes into view, it changes to a station on that side playing the very New Wave "Girl Like Me" by Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo).
The Hollywood Hills are the geographic barrier between the city of West Hollywood and the valley itself but they also represent the divide between the two social groups. Many of the key scenes in the film - Randy's decision to go back to the party, he and Julie's "first date" - occur on Mulholland Drive which runs roughly across the hilll's crest line - symbolically athwart the two places and groups the teenagers hail from.
The contrast is the gritty, urban aspect of West Hollywood where the norm is that of street fashions and thrift-store chic, the latter which was epitomized by the granny garb worn by Exene Cervenka - the lead singer for the legendary Los Angeles band X. In Valley Girl, the powdery pigments of the Valley contrast dramatically with the primary shades of the Hollywood set - sharp blacks and reds and a willingness to take a chance with a razor and colored mousse for the hair.
It's somewhat interesting that X was initially considered for the role of the band in the club but they turned it down out of a concern of alienating their fans in the Valley. As much hay as Valley Girlmakes of the contrasts between denizens on either side of Mulholland Drive, the fact is a huge number of the punks hailed from vast bedroom communities around Los Angeles. In fact, it is a long-held precept of punk rock that it took something has culturally vapid and empty as the vast suburbs of America to create it.
"Hardcore," wrote author Steven Blush. "Comes from the bleak suburbs of America. Parents moved their kids out of the cities to these horrible suburbs to save them from the 'reality' of the cities and what they ended up with was this new breed of monster."
But Valley Girl isn't interested in the nihilistic horror of hardcore which was only a small segment of the scene anyway and it certainly doesn't see the suburbs as monstrous. Los Angeles was actually a breeding ground for dynamic and powerful bands in the early 1980s that were only "punk" in the sense they were staunchly DIY and unswayed by the lure of selling out that they never figured was going to happen anyway.
There was a lot of great music that came out of the West Coast during those for which it wasn't obligatory to have a Mohawk to attend the concert. The movie's own Plimsouls, the Blasters, the Burning Sensations, hell, even the notoriously combative shows Black Flag put on weren't hardcore punk by definition.
"As a teenager we live our lives to the rhythms of the music we listen to," she says and she's 100 percent correct.
Because the point isn't having the music in the film, but having the film show the music in the lives of the characters. It's a detail that George Lucas understood perfectly a decade prior with American Graffiti even though he made that film a period piece.
And let's face it; it's not controversial to claim The Plimsouls were a great band but the fact is that a lot of the New Wave was really pretty good as well. There is a reason Modern English's "Melt With You" took off after Coolidge put it in the film - people realized it was a great song. And the fact it's now a staple of advertising aimed a folks my age is a sadder testament to the song's power.
Which touches on one of the difficulties people from that era have in rewatching a film like Valley Girl. It's damned tough to step away from a powerful nostalgia the film has the power to evoke and judge it objectively. For me it sort of sums up a weird sense of hopeful possibility without the concern the knives of cynicism would descend on you for feeling it.
Personally, I always felt there was an interesting sense of... well, optimism to much of the music that emerged in that period. Even the darkest bands penned songs that were downright uplifting for some bizarre reason. Which is odd, because there were a lot of serious concerns about the state of the world at the time.
The late 1970s was a time of turbulence and economic unease in the United States. In the wake of that, there really was a strange pervading optimism at the onset of the Reagan years - although how much of that had to do with the former actor taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an open question.
Yet even inside these safe suburban communities like depicted in Valley Girl there was also a nagging sense of anxiety about the state of the world and the very real danger of nuclear war that is almost unimaginable today. There was a reason a year later the TV movie The Day After airing which portrayed the effects of a full-on nuclear conflict became a massive hit.
More often it's eclipsed by that terribly beautiful sense of possibility and optimism wrapped up in a litany of horrible embarrassments that are the hallmark of one's teen years.Valley Girl, somehow, captures all of that and instead of trying it hammer the point home, has the grace to understand acknowledging it is sufficient and let it be.
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