Fierce People (2005)

One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to LoveFierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.

With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma.  Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.

I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.

-Brandon Ledet

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Roger Corman production Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is a delightful watch for all kinds of gleefully unhinged, Looney Tunes-type touches. Its cartoon energy isn’t entirely what makes it memorable, though. There’s a misshapen, decidedly unprofessional quality to the few scenes in the film where The Ramones, playing themselves, are asked to deliver a few lines of seemingly manageable dialogue, but can’t appear to be human while the cameras are pointed at them. I find that non-compliance with traditional screen presence to be something beyond punk, a strange ramshackle de-evolution that’s part exploitation pic fascination and part real world inebriation. Produced & directed by music industry weirdo Lou Adler (who also had a hand in Rocky Horror and some Cheech & Chong projects), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains somehow sustains the slovenly rock n’ roller energy from those Ramones scenes for the length of an entire feature. Better yet, the movie marries that misshapen, Ramones-style presence to a decidedly feminist diatribe against the way mediocre men who are gatekeepers to both punk & pop culture at large, deliberately keeping young women from having a voice in the counterculture landscape. It’s a fascinating film in that way and I’m baffled it doesn’t have a larger cultural footprint because of it.

Unemployed, broke, and mourning the recent loss of a key family member, three teenage girls do the only thing young, working class nobodies can do in a small industrial town: channel their angst into a punk band. Going through the punk ritual of drastically changing their physical appearances and the names they go by, the three-piece musical act, The Stains of the film’s title, luck themselves into an opening slot on a touring gig with two bands packed with macho assholes: a has-been glam rock nostalgia act and an up-and-coming crew of British punks. Like a rough-around-the-edges version of The Runaways, The Stains find themselves to be incredibly popular almost immediately with young women across the country who are desperate for a voice of their own in the punk angst subculture. The problem is that this fame & notoriety hits them before they’re ready as a band and as people. Mocked & exploited by record industry execs, TV news anchors, and the men they initially supported on tour, The Stains watch as the genuine anger they funneled into their songs (especially “I’m a Waste of Time”) & personal sense of style (a sex-positive spin on new wave fashion) is commodified and destroyed as a flash-in-the-pan novelty before they are even afforded enough time to find themselves as a band. It’s a somewhat tragic story where the enemy to the group isn’t fame itself, but the opportunistic, misogynist assholes who keep their grip locked tight on the keys to the pop culture kingdom.

What’s most immediately striking about The Fabulous Stains is its punk authenticity, which is not an easy spirit to capture on film. The Stains, who only had a few practices before they risked taking their show on the road, sound genuinely unpracticed, like The Raincoats by way of The Shaggs. Their punk rock rivals are a lousy lot of Brits mostly composed of ex-members of The Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook) and The Clash (Paul Simonon), who wrote their own songs for the film. That kind of credibility extends into the shit hole dive bars the movie’s central tour crashes through like a slow-moving trainwreck, as it mirrors the exact small town-trolling American tour that broke up The Sex Pistols a few years before the film was made. What’s important about that authenticity​ is that it sets up a grounded, believable scenario where The Stains, mediocre talents at best, would be able to resonate with so many young women across the country​. A strong D.I.Y. punk ethos means that everyone is afforded a voice & equal opportunity. A lack of traditional musical talent can be easily overcome by a sneering, passionate attitude, as long as you can knock over the gatekeeping cretins who try to block your path.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains suffered just as much misogynist motherfuckery in the real world as the titular band did in its fictional one. The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, reported sexist mistreatment during the production at the hands of Adler, the crew, and others. That clash of feminist ideology being filtered through a machismo-driven film industry lead to an extended period of post-production & editing room studio notes tinkering where Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understood. That stasis at least afforded the movie an insane filmed-after-the-fact epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music Video Television and somehow both enhances the film’s themes & rapidly ages the babyfaced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It didn’t help the film’s financial chances, though, since it was ultimately a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition.

No matter how poorly The Fabulous Stains‘s production & distribution was handled, it did eventually make it into the right hands when it found a second life airing on television (just like Citizen Kane!). Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill cite the film as a major inspiration for their formation, which makes total sense, given the way the film is reverent of female punks inspiring other women to join the scene (which was essentially Bikini Kill’s entire ethos) and the way feminist dialogue made its way though the bullshit sex politics of the film industry to include lines like, “These girls made themselves,” “It was an old man in a young girls’ world,” and “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shit hole gets me, because I don’t put out.” The Fabulous Stains is far from a perfect, pristinely intact work (for that version of the same story I highly recommend We Are the Best!), but a large part of its power & charm is in its imperfection. It’s an authentically punk, fiercely feminist work that’s compromised production oddly mirrors the fictional band it profiles in its ramshackle story of a subculture scene & media landscape that wanted nothing to do with them or their entire gender in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet