Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tongues: Rock Of Ages

Why did Rock Of Ages fail this weekend at the box office?
I think there are two reasons: one, the moral is so "on the fence," that no one buys it (again, like Wrath Of the Titans, if Rock Of Ages had been released two years ago, it would be more relevant but no one buys the message now). Secondly, the generation for whom it was made didn't like musicals, the very nature of the Rock 'n Roll they listened to growing up and so fondly remember created within them a sarcasm and cynicism towards the kind of  "expression" the film utilizes as its vehicle.
"So start drinking,... now," says Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and then, looking at his watch, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) tells the interviewer, "...Now..." Why? Rock Of Ages takes place in 1987, a very specific year, and the specificity of the historical moment is being invoked because of the context of 1987 making everything from the moment one starts drinking to the exact beginning of an interview somehow epic, because in its own way, 1987 was epic.
Everyone tends to think that the greatest music ever made--or at least their favorite music--was the music popular at the time they were a teenager: that's the time in our lives when we need expression for our emotions, fears, hopes, dreams and pain, and the music we embrace when we are going through those toughest years is usually music to which we stay loyal. Most of the songs in Rock Of Ages were out just before I got into high school (I was a teenager when Alternative was mainstream) so the generation this film wants to reach is the late thirties to late forties.
Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and Lonnie (Russell Brand) run the Bourbon Room together and we discover towards the end of the film that they are gay and in love with each other (when they themselves discover it). The film takes place in 1987; that was the first year that a drug had been approved for the treatment of the plague of the 1980's, AIDS; this was the year that a second gay pride march took place on Washington. It's no longer trendy to have a same-sex kiss in a film, but apparently a necessity. This feeds into the blurring of gender realities (discussed more thoroughly below) which is such a liberal political platform today.
Why? 
Perhaps it's because they are the ones most likely to be leaning in the liberal-independent political camp: we can say the film is liberal because of the lifestyle (specifically gay and sexually promiscuous) of the characters but it's also a capitalist film because even while it shows the hardships of working and failing within a capitalist society, it also shows the rewards for the individuals and the fruits for society. Why would this be important in this election year? Liberals/democrats all seem to think they have to be pro-socialist in order to have their entitlements and lifestyles gain political acceptability; Rock Of Ages, however, puts forth that you can still be a "liberal" without being a socialist and that is an important political message which has obviously gone unnoticed (it doesn't contain some of the messages I was hoping for but it wasn't as cruel to religion as it could have been).
 
Jeans were really important in the 1980's: how many holes you had and where those holes were contributed to your ultimate fashion statement. Please note Lonnie's jeans and how they appear to be disintegrating on his legs. Legs symbolize our "standing" in society, our social class, our psychological identities and cultural projection of who and what we want others to understand about our existence. Given this, the tears in Lonnie's jeans when we first meet him, could refer simultaneously to two things: one, his heterosexual mask is wearing off (the disintegrating jeans) or two, his identity with Rock 'n Roll because rock is fading in importance and, so, too are his jeans.
The expressions of Rock 'n Roll, as I mentioned, is what I would like to suggest undermines that generation from being able to accept a "musical" from being capable of giving expression; why? A musical is even more encoded than a regular film. For example, a film is a story, so it relies upon symbols and structure in order to communicate an embedded meaning; when you add a song, then the song brings with it its own set of embedded messages and when it's a musical, there are embedded messages within embedded messages within embedded messages. What's the point?
Dennis, owner of the Bourbon Room, hasn't paid taxes in a year and he can't make money from performers in the Bourbon Room; why? Agents like Paul Gil (Paul Giamatti) squeeze every cent out of their stars' performances, but things get turned around by the end of the film, a typical and necessary critique of capitalism that always needs to happen.
There was a dehumanization which was still taking place from the 1950s--the Cold War still wasn't quite over yet, but almost, nearly over--so we can say that the reason why that generation "loved Rock 'n Roll" was because it released hatred for the Soviet Union constantly posing a threat to their existence; then, when Alternative came out (mainstream), the Cold War was over and, not having an external enemy any longer, we turned our hatred and fear inwards, to the inner war of our existence (I don't have space allotted to elaborate upon this now, but you might want to check out Under the Bridge: the Red Hot Chili Peppers & Film Noir, since the song came out in 1992 and Rock Of Ages takes place in 1987, they are close enough but Under the Bridge provides a soundboard for what had changed in those years) .
The two main characters, Sherri Christian and Drew Boley, when they first meet. Sherri has just gotten off the bus from Tulsa, Oklahoma and her suitcase with all her rock records was stolen; Drew ran to help her but was too late. Behind them are the protesters against the Bourbon Room and Drew has offered to help Sherri get a job in there where he himself works.
Rock n' Roll was a rebellious movement, a movement against something else, exterior to the listeners (this changes after the fall of Communism and the embracing of Alternative by the mainstream). What rock rebelled against, the angst and turmoil of life generally caused by the Cold War (and I know this is arguable but I can back this up!) is, in Rock Of Ages, being used against some pitiful church ladies now, and that's a sign rock has lost it's power. Please note that the name of Stacee Jaxx's band is named Arsenal, i.e., weapons, and rock was the weapon against (cultural) Communism just as the military was a weapon against (militant) Communism.
Where's a suitable foe now?
What the film does do successfully is both critique and defend capitalism. Sherri broke up with Drew and quit her job at the Bourbon Room; unable to find a job somewhere else, she became a waitress in a strip bar. Tired of the little money and being groped by the men, Justice (Mary J. Blige) tells her that if she wants respect she has to "take that state, because when you're up there, you're untouchable," but that stage isn't the rock stage, it's the stage for strippers. Again, this is a fair critique of capitalism, because we've all had to do things we didn't want to do en route to making our dreams come true; the point Rock Of Ages makes is that capitalism, with all of its faults, provides the chances for our dreams to come true, and it's not just the big-money agents running the show but, ultimately, it's the consumers, us.
This is part of the failure of the film, to provide a worthy adversary, it doesn't make Republicans out to be the enemy (Mayor and Patty Whitmore are political but it doesn't say to which party they belong) and Democrats/Obama is not made out to be an enemy; so where is the rebellion in "rebel" Rock 'n Roll? There is none, it's just a watered-down status quo. Again, like Wrath Of the Titans that was a good film (just came out too late) Rock Of Ages doesn't make enough of a stand to be important, to inspire that solidarity today that rock did then when there was a common, real and worthy enemy: Communism. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, on to what I really want to discuss: tongues.
When we first see a picture of Stacee Jaxx in the film, it's a poster and he's wearing a silver cock piece of a satanic head with a very long, red tongue sticking out of its mouth, and Stacee's own tongue sticking out as well. In the video excerpt below when Patty (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is rallying some Catholic church women to her political cause, a poster of Stacee Jaxx has been placed over the altar as the anti-Christ; at about 0:26 into the video, there is a shot of the famous poster:
Then, Lonnie is relating to Dennis how Stacee failed to show up for a concert because he was at a seance trying to get the devil to sew up a woman's vagina (which, Lonnie points out, doesn't make sense, why would the devil want to sew up a vagina? and I have to agree with him) but we also see Stacee talking about the voices he hears. Later in the film, when Constance Sack (Malin Ackerman) from The Rolling Stone is interviewing Stacee, she grills him for being immature and letting go of his art, then they end up making out and she sticks her tongue in his ear. Later than that, Stacee calls Rolling Stone wanting to talk to "Cinderella" because "she stuck her tongue in my ear," and when he sees her at the Bourbon Room, he tells her to open her mouth really wide and he sticks his tongue into her mouth. This all makes perfect sense!
Please note that Constance wears glasses, so she can "see" what is going on with Stacee (namely, that Paul the agent is ruining Stacee's life and art) and her hair is down because hair symbolizes thoughts and she's not afraid to say what she's thinking (or to write what she sees going on). Stacee, on the other hand, wears the blue bandanna around his head, blue either being the color of wisdom or depression (the idea of being blue). As long time readers know, because the path of wisdom is so hard, wisdom and depression are often artistically associated as being synonymous; the bandanna is a sign of labor (farmers usually wear them to wipe off sweat while working in the fields), and Stacee's art has certainly been a labor for him, so his wisdom that has come to him through depression and the lifestyle that he has led as an artist has made him guarded in interviews with reporters such as Constance. If you look behind Constance, there is an animal print blanket on the back of the couch: the animal "passions" and appetites are "in the background" of the interview and when Stacee (pictured above) tempts Constance with a kiss and she "goes for the bait," we can see that she wants him just like all the other girls do. One last thing, however, because this plays into the traditional feminine-masculine roles: Constance wears white (probably symbolic of light and truth in this circumstance) and Stacee wears black (symbolizing his descent into inner darkness. Constance, however, is "yoked" to a bit of inner darkness herself (the black objects around her neck; because the neck is how we are led--as when a collar is put around an animal--we can see that Constance isn't entirely pure, which is probably her liberal sexual attitude she displays).
Constance lashes out at Stacee for failing in his art and becoming an impossible recluse; her tongue symbolizes her words (because she could not have said them without her tongue) and her sticking her tongue into Stacee's ear means that Stacee not only heard her words--in a genuine, reflective sense--but her words overtook the "voice" Stacee was hearing earlier in the film (symbolized by the satanic cock piece with the tongue sticking out he was wearing in the poster, that satanic voice driving him on towards sexual indulgence that was making it impossible for him to work and tearing him away from reality). That's why, when he sees on Constance at the Bourbon Room, he first kisses that anonymous girl that just walks up to him.... and kisses her... and kisses her... and kisses her... because nothing is coming from that, it's a last attempt by Satan to lure Stacee back into darkness and away form the light which Constance symbolizes; the anonymous girl fainting is literal: she has fainted from being in contact with him whereas Constance was,... "constant."
Here we have Constance "reflecting," and because she can reflect herself she is able to help Stacee reflect. What is she reflecting about? Probably the cost to herself that it will take to bring Stacee Jaxx back from the dead. The song he sings, Bon Jovi's Wanted, talks about being "I'm wanted, dead or alive," and in the film genre of Westerns and in history, we know that refers to killing someone and bringing them into justice if that is what it takes; in Wanted and Rock Of Ages, it's that capitalist critique that the artist is wanted by the consumers either alive and aware of what is happening and enjoying the "fruits" of his labor, or dead and spiritually nullified into the oblivion which fame has buried him. The line, "On a steel horse I ride," contrasts with  a natural horse (like the white horse we see carrying Snow White (Kirsten Stewart) away to fulfill her destiny in Snow White and the Huntsman).  We could say that Sherri and Drew are riding the "natural horse" in that they are riding their dream and trying to get to the place they need to be in order to fulfill it; Stacee got there and his horse died, turning into a Frankenstein monster of loneliness and alcohol. At the end, when Stacee gives a concert and we see Constance off stage, pregnant, we know that Stacee, through Constance has regained his own life so that he can now beget new life, not just in the form of new art and songs, but genuine human life as well.
What about Stacee's second performance we see at the Bourbon Room when he rides up on a motorcycle and sees Patty and he remembers her? Patty sticks her tongue out, obviously not able to control herself, and Stacee leaves her to go into the Bourbon Room. We know that Patty has an alternative agenda in wanting the Bourbon Room--and Stacee Jaxx in particular--to be shut down: when she was young, she had spent a night with him and apparently never forgave herself or him for it, so this is personal revenge. That's why her words are fake, because her self-righteous agenda is also fake and that's why, by this time, Stacee doesn't kiss Patty, because Patty's words, i.e., her tongue, are as poisonous as the tongue of the Satan face on Stacee's cock piece from earlier in the film and Stacee doesn't want that anymore, he's there for Constance.
Before Stacee goes to the Bourbon Room for the second time, he calls the office of Rolling Stone magazine from a pay phone to talk to "Cinderella" (because he can't remember Constance's name). Why does this happen? Stacee Jaxx is a multi-millionaire (and in the 1980's that still meant something), so why call from a pay phone? Those who read my post on Night Of the Living Dead (last October) might remember the artistic importance of a ringing phone, making a call, answering a call: it symbolizes our destiny. Stacee is "calling out" to Constance and the pay phone lets the audience know the price that Stacee is willing to pay to get back with her--what price? The self-destructive fame trap which everyone seems to crave, but everyone seems to die in.
Stacee in Paul's office. Stacee has just read Constance's article on her "interview" with him and discovered that Paul charged the Bourbon Room every single dollar that Stacee brought into the house that night, leaving Dennis with nothing. This "unfair business practice" is what Stacee illustrates when he takes the priceless bottle of alcohol Paul has just given him in an act of reparation and while pouring the alcohol into his mouth, Stacee urinates onto Paul, then tells Paul that he's fired. The priceless drink is Stacee's art that Paul's greed consumed and then Paul used it to piss on everyone; in other words, Stacee takes a moment to do to Paul what Paul did to the Bourbon Room. Stacee makes this up by sending cash over to Dennis to keep him in business. When Dennis sees the money he says, "Stacee Jaxx gives until it hurts," but the opposite is true: giving helps Stacee to not hurt, it makes Stacee feel good to give Dennis that money and that's a sign of Stacee's conversion in the film.
Why does he call Constance "Cinderella?"
It just so happens there was a glam-rock band called Cinderella and in 1987 they released a song Somebody Save Me (lyrics here).  When Stacee is reaching out to find Constance again, he's asking her to save him. Earlier, Paul tells Stacee that Rolling Stone is there to see him and Stacee looks around and says, "Where's Mick (Jagger)?" the double-play on the magazine and the band makes it possible for a double-play on the fairy tale and the band Cinderella (if you know a better song they might want to draw our attention to, please let me know!).
Last thing: the role of animals.
In the picture below, Dennis wears an animal print shirt, Stacee wears a heavy fur coat and his baboon, "Hey Man," wears a black leather outfit (and his name is a noun for a human). Like the role reversal of genders (when the bartender is selling to guys drinks and Dennis thinks they are girls who should drink free, and then Stacee's own name, traditionally a female name) animals and humans have been reversed in the film as well.
Why?
The 1980s were a time of the appetites (for more on this, please see my post on the 1986 cult classic Abe Froman the Sausage King Of Chicago and pork barrel politics in Washington as discussed in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) but the rock world was particularly out of control with its appetites to the point that anything was acceptable and because of that, everyone was engaging in anything, turning us into animals rather than humans. Well, animals can't make art, and Stacee's descent into his animal appetites has caused his lack of creativity and Dennis' inability to make the Bourbon Room turn a profit. 
Why is Sherri's hair so high in this shot? She's just arrived in LA and, in spite of being robbed, she still has "high hopes" of how things are going to go for her. Remember, hair symbolizes the thoughts, and the hairspray she uses--is that Aqua Net?--is "setting" her hopes high on her dreams and desires. Put into tangible terms (her too tall hair) it seems ridiculous, yet that's what we all have to do, and the "big hair" of the 1980s was really a homage to capitalism, that we could have big dreams and high hopes because that's they way the system was meant to work, and that's what made America a better country than the Soviet Union.
In conclusion, rock was initially a rebel movement that, in its decadence, celebrated the American freedom to be decadent and wrong, which one couldn't do under Soviet Communism. Rock Of Ages, while having many strong points, the film fails to offer the audience a worthy adversary that was the very nature of Rock 'n Roll's drive and purpose, the reason it meant everything to the fans who sought out the songs and bands best articulating the emotions they were feeling but couldn't express themselves. I hate to say it, but while Rock Of Ages is an okay film--with very solid performances from its A-list actors--in most respects, it fails to live up to the glory of the songs it incorporates. Most of the nudity has been edited out, so if you want to see it, please do, but it's not a great film, it's just like its moral base: mediocre.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art DinerP.S.--Just for fun, here are videos of some of the original songs from the film: