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A generalized theory of Movies Teen Me Would Have Loved

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Jan. 9th, 2014 | 12:28 pm

W and I watched Elvira: Mistress of the Dark on Netflix the other night after learning it was one of RuPaul's top five favorite movies. On Facebook I simply reviewed it: "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark: good movie or best movie?" but I'm going to talk about it a little more because it leads me to a generalized theory of Movies Teen Me Would Have Loved.

In case you have never seen it, Elvira is a cartoonishly silly comedy based on Cassandra Peterson's famous horror movie host / mocker and Halloween costume inspiration, she of the giant black 80s hair, giant wings of black eyeliner, and a black dress cut down to there, with plenty of moonlight-white cleavage. The movie character Elvira has a job (at least at first) as a horror movie host / mocker, but it turns out she is just like that all the time: always goth, always sexy, always sharp-tongued. The movie delights in showing her in contrast to her surroundings. Here's the long-black-dressed witch-woman eating fast food. Here's the long-black-dressed witch-woman in a bowling alley. It's a completely ridiculous, but deeply loving parody of a witch movie from people who have clearly seen plenty.

I can see why Elvira is an inspiring character for RuPaul. She takes guff from no one. She dresses how she wants, lives how she wants, and she doesn't care if you like it. She is gleefully sexual, but she chooses who she wants to aggressively seduce, and responds to unwanted advances with swift and cutting hostility.

Somehow I missed Elvira when I was growing up, but I think I would have really liked it. My favorite movies when I was fourteen were Rocky Horror Picture Show, Barbarella, and Army of Darkness. They're all from different decades, but they have a lot of similarities. From these points of data, I posit that teen me loved movies that meet the following criteria:

1. Tongue-in-cheek These movies are comedies, but they honestly aren't the funniest around. But I didn't watch them to laugh at the jokes, especially the third or fourth or seventeenth time around. I'm not sure that comedy is necessarily a key part of what I liked, although I liked the level of playfulness, of anything-can-happen.

2. Deeply weird This perhaps ties into #2, an element of unpredictability. I liked movies where certain aspects are just completely inexplicable. I think it makes you feel like part of a special band of brothers when you meet another fan, because you both appreciate and, in a way, understand something that is so strange.

3. Kind of shoddily made I appreciated flaws, a certain level of shoddiness or cheapness, for similar reasons as #2, but also because it makes you feel like the filmmakers are just some guys who have limits and who might be your friends.

4. Pulp genre Even genres I didn't particularly like or know much about for themselves are fair game. Army of Darkness, along with the rest of the Evil Dead series, is deeply in the horror genre, which I don't really like. (Although Army is more fantasy, and I like that better.) Barbarella makes use of very specific conventions of sixties sci-fi and/or artsy weird movies. Rocky Horror Picture Show is full of explicit references to 1930s adventure movies and serials.

Note that while these movies are genre comedies, they aren't parodies, exactly. If they mock conventions of the genre, it's lovingly. They're making a horror or a sci-fi movie primarily because they absolutely love the genre and want to delight in it, and only secondarily to make fun of the ridiculousness.

5. Juvenile fascination with yet vagueness about sex There are sexy actors in skimpy outfits; there are boobs and sometimes even nipples; sexiness might be a defining trait of a character, or sex may be at the crux of the plot; but kissing is the most explicit act shown. Sex scenes are always fade-to-black and mysterious. This matched my maturity level at 14.

6. Identifies with the outsider I would never have identified with a movie where the main, most sympathetic, or POV character was a "normal" and where the "weirdos" were mocked. It has to be the other way around. And in all of these movies, mainstream vs. misfit is a central theme.

I don't super remember the plot of Barbarella, but I believe it concerns a space babe teaching hunky, repressed angels about free love and bashing up the religious dictatorship that oppresses them.

Rocky Horror is ostensibly from the point of view of the "normals," and Dr. Frank is the comical horror movie villain, but it's clear where the movies allegiance lies: Dr. Frank is complex, sexy, brilliant, mad, scary, beautiful; Brad and Janet are comical hypocrites.

Army of Darkness is a traditional wish-fulfillment fantasy journey with a sad schlub stumbling into a confusing fantasy world, and gradually gaining confidence and inner badassery as he's thrust into the unlikely position of savior.

Elvira is just completely overt about the outsider theme. She is literally an outsider in a small town. She is literally told she doesn't belong by the domineering "Morality Club." She, triumphantly, doesn't care, and does her own thing anyway.

Stray thoughts:

* I think criterion #6 is actually why John Hughes movies largely fell flat for me. They are tongue-in-cheek, often weird, they're in their own sort of pulp genre (the "teen movie," even though they are sort of making it up as they go along), they're about hormonal teens and their love lives (and sometimes their underwear). Some folks would even point to them as examples of movies that identify with the outsider, but the problem is, while they often pay lip service to the pro-misfit message, it doesn't feel genuine. There is always someone lower on the totem pole. Even Breakfast Club, that supposed love song to outsiders, while giving the nerd as much soppy confessional time as everyone else, really doesn't expect us to identify with him. It expects us to pity him. Don't get me started on Sixteen Candles. Even if it weren't horribly racist, any character with a comical nerd gets no misfit cred, no matter how unpopular the beautiful and perfect Molly Ringwald character feels herself to be.

* I think criterion #6 is why a lot of kids my age liked Rent. At the time, I did not. I felt that it was too obvious, trying too hard. Really, criterion #6 is ALL it is -- it's not hiding it or splitting attention with any goofaround stuff. It does take itself seriously. It is based on an opera by Puccini. Maybe if it was based on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century I would have liked it more.

* I did, however, love Hedwig and the Angry Inch when it came out a few years later. That meets basically all the criteria except "pulp genre." So maybe that one is not a necessity.

* My childhood favorite show, Xena: Warrior Princess, fits these criteria quite well.

* Honestly, in a lot of ways, so does Boy Meets World, at least at its best. "Wholesome family TV show" is the pulp genre, and while Boy Meets World seems to be trying to BE one, not parody one, it is often too weird to really succeed. #6 doesn't work, really. Cory is supposed to be an everyman, which is the opposite of an outsider. But he is not really the hero anyway. Shawn or Eric is. Unless that's just how I saw it.

* None of this in any way explains my love for the musical Les Miserables, which meets none of the criteria. It takes itself extremely seriously; it's arguably weird, in that one questions it as a choice for a Broadway musical, but once you get past that, it's internally consistent; far from being shoddy or small-time, it is notoriously big-budget and grand; it is based on a highly-regarded classic work of literature; its view of sex is anything but fun; and while sympathetic characters like Valjean and Fantine and Eponine and the student revolutionaries could be viewed as outsiders, my favorite character was actually Javert, the ultimate representative of the establishment. Sometimes I just had to be rebel, even against my own taste.

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth.

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