‘The Legend of Billie Jean’ with cinematographer Richard Walden

Legend_of_Billie_JeanFilm: The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:
Matthew Robbins
Written by:    
Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner
Starring:     
Helen Slater as Billie Jean
Christian Slater as Binx
Keith Gordon as Lloyd
Richard Bradford as Pyatt

 By Shelley Stillo

Pre-screening memories: I stayed home from school a lot when I was young. I don’t know if my parents were lazy (throw a big enough fit….), ’80s permissive, or if they were just sympathetic. I suspect it was sympathetic.

You see, from a pretty early age, I was the teased kid. I started watching horror and sci fi in grade school. By third or fourth grade I was identifying as a Dr. Who fan, conventions and all. By fourth grade, I had a best friend geeky enough to play “Lost Boys” with me on weekends (we would write our own elaborate, soap opera-esque plots for the “Lost Boys” characters and act them out. She was Michael’s (Jason Patric) girlfriend, I was David’s (Keifer Sutherland), though I think we both secretly lusted over the more age-appropriate Coreys).

I wouldn’t trade geekdom for the world. But it made for a rough childhood. 90% of the time, when I whined to stay home from school, it was because I was afraid of bullies, and my parents knew it. They had a heart; I had a lot of sick days.

That’s why you’ll hear me say, “I think I was home sick in bed…” so often on this podcast when I’m asked how I first encountered a movie. “Home from school” was where I was when I first encountered The Legend of Billie Jean. Before watching it again, I had very vague memories of this film. I remembered an image, and the themes, and that is it. The image I remembered was of the colossal Billie Jean statue burning near the end of the film.

slaterAs for the themes, I remembered that the movie was about outlaw teenagers in some kind of epic struggle. Despite the famous use of Pat Benetar’s “Invincible,” throughout the film, it took me years to figure out where these flashes of memory had come from (of course, once I did, I couldn’t hear the song without aching to see the film again). Now that I have seen the film again, I am not surprised that my bullied young self had such an affinity for it. Billie Jean might have been the town heart throb, but her family and her friends were outcasts, and I wasn’t at all shocked to find that the whole film is triggered in by an act of bullying.

New Memories: The plot has an element of absurdity to it that gave it an “only in the 80s quality” for me that I loved. But that absurdity is pleasantly mixed with a sense of earnestness—even when what is happening on screen is pushing silly, everything feels real and feels palpable.

yeardlyThe experiences Billie Jean and her friends, especially her little brother Binx (Christian Slater) and her overzealous young neighbor Putter (a pre-Lisa Simpson Yeardley Smith) are often dead serious even when the scenarios are not: Billie has to fight off an attempted rape, Binx is fascinated yet frightened by the possibilities of violence, and the needy Putter is the victim of abuse.

However, these instances are not the “issues” that drive the films, they’re simply the realities these characters contend with day in and day out. And as such, they ground the action without stifling it with “meaning.” There are also elements of Neverland (of the Peter Pan, not the Michael Jackson, variety) in the film that I’m sure appealed to me as a child, and appeal even helen short hairmore to me now, such as the character’s temporary home in an abandoned mini-golf course, or the introduction of the character Lloyd (Keith Gordon), whose home resembles a Universal horror film prop closet. These settings lend an air of Goonies-esque fantasy to this much grittier Texas based film.

But seeing it again has convinced me that it is the “golden rule” theme of how you treat others that appealed to me most when I caught this film during one of my numerous experiences with playing hookie. Now that I have seen the film, I can understand why I identified with its ethic of “fair is fair” treatment, and why such a mantra would have been so resonant that I have felt this film for so many years, more than I have remembered it.

Download Natsukashi’s: ‘The Legend of Billie Jean’ podcast .

or, you listen right here, because fair is fair:

Our featured guest: Richard Walden

truck shotWe here at Natsukashi love us our Richard Walden. How can you not?  The man is warm, gracious and always happy to help us walk through the films from his resume. Richard returns to join us after his Continent Divide podcast earlier this summer, and here dishes on working with the young cast of then-up-and-coming actors, the parallels between Billie Jean and another strong female protagonist who controversially cut her hair, Felicity (on which Richard also worked).

His most recetly worked on Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, from Harry Potterdirector Chris Columbus and starring Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan and Rosario Dawson. He’s also recently worked on Ramona and Beezus, a film adaptation from the popular Beverly Cleary “Ramona” book series.

‘Christine’ with Alexandra Paul

christine

Film: Christine (1983)
Rated: R
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Stephen King (story)
Starring:  Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham
                    John Stockwell as Dennis Guilder
                    Alexandra Paul as Leigh Cabot

By Shelley Stillo

Pre-screening memories: The first novel I remember reading for fun was by Stephen King.cujo  It was Cujo and I picked it up from around the house after my mother had finished reading it. I was intrigued by the cover: a snarling snout with teeth bared emerging from a dull beige background.  I was nine, I was terrified, and I loved every minute of it.  In these post-PMRC days, when parental warnings air even before shows on the Family Channel, some Natsukashi-readers might be horrified by the idea of an elementary school student reading Stephen King novels cover to cover, one after the other (or, given that you’re a fan of this site, maybe you aren’t!).

There was strong violence, horrific imagery, indecent language, and a surprising amount of sex (I’m still a little bit traumatized by the pre-pubescent gang bang in It).  But this was the 80s, and King was, well, king. It seemed that every novel he published was more acclaimed and more successful than the last.  And far from corrupting my youth or warping my psychology, being a pre-teen King fan gave me entrée in the adult world.  It was something I could talk about with my family and my parents’ friends.

My mother was a King fan (this was how I gained access to all of those novels—they were just there), my uncle was a King fan. For the first time, I had something in common with adults. We could talk about King novels on something like equal ground. I felt like I had knowledge and authority about a subject for the first time. It is likely significant that this equality was achieved through literature; I am sure it is no accident that I am an English professor today, even though some of my peers might balk at applying the “L” word to King.

christine2Some of my earliest cinematic memories are thanks to King as well.  Despite the appellation of the label “misogynist” to the horror genre, King often wrote about strong female characters a young woman, especially one who didn’t quite “fit in” could identify with. There was the intensely sad, yet satisfying, prom scene in Carrie, there was little Drew Barrymore, just about my own age at the time, in Firestarter.  Amidst this mini-King storm of my childhood was Christine, a novel and a film in which the strong female character is imagined with a hemi-sized twist:  “she” is a car, and one hell of a car.  I really don’t remember the particulars of my first viewing of Christine.  It was just a part of my “King phase,” and the details have blurred together with all the other King films I saw around the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at that age, I preferred Maximum Overdrive to Christine:  the evil car in that film was almost cartoon-like, which I am sure would appeal to children more than the Detroit muscle car beauty of Christine. Besides, I was going through a bit of an Emilio Estevez phase back then as well, so I am sure his presence in Maximum Overdrive appealed to me on a completely different level.

inside carNew memories: In some ways, Christine is the male version of Carrie.  The nerdy, effeminate, and consistently bullied Arnie (Stuart Gordon) undergoes a transformation as a result of his relationship with Christine that allows him to become the coolest guy in school, to get the girl, and to avenge his enemies, but all of this comes at a tremendous cost.  Christine is a possessive lover, and she makes it difficult for Arnie to take full advantage of his new-found popularity by killing anyone who garners even the slightest of Arnie‘s time and affection. 

I’ve been reading a lot of Poe and Hawthorne lately, so the first thing that struck me as I re-viewed this film for the first time in 20 years was how frequently male anxiety is displaced onto the female body in the Gothic genre.  In Poe and Hawthorne, men grapple with scientific advances, with male competition in the workplace, and with their own psychology in the presence of dead and dying women.  In Christine, Arnie and  best friend, popular jock Dennis (John Stockwell) grapple with their emerging sexualities, their position in the intense social hierarchy of high school, and male competition through their highly charged relationship to a feminized automobile.  In a way, the character of Christine turns this male-centered Gothic trope on its head.  In one sense, it is very traditional—the female, sexualized body, Christine, serves as a sort of lynch pin for male anxiety. 

From another perspective though, Christine is a highly ironic feminized symbol, being that cars, especially sexy cars like the stingray, have long been associated with male sexual and social identities.  King is able to parody the Gothic’s use of femininity and America’s “masculine” obsession with the automobile in one character.  This parody troubles the typical 80s high school stereotypes in the film.  As a friend of mine pointed out to me (Christianne from http://krelllabs.blogspot.com/), Arnie and Dennis look like traditional types initially, the cool guy and the loser, with the cool guy as white in shining armor.

But not only are their roles quickly reversed by Christine’s influence on Arnie, King immediately emasculates Dennis’s jock hero when his character suffers a debilitating injury during a football game early in the film, a scenario that could be read as a symbolic castration.  As with many of the 80s films we have discussed on this site, Christine provides an ironic commentary on the genres—horror, teen flicks, high school dramas—from which it is fashioned. 

carIn addition to the complex gender issues in the film, the other thing I will take away from my recent viewing of Christine is how beautifully made it is.  Christine is a exquisite car, she is the kind of car any exploitation film fan dreams about at night (eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino), and she is photographed beautifully throughout the film.  The camera angles early in the film render familiar scenes, of high school hallways and family living rooms, uncomfortable and hint at the horror to come, suggesting to viewers that terror is always lurking at the edges of the familiar.  One scene in particular, of Christine, engulfed in flames, running down one of Arnie‘s tormentors, is one of the most beautiful sequences of film I’ve seen in a long time. And I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched this moment, if it was the inspiration for Radiohead’s ethereal “Karma Police” video? 

honda civic(Ed. note: I was extremely happy to re-view this, as the first car I ever owned had an appearance in the film, briefly. It was a canary yellow 1975 Honda Civic with a pull choke.  And yes, she had a name: Charo, for she shook when she got really excited.)

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Download the ‘Christine’ with Alexandra Paul podcast here

…or, steer into our little on-site player below:

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paulOur featured guest: Alexandra Paul

Christine marked one of Ms. Paul’s first big-screen outings, where she played Leigh, the new girl in school and the “other woman” to a 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Since then, Ms. Paul has been active both on screen and off, starring in such big-screen films as American Flyers, Dragnet, 8 Million Ways to Die, and Spy Hard. On television, Paul has performed on Melrose Place and has hosted  Outdoor Life Network’s Wild Watersand We’s Winning Women.

But perhaps her biggest pop-culture legacy is that of Lt. Stephanie Holden on the globally popular Baywatch series.

But Paul’s passions run deep and she has carved a formidable path for herself away from the camera as well, signing up voters well before she was age to cast her own ballot, co-writing and producing JamPacked, a documentary on overpopulation, as well as The Cost of Cool, about simple living. As an owner of an electric car since 1990, Paul was also featured in the riveting documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, where she strapped herself to the last GM EV1 to be taken off the Burbank lot.

And if that were not enough, Paul is an award recipient from both the ACLU and the United Nations.

And dare you doubt her Baywatch athleticism, she is a finisher in the grueling IronMan Triathlon competition (Ed. note: time to rethink the title of that race!), an accomplished swimmer who has propelled herself in distances ranging from 6.2 to 10 miles in the water (and preparing for another this year, as you will hear in the podcast).

We are truly honored to have Ms. Paul join us to reflect on a film that many of our listeners recall so fondly and wish her the best in all her future endeavors.

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