Somewhere That’s Green: Class, Gentrification, and Little Shop of Horrors

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Little-Shop-of-HOrrors(Author’s Note: This originally appeared on Harlot.)

A rad Off Broadway musical, a parody of the sci-fi/horror ilk that Roger Corman (its original creator, of sorts) churned out, and, perhaps, most of all, a sweetly poisonous satire on race, class, and the American Dream. Frank Oz’s adaptation of Alan Menken and Howard Ashmen’s cult musical (which was in turn based on a low budget 1960 film) is a delectably deadly apple concerning a boy, a girl, poverty, and a foul-mouthed carnivorous plant.

As Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve notes, “What’s significant about Little Shop is that the traditional, supposedly guaranteed avenues to the American Dream have failed them.” She goes on to elaborate the exact methods that failed them (starting a business, having big dreams, etc.), but what’s also crucial is that contingent on the concept of the American Dream is capitalism, a system that everyone in the film (who ostensibly has a job) is complicit in, or a victim of. “Skid Row”, though thematically derivative of many showtunes where desires are expressed (for stability, for love, for money, for fame, etc) , speaks very specifically to the way that the community, environment, and system works within what looks like an anonymous version of Manhattan.

Lyric after lyric, the details of life on Skid Row aren’t pretty, and they’re intentionally juxtaposed against what life is like when one’s working for those that have achieved the seemingly mythic American Dream:

“Uptown, you cater to a million jerks / Uptown, you’re messengers and mailroom clerks / Eating all your lunches at the hot dog carts / The bosses take your money and they break your hearts.”

Oz’s camera pulls out in a crane shot over a fence, and despite the momentous ending of the track musically (major key, a swell of voices and instruments), the end message is primarily a dour one. There’s no hope for these people. As much as they try, as often as they repeat it, they can’t “get out of here”. 

Also noticeable is that the Skid Row that these folks inhabit seems to be, though diverse, very much minority inhabited. Many people of color, ethnic representations (Italian people, Polish people, as well as the Jewish caricature Mr. Mushnik), all of whom drag their feet or bags, dressed primarily in tatters.  A subtext of gentrification feels more overt when contrasted so starkly against the rest of community that remain financially unstable.

When the business starts succeeding as a result of the showcase of Audrey II, the enigmatic plant Seymour found during the total eclipse of the sun, there’s a whiff of “urban renewal” about the area: Mr. Mushnik’s shop shines bright with the pastel palette typical of the musical genre that it’s playing with while the world around them remains dank and decrepit. Behind the counter are Seymour, Audrey, and Mr. Mushnik, all of whom are Caucasian. Their customers are almost all white. Mr. Mushnik shouts after the Greek chorus, dressed as young school girls, to be in school so that they can “better [themselves]”. “‘Better ourselves’?” one of them spits back. “Did you hear that? Mister, when you’re in Skid Row, there ain’t no such thing.” It’s easy to interpret this on a general level;, that it is impossible for anyone in Skid Row to do that. Yet, the subtext and implication is “when you’re a marginalized person in Skid Row, there ain’t no such thing”.

This is a subtle breaking of the fourth wall, as we understand these characters to serve primarily as Greek chorus. The schoolgirl who says this looks back at her friends, and then back past the camera, and though she’s addressing Mr. Mushnik, she’s talking to us. Implicit in that little piece of dialogue is the structural inequality that serves as an obstacle for these girls to “better” themselves, as well as a criqitue of the notion that people have to “better” themselves in the first place. It’s a small, but potent ideological battle, one that’s class and linguistic based. That they aim their words straight at the audience makes for the experience to be all the more jarring.

Audrey and Seymour have unfortunate backstories, and Audrey particularly dreams of a future she was thus far unable to attain. She croons about the white picket fence and family she wishes to have in “Somewhere That’s Green”.Oz’s deliberately artificial rendering of the house, the lawn, etc. resonates in that the American Dream, in this film, is facile even to those for whom it is their dream. Seymour, an orphan, wants those things, too (especially with Audrey).

Again, in sharp contrast with the world around them, the film’s Greek chorus, women of color, are dressed, in a word, fabulously. Bright colors, gorgeous designs, lovely accessories. It is intentionally antithetical to the environment they inhabit, even a middle finger to the people who deny the beauty, but uphold the beauty standards, that people of this economic background can attain.

The Greek chorus exists as both internally and externally from the film, their garments dependent on the relationship they have to the narrative at a given time. Merely making comment, they’re allowed to fulfill that American fantastical aesthetic, a bourgeoisie look that Mr. Mushnik would be quick to scoff at.  When they are working within the film as participants, they’re donning old, dirty school clothes, emblematic of their realities. They seem to vacillate between a fantasy, where they can observe the goings on omnisciently, and a lived reality, where they’re subject to the same conditions of poverty as everyone else.

Also interesting is this idea that Audrey II is voiced by former Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs, this meta-text suggesting that as Seymour becomes ascends to fame, he’s profiting off a black person. He is profiting off of the black body. There seems to be an odd ambivalence in commitment to this idea, as Audrey II, voiced by a person of color or not, is nonetheless illustrated as a villain, a “mean green mother from outer space”. Much of the film’s satire is in service of critiquing the very whiteness that threatens the Other, but Audrey II is, admittedly, parodic in comparison.

The blunter reading of Seymour’s methodology is “some people will do anything to get everything”, and while that power hungry narrative is relevant, it doesn’t acknowledge some of the more sociological aspects at work. Audrey II is the step to the American Dream that Seymour and Audrey crave, and in a desire to acquire that, Seymour fees Audrey II endlessly, all in the hope that Audrey II will have enough.

Though hunger for power is certainly damning, the film indicts the audience to some degree in their perpetuation of trickle down and gentrifying economic policies, ones that suggest that places like Skid Row will be able to “better” themselves not by helping the people in need directly, but by providing economic benefit to those that already have power, privilege, and stability. In essence, Audrey II is the pawn for Seymour and Audrey’s personal success.

Audrey II has the last word, though. In the infamously altered ending, sure, Seymour  and Audrey end up acquiring the American Dream. The white house, picket fence, and plastic wrapped furniture is all there. But lurking in the garden is a remnant of the past, perhaps indicative of gentrification’s, even colonialism’s, ghost.


The Anti-Romance Film: Finding Love in the Best Worst Date Movies

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GONE-GIRL-Movie-HD-Trailer-Captures00004_1_11(Author’s Note: This was original published on Fandor on February 14th, 2016, but they’ve deleted their archives.)

Is there anything more romantic than watching the face of your date as the image of Rosamund Pike slitting Neil Patrick Harris’s throat is projected up on the big screen—on your first outing, no less? Now that’s an ice breaker. My date was seated to my right as I scribbled down notes for the first fifteen minutes, unaware of the context of our meeting until a good fifteen minutes into the film. The ambiguity with which our outing was initially imbued may or may not speak to a larger idea of the cultural shifts in courting, but to watch Gone Girl on a first date is really, contrary to public perception, a romantic thing. The jittery ebullience of the evening doesn’t really change, since the context is the same, and though we didn’t go out again, not because of the film (our post screening discussion was lively and impassioned), there’s a hurdle one overcomes when watching Gone Girl—or even other works like Antichrist, Scenes from a Marriage, etc.—it’s a weird, inexplicable sense of intimacy and understanding one has when watching a film like this, let’s call them Anti-Romantic films. Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday is Done: 17 from 2017

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17 for 17 Round 3
This was an exhausting year, about which, I do not have any interesting or insightful thoughts, at least that pertain to anything other than my personal life. But I did go to the movies, so there’s that. Here’s to the cinema that made it somewhat bearable.
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Start from Hello, Old Friend: In Loving Memory of Julie Klausner’s “Difficult People”

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Being one of the two shows I actively make an  effort to watch, the cancellation of the brilliant Difficult People is devastating for me.Biting gay men and their equally witty female counterparts, or arguably vice versa, are a shopworn cliche in comedies. But the significance of Difficult People, the Hulu Original created, written, and starring Julie Klausner and starring Billy Eichner, is the show’s ability to flesh out the world to be hyperspecific beyond bon mots. Playing a struggling writer and a struggling actor, the finely observed details of their relationship, in both cruelty and joy, are hard to find in most media. To use “Old Friends” from Stephen Sondheim’s cult flop musical in the season three finale, and the unexpected series’ end, is another example of the deft way in which Klausner could paint mean people as being capable of deep intimacy and love.

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Home Invasion: On Being an Outsider in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “[Safe]”

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large_close_encounters_third_kind_blu-ray15At the heart of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which opens in theaters for its 40th anniversary September 1st) and Todd Haynes’ (whose new film, Wonderstruck, will play at NYFF) masterpiece [Safe] is the all-consuming desire to feel comfort and belonging when the world you live in offers no such pleasure. Though different in form and approach, Spielberg, whose unapologetic sentimentality is a hallmark of his work, and Haynes, who makes heady, intellectually rigorous movies that more often than not comment on sentimentality than are necessarily culpable of it, find a common feeling that infects both of their lead characters: displacement and —  no pun intended — alienation. Read the rest of this entry »

Tilt Shift: Andy Muschietti’s “IT: Chapter One”

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e470cd420e1f51e13806fa2aa2ad4721What is it about Andy Muschietti’s It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s monstrously sized novel of childhood trauma and clowns, that makes the film feel so bland and unimportant? It certainly wants to feel lively and fun and maybe even a little important. It wants to feel alive. The various iterations of It have all tried to reconcile with otherness, being an outsider, a “loser”, if you will. But the gravity of those implications isn’t there perhaps because It is a film that is unsure of what It is, shifting and transforming in tone as quickly as the monster haunting the film’s characters. But It is unable to settle confidently in any one of its tonal or aesthetic personae.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Mirror Has Two Faces: On Fame, Politics, and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” and Beyoncé’s “Formation”

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1219533Regardless of the accuracy of the claims of stealing from Beyoncé lodged against Taylor Swift regarding her new single and video “Look What You Made Me Do”, directed by the prolific Joseph Kahn, there is nonetheless a quick jolt of schadenfreude when someone quips, in quotes, “Okay ladies now let’s gentrification.” The riff on the chorus from Beyoncé’s single “Formation” sits atop one of the first images that appeared from Swift’s video, of the singer standing before a “squad” of dancers, in black. After seeing this teaser, before the video actually dropped, folks on Twitter ran with the vague similarities between that and a shot from the Melina Matsoukas directed “Formation” video, making a litany of variantly amusing jokes. But while the resemblance between the two music videos is arguably a stretch — the shots in question barely have the same blocking, never mind a difference in costuming, color palette, set design, and general scene composition, in context of the whole video or otherwise — there is a likeness between the tracks themselves that seems to have gone without much comment. It’s two women, under intense public scrutiny, answering the public in very different ways. Read the rest of this entry »