“I’m a minority, so I know where the bitches are coming from,” says Jon Moritsugu, in a cameo as a cult-icon director in his own Scumrock (featured at last week’s New York Underground Film Festival). In this slow-burn satire concerning the always-already dissembling projects of two struggling San Fran artists, Moritsugu provides sweet glimpses into intensely particular despair—gutter-punker Roxxy taking tickets at her arena-bot job, slacker filmmaker Miles’s pained quest for the pussy willows that he envisions as potential “characters.”
This kind of nuance regarding the artistic process might have helped Kurt Voss transcend the boosterism of Down & Out With the Dolls, his rise-and-fall saga of a Portland girl band. In a contextless 1993-ish milieu, a power trio who dress like Sleater Kinney and sound like L7 pick up scene-vet goth chanteuse Fauna (Zoë Poledouris, who also scored the movie) when her band, the Snogs, combusts. From the first backyard-barbecue gig on, the Paper Dolls—sensitive songwriter-guitarist Kali (newcomer Nicole Barrett), bassist Lavender (Melody Moore), and lady-killer drummer Reggie (Vancouver scenester Kinnie Star)—definitely rock, Poledouris strutting in a spider web like a rebel girl Stefani.
But, when they’re not rocking, the women roam around their “Dollhouse” signifying tension with lines like “Who threw out the tampon box?” Though reportedly inspired by the extremely righteous Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, Voss’s script still hands the characters clunkers like “Sometimes I wonder if being in a band is worth all the trouble.” Even its assumed antecedent, the Redd Kross crew’s 1984 goofsploit Desperate Teenage Lovedolls had a tossed-off sleazy charm. But here, with no irony and no plot beyond Girls Have Band, Voss reduces Kali and Fauna to earnest Janus faces of Hole’s schizo aesthetic: Kali’s pretty on the inside; Fauna’s a label-honcho-humming Miss World. Their ultimate prize? The boy singer of the star band on Pop-Up Records (Coyote Shivers). It’s “Cherry Bomb” as My So Called American Pie.Then tragedy randomly strikes, breaking up the band for good. In Scumrock, an offscreen death of a bit character is an indispensably haunting stroke. In Dolls, death just seems like the cue to run the credits.
No stranger to the girl-band romping, Susan Seidelman assembles a non-musical fab four in the gender-swap screwball Gaudi Afternoon, setting her latest spin through sex-as-quirk in Quirk City, melting-spired Barcelona. Judy Davis’s lonely translator of turgid South American novels is hired by glamour-femme San Franciscan (Marcia Gay Harden) to locate her fugitive husband (Lili Taylor—yes, Lili Taylor), who has kidnapped their daughter and is living with a new lover (Juliette Lewis). Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, and everybody’s got mommy issues. Unfortunately, Davis toggles too narrowly between itchy and bitchy, and Taylor overdoes her trademark sneer-stomp. By contrast, Harden happily camps as a woman with a past (among other things), and vixen reflexologist Lewis twinkles like Gaudi’s tiles. But the trumped-up alley-to-plaza intrigue could use more smoke and less mirrors.