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Watching Hour Round-Up! Billie Jean! Incredible Shrinking Woman!

I went into last week's Watching Hour selection, The Legend of Billie Jean, with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. You might recall last week's preview where I questioned the validity of 80s nostalgia ephemera for anyone who wasn't coming of age at the time. To be precise, I think I said Billie Jean wasn't a very good 'get.' I will admit that I was so anti-pumped for the Legend of Billie Jean that I – gulp – almost didn't even go to the screening. What a mistake that would have been, because...

THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN IS FUCKING AWESOME!

Sorry, I promised my ma that I wouldn't cuss so much on the site, but if she knows anything about The Legend of Billie Jean and how fucking awesome it is, I think she'll make an exception. Billie Jean (Helen Slater) is a normal girl just trying to make it through a hot as hell summer in Corpus Christi, TX. Her little brother Binx (Christian Slater) used their deceased dad's savings to buy a hot-shit scooter. Some local bullies maliciously steal and trash said scooter, prompting Billie Jean and her crew to demand the $608 it would take to fix the scooter from the lead bully's dad. The situation spirals out of control, and an attempted rape and real shooting leave Billie, Binx, and their friends on the run from the law in a loopy adventure that will eventually lead to Billie Jean’s canonization as an icon, a leader of the people, and a modern day Joan of Arc! Nothing in this movie plays out the way you think it will, but everything plays out exactly the way it should.

The movie’s sense of place is rivaled by few. Corpus Christi, TX is a pretty specific, unique local, and the movie excels at accentuating that. Unlike so many of Billie Jean’s teen melodrama cousins, this movie could not be ‘Anytown, USA.’ It is specifically grounded in the swamp and sand of Corpus Christi. From the trailer park to the gas station to the boardwalk to the swimming hole, The Legend of Billie Jean exudes that Gulf Coast feeling. If you have done any traveling in the region, you will know immediately how right they get it. Like Do the Right Thing, it occurs during the hottest days of summer, and it almost does a better job of showing that heat than Spike Lee’s movie (sacrilege, I know). Every character in The Legend of Billie Jean is constantly caked in sweat. The muggy air is practically tangible on screen.

The back-to-back failure of Supergirl and this crippled Helen Slater’s career before it began, relegating her to two decades of network television dramas. How unfortunate. Her Billie Jean is such a promising start to a career, simultaneously tough and sensitive, confident and quiet, with a fire behind her eyes. She is strong when she needs to be, but doesn’t hide behind a veneer of cool when the threat dissipates. I’m not saying she would have ever become Oscar material or anything, but it’s too bad she was never given the chance to cut her teeth on a great action or sci-fi franchise. Helen Slater’s slippery characterization of Billie Jean as a person, an icon, as many things at many times to many people, perfectly encapsulates the movie’s radical political core.

What is on the surface just a stereotypical 80s movie about rebellious youth, reveals itself upon closer inspection as having a lot more on its mind. As the authorities turn on Billie and her crew, her 'fair is fair' creed leads her into dangerously radical anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, fluid-identity, almost anarchist subculture territory. Though she is sort-of the default leader of her gang, Billie Jean doesn't ever force her friends to follow her lead. She's not 'in charge' in the typical sense. She steps up when she needs to, but doesn't have a manifesto for her follower to adhere to, and when her posse contradicts her, she doesn't correct them.

Billie Jean relationship to her status as an icon to her peers and followers is maybe the most radical bit in the movie. Billie Jean the icon is useful and even powerful at a certain point. By the time things shake out, however, she knows that she must discard the icon and move into a different role. In other words, Billie Jean the icon is not a good or bad thing, but actually has a shifting value over the course of the movie. Discarding the icon after it has worn its welcome doesn't discredit Billie Jean the person. She has a good head on her shoulders, and her greatest strength is that she's not corrupted by any of the shit that goes on around her. This is one movie where it makes thematic sense to desire that the protagonist doesn't fundamentally change or grow over the course of the movie. She knows that 'fair is fair' from the start and that's all she needs to know. Everything (everything! ) else can change.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the should-be legendary supporting role by Yeardley Smith, better known to everyone on the planet Earth as the voice of Lisa Simpson. She takes what should on paper be an incredibly annoying comic relief character, and somehow makes her totally funny and awesome. One scene in particular took the movie to the next level. It has blood. You will know it when you see it.

And you will see it. Because even though The Legend of Billie Jean has never been released on DVD – which is totally lame, by the way – it is currently streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly. So if you have Netflix, what are you doing reading this? Go watch Billie Jean! And if you don't have Netflix, first off, why not? And second, find a friend that does and go watch Billie Jean!

Magic Moment: The Billie Jean Underground Railroad. I have to confess that I kinda shed a tear during this scene. There are several other contenders for Magic Moment in Billie Jean, and I don't want to ruin any of them.

Which brings us to this week's presentation of the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, the story of Pat, a lady accosted by unsafe cleaning products which cause her to shrink uncontrollably. Pat is kidnapped by anarchist mad scientists who wish to use her recently shrunken status to their nefarious advantage, and must escape with the help of a janitor and a super-intelligent gorilla. Did you read that right? Yes, you did.

From the cast up, this movie has some darned enticing elements. As Near Dark featured many cast members from Aliens, The Incredible Shrinking Woman appears to have culled its main players from Robert Altman's Nashville, including the aforementioned Tomlin, as well as her Nashville hubby, Ned Beatty, and my personal favorite, Henry Gibson, whose Haven Hamilton in Nashville stole the whole show. Add to that the infamous Charles Grodin of... er... Beethoven fame, and you got a stew goin'. Word is, this movie was slated to be directed by John Landis (American Werewolf in London, Animal House, the Thriller video) before landing in the lap of one Joel Schumacher (Lost Boys, yes, but also Batman and Robin... ). But even Joel Schumacher can't keep me away from this one. If Billie Jean taught me anything, its that you really, truly can't ever predict The Watching Hour. That's the genius of programming like this: even the most braindead plot or talent might lead to a truly illuminating moviegoing experience. See you there!

-Ben

The Watching Hour is a weekly film series at the Starz Film Center, highlighting new and old cult, genre, or otherwise bizarro movies. Quite simply, The Watching Hour is usually the best thing to do in Denver on a Friday or Saturday night. From Giallo to schlock, Blaxploitation to Aussiesploitation, zombies to martial arts to who-knows-what, and everywhere in between. This is good ol’ rock and roll cinema spectacle. Not to be missed. (See the schedule, buy tickets, get directions, etc. here.)

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Watching Hour Round-Up! Billie Jean! Incredible Shrinking Woman! + watching hour