Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Once Upon a the Hot Summer

A preface: before I even mention the name of the person whose life experience will be discussed in this essay, I can hear an army of reply guys assembling, ready to volley several “Well, actually...” disputations to the details herein. As a historian, one should be capable of sussing out the messy nuances that binary thinking cannot accommodate, thus I’ve determined which testimonies in the public record can be taken as trustworthy, and which need to be dismissed. As the late Robert Evans pithily said, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And nobody is lying.”

In several interviews given to coincide with the release of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD in 2019, writer/director Quentin Tarantino frequently expounded on general topics that influenced the movie – actors, seminal movies, historical events – but also stressed his own personal relationship to its setting of Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, when he was six years old, and how that perspective would impact the production. In an extended chat with Kim Morgan, he stated the following:

[The] jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at...And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

Tarantino details to Morgan that the films that most shaped his vision were Paul Mazursky’s BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE, his follow-up ALEX IN WONDERLAND, and Frank Perry’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, and as such, these were what he showed the cast in preparation of shooting. Several other titles occasionally would be name checked for providing individual bits of color to the effort as well. However, there is another film, previously cited by the director in the past as a particular favorite of its genre, which has never been mentioned in conjunction with OUATIH, yet, in its own way, carries very striking parallels to the memory mandate lain out before, especially in how its crucial architect (if not its actual captain) chose to memorialize a place and a moment of history…

For roughly one week in late July, 1967, Detroit was engulfed in violence that began with what would have been an ordinary shakedown raid on a black-owned after-hours bar, which led to multiple instances of confrontations with protesters and looting, an excessive and militarized response by government authorities, a horrifying set of murders at the Algiers Hotel committed by police under questionable justification, along with a child killed in her family’s apartment by sniper fire, and federal troops occupying the city by orders of the Governor and the President. When it was declared over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 had been injured, police arrested 7,200 citizens, and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Gail Parmentier was 12 years old and safely ensconced an hour northeast in Port Huron, living in a conservative Catholic household with a father serving as the county’s superintendent of schools, and four stereotypical jock brothers, when these events were taking place in Detroit. According to the 2010 census, the city was still an 84.0% White population, and logic dictates it would have been even higher back then. But growing up in a city that, in its origin, had been Ojibwa territory until they were forcibly removed by the United States government, and the only site in Michigan where, in 1889, an African-American was lynched, she was not insulated from a legacy of racist brutality. And something about those events in Detroit heavily impacted the adolescent, staying in her consciousness as she otherwise went about joining the spirit squad and the student council in her teens.

As she recounted to AP writer Harry Atkins in 1976, Parmentier’s initially staid trajectory of high school to college to marriage veered off track significantly in 1974 when, during her freshman year at Western Michigan University, she made her first contact with the adult film world. “I had a girlfriend who was dating a guy who managed an adult theatre in Kalamazoo. He was supposed to have had [Cyndee Summers] on hand to sign autographs one day. Well, [she] didn’t show, and he asked us if we’d fill in and fake it – pretend we were the girls in the porn film. We really needed the money, so we said we’d do it.” The signing was a relative success, and it put her into the orbit of the theatre’s owner, Harry Mohney, the state’s most powerful provider of adult entertainment. 

Before he met Gail Parmentier, Harry Mohney had already been a teen runaway, spent a year in reform school after pleading guilty to breaking and entering, married, and kicked around several jobs before finding his niche in operating theatres, drive-ins, and bookstores devoted to erotic entertainment, beginning with one in Saginaw in 1966, to running over 100 locations in 10 states by 1973. Mohney was beginning to contemplate direct involvement in the films that would play his nationwide circuit; the first credit affirmatively tied to him as executive producer (under the alias “Harry Dracma”) was DEVIL’S ECSTASY, a Los Angeles-based project originally initiated as a straight horror film in 1972 under the title SABBAT, but reformatted into a porn film before its release in 1976. Ironically, it starred Cyndee Summers, the actress Parmentier was asked to impersonate in her first job for him. Upon meeting this co-ed pretender in 1974, Mohney was quickly smitten with the 18 year-old, and in short order, courted her, left his wife, made her his longtime companion, and coaxed her to transfer to Michigan State in Lansing, where she was installed as a manager at his Cinema X theatre, one of several he owned. Her whimsical impersonation of Summers would be the first of several instances where she would be providing a cover story for her new boyfriend. 

A year later, tiring of grueling negotiations over booking terms with outside producers, Mohney was ready to proceed with making his own film. He had already optioned a 1972 pulp novel, BLACK ABDUCTOR, by pseudonymous author Harrison James (later revealed to be science fiction writer James Rusk Jr.), a lurid potboiler about an heiress kidnapped by Black radicals that so uncannily predicted several details of the Patty Hearst/SLA affair in 1974 (beginning with the main character being named Patricia), the FBI tracked down and interrogated the author thinking he’d been involved in the case. However, Mohney did not particularly care for the story, and recruited an acquaintance using the alias “T. James Write” to concoct a new screenplay using the same premise of a girl abducted by a gang without the plot points of the novel. There would ultimately be an official film adaptation of BLACK ABDUCTOR made around the same time, under the title ABDUCTION, directed by Joseph Zito, who would later make FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and INVASION U.S.A., and shot by João Fernandes, who had previously operated camera on two of the most famous adult films of all time, DEEP THROAT and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES.

Parmentier, now using the professional name Gail Palmer, had been present for all of Mohney’s activity, and when his project was assembled, she reached back into her teenage experience to make a narrative contribution that would significantly distance it from the Patty Hearst allusions, and construct it into something much more personal. “I wrote HOT SUMMER [IN THE CITY] when I was in high school. It was a real heavy story which I was impelled to write after the Detroit race riots. That was in 1967. I added the sex later, much later,” she told Charles Faber in an interview for The Advocate on March 22, 1979. After adding her material to the existing T. James Write screenplay, Palmer then made his plan viable by using her MSU student status to borrow the school’s 16mm equipment for shooting, and by recruiting amateur striptease performers from live shows she supervised at Cinema X for the cast, along with non-professionals from her college who were also interested in acting. “The students thought I was kidding, but I convinced them they could make $200 a day. They changed their names, every one of them, so their parents wouldn’t find out. My girlfriend, who was my roommate, was the star; she used the name Lisa Baker. The student body was liberal, and most came to see the film. And they were curious to see if they knew any of the actors. HOT SUMMER had to cause a lot of excitement; it was the first porno film made in Michigan.” Mohney supplied a holiday cottage he owned in Kalkaska as the primary location, and the project was shot over the summer of 1975.

HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY depicts the odyssey of Debbie, a suburban girl about to marry, over two unspecified days in July 1967, before the Detroit riots commence. Upon returning from an engagement party (and refusing to have premarital sex with her betrothed), she is horrified to find her mother in a three-way with her fiancée’s father and another male friend. And shortly after fleeing her home, she is abducted by Duke, an ostensible Black agitator, and his three friends. After an initial violation in their car, she is taken to an isolated cabin, where the men are awaiting a meeting with “The Man,” and is subjected to more humiliations, though Duke frequently attempts to intervene in his gang’s desire to take advantage of her. When the white criminal fixer arrives the following day, with Duke’s previous girlfriend Jody in tow, he pays the gang $20,000 to create a distraction that is intended to draw police and fire departments to the scene, who in turn will be fired upon by hired snipers, with the ensuing escalation of chaos intended to allow local merchants to commit insurance fraud under pretense of riot damage. In the hours before the gang is to initiate the uprising, the tensions fostered by Debbie’s presence will divide the gang, leading to personal violence before the political violence can take place.

When their production was ready for release in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, not only did Mohney create false details for the onscreen credits, he also crafted one huge one for the press. In an article in Macleans published in May that year, Mohney had been nicknamed as one of “The Shy Pornographers” because of his constant avoidance of the limelight, as police trying to shut down adult entertainment desperately wanted to connect him to the product but never could. However, he was already being prosecuted in other cities: he was held liable by a Kentucky court for playing DEEP THROAT at his Covington Cinema X location at the time. So it was certainly in his best interests to stay in the shadows. Thus, a charm offensive was launched where he elevated Palmer, a likeable female, as the overall author of merit, on this film and more to follow, though some industry-savvy people surely saw the directorial credit for “The Hare” and deduced it was Harry Mohney’s alias, since “Hare” was short for Harry, and he owned the shadow production company, Imperial Films. For several personal appearances, print and TV interviews, and cross-promotions, she was presented as the woman behind The Hare, which certainly carries ironic truth. Longtime adult director Bob Chinn, who was on the camera crew of the subsequent films credited to Palmer, described the arrangement in his memoir THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, VOL. 2:

Their front person for company was Harry’s girlfriend at the time, an attractive and bright young lady named Gail Palmer, who had been credited as the director of a film they had made in Michigan [as] well as two of their subsequent features THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF CANDY and CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. But the true credit for the direction of these films should probably go to Harry...the powers-that-be [firmly] believed that a sexy, attractive female filmmaker and producer would [bring] in a larger audience to their films and I found that I couldn’t fault their reasoning one bit so I cheerfully decided to go along with it...Our deal stipulated that Gail Palmer would be credited as the producer and, if they chose, as the director on all of the films that I did for [them]. It was an arrangement that sounded fine since credits on these films really didn’t mean all that much to me.

Quentin Tarantino’s fandom of HSITC became public knowledge shortly after a semi-clandestine screening during his 6th programming block at the original Austin, Texas Alamo Drafthouse on September 15, 2005; due to local blue laws, the film title was not advertised, and for legal purposes, was presented as a four-walled event by the Austin Film Society and not the theatre itself. A pseudonymous audience member in attendance wrote, “In his intro, QT talked about how he really didn't like porn at all. He got a job at the Pussycat theater when he was 16 and was an usher there for some time, not to mention his years at a video store putting him in constant contact with the stuff...He said he was such a non-fan that he couldn't even remember the few he ever saw which he didn't think were bad, which is really saying something because over the course of the week we've heard him remember the name of pretty much every movie that's ever existed and become obscure. BUT, he says, the box art of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY finally won him over one night and the movie quickly became his by-far favorite [adult film].” 

In an essay for the Literary Hub offshoot website CrimeReads, writer Olivia Rutigliano observed:

[In] ONCE UPON A TIME, “childhood” is a deliberate theme. The film begins with an evocation of an audience of children, featuring an early-60s interview on the Bounty Law ranch set, with Rick and Cliff explaining how stunts work...The film’s two scariest, most ominous moments, ultimately reveal that this era’s entertainment, and corresponding childhood innocence, is effectively gone. The counterculture movement—which, for this film’s purpose, has turned teenagers into monsters and murderers—has fully overtaken the culture. Cliff goes to Spahn Movie Ranch (brought there by a hippie who insists that she is not a minor and can therefore have sex with him, though he won’t listen—this alternate Hollywood will not harm a child). Spahn Ranch is the defunct set where he and Rick used to film Bounty Law, but Cliff discovers it’s been taken over by the Manson family commune—a horde of squalid, unwashed adolescents, bedraggled and pretending to be self-sufficient in this sinister desert Neverland that was once a dream-factory...When the Manson family members pull up in their rattling old car to Cielo Drive to commit murder at the behest of Charles Manson, they are stopped in their tracks by Rick Dalton, himself...Remembering how much they used to love his seems like they might climb out of their hypnotic detestation...But one of the young women doesn’t remember [his show], and she directs them back to the dark task at hand, with an anecdote about how they have been poisoned by this generation of television. “Let’s kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says...The conflict is a literalization of the culture war—with the counterculture actually turning against the mainstream. 

Thus, while Tarantino as an adult surely has a substantially nuanced understanding of the late ‘60s counterculture, it is easy to speculate how, as a child, witnessing this conflict without this context, while being presented the last vestiges of square-jawed heroism in the popular media, the battles of the Generation Gap looked frightening. After all, the cops, the cowboys, the Army men, they were the good guys, right? They look like all the dads I know. Why were all these people in the weird clothes angry at them?

In spiritual tandem, befitting an idea that was conceived in adolescence, and coming from someone who likely grew up not having any significant exposure to Black people in her formative years, while being raised by conservative Catholic parents who probably meant well but likely made disparaging remarks about minorities or told racist jokes or warned her not to go to certain parts of town where “dangerous” people congregated, Palmer’s emotional ingredients in the HSITC storyline help make the film feel appropriately like the kind of hyperbolic nightmare fantasy a sheltered young white girl living in a cultural bubble might conjure up after seeing the riots on TV or in the newspaper. At one point, during her captivity and abuse, she bleats, “I’ve tried to help...I marched and everything,” desperate to understand why these Black men seem to have a personal vendetta against her, as she believes has spent her formative years being a good, wholesome person. In further connectivity, Duke's gang exhibits the same sort of blind and almost listless groupthink of the Manson acolytes at the Spahn ranch, engaging in behavior explicitly forbidden when their leader Duke is around in the same way the Mansonites steal a look at television when Charlie is away.

While the movie does not take the enormous liberties with the history of July 1967 that OUATIH employs with August 9th, 1969, it does engage in a certain amount of fancy with those events. When the gang arrive at the cabin, idle conversation conveys that it is a Wednesday night, and that their planned uprising is to take place on Friday, which would put it ahead of when it actually arose, in the morning hours of Sunday, July 23rd. Some viewers may be confused when characters talk about “last summer’s war,” which is referencing the lesser-remembered “Kercheval Incident” of August 11, 1966, when a group at the corner of Kercheval and Pennsylvania refused a police order to disperse, leading to three days of rioting. “The Man” that employs Duke and his gang describes for them how they are to create a distraction at the corner of Woodward and Clairmount. There’s no documentation that any agent provocateurs were involved with any incidents during the week of riots. A night spot called the Clair Wood Bar had stood at that intersection, but that was not the after-hours bar raided by the police, which was a block away at Clairmount and 12th St. Ultimately, Debbie's presence is not intended to alter any of the events that will take place during that intense week of clashes; instead it sets her up as a Cassandra to them, her blank demeanor at film’s end suggesting she knows that these men who snatched her in a fit of pique will not survive this incident, and her personal feeling of bleak revelation is going to be the reaction for thousands more as it unfolds in real history.

A particularly piercing feature of HSITC that has made it stand apart from other adult movies, and provides it uncanny kinship with OUATIH, is its prominent use of Top 40 hits of the 1960s, bracketed by what appear to be actual d.j. introductions and back-announcements by Steve Hunter, Mike Rivers, and other personalities from Detroit/Windsor radio station CKLW 800 AM, in its heyday referred to as "The blackest white station in America." Besides the expectedly jarring sensation of hearing recognizable songs underscoring sexually explicit material, there are some deep cut tracks in play – The Five Americans’ “Zip Code” and Martha and the Vandellas “Love Bug Leave Me Alone”- that were regional more than national favorites, and the diegetic placements are often used for mordant commentary - “Light My Fire” plays as Debbie rebuffs her fiancee’s advances, “Everlasting Love” is heard while she is experiencing the exact opposite of such a thing, and in a juxtaposition too grim to not be intentional, as she is being whipped with a belt, a d.j. declares, “The hits just keep on comin’!” When “The Man” appears in the second half and the radio stays off, the music shifts to non-diegetic instrumental cues, many of which appear to also be lifted from mainstream films – one of them is Quincy Jones’ main titles theme for the 1970 Peter Yates drama JOHN AND MARY. While this music supervision was never addressed in any press for HSITC, Tarantino offers a fair equivalent insight about how these choices can be made in his Kim Morgan interview for OUATIH, particularly apropos since both KHJ and CKLW used the “Boss Radio” format:

But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities...their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound...And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs [like] the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets...I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

Adding one more bit of serendipity between the two films is that Mohney commissioned an expanded novelization of the final HSITC screenplay (again credited to “The Hare,” authorship currently unknown but probably “T. James Write” as well), which was “on sale at bookstores everywhere” concurrently with the film’s release, and Tarantino, spurred by his own love of the characters and by fan speculations during OUATIH’s first run, wrote an expanded novelization of his screenplay, just published in this summer of 2021. Granted, plenty of movies of all types have novelizations, but it is generally rare to have the actual creators of those films actively taking a role in the making of what would generally have been considered a mere supplementary marketing product.

There has not been any discussion or other overt indication by Tarantino in any of the press before or after the release of OUATIH that he included HSITC among the dozens of films and other cultural totems that influenced his writing of the screenplay or his execution of the finished feature. However, the surprising number of parallels between the two films -- their inspiration from childhood memory of sociopolitical turmoil, their extrapolation of that naiveté into their stories, their authors unusual early introduction to the adult entertainment business, the use of period music and radio airchecks as dramatic counterpoint, some rewriting of the past, and the controversial reception of those films after their release -- nonetheless makes for one of the unlikeliest and fascinating instances of innovative minds thinking alike.

In the benefit of hindsight, since before the Cyndee Summers stunt and meeting Harry Mohney, as Gail Palmer told a Courier-Journal reporter in 1978, “I’d never had any sexual experiences or anything,” HSITC further functions as a metaphor for the disputed creator's complicated feelings about becoming intimate with this older, worldlier man with questionable ethics, with the shifting behavior of Duke from aggressor to protector standing in for her mentor and lover. Much like Debbie's shock and disgust at the hypocrisy of her upbringing, where her mother is practicing a “do as I say not as I do” stance about sexual behavior, Palmer was a metaphorical babe in the woods when she was swept up into his world, albeit more willingly than her onscreen surrogate. In Palmer’s early interviews, she expounds about her fascination with adult movies and recognition of what benefits others draw from them, while admitting to not enjoying the majority of them herself, and to an extent, Debbie’s frightening initiation into the rough and callous attitudes of her captors can be read as a creative reinterpretation of her real-life discoveries in Mohney's enterprise. And while they were happily bonded during filming and for several years after, her early screenplay eerily predicts the bleak end of that relationship: much like the end of the film, where Duke leaves Debbie behind to live an uncertain future, Palmer and Mohney acrimoniously split in 1984, with Palmer losing all career momentum, and at one point applying for welfare while her name was still being used in advertising as a sales point.

The Palmer/Mohney union was not only a mixed blessing on a personal level, but has forever complicated her legacy in the years since its dissolution, with the turning point being the moment when, as a witness for the IRS against her estranged partner in his trial for tax fraud (and a concurrent palimony case seeking half the revenue earned from the projects they did together), she testified under oath that she did not direct the movies that, for years in the press, she had been credited with, including HSITC. (Let the record show she was never asked about her writing contributions.) From this, many, including her would-be ghostwriter, have used this to dismiss her as nothing more than an empty vessel front for her rich boyfriend. A more nuanced assessment would be that during their relationship, Mohney wanted to make more films, Palmer came up with stories for them, and people such as Bob Chinn were brought in to do the actual blocking of actors and shot plotting. Mohney likely encouraged Palmer to call herself the director not just for promotional window dressing, but also to envelope his young and impressionable paramour into co-dependency, The subterfuge would not just help him keep a low profile, but by alternately financing her ventures and boosting her ego, while insuring that as she’d never actually done an according-to-Hoyle directing job, she’d be unprepared to work independent of him, the arrangement would also keep her bound to him. Palmer detailed for Gannett Newspapers in 1990 that, “Officially [Harry] was a non-person. He never wanted his name on anything – no credit cards, no bank accounts...That’s why I never thought seriously about getting paid for the movies. It would entail agreements, paperwork. I knew how he was about records.”   

In the specific circumstances of determining who did what on HSITC...Palmer talks in enough detail about the genesis of the movie on several occasions, in different ways, that one can reason that this is not data she was “coached” on by anyone. Moreover, “T. James White” and Palmer would collaborate on the screenplay for CANDY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, thus it is a plausible scenario that the final shooting script for HSITC was a joint effort as well. In the 1990 Gannett interview, it is mentioned that a local TV cameraman was brought onto the production to handle the film stock, so the cinematographer hiding as “R. Leonard Hughes a.s.p.” is probably responsible for the staging. Palmer’s short-lived second career as a rock-n-roll performer, with documented performances with the band “Fourplay,” suggests that she is significantly responsible for the song choices and their placement in the film; Mohney had creative goals, but would have been more practical business-minded than to hijack major label pop songs, that kind of brazen moxie is akin to a younger person like his girlfriend. Again, rather than adhere to an all-or-nothing ethos in the matter of Gail Palmer, a “little of column A, little of column B” conclusion in determining how much can be rightfully assigned to her is the best resolution.

While both Gail Palmer and Harry Mohney, and possibly most of the anonymous individuals who participated in the making of HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY, are still alive, none of them have come forward to talk at length about the film since Mohney’s four year imprisonment for tax fraud, and Palmer’s abandoned attempts at publishing an autobiography. And unlike the Detroit riots of 1967 or the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, the true story may never be known for sure.

What is known and verifiable is that two children of the late ‘60s, each unable to fully grasp the magnitude of the events they witnessed in their youth, went on to work in adult theatres in the last years of their adolescence, wrote stories based on those experiences, integrated the songs and radio personalities of that time into those tales, played with the facts for dramatic effect, and saw them turned into impactful films (and books) that will continue to be hotly debated years after their release.

(Huge thanks to Joe Rubin, Martin Brooks, and Ashley West for providing valuable insider information on the production history and personal details of the talent involved with HOT SUMMER IN THE CITY.)

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Movie About The Song That Once Said Something New

It’s been said that before there was the printed word, songs and poetry carried stories to the people for centuries. One learned of ancestral tales and current events through verses and chorus. Then when the printed word allowed for printed music, the symbiotic relationship continued. And when motion pictures allowed for stories to be told with concurrent visuals, one of the first instincts was to reach to pre-existing pop songs to create them. Warner Bros. initially launched the “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” animated shorts to serve as prototypical music videos for the songs in their Warner-Chappell publishing catalog. The earliest films of American sweetheart Doris Day were often constructed from entries of The Great American Songbook – MY DREAM IS YOURS, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, ON MOONLIGHT BAY, BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON, YOUNG AT HEART, and more.

Entering into the tail end of the ‘80s, pop song needle-drops became one of the most important elements in entertainment. AMERICAN GRAFFITI, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and PURPLE RAIN became legendary not only for compelling drama but for wall-to-wall music placement. Smaller movies that would otherwise have had marginal box office appeal gained extra promotion and longevity through radio-friendly theme tunes. Soundtracks dominated the Billboard Top100 Album chart. And after years of using cheap cover versions on random occasions, TV shows got serious and integrated music supervision using original recordings by original artists into the process after “MIAMI VICE” became destination television thanks to its striking use of pop songs as score.

It was within this climate that an energetic record company promoter/operator and a gig-hopping musician/producer decided to tap into this symbiotic circumstance. A.J. Cervantes had been a Regional Director of Promotion for Casablanca Records, pushing the earliest Donna Summer and Kiss singles, and the founder of dance music label Butterfly, whose roster included Saint Tropez, who recorded a disco cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime (Moi non plus).” Ron Altbach had been a founding member of King Harvest, famous for the 1972 lite rock hit “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and a frequent collaborator with The Beach Boys in the late ‘70s, writing and producing songs for the group, and playing in a Mike Love-fronted side band Celebration, who recorded the title theme for Martin Davidson’s 1978 teen comedy ALMOST SUMMER. The longtime friends had launched a new label, Destiny Records, in 1981, and as music video demand dramatically increased with the launch of MTV, they linked the company to an existing firm, Mediacom, who were producing clips and concert specials. And after a solid run of small-scale product, they took an ambitious step upward...

You've heard the song, now see the movie: A California-based company called Mediacom Industries is making a string of low-budget films titled after popular songs. For about $ 2 million each, it has already shot "House of the Rising Sun" and "Hot Child in the City," is now finishing "Nights in White Satin" and is in the planning stages for "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Fire and Rain." These won't be 90-minute rock videos, swear the folks at Mediacom, who prefer to dub the pictures "music-driven films." Most will include the original versions of the songs they're named after, though they'll obviously have to toy with plot lines to turn three verses and a chorus into a full-length narrative. "House of the Rising Sun," for example, is about a female reporter investigating the world of expensive prostitutes. "Hot Child in the City" follows an innocent Kansas youngster to Los Angeles to look into her sister's murder. So far, none of the movies has a distribution deal.

- from wire news report published in The Washington Post, September 16, 1986.

This initial three-picture slate assembled a curious mix of young technicians from Mediacom’s music video activities and some grizzled veterans of television production dating back to the fifties to create the films, with generally experienced but not name-recognizable talent to act in them. In effect, producers Cervantes and Altbach were trying the same retrofitting strategy as WB likely did with their cartoons and Doris Day vehicles: find a familiar evocative song title, come up with a story that it could plausibly anchor, pour through a catalog of other available tracks and see which ones can provide justifiable dramatic placement, and shoot it quickly in a specific part of Los Angeles, giving all three films a sort of uniform aesthetic. In addition, while released to video unrated, with occasional topless moments and plots involving racy behavior, they were chaste enough that their cassette releases stated, “Suitable for broadcast in all media; parental supervision suggested,” ready to adapt to the strictures of any potential country’s low threshold for sex, or what is derisively referred to today as “Amazon Prime Erotica” or “PG-13 porn.”

Eight months later, in May 1987, the trusted independent video label Prism Entertainment announced their partnership with Mediacom (and their California Limited Partnership company Music Video Associates) to release the trio to all media. The budgets for the first three films were cited as between $1.8 million -$2.5 million, likely a combined total for the entire trilogy. While Prism promised a theatrical release in advance of cable and home video availability, no record can be found of any American playdates, and while shot on film, all the entries are clearly edited on standard definition tape with videoburned credits, and seem to adhere to a 1.33 composition, so that claim was likely either wishful thinking at best or outright ballyhoo to gin up video store buyers’ interest, since being able to tout “Direct from Theatrical Release!” was considered a selling point. Prism also reiterated Mediacom’s plans of two more movies to come, this time titled “Blue Suede Shoes” and “September Song.”

Viewing these films in the present day, they are definitely time capsules of their zeitgeist. And considering the ‘80s are still of great fascination to people who were born so long after that time it would be as far away to them as, say, watching The Bowery Boys would be to a ‘70s grade schooler, they’re pretty entertaining on a prime level of anthropological stimulation. All three movies focus on female protagonists and have plots reminiscent of soap operas and Harlequin novels (additional producer and contributing writer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon had previously worked on the syndicated series “ROMANCE THEATRE” hosted by Louis Jordan), so there is a canny appeal to couples rather than just men. More importantly, despite producers trying to impose a template on all of them, by the nature of the parties that made them, there is a vibe and personality to each that makes them interesting beyond just serving as retro eye candy. While the details are subject to a fudge factor, they are being reviewed in their ostensible pattern of release in the second half of 1987 – the year that I started college, Rick Astley released “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the first National Coming Out Day took place, and KFC opened up in China…

Release: VHS street date not located; HBO debut September 16, 1987

Plot: While staging a fashion shoot in one of downtown L.A.’s dormant loading docks, successful but restless photographer Jordan (Kip Gilman) spots a bedraggled homeless girl (Priscilla Harris) who walks through the area, who piques his interest. Tracking her down at a local shelter, he learns her name is Lisa, and entreats her to come pose for him. She ends up crashing at his home studio, and after some awkward attempts at communication, agrees to apprentice under him. The more he discovers about her life, including her long-dormant love of dance, the more he is motivated to detach from his superficial work. But leaving behind familiar environments is difficult for them both.

Creators: Writer William Kronick worked mostly in documentary programming, writing and producing several works for George Plimpton and The Wolper Organization along with behind the scenes looks at movie stunts, plus occasional second unit direction on the Dino DeLaurentiis productions of KING KONG and FLASH GORDON. Director Michael Barnard, doing double duty as editor, was significantly younger than Kronick, and operated a digital production/post-production company, LightningBolt PIX, along with being a frequent collaborator of outsider director Avery Crounse, editing his films EYES OF FIRE and SISTER ISLAND, and directing several videos for Motown. This would be his only narrative fiction film, sticking to directing documentary projects and other tech work, and continuing to keep a foot in the music world, serving as sound editor for Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” video.

Cast: Kip Gilman starred in a string of several one-season shows for CBS, including “JESSICA NOVAK” with Helen Shaver, before lucking into a supporting role on “TRAPPER JOHN M.D.” during their 1986 season. He also headlined William Fruet’s surprise hit thriller BEDROOM EYES. And in serendipity to the music-oriented origins of this film, he appeared in one of the best-loved episodes of CBS’ 1986 revival of “THE TWILIGHT ZONE,” “Nightsong” with Lisa Eilbacher, which took its name from the Crosby Stills Nash & Young track. Priscilla Harris has been a resident dancer on Lorenzo Lamas’ synicated music show “DANCIN’ TO THE HITS,” and after a few other credits, left acting to start a dance/fitness studio in Seattle. Kim Waltrip, who plays a predatory model named Stevie, is now a producer/director, with THE DISAPPAREANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY among her credits.

Influence: Its structure of a diffident artist being stirred by a troubled muse definitely declares an attempt at making a subdued remake of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s BETTY BLUE. Its frequent use of neon colors and often barren, starkly furnished rooms suggests Beineix’s previous breakout hit, DIVA.

Song usage: “Nights in White Satin” shows up 2/3 into the movie at an appropriately pivotal moment: when Lisa goes to the roof of Jordan’s studio at dawn to dance about, and they finally kiss. Most of the other tracks either tap into the glam climate - “Obsession,” Art of Noise’s cover of “Peter Gunn,” “Don Quichotte (No Están Aquí)” - or augment onscreen action – Pat Benatar’s “Sex As a Weapon,” “My Sharona,” “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Amusingly, the video trailer to promote it uses “Rock the Casbah,” which is nowhere to be found in the film.

Reactions: Since Kronick as writer has a documentary background, his insights on the homeless have slightly more accuracy than the average John L. Sullivan screenplay, but it still smacks of typical “O their nobility!” romanticism. Harris recognizes this is her swing for the fences, and throws herself into making her otherwise stock character gritty and believable; she doesn’t speak a word until 29 minutes into the movie, so she does a better than average job keeping our fascination through her facial expressions and behavior up to that point. I think hers is the best acting to be found in the series. And I rather liked the social activist bent of the story’s resolution.

Release: VHS street date October 6, 1987

Plot: Kansas-dwelling Rachel Wagner (Leah Ayres) comes to Hollywood to visit her high-living record executive sister Abby Wagner (Shari Shattuck). But after a disorienting night of clubbing with Abby’s client and frenemy Charon (Antony Alda), Abby is found dead in a dumpster. While Rachel sets about finding her sister’s killer, she also finds herself taking on aspects of Abby’s personality, which may well make her the next victim.

Creators: George Goldsmith wrote several genre favorites beforehand: the adaptation of Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN, FORCE: FIVE, and William Fruet’s BLUE MONKEY. John Florea had started out as a Life magazine photographer who became the unoffical chronicler of Marilyn Monroe early years, shooting several portraits of her from her debut in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE up to THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. When the legend switched to other photographers, Florea went into television, directing several shows and the occasional feature and Movie-of-the-Week over three decades. HOT CHILD would be his final credit, after which he retired to Las Vegas, where he passed in 2000 at age 84.

Cast: Shari Shattuck had a direct connection to MTV, playing the mystery blonde in 38 Special’s videos for “Caught Up In You” and “You Keep Running Away,” and appearing in THE NAKED CAGE, DEATH SPA, the ‘91 season of “DALLAS,” and the ‘99 season of “THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS;” she is still active presently, and is also writing mystery novels. Leah Ayres started out as a catalog model for Kenner Toys’ Darci doll before appearing in ALL THAT JAZZ and THE BURNING, and being a resident player on “THE EDGE OF NIGHT,” “NINE TO FIVE,” and “ST. ELSEWHERE.” In keeping with her origin in children’s play, she left acting to found the educational products firm Imaginazium. Antony Alda was the half-brother of Alan Alda, and appeared in one episode of “M*A*S*H” and a role in his comedy SWEET LIBERTY, along with other character parts, before passing away in 2009 at age 52.

Influence: While all the films that constitute the golden period of the “erotic thriller” would not yet come until after this movie wrapped production, Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay of JAGGED EDGE and its “is he or isn’t he” dynamic had already been a big hit. And its equating of dance spots as the playground of potential killers has its roots in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, CRUISING, and BODY DOUBLE.

Song usage: The opening credits get “Hot Child in the City” out of the way quickly, with the sisters driving around seeing all the pretty sights that would entrance a small-town girl. All the other tracks effectively convey the emotions of the scenes they underscore - “We Close Our Eyes,” “Eyes Without a Face,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” Fun Boy Three’s cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Flesh for Fantasy.” Also, since I am deducing that the club scenes were filmed at what had been the influential hotspot The Probe on 836 N. Highland, the song choices feel like they would have actually been heard there back in the day.

Reactions: This is clearly the best executed of the three films – the combined experience of the writer and director demonstrate they have polished instincts in plotting and staging. It’s pretty easy to figure out who the killer is, but it’s executed fairly enough and rather enhances the climax’s suspense. There’s lots of visual moments that are choice, like the colors the women garb themselves in, and an early scene when a poster of Shari reflects in the mirror that both her character Abby and then her sister are looking into. On the downside, the story is pathetically homophobic in presenting not one but two treacherous bisexual suspects, though despite his unrealistic presentation, Alda as the unstable fallen rock star Charon milks his role to the hilt so that it almost feels like he’s in on its ludicrousness. On the upside, it has an otherwise commendable sex-positive viewpoint: in a pivotal moment when the detective hurls slut-shaming language about Abby’s death, Rachel comes on to him, cuts him off abruptly, and tartly declares, “Women don’t get in trouble when they say yes; it’s when they say no.”

Release: VHS street date December 15, 1987

Plot: After a chance meeting in a bar, frustrated reporter Janet (Jamie Barrett) follows a lead from call girl Corey (Tawny Moyer) and goes undercover inside her palatial brothel to investigate the suspicious behavior of its sinister boss Louis (Frank Annese). Once embedded, Janet faces the twin risks of going all the way with her subterfuge, and whether she will be able to emerge with the truth of the house’s activities alive.

Creators: Producer Giovanna Nigro-Chacon, who along with the previously mentioned “ROMANCE THEATRE” series had a hand in the unusual 1977 NBC children’s series “THAT’S CAT,” shares screenplay credit with John Alan Schwartz, who wrote for several Glen A. Larson-produced TV series as “KNIGHT RIDER” and “THE FALL GUY,” but will ultimately be remembered for creating the infamous “mondo” documentary film series FACES OF DEATH. Director Greg Gold was among the founders of the influential production company Propaganda Films, along with future filmmakers David Fincher, Dominic Sena, and Nigel Dick, and producers Steve Golin and Sigurjon Sighvatsson; Propaganda would be responsible for several influential music videos and cult films. However, while he did several music videos and other projects after, this would be the only feature credit for Gold, who died in 2015 at age 64.

Cast: Leading lady Jamie Barrett seems to have only one other credit: Norman Thaddeus Vane’s drama CLUB LIFE starring Michael Parks, Tony Curtis and Kristine DeBell. Tawny Moyer was a former model who previously appeared in HALLOWEEN II It’s in the lower credits, however, that things get particularly interesting. Billed fifth is James Daughton, the immortal douche Greg Marmalard from ANIMAL HOUSE, almost unrecognizable as a buff, bleach-blond henchman who’s usually shirtless. Under him is John J. York, who spent decades as Mac Scorpio on “GENERAL HOSPITAL” and its spinoffs, along with playing Eric Cord on Fox’s “WEREWOLF.” Billed eighth is David Knoller, who didn’t make much of a splash as an actor, but now has several TV producing credits including “BIG LOVE,” “CARNIVALE,” and “LOVECRAFT COUNTRY.” And a special credit is given for Bud Davis, longtime stuntman, second unit director, and occasional actor, notable for embodying the Phantom Killer in Charles B. Pierce’s original THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN.

Influence: While not delving into the kink play of Adrian Lyne’s 9½ WEEKS, it is definitely aiming for the same sort of “sexual awakening through submission” message it propounded. And its placement of two Bryan Ferry songs - “Don’t Stop the Dance” and “Boys and Girls” - were likely chosen based on the use of “Slave to Love” in the former film. Auspiciously in turn, its “Nellie Bly in the Cathouse” plot eerily predicts the kind of scenarios that would be found on WEEKS’ screenwriter Zalman King’s “RED SHOE DIARIES” series years later.

Song usage: “House of the Rising Sun” only shows up during the closing credits, and it’s a gospel-styled rerecording by Denise Mitchell “and Friends,” which feels like a bit of a cheat after the example set by the previous films. A comparably stingy song score meanwhile, with only the aforementioned Bryan Ferry tracks along with “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and Icehouse’s “No Promises.”

Reactions: Gold definitely indulges his music video impulses in the staging and cutting of the movie; As Letterboxd contributor Hunter Cooper wrote, “28 freeze frames in the first 7 minutes of the film...And 5 of them being of someone ordering a Coke.” However, considering the infamous scenarios that John Alan Schwartz easily conjured up for FACES OF DEATH, the events unfolding here are deflatingly tame by comparison. It’s pretty much all garter belt and no stockings. But, it did manage a couple swerves that I did not anticipate, and I liked the running gag of Janet’s car being constantly on the fritz, so points for those.

Mediacom and Prism did follow through with their intention to continue the template, but contrary to the bullish promises of their press releases, there would only be one more film to follow after this initial three-picture offering. Behind the scenes, it was announced by a short Los Angeles Times blurb in February 1988 that Ron Altbach was stepping down as president of Mediacom, to be replaced by his vice-president of production, Strathford Hamilton, who had served as post-production supervisor on HOT CHILD IN THE CITY, and, coincidentally, would direct this final entry, now titled BLUEBERRY HILL. (Hamilton’s wife, Marcy Levitas Hamilton, served as editor on HOT CHILD as well.) The project was shot in 12 days for $500,000, which would seem to put it on par with the previous works, but when considering the marquee-level cast that was enlisted in this instance versus the lesser-known performers used before, some savvy dealmaking must have been achieved. At some point during the production, MGM got a look at it, and needing product to fill their barren slate, acquired all rights to it, and gave it a minimal theatrical release before it reached home video from CBS-Fox.

Release: limited theatrical run December 2, 1988

Plot: Within the dying mining town of Johnsondale, California, in 1956, teenaged Ellie Dane (Jennifer Rubin) bristles at the constant negging and browbeating from her mother Becca (Carrie Snodgress), who has never recovered from her husband Charlie dying the same night Ellie was born. Her boyfriend Denny (Matt Lattanzi) talks often about leaving the town to join a racing pit crew, and offers to take her along, but keeps dallying on his plan. A chance meeting with another local widow, Hattie Cale (Margaret Avery), opens the door to Ellie learning details of her father’s life she never knew before, tapping into her own aspirations. But they are details that Becca has refused to deal with for too long.

Creators: Writer Lonon Smith had previously written the “dachshunds dressed as rats” horror film DEADLY EYES, and later scripted some episodes of “MATLOCK.” Before joining the Mediacom collective, Strathford Hamilton had produced several music videos, particularly The Clash’s “London Calling.” Of all the personnel from these projects that are still living, he has firmly stayed in film production, producing or handling foreign distribution for several films, and occasionally directing. He also had a hand in launching “MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS” upon America. Marcy Levitas Hamilton returns to editing duties here.

Cast: For once, the ensemble here needs no “You may have seen them in...” directions, but looking at where their careers were at the time does offer some insight. Carrie Snodgress and Margaret Avery had both previously received Academy Award nominations, but by the time of shooting, Snodgress was averaging roughly one movie a year in mid-budget projects, and Avery had not made a feature since appearing in THE COLOR PURPLE, working mostly in television. The fact that Avery gets to sing and even co-write a song was likely an incentive. Jennifer Rubin had been drawing attention modeling for print and commercials when she appeared in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, BAD DREAMS and PERMANENT RECORD around the same time as this production.

Influence: No articles have been located to describe what kind of plot was envisioned when “Blue Suede Shoes” was first proposed, but at some point after completing the first trio of projects, the producers probably saw the tremendous performance of the early ‘60s-set DIRTY DANCING (for which RISING SUN’s Greg Gold directed the video for “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”), and made the decision to transform it into a similar female-driven maturation tale, right down to losing the swaggering aura of the Carl Perkins/Elvis Presley song they first chose to the nostalgic melancholy suggested by BLUEBERRY HILL. Besides self-actualization, this movie shares the same elegiac portrayal of its long-gone Johnsondale setting as DIRTY DANCING had for its milieu for the outdated vacation colonies of the Catskills; it even ends with a post-credits cookie telling the viewer that in the very year of its filming and production, the entire town of Johnsondale went up for sale. (It is now a resort called R-Ranch.)

Song usage: “Blueberry Hill” pops up initially as Ellie’s go-to when she noodles on the piano, with the classic Fats Domino rendition playing over the credits. A decent amount of needle-drops throughout: “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip it Up,” “I’m a Man,” “Come Go with Me,” “Ain’t Got No Home,” Big Joe Turner’s “Jumpin’ Tonight,” Smiley Lewis’ rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’,” and The Moonglows’ “Sincerely.” Covers are substituted for “My Special Angel” and “Only You.” All of the songs Margaret Avery performs are originals, with her credited as co-writer on “No Good Man Low Down Dirty Blues.”

Reactions: It’s not truly fair to compare this outing to the other three, because even though it still follows their template, this is a quantum leap beyond those previous productions. The CBS-Fox VHS is standard 1.33, but this was clearly composed for 1.85 projection (and with widescreen TV zoom tools, fits perfectly), was edited on film with lab-finished credits (though the end credits are still videoburned, suggesting an early master prepared before MGM’s acquisition was supplied to the label), and befitting its atmospheric location shooting, has a lived-in production value that the other projects lacked. As a teenage blossoming story, it’s not breaking any new ground, and its portrayal of mid-50’s race relations is way too idealized, but everyone is sincere and empathetic, and it delivers comfort. And its ending where young love is shown not to be the solution to everything is a nice touch for 1988. If MGM had the resources to give it more than just a contractual obligation run, they could have had a hit with it in the manner they would years later with simple love stories as UNTAMED HEART and THE CUTTING EDGE.

Whether they felt they’d reached their apex with selling to a major studio, or that there were too many players competing for a limited slice of indie movie pie, Mediacom shut down operations by 1991. Cervantes and Altbach have continued to work together in other ventures; today they are respectively President and Corporate Advisor to Bonne Sante Group, “an emerging growth global nutraceutical company” with emphasis on hemp-based CBD products. And while strategic music placement is still an important and well-liked aspect of feature and television production, the retconned music drama format they attempted is for the most part a no longer viable template.

Today, the movies that came out of the Mediacom/Music Video Associates venture have been mostly forgotten. In a sad irony, the very element that made them a hot property – their song-heavy soundtracks – have made them unlikely to ever surface again on physical media; since DVD was not yet a reality, the contracts for the music only covered tape release, and seeing as there are now only three major labels that control the bulk of all recordings, the cost of relicensing those tracks for Blu-Ray has probably skyrocketed. Plus, aside from BLUEBERRY HILL, an HD upgrade would require a complete rescan of the elements and reassembly in the digital realm, adding further to the potential expense. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN and HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN have been recently found available to stream in Standard Definition on Tubi, but the superior HOT CHILD IN THE CITY and BLUEBERRY HILL are not to be found online beyond used VHS copies.

But if you do track one of these down and watch them, much like getting Rick-rolled online, it’s kinda fun to go back to an older, more colorful place and time...

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Gleaners of a Rainbow

Most movements in film history could be considered incidental: one film becomes a success, its creators and rivals observe this and make their own duplicates, until a genre unto itself is born, such as the film noir mystery or the comic book adventure. Some movements can be considered intentional: a group of like-minded artists decide to strike out and do something different from the status quo, and while not all of the work takes hold with an audience, viewed collectively, it is recognized as a wave in progress, such as the French “Nouvelle Vague” or the ‘70s American auterists. But lingering in the cracks of film history as movements that are neither, that only reveal themselves long after they concluded. As Søren Kierkegaard stated in 1844, “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” These are the pockets where all the participants were just going about their own business, but upon reflection in the rear-view mirror, their choices add up to a unique, interesting chapter that previously sat unread.

This is the case for a stretch of time less than a decade long, from approximately 1983 to 1991, when a compelling cross-section of female directors and writers embarked on their first significant forays into narrative filmmaking, all of whom in turn partnered with a winsome, beguiling young talent to act in those stories. Collectively, it was these women who were able to summon memorable performances from their nascent star, while male directors seemed to only see her in conventional, limiting, and unambitious casting. And decades after leaving acting behind, it is the roles created by these women that have kept her legend alive to a select and faithful fandom.

screencap courtesy of Raw Danger blog

Rainbow Harvest is not one of the first names mentioned when discussing the 1980’s unprecedented media elevation of actors in their teens (or portraying teens) that the decade is often remembered for. The projects where she flourished were not accorded as much press attention as those of her better known peers. And there is definitely a stark divide between the fleshed-out characters she was entrusted with from the ad hoc coalition of artists to be discussed here, versus the conventional roles in male-driven films and TV shows that served as bread and butter in between those juicier opportunities. In one of the few easily-found interviews conducted during her career, for the UK magazine Film Review in April 1991. she already seemed to be aware of this, describing her role in the 1986 boxing drama Streets of Gold, the directorial debut for future Disney studio chief Joe Roth, thusly – “I played the young white hopeful’s girlfriend,” – an otherwise blandly truthful statement at the time, but also a keen assessment and indirect indictment of how most casting directors likely regarded her. Which makes it all the more exciting to probe the individuals who saw her not as some passive “the girl,” but as an active, “the girl who does...”

Second generation artist Marisa Silver was the first to recognize the raw talent of Rainbow Harvest in their mutual debut film Old Enough from 1984. Silver, the daughter of acclaimed director Joan Micklin Silver, told Tenement Museum blog writer Jon Pace in 2014 she had been inspired by the experience of her family moving to New York City from Cleveland in the late ‘60s, recounting, “I became friends with a girl from the neighborhood. During the year that I knew her, I was introduced into her world, which was so different from one I was used to, and vice versa...[we] spent an enormous amount of time getting into various forms of trouble. It was a most excellent year.”

The then-23-year-old Silver created a story about Lonnie (Sarah Boyd), a tweener from an affluent Upper East Side background who, upon ditching her summer day camp outing, meets Karen (Harvest), an older girl from a working class family on the Lower East Side, and, intrigued by each other’s differences, the two become fast friends. Lonnie is awed by Karen’s brash outward cool, the manner in how she seems to already be independent, especially since, by her constant insistence on claiming to be “11 and 3/4” she’s already feeling the pangs of adolescent redefinition. But Karen too is having some of her own self-image questions, which get magnified when she meets Lonnie’s peers, and especially when Carla, an attractive beautician, moves into her building. The few months they spend together may not be the proverbial summer that changes everything for these girls, but their interval starts the process, and that’s just as important in their development.

In a 2017 essay for Film Inquiry, writer and Fellow Sasha Kohan makes several points about Silver’s graceful, generous presentation of all her characters, not just the leads. She writes, “I never fully appreciate the differences in how female characters are portrayed when directed by men versus women until I see something like Old Enough. It’s a wonderful thing, to see women and girls in film playing with and up against each other in ways that are neither annoying to us nor antagonistic to each other, neither silly nor self-serious – they just are. The major difference in seeing female characters under the eye of a female director is that the audience is rarely manipulated into taking sides...the entire cast of characters and family members are all somewhat, impressively (even in the much smaller roles) well-rounded and not totally predictable...” Kohan goes on to observe, “So much of Old Enough is about looking and seeing, making observations and reacting to them by way of imitation...The significance of creating and crafting one’s appearance, especially as a young girl who only begins to find herself by imitating someone else, comes up all over the place,” laying out the pattern of succession in how Karen takes cues from the upstairs cosmetologist, Lonnie takes cues from Karen, and Lonnie’s little sister Diane (played by Alyssa Milano in her acting debut) will soon be taking cues from her.

Old Enough was premiered at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival, the first year the festival had adopted “Sundance” as its name, and was released by Orion Classics later in August, a few months after the release of the better-remembered teenage breakthrough film of that year, John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. While it was not able to garner the press that film and its equally captivating lead actress Molly Ringwald commanded, it was very well reviewed, and actively solicited to its prime audience, with Rainbow Harvest and Sarah Boyd appearing in an on-camera segment for Nickelodeon’s entertainment news program “Standby: Lights! Camera! Action!” with Leonard Nimoy. Harvest was subsequently cast in the aforementioned film Streets of Gold, along with guest star roles on highly-rated series of the era - “Miami Vice,” “21 Jump Street,” and “Father Dowling Mysteries” - which, as the synonymous superfan “Raw Danger” described in his October 2017 appreciation, all amounted to playing “kind girlfriend of dumb lunkhead bad guy.” But soon, another collective of women would provide her the role that has become her most-loved and remembered.

Virginia Perfili was a Detroit-area producer who, with established local musician Jimmy Lifton, launched Orphan Records in 1975, and expanded their operation to making commercials and music videos. After earning accolades from major labels and mentions in Billboard magazine, they embarked on making a feature film. A script was commissioned from the writing team Annette and Gina Cascone, creators of the young adult book series “Deadtime Stories,” modeled on the enduring classic “The Monkey’s Paw,” titled Mirror Mirror. Marina Sargenti, who had previously helmed shorts for Perfili & Lifton’s Orphan Eyes production outfit, reworked the script and directed the film, and all three of them agreed on Rainbow Harvest for the leading role.

Mirror Mirror centers on Megan, an introverted girl given to gothic presentation, transplanted into a conventional suburban city and school after the death of her father, coming under the malevolent influence of a haunted mirror, one that seems to have been involved with several previous instances of horror in the past. Despite having made a caring friend in Nikki (Kristin Dattilo), Megan uses the mirror to indulge selfish long-dormant wishes, to the point where even when her conscience kicks in, the dark forces are now dictating to her.

In her Film Review interview, Harvest expressed her love of horror movies, and it is surely her affection for the genre that fueled her performance, which has earned accolades decades after its release. Kate Hagan, a writer and director of community at the script perusal website The Black List, observed in 2017, “What Mirror Mirror lacks in performance and budget is made up for in terms of the universality of its themes: the teenage girl as pariah turned alpha predator is a classic story, but [the] inclusion of Megan’s recent grief on top of that outcast status gives her an adult awareness of pain that her peers cannot comprehend...Megan’s pain is so immense that she doesn’t even realize that the power of the mirror has wormed its way into her psyche and begins acting out for her...Rainbow Harvest serves up some of contemporary horror cinema’s finest looks in this film, and it’s a pity she’s been lost to the sands of cinematic time since then — her pain feels legitimate in the way only teenage girl pain can...The specificity of the torment, triumph, and trauma endured by Megan shows the necessity of female authorship in horror: it takes a woman to truly convey the pain of femininity in lacerating, uncomfortable detail.”

Horror enthusiast G.G. Graham points to the emphasis on female friendship and the near-irrelevance of boys to the proceedings in her July 2020 essay on the film, writing, “Megan and Nikki are allowed to genuinely be friends, with a relationship that develops in a way that feels natural. There’s no undercurrent of ulterior motive or competition between them…[And in] an unusual reversal, the boys in the film are reduced to second bananas, accessories to the girls’ passions and ambitions. By the time a fully demonic mirror possessed Megan gets around to trying to seduce [her bully’s] boyfriend, it seems motivated more by her desire to test her newfound sexual agency than anything else. When she finds him lacking, she disposes of him like a broken toy, commanding the demon to clean up the mess, confident in her supernatural power to claim another conquest.”

By contrast, the Film Review interview Harvest participated in to promote the UK release of Mirror Mirror ends up revealing way more dispiriting attitudes of the writer and the publication than it does about the movie itself, beginning with its demeaning pun headline, “RAINBOW WORRIER.” Its opening sentence reads, “So what’s the first thing you ask an actress named Rainbow Harvest? Whether her colorful name is for real, right?” The snark and condescension continues, as he pursues a ridiculous theory linking her to River and Joaquin Phoenix, since they also had a sister named Rainbow, dismisses her resume as “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them film roles” before calling Mirror Mirror her first lead (erasing Old Enough), slags the very project she’s promoting as, “a middling ‘malice through the looking glass’ movie,” and spends more time lingering on her observations about financial hardship. He closes with a backhanded compliment of a plug for “a classy telemovie, Fever, starring Armand Assante and Sam Neill,” an HBO production where, as blogger Raw Danger notes for postscript, Harvest had two lines and less than two minutes of screen time.

Mirror Mirror was given a small 15 city theatrical release in the summer of 1990, with enthusiastic coverage in genre publications like Fangoria, before finding its ultimate success on home video a year later, where its unique “hologram” cover drew a substantial amount of blind rentals. Shortly before the film’s release, Harvest received arguably her largest potential household exposure, as a recurring character on the Allan Burns-created sitcom “FM” with Robert Hays, playing a wisecracking technical support provider for a public radio station; her character name, Daryl Tarses, was likely a hat tip to actor and sitcom showrunner Jay Tarses, whom Burns had previously worked with on “The Duck Factory.” By the time this one-two push reached the public, Harvest had likely already booked and/or filmed the other projects that are about to be addressed here, and the combined power of these performances would be a turning point for her upward trajectory. Or, at least, they should have been.

Acclaimed documentarian Michelle Paymar, who had previously directed (with Roberta Grossman) Sippie, a 1983 profile of blues singer Sippie Wallace, and For Our Lives, a 1985 debunking of myths of the AIDS crisis of the day, chose the work of a gay teen prodigy from Ohio to make her first, and to date only, narrative fiction film. Playwright Michael Sargent started writing at 17, and while a student at UCLA, won an American College Theatre Festival new play award for When Esther Saw the Light, the production headlined by then-UCLA acting student Jack Black. His play And Another Honkytonk Girl Says She Will was initially conceived and staged as one-half of an umbrella work titled Big Boy when he was 20 years old, before reworking it for the screen for Paymar, who shot it under the aegis of the American Film Institute for release in 1990.

screencap courtesy of Raw Danger blog

Paymar's 30 minute film of Another Honkytonk Girl presents Harvest as Adeline, a girl in rural Texas, abandoned by her mother and raised by her taciturn father, who yearns to be a famous singer, and who has recently embraced her desirability by men. In an odyssey reminiscent of the Harry Nilsson song “1941” and Claude Watham’s 1973 rock drama That’ll Be the Day, she romances a local boy who impregnates her, then after giving birth, she leaves the child with her father to hitchhike to Nashville. After meeting unsavory men along the way, including an “Uncle Frank” who agrees to help her make connections but spends an uncomfortable amount of time remarking on her resemblance to her mother, she becomes a minor local success. But when the father of her child comes hoping to reconnect, she rejects him, and afterward contemplates just how similarly she’s followed her mother’s example. Harvest movingly covers Adeline’s too-fast evolution from wide-eyed innocence to hardened self-interest, unambiguously presenting her range. Unfortunately, by the nature of its production as a grant-subsidized short, outside of festivals and museum-style screenings, it has been the most difficult of her performances to see.

The 1991 ABC TV movie Earth Angel was among the last of what had been a dependable staple of network programming, the low-impact comedy-romance comfort film, with familiar well-loved actors, which would ultimately migrate to cable channels as Lifetime, Hallmark, and the ABC-owned Freeform. It was the first film credit for playwright and young adult author Nina Shengold, who mordantly observed in 2013, “[I] always assumed I’d have to earn my living at something else. Writing TV movies pays a lot better than waitressing...Anyone who’s not cranking out bestsellers had better be prepared to multitask. My working title for several of my TV scripts was The Mortgage Must Be Paid.” However in that same interview, she stated, “As a screenwriter, I tell a story entirely in visual images and dialogue. There’s no inner monologue, no way to convey a character’s thoughts and emotions except through what [she] says and does.”

It is Shengold’s insight that injects spice into a story that would appear to be literally angel-food cake: Angela (Cathy Podewell), a shallow 1962 prom queen, dies in a car wreck before the big night, and in order to enter Heaven after 30 years in limbo, must perform an indeterminate good deed in the present for the friends she left behind. Upon returning, the only person who can see and interact with her is Cindy (Harvest), the daughter of her bestie Judith (Cindy Williams), who yearns for the kind of popularity Angela enjoyed, so she attempts to teach Cindy her tricks while trying to figure out her primary task, discovering that the two threads are intertwined.

Though sporting a male director – longtime Brian DePalma A.D. Joe Napolitano, making his directorial debut – Earth Angel presents itself as a ladies-first affair, beginning with the fact that the three main women (Williams, Podewell, Harvest) are billed first in the credits, before Mark Hamill or Erik Estrada, who would normally occupy a top spot. Its best moments benefit from Shengold injecting a particular empathy in the story most associated with female creatives, Once Angela and Cindy meet, the story plays almost like a benign variant on Mirror Mirror: like Megan in that film, Cindy has been thrust into an uncomfortable new social situation by her mother’s return to her home town, finding herself in a similarly loner-ish status in high school, suddenly granted all the things she wants through supernatural intervention, and soon to discover that she has made bad choices. Cindy’s mom Judith is not resigned to spinsterhood, but is energetic and eager to date again. And Shengold’s treatment of the male rivals is rather nuanced for this predictable story: Hamill’s nerd doesn’t get instant sympathy, he must first shed his longstanding resentment of his high school years and earn real happiness, and Estrada’s jock is not a one-note villain, just an overgrown former hero who is also worthy of love, but needs to get over his own hype and will have a harder time doing so. It may be fluff in a resume that is built on acting heft, but if Old Enough is for the arthouse denizens, and Mirror Mirror is for the monster kids, Earth Angel is the Harvest movie for the parents and grandparents, reinforcing her wide appeal.

The final film in this overview combines recurrent elements from these earlier entries: like Old Enough, it was loosely autobiographical; like Earth Angel, it was set in 1962 and made for television; and like the director of And Another Honkytonk Girl, was the first-time narrative effort from a woman previously established in documentaries. Pink Lightning was the pet project of Carol Monpere, a veteran multihyphenate whose credits included script editing the 1973 Emmy-awarded Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Borrowers for NBC, writing the screenplay adaptation for the children’s book The Mouse and His Child for its 1977 animated film version, and directing the PBS expose of California water rights The Battle of Westlands.

As lain out in a profile by Mike Hughes for Gannett Newspapers, Monpere looked back to her youth in Fresno to create a story of five girls bonded by their revelries in a car they shared ownership on, and their activities in the days before the bachelorette night and wedding day of their ersatz leader Tookie (Sarah Buxton). Tookie already has some ambivalence about the upcoming nuptials, aspiring to a career not conducive to a small-town marriage, and aware that her best friend Jill (Martha Byrne) has previous experience with her fiancee, and that he may be settling by marrying her. Jill is the most sexually adventurous of the group, and while she’s not stigmatized, she is not often fulfilled by her encounters either. Traditionally pretty Sharon (Jennifer Guthrie) is being groomed for what is likely a life in pageants, while her reluctant competitor Andy (Jennifer Blanc) has more bohemian ambitions that don’t draw boys’ attention. Monpere drew directly from her friends group to create the characters, but also imbued aspects of her personality in them as well, remarking to Hughes, "There's something of me in everyone, except the very pretty one... They have had what I would consider very successful lives. I think it's a very strong group of women."

As Pooh, the quintet member who is already married with a child, Harvest does not have as much screen time as her co-stars, but makes the most of it as her character represents what is supposed to be the ideal to the other girls, but gradually reveals she is painfully having second thoughts about the whole institution of marriage in general. In one standout scene, Tookie and Jill drop in, and find her on top of the refrigerator, near-catatonic with dread over learning she is pregnant again, perhaps even contemplating drastic moves to counter it. When the friends try to talk her down, she launches into a fiery monologue on their comparable freedom against the pressure of being a wife in this place and time:

“What do you know? What do any of you know about anything? You aren’t married, you don’t have a husband! You don’t have to get up in the middle of the night with a baby. You don’t have to iron six shirts with light starch every week! You don’t have to make chicken livers because they’re Norman’s favorite dish! You don’t know anything about anything! I try so hard...I try to do everything so right. But if I have another baby so soon I’ll never wear a two-piece bathing suit again!”

Whatever critical press was accorded to Pink Lightning upon its July 8th, 1991 prime time premiere on Fox, beyond the Gannett wire article on Monpere, seemed to be written entirely by men determined to miss the point of her film. The most ridiculously cruel review, from a television editor for the Deseret News who shall not be named, spends nearly a third of its space trashing the Fox network’s output of TV movies in general, refers to the writer/director’s autobiographical element as the most “frightening” detail, and concludes by recommending that viewers interested in stories from the past watch the more conventionally male-centered baseball documentary When It Was a Game, which premiered that same night on HBO. Rick Kogen of the Chicago Tribune, in a brief assessment, effectively damned it with faint praise, calling it “modest,” “not unappealing,” and “a harmless diversion.” And Chris Willman from the Los Angeles Times was willing to state, “Monpere directs with special sensitivity to young women’s emotions,” but only after he proclaims, “it’s indicative of a paucity of imagination [that] filmmakers seem to believe those precipitous Kennedy years were the only time anybody ever lost their innocence,” despite the fact that “loss of innocence” was never a theme of the story in the first place, but rather the limited options available for ambitious women in 1962.

There are no more credits for Rainbow Harvest after this point. It is not known if, after the completion of these films, she continued to go on auditions or was considered for more projects, and if so, how long that stretch of time was. Nor is it known what the ultimate motivation was for her to leave acting behind. One hopes it was a simple lack of interest in the metaphorical running of the treadmill that is generally necessary to be a working performer. But one also has to be cognizant of the unpleasant circumstances that other lauded actresses of her moment had to deal with, some only recently coming to light, and gravely contemplate those possibilities. Ultimately, it has been determined that it is not for us to know. There is some degree of public record that indicates Ms. Harvest has transitioned to a satisfying private life, and in the greater human comedy, that is more important than being a household name. As the late Margot Kidder, immortalized in Black Christmas and Superman, once observed, "Acting's fun, but life's more important."

But for fans like this author, there is a lingering frustration that, when considering one of the immediate thoughts conjured when the topic of movies from the ‘80s comes into conversation is the proliferation of many talented young women to world stardom...and their journey to either long and evolving careers, as with Laura Dern, or to less frequent output but still a respected and constant status of awareness, as Molly that promising time of high interest, Rainbow Harvest did not enjoy the opportunity to flourish in a similar manner. And considering that, as lain out here, her standout performances were often met with indifference or outright hostility, and when not working with imaginative female creators, she was frequently relegated to thinly-developed roles in the dominating genres of the day directed by men, it’s hard not to feel angry that mediocre minds deep-sixed her potential.

It is further sobering to consider that, while all of these women have remained active and contented artists, their destinies were not to be in crafting feature films either. After directing a few more projects for the major studios, Old Enough creator Marisa Silver shifted her interests to fiction writing. After producing three sequels to Mirror Mirror, two of which were also directed by women, Virgina Perfili found a longer career in social service organizations, though she and her longtime producing partner Jimmy Lifton have returned to low-budget horror production. Mirror Mirror’s director Marina Sargenti would helm two TV movies and episodes of “Models Inc.” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” then segue to the documentary world, executive producing MTV’s “America or Busted” series. Honkytonk Girl’s Michelle Paymar has performed multiple tasks of directing, producing, and story editing several non-fiction television programs, along with projects for NGOs and non-profits as Amnesty International and Ayubowan Women's Project in Sri Lanka, and received several field-related awards for her work: she is currently promoting an eight-year-gestating passion project documentary, From Cairo to the Cloud: The World of the Cairo Geniza. Earth Angel writer Nina Shengold scripted some more TV movies in the ‘90s, and a recent short film with Melissa Leo, No Shoulder, in 2005, but has remained focused on stage and literary projects, along with teaching writing at several colleges. Carol Monpere would write two more TV movies, then produce and direct documentaries in the noughts, until breast cancer claimed her life in 2006.

The gone-too-soon filmmaker Lynn Shelton once said, “Can I be obvious and say there is probably a double standard for male vs. female directors? Sadly, I think that’s actually the case. And it probably stems from the fact that there are proportionately so many fewer women directors than men ones, that each project is perhaps more closely scrutinized for its content.”

Rainbow Harvest's curriculum vitae, along with the women who made it notable, found a worse treatment than harsher scrutiny; since it existed within small-profile indies, horror tales watched on home video, TV movies, festival shorts - genres and venues dismissed by the general critical community - they were given virtually no scrutiny at all. The soft bigotry of low expectations. Would they have benefited from what the internet offers today...sites for niche fandoms to congregate with no obligations or dependencies on the monoculture, and a wider array of voices from all genders to opine...had these been available during this period of creation? 

Or, perhaps the better question is, now that we indeed have all these elements at our disposal, why not help them benefit now?