Lipstick & Dynamite

Also: My Summer of Love and Mysterious Skin.

Lipstick & Dynamite

Runs Fri., June 17–Wed., June 29, at Northwest Film Forum

"Why am I an outlaw? Because I didn't take no bullshit offa them." This is an octogenarian grandmother talking about her male bosses and hardworking past as a professional wrestler from the 1940s to the 1960s. During her prime, Gladys "Killem" Gillem was a star of the traveling circuit of lady wrestlers whose promoters typically took 50 percent of their paychecks. (She also wrestled alligators and tamed lions during her long career.) You think the average woman working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks is exploited? Try being dropped on your back from six feet above the canvas. Feel what it's like to be rammed head-first in a pile driver maneuver while thousands cheer for blood. And no health benefits. At least one performer died from her abuse in the ring. For the women profiled in Ruth Leitman's conventional, admiring documentary about the pre-WWE age of wrestling, this wasn't working for tips— it was fighting for survival.

Born as a Depression-era sideshow, then a main event during World War II (when manpower was scarce), wrestling drew women who had few other options in life. The central half-dozen performers profiled here—now in their 60s and beyond—speak plainly of being docked 50 bucks for bringing men into their hotel rooms. They stole one another's husbands and boyfriends. They endured the casting couch to get gigs. "Broad" was a term of endearment among tough, and tough-minded, equals. They were proto-feminist icons before Gloria Steinem ever donned a skimpy Playboy bunny outfit (which closely resembled what they wore in the ring). Their underlying story is better, bawdier, and more compelling than A League of Their Own.

Yet Lipstick is a rather plain and straightforward documentary about these colorful women. Director Leitman draws out their candor without taking a position on their accomplishments. They fought (albeit with stage directions), they suffered, and they retired. (Although Lillian Ellison, billed as "the Fabulous Moolah," actually went into management and can still be seen at WWE events.) Was the so-called sport degrading, empowering, liberating, or what? And there aren't any outside voices to comment upon the burlesque it made of traditional gender roles. Like the WWE today, it relied on stereotypes and melodrama. This is obviously not a spectacle that ever drew the scrutiny of Susan Sontag or Frank Deford. Clips from old movies and TV game shows indicate how these women were politely ridiculed during the '50s. Lipstick treats them respectfully without quite breaking the hold history still has on its subjects. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

My Summer of Love

Opens Fri., June 17, at Egyptian

Not many people saw Polish-born English director Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort during its brief Seattle run in 2001; it's a small, fine story about two souls connecting under inhospitable conditions (an illegal Russian immigrant woman and a guy, played by Paddy Considine, who befriends her). Sadly unavailable on DVD, it's set in an unglamorous, overlooked corner of England, far from London and Hugh Grant. But, unlike Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, Pawlikowski doesn't inject any politics into his intimate, personal stories. His realism is in the service of specific characters and circumstances. My Summer of Love sneaks up on you in the same way (see interview, p. 90). It's about a romance between two young women from different classes—one with all the power and privilege—where Pawlikowski never even addresses the issue of class. Nor does the same-sex affair raise any flags. That's not what the movie is after.

In the hinterlands of Yorkshire, with nary a job in sight, alone but for her crook-turned-evangelical brother (Considine), Mona (the wonderfully open-faced Nathalie Press) is bored out of her gourd. Their parents are dead, and Mona's prospects are even deader. (We follow her on the worst date in the world, where some lout shags her in a car before dumping her, a strategy that he gladly explains afterward.) Then aristocratic Tamsin (Emily Blunt) literally rides to the rescue on a white horse. "Apparently I'm a bad influence on people," she says, but Mona has no idea. Tamsin's vices go way beyond booze, drugs, Nietzsche, and girl-on-girl grappling in the tall grass of untended summer.

Pawlikowski is less intent on titillation than the lies we tell ourselves, and others, to perpetuate our fantasies. For Mona, who never really identifies herself sexually, Tamsin appears to be just what she needs. Loving another woman matters less than finding someone who can put her town in perspective. It's small, and its inhabitants have a small view of the world. Narrowest of all in his suspicions is Considine's Phil, who takes a jealous dislike to Tamsin. ("There's evil at work in this valley," he warns.) She's seducing his sister out of her parochialism. Meanwhile, Mona might look like a figure of rural innocence to Tamsin (on hiatus from being kicked out of boarding schools), but she's got her defenses. She and Phil aren't so different.

In its hothouse, Heavenly Creatures kind of way, Summer captures the intense, all-consuming passions of friendship rooted in fantasy. And when the real world threatens Tamsin and Mona's bubble, violence is inevitable. Though some will see the pinprick coming from miles away (summer always has to end), it's the girls' giddy suspension that stays with you afterward. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Mysterious Skin

Opens Fri., June 17, at Harvard Exit

It's the sustained stillness of director Gregg (The Doom Generation) Araki's latest effort that gets you. He's taken Scott Heim's novel about two young men bonded by a shared childhood trauma and steeped it in an empathetic quiet that lifts the movie high above other cinematic attempts to deal with the same difficult topic. The film doesn't grow noisy with lecture; it understands both the horror and the sanity of silence. (See interview, this page.)

Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick were 8-year-old boys from a blue, wintry Kansas town molested by their baseball coach (Bill Sage). Brian was an awkward kid whose bad fortune it was to have a dad (Chris Mulkey) who forgot to pick him up after practice. Neil is already discovering his sexuality and finds himself attracted to the coach, a manly monster who tells him after the first incident, "It's OK that you liked it. Everything's going to be OK."

Well, no, of course, it isn't. Now 18, Brian (Brady Corbet) can't recall those missing hours of his life, and grew up with blackouts, bed-wettings, nosebleeds, and the firm belief that he was abducted and probed by aliens. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), on the other hand, remembers quite well and turned his experience into profit: He's hustling older men with a compelling surliness that shrouds his decimated innocence and the unfathomable darkness that replaced it. "Where normal people have a heart," Neil's friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) warns infatuated pal Eric (Jeff Licon), "Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole."

That Araki can evade movie-of-the-week sobriety yet still provide a clear-eyed account of the intricacies of sexual abuse is a small marvel of balance. Brian's obsession with aliens says volumes about human self-defense mechanisms without turning into a freak show, even when his correspondence with Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), another "abductee," soon uncovers a kinship far more earthbound than either is capable of articulating.

You do suspect here and there that you're missing something from the book and that Araki's shortcuts are easier than intended. Suburbia becomes too much the target; there are fleeting moments when you'd swear that Araki is ready to blame the whole tragedy on the fact that Brian's mom (Lisa Long) wears kitty sweaters and bakes peanut-butter peach pies. And what must have been the novel's artful passages just come across as arty here (Neil and Wendy pretending to hear the voice of God at a vacant, snowy drive-in movie theater).

But, Mrs. Lackey notwithstanding, none of the performers is encouraged toward judgment on their characters, not even Neil's various johns (the scenes with his tricks all have an uncomfortable veracity). Comedian Rajskub is the picture of private damage in a fine supporting turn, and Elisabeth Shue has a low-key cameo as Neil's affectionate but oblivious single working mother. Corbet, shifting and shuffling with conviction, looks in every frame like an overgrown kid who never quite knows where he should be. Gordon-Levitt couldn't be better, and his sullen reserve is the movie's soul. His Neil is both disinterested and bitterly amused, with wary eyes and the lonely, lazy, wily eroticism of someone who has known too much for too long. (NC-17) STEVE WIECKING

 
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