Friday, April 23, 2010

What Savings!

Erudite horror blogger and "Kill Face" kronicler Arbogast On Film struck a nerve among fellow mavens with a long-tail blog-a-thon he launched a couple years ago, The One You Might Have Saved: a meme dedicated to character deaths in films which, no matter how much one appreciates them in the narrative of the story, affect us so personally that we would cross Fountain darling and Syd Field to save their lives. A few days ago, he renewed the call for submissions, and since I am the baby in the blogosphere, I'm answering the request, although my choice is not quite from a horror film, though it's certainly in the neighborhood suggested by the topic.

Jack Hill's SWITCHBLADE SISTERS was one of my earliest and still most potent experiences in exploitation film viewing, and I have prescribed it time and again for all manner of first-time viewers. Three decades after its release it still takes people by the throat - in the course of hunting down images, I found blog accounts from three first timers who were writing about these bad girls with cold steel with the same thrill of discovery that I felt upon my first viewing. So I don't tread into this decision lightly. I know that to suggest any alteration to what is one of the near-perfect drive-in dramas is to dance with heresy. And since the film rather cleverly restages Shakespeare's OTHELLO in '70's denim, what I am about to say is both figurative and literal bowdlerism. But in my movie universe, Jezebels elder Lace would receive my Get Out of Death free card.

Make no mistake, I would not want to cross paths with Lace, at least not during most moments of her life as depicted on film. Like the trailer announcer Ron Gans says, she's as affectionate as a scorpion with all the loving tenderness of a buzzsaw. But the more time we spend with her, the more she becomes fully realized and human. When we first meet her, she's witnessing her mother getting shaken down by the rent-to-own man, choosing to spend the rent and food money to keep the TV; when minutes later Lace has her girls buttonhole (and buttonrip) the bagman to get the cash back, he may be the law-abiding citizen and them the dangerous thugs, but we don't exactly feel sorry for him. And over the course of the film, it only gets worse for Lace. Her loyalty to the Daggers gang heartthrob Dominic is rewarded by him date-raping her new best friend Maggie while she's in juvie, and lying to her face about it. When she discovers she's pregnant and considers going straight and settling down with her man, he throws some $20s at her and tells her to get an abortion. And all the while her Iagoesque lieutenant Patch is manipulating her into making one bad decision after another. And in the film's greatest stroke of tragedy, as the gang she nurtured from mere ornaments to full-on baaadassssses should be enjoying their dominance over the city, Lace is goaded again by Patch to challenge, and ultimately die at the hands and blade of, Maggie, the only person who truly loved her.

In short, Lace never stood a chance. The white man ain't left her nothing out here but the underworld, and that's where she dances...where do you dance? Jack Hill is not the first person to observe that women could rule the world if they would only stop hating each other, but he's one of the best at depicting how much is lost in such circumstance.

To indulge my fantasy and still respect the harsh universe that Hill created, Maggie's knife would have still done enormous damage to Lace, enough to leave her unconscious and good as dead as the cops bust in and haul away all but the treacherous Patch as the film depicts. And then days, maybe weeks later, as Maggie cools her heels in stir, she gets a visit from a solemn Lace. It's hardly a happy reunion - at first all they discuss is business. We learn Patch tipped off the cops to raid their rumble, planning for Lace to kill Maggie and get pinched, allowing her to take control of the gang. But instead, without the Jezebels to protect her, she herself has been killed by leftover members of the Daggers, who hold her responsible for the roller-rink deaths that in fact Lace inadvertently caused in her first attempt to kill Maggie. Nonetheless, Lace knows she's finished with thug life and confides in Maggie she's skipping out on her family and the city in the hopes of starting over. Maggie figures out that it also means she won't be present to testify in her attempted murder trial, giving her hope of beating the charge. The closest they come to making up is Maggie mutters that she is sorry she tried to kill her, and Lace replies she is sorry she made her have to.

And as she exits the prison into a landscape that is just as grimy as before, the girl who literally grit her teeth to keep on surviving in a dog-eat-bitch world, gets to survive a little longer.