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 RogerEbert.com 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 Ringwald...in 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?

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