Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Kind of Wonderful: Watts (Estee Lauder Beautiful, Ysatis, Loulou, Polo, Poison)

Third up in our perfumed tribute to the characters of filmmaker John Hughes is Watts, the tomboy drummer played by an alarmingly young Mary Stuart Masterson. It pains me to remember how mature she seemed to me at the time.

Several things showed up again and again in these movies: the sidekick, smart-ass friend; the love triangle; the unrequited crush; the wise-beyond-his/her years outcast. Watts was all of these, and one of the figures with whom I identified most. Like me, she had trouble keeping her thoughts to herself.

Some Kind of Wonderful was the last in Hughes' teen cycle. It was the least forgiving about the remorseless cruelty of high school; the most judgmental about what having and not having does to a group of people. It looked at money and privilege more soberly than any Hughes film, and favored the underdog in an unmistakably emphatic way. Hughes had a lot to say about the hypocrisy of the well-to-do, the small minded phoniness and back-stabbing politics of group think, and he said it most clearly in Some Kind of Wonderful. It was his harshest story but his most forgiving one too. All three of the main characters felt like fully realized people, with beating hearts and mixed up feelings.

Like many of Hughes' protagonists, Watts was something of a malcontent. High school frustrated her and she armored herself with wit and derisive scorn for all that seemed hypocritical about the place and the people in it. The storyline is simple. She's in love with Keith, played by Eric Stoltz. That would come as a big surprise to him. He's in love with Amanda Jones, a popular girl with a poor girl's background. Watts watches Keith crush on Amanda with increasing discomfort, afraid of what's coming. She knows it's bad for her to stick so closely by his side during his dreamy fixation on a girl he can't have, but Keith is her best friend--her only friend--and in the world of high school, a friend like that is a lifesaver, no matter how much pain comes with him. Besides, she can relate.

The popular kids are shown in Some Kind of Wonderful to be shallow, insipidly petty facsimiles of their parents, and you get the sense they are mimicking behavior they learned from mommy and daddy: their values are truly screwy, their cruelty practically a blood sport. They're truly vile creatures, and though others sometimes see them for what they are, Watts is the only one stupid enough to name it:

"I'm probably too smart for a girl.

I think that's more than half my problem. I enjoy confusing people, but it gets old. The reaction is so predictable. It's too easy. I guess I could grow my hair out. I could dress like, say, Amanda Jones. She wears cowboy boots but with a mini skirt, which is a way of making sure everyone knows you're just joking. She wears cowboy boots with a mini skirt and a lot of make-up. I guess I could wear make-up. I could pretend not to have much of an opinion. I could pretend to have no opinion at all. The one thing I couldn't do, even if I did all that--especially if I did all that--is give up the drums. If I did all that, I'd need the drums more than ever. I'd need something to beat out all my frustration on.

I'm smart and I have a big mouth. Basically, I speak before I think. That's really the golden rule of being a girl. You're supposed to think a lot before you talk. You're supposed to think better of it. You're allowed to say anything you want as long as you do it behind someone's back. You can even make sure they hear it: as long as it comes from someone else. The great thing about gossip, I heard one of Amanda's friends say, is that whatever you have to say then gets back to your subject more than once, and sticks with them. I'd like to say that kind of stuff rolls off me. I'd like to say, 'I'm rubber, they're glue.' For the most part, I don't give a flying frog what they think of me or say behind my back--that I'm low class, a dyke, a freak, coarse, potty-mouthed, etc. But you do start to wonder. Is the whole world going to be like this; like high school, only amplified? Gutless, superficial people hiding behind their arsenal of plush luxury goods?

At least Amanda comes from our side of town. She can cover herself in a mist of Estee Lauder Beautiful to obscure her origins, to put her admirers under the noxious spell of thick, choking florals. She can cover up the smell of her mother's bacon grease that way and the aroma of well worn carpet and handed down upholstery in her house, but it doesn't change where she comes from. It doesn't change who she is.Most of that crowd comes from money. Their parents own this or that, or their parents' parents did, and they inherited it. The money grows on the family tree, and the shade of money keeps them protected from the glare of reality. One kid's family owns a fur business. He works there himself, picking money from the tree. He doesn't even have to pick it. The stuff falls to the ground and they've got people, hired people, to collect it for them. At prom, all the girls wrap themselves in his father's coats and stampede the gymnasium like fragrant beasts, stinking of Poison, Loulou, and Ysatis. Like Amanda, they're hiding behind the smell. They're hiding their ugliness. It's like putting a glitter bow on dog crap. I don't know why they bother. He's much too busy looking at himself to worry about what he might step into.

I call him Richie Rich. He'll go wherever he wants in life. He won't even roll down the windows to check out the scenery on the way. He's proud of the family tree. Shouldn't every tree be so green, he'd say? The rest of us are only jealous. Everyone wishes they came from the lap of luxury. You can make any kind of vehicle out of that kind of advantage, and it will take you pretty far. You won't have much of a soul. You won't have much substance--but who needs substance, when you have advantage? Substance is for sore losers.

I don't know what Amanda dreams of. She hypnotizes them with her perfume. She probably hypnotizes herself. I guess she wants to be liked. She wants to be popular. She wants to be something she isn't. So she keeps her mouth shut. When she feels like opening it, she forces her face into a smile. I've seen the way Hardy Jenns, her boyfriend, treats her. I've seen what it does to her, when he turns the other way. Her expression goes slack with hurt. The guy's surrounded by a force field of Polo, and nothing can touch him. Great name for a cologne. It makes him seem sporty. He wouldn't know the outdoors if it slapped him in the face. The outdoors would react to his Polo the way the body reacts to cancer, trying to root him out.

I know what I dream of. I might not be rubber, but I've got my own force field in the form of friendship. If life after high school is more of the same, I'm going to need an ally. I look at Keith and I think how lucky I am. He's my dander. Whatever they say rolls off, as long as he's got my back. I'm bullshit detection enough for both of us, and he supplies the wishful thinking. Keith smells of turpentine, of paint thinner, oil paint. His jeans and t-shirts are streaked with complicated colors. He takes the world and frames it in the most interesting way. He puts it on canvas. But it gets everywhere else, too; even on his skin. Especially on his hands. It's the only cologne he needs.

I love that smell so much that I want to have it around all the time. I found an oil at a local head shop here in Shermer. It smells like his paint thinner: like burning wood, creosote, rich and earthy and warm. I dab it behind my ears and on my wrists, and when I practice drums and work up a sweat the smell wraps around me, blocking out everything but the good parts. I know that Keith thinks he loves Amanda. He's an idealist. And underneath that Beautiful, she's probably a good person. He's a good judge of character, however stupid in romance. Amanda's just mixed up. She's complicated, like his paintings. I don't mind this triangle we're in, so much, as long as I'm one of the points."


Angela Cox said...

I like the sound of this one a lot. I know how it is to come from the house that smelled of bacon and fried foods , coal dust , cheap cigarettes and washing hanging over the fire in the living room. So what did I do ? At school my best friend was Polish ,next best a very Jewish girl with flaming red hair and third the only Asian girl in the school at that time. Nasma's family was very rich , her house wowed me , Lorraine's beautiful but Basia's was only middle-class. They had crystal and a large dining table. I never invited anyone to mine. Nasma sprayed her clothes with a sandalwood like fragrance but I don't remember the mothers having fragrance . So despite my being in selective school I had to leave after O-levels as Dad was an alcoholic . I started with Roger and Gallet soap , then fell in love with Guerlain ,Quadrille and Bal a Versailles ( this was the 1970s) .My sister drowned herself in Poison which I hated at the time .We think possibly we were always trying to escape the past and smells that linger in the nostrils . I am only glad I never wanted to do a Bryan Ferry and lose my accent and be so very desperate to wear designer clothes etc. I had not his looks , can't sing etc. As an early fan I read somewhere he wore Floris Gardenia so I tried it and it made me sick so I bought violet instead. He turned Tory and I woke up to the causes of inequality and rebelled. I never stopped loving fragrance but money was very tight when my daughter was born .I have made up for it in the last three years . She likes fragrance but not in my manic way .I never went back to work so we live modestly on one income . I hate the idea of having a boss .As for films I can't think of any I could say reflect my kind of childhood and the agony of mixing outside your class and trying to cover it up.I have to add that what I say about Bryan Ferry is only what many ex-fans think are his motivations. It must be hard to imagine the prejudice here about Geordies , maybe the miners of West Virginia ? He just went too far ,maybe if I'd had his talent I'd have tried but oh Lord I hope not.

Brian said...

Morning, Angela, though I guess it's, what, afternoon for you?

Actually, you should check out these two films particularly: Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful. They both deal a lot with class. Some Kind of Wonderful is a little more complex in its depictions of kids trying to fit in from varying levels of economic background. They're both pretty Hollywood, so total fantasy, natch. But good fun, and like certain songs, a certain kind of heightened head space.

I came from a split income background. My mother didn't have much. I lived with her the first half of my childhood. My father had a lot more. So that was a real adjustment and a very specific perspective. I went to an all boy school which had a pretty diverse range of students, thankfully, but you definitely knew who the rich kids were, and they definitely knew, too. The girls at the girl schools were more uniformly wealthy, I think. Having come from a pretty different background than most of them, not just economically but regionally, I felt like an outsider, even when I fell into the good graces of the popular crowd for a time. I wasn't embarrassed to bring friends to my father's house, but I would never have invited them to my mother's. And I often wondered what they would think of me had they met me in a different context.

Thanks for the story. I didn't know all this about Ferry. It's interesting how conservative some people become later in life. I've watched it happen in my own family--though some were pretty conservative to begin with.

Angela Cox said...

Thanks Bryan I'll certainly check out those two movies. Angie.

Anonymous said...

I really must see this one. Funny, I don't even remember anybody talking about it at school... wait, when'd this come out? imdb says '87. Ah. I was at college then, which clears that mystery up (I would have been too broke to go to a real theater, settling for the second-run stuff at the university theater, $1 a seat).

Non sequitur: Eric Stoltz always sort of creeped me out. I don't know why.

Nina Zolotow said...

Love this one!

Brian said...

Thanks, NinaZ