Friday, June 24, 2005

Does it matter that Sandy (ONJ) is Australian in Grease?

A preview to Batman Begins announced the upcoming release to a remake of Willie Wonka & Chocolate Factory directed by Tim Burton with Johny Depp. While I am pro Tim Burton [and adored his Batman with Keaton, Nicholson, Jack Palance, and Kim Basinger] (and Depp), for some reason this made me very melancholic. Who would ever try to re-make Wonka? What's next: Young Frankenstein with Ben Stiller? (Then again, Adam Sandler just ruined The Longest Yard.) I had seen the disturbing, original version (1971) with Gene Wilder on TV some time after reading Roald Dahl's story as a young teenager. I thought it would make a better topic for this blog than the new adventures of the masked, caped crusader, who has plenty of famous male co-stars (Liam Neeson, Michael Cain, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Gary Oldman--did I leave anybody out?), but no...Robin! (An astute political theorist at WashU pointed out to me there is a hint of a future Robin in the movie.) Our Christian-Coalition-era movie-studios have become so scared of promoting a family unfriendly image that they will even break-up the most famous homo-erotic movie duo! The most impressive (and pathetic) thing about Batman Begins is how the art-directors transformed Gotham into...Chicago!?! (I recognized computer animated images of Wacker drive in several shots, especially the drawn bridges! Even the ride home in the Batmobile looked like it was filmed on LSD--that is, Lake Shore Drive.) Perhaps, after Spider-Man 2, which mixes intelligence, wit, and romance, I got my hopes up too high for new comic adventures.

Anyway, I ought to write on Wilder's Wonka, which was on cable a few days ago, and its Kodachrome Technicolor fantastic sadism. (Imagine Michael Jackson's imaginative creepiness without the delusions.) It is a frontal attack on spoiled brats, and even its Panglossian ending can't spoil this musical.

But I got distracted by Grease I, which HBO has been showing during last few weeks. The movie reminded me that a good sound track can go a very long way. (Easy Rider, for example, is defined by the sound-track; it is really a very boring movie otherwise, unless you like watching post-card perfect pictures of the American west without soundtrack.) While there were a few scenes where I expected The Fonz to make a cameo appearance, Grease surprised me with its sense of humour (you keep a straight face during Frankie Avalon's "High School Drop Out!"), and its treatment of 50s (or high school) nostalgia. The musical succeeds because even though it does not aim to rise above 'mere entertainment,' it does not condescend to its characters or its audience. (More serious, artsy/Indie movies would do well to remember this.)

I want to conclude by calling attention to the movie's very clever conceit: the American high school kids, exemplified by Stockard Channing's character, "Rizzo," are (fairly) knowing in contrast to the stereotypical "innocent, naive 1950s American." There is a character who fits the stereotype of the movie-version of 1950s America (with white sneaker, modest sweater vests, and long skirts, etc), but she is an Australian immigrant, Sandy (played by Olivia Newton John)! Now I am not suggesting that the writers, directors or producers of the movie thought through the complex relationship between America and its most loyal Vietnam era ally--another land of opportunity favoured by immigrants. Yet, Sandy's *other-ness* (to use a word popular among lit crit types) as an immigrant is emphasized throughout the first half of the movie (which does not disguise the ethnic and, more subtly, class tensions among even notionally white high school students; the Dance-off in the American band-stand scene is an entertaining send up of West Side Story). Now, I have not thought this through, but Sandy is a kind of mirror to a false image of America. Sandy has bought into the movie-version of America; she is not alone--contemporary Conservatives are a large group. (But at least she can claim to be a fictional character.) Sandy's growth consists in discovering that the real America allows her to be (shall we say?) far more...interesting. Okay, she starts wearing leather pants and high heels to 'get' her Danny Zuko (John Travolta). It is show-business.


At 1:21 AM, Blogger eddmorgan81081299 said...

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At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the Sandy of the begining is a lot more likeable and interesting than the Sandy at the end of Grease. The Sandy at the end of Grease is rather lame, in the sort of "Me Jane, me want Tarzan" sort of way.


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