Crossroads is the new Saturday Night Fever

On Sunday night we watch bad movies on VHS in the Rumpus Room (RR) usually around the same time I complete a stranger’s assigned essay writing for money, and this past Sunday we watched Crossroads and I agreed to write an essay about it, not for money. I will write about Crossroads for free.

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I first became aware of Crossroads at the tail end of my career watching Music Television (MTV). It very well may have been the existence of Crossroads that ended the near decade (1994-2002) of me watching MTV. I was not a girl, not yet a woman, working at the 1970s-era mall megaplex, that has since been replaced by a present-era mall megaplex, when the movie came out. I was wearing black converse, which my boss told me were work inappropriate, wearing them anyway, and tearing tickets because, besides cleaning theaters, that was the only job my sixteen year old self was cleared to do. One day I would be a grown up, a college graduate, and I would work at a movie theater and I would sell popcorn and tickets, but that day was much later. For now Cortez ran the box office and the pretty senior from Prunedale who drove herself to work in her pick-up truck that she bought with three years of movie theater money handled concessions. I guarded the cinematic threshold. Everyone needed a ticket and to know how many doors down the movie was, on the left or on the right.

There were holes in the system. I knew that not because I desired to be extra-diligent about enforcing ticket-buying—minimum wage at the time was 6.25, up to 6.75 by the time of the release of the Britney Spears vehicle in question—I considered the ultimate perk of this job to be quitting and knowing how to sneak in. It wasn’t easy and it would require either luck or someone on the inside. The risk was ultimately too great and my taste outgrew the mall by the time I quit anyhow. Luckily I never had to hassle anyone looking for a free ride, and I never had to learn a job besides tearing tickets and cleaning theaters. I lasted three months before realizing I didn’t really want money, a job, or unlimited popcorn access, and like The Fellowship of the Ring, which arrived the same weekend as me in the heady days of late December 2001, I left the Century Theaters, returning, briefly, with the Two Towers.

Crossroads was in Theater 4, fourth on the right, a small 10 row deep, 5 seat wide theater, and not many people came to see it. Only one person I knew came to see it. Vicky, wearing the same black Chucks as me, and her little sister, probably a 7th grader then. It seemed like a joke. Yep, Britney Spears made a movie. Yep, my little sister is 12 and I’m a good older sister and here we are. Here I am, a teenage cliche in my own role, tearing tickets and slouching in moments free of authority’s eye. So passes the time. Roles and time, waiting for the sophisticated reality reserved for adults in good movies. I sat in on Crossroads out of curiosity for my break one day. I quickly changed my mind and went to watch a scene from the Lord of the Rings a fifth time. I had a system for remembering which scene was playing in which theater at one time so I could pick up where I left off in a previous theater on a previous day.

I remember from Crossroads, from stepping in from time to time, those few minutes on that break, whatever I may have seen on MTV, waiting for the movie to end so I could clean the theater, I remember three girls in jeans and a single square foot of fabric otherwise between them, a dude, as generic a dude as possible, and a convertible Cadillac. And the desert. Or the plains. Or a delta. It was America, I guess. I remember America, but in the worst way. Vicky was equally dismissive, as I recall. I didn’t think about it for a long time. Then I saw in the 3 VHS for $2 room at the Variety Shop at the origin of Foster, and I thought of bad movie night in the RR. To the dismay of one of our cine(phobic?)[philic] cohort we elected to watch Crossroads that Sunday instead of John Ritter’s 1992 post-TV masterpiece Stay Tuned. She came all the way to our house to watch Stay Tuned, and we flipped the situation on her. Guilt composes this essay, I am its medium. Stay Tuned is a charming, fun, slightly subversive, arguably intelligent bad movie. Crossroads is just bad, which is disappointing.

Every generation deserves a cinematic representation of its music, its style, its ethos, and it can be a little corny because it’s for teenagers after all, and what they lack in subtlety, they make up for in complete lack of self-awareness. Therefore a film like Saturday Night Fever retains a special legacy. It is a good movie which contextualizes a dance/music/fashion fad into a complex, human story, serving culture as a document of its time while also giving teenagers across the country access—both in theaters and on the hifi at home—it categorizes and creates at the same time, documents and is. For those who have not seen the film, this is not a joke. A John Travolta film stands the test of time as well Taxi Driver.

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The Beatles gave us perhaps the most enduring film of the ’60s with A Hard Day’s Night for the same reasons: it documented something ridiculous (the way teenagers reacted in the presence of the Beatles) while also giving teenage fans on a larger scale some high quality Beatles content to react to communally. It also just so happens that these fans were right: The Beatles were an undeniable, enduring phenomenon. The Beegees’ music is infectious and John Travolta’s dancing is fucking mesmerizing. The problem with Crossroads is that all of it is bad, the music, the characters, the acting, the moralizing, the pacing, the dialogue, the premise, the execution. The car is nice, but it’s driven by a character as redundant as the actor who plays him, a man who has run the gamut of forgettable TV and even more forgettable movies since starting out in an episode of Ally McBeal in 1999 and being blessed with the opportunity at the turning of the millennium of being in both Boiler Room and Urban Legends: Final Cut. In the premise, described on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)—”Three childhood friends, and a guy they just met, take a trip across the country, finding themselves and their friendship in the process”—he plays the guy they just met. That’s really the extent of his backstory.

If you arrived in the theater late, missing the four minutes in which Spears is dancing in her bedroom and underwear to Madonna, you would say there is nothing in this movie and you would be right. Sure, Kim Cattrall is in it, a young Zoe Saldana, Dan Aykroyd, Justin Long, this guy:

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It was even written by Shonda Rhimes. This should be the cult classic upon which Rhimes built her reputation with an audience that would follow her from the Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, via Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice to Scandal. Whatever script that Rhimes wrote, I’m sure, is unrecognizable from the movie. The film transitions awkwardly from cliched set pieces—bedroom underwear dancing/high school graduation (of course Britney Spears gives the valedictorian speech)/prom in the same day somehow (eye contact with older guitarist who ends up driving the car)/A bizarre American Pie scene with Justin Long:

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Jumanji-esque unearthing of totemic crate/decision to skip town suddenly (See Thelma and Louise, an actually good movie where the women actually drive the car because it is an actual story about friendship)/teen pregnancy/teen long-distance relationship with UCLA student who [SPOILER ALERT!] turns out to be unfaithful AND THE RAPIST WHO CAUSED THE TEEN PREGNANCY, because OH MY GOD this asshole is drinking a blue beer which is how that night started, blue bottles of beer—because everything about coming of age at the turn of the millennium was bullshit, apparently. In the post-Zima pre-microbrew hysteria of first-term second Bush administration young men wore bowling shirts, had blonde mushroom haircuts and drank beer from blue bottles. How did any of us survive? Jesus Christ. How did we go from boys and girls to men and women taking anything at all seriously? Did the Lord of the Rings and a little Modest Mouse really go that far? Or was it something else. Oh, that’s right: the internet. MTV, mainstream culture, compact discs, moms and SUVs and N’Sync in the compact disc player and the idea that 12 year old girls ruled the world except that Limp Bizkit would still hold the number 3 spot on Total Request Live, all this was a sinking ship that we were all happy to see go down. Cry me a fucking river.

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Also spoiler alert about the pregnancy, but I’m sure you saw it coming. Taryn Manning is the tragic Rizzo character, the neighborhood thinks I’m trashy and no good, the brunette who has to play second fiddle to the blonde who is, obviously, the star of the movie. The fact that Taryn Manning’s character can’t sing in public, or in general, is not addressed, even though they are going to LA so she can audition for a recording contract, even though she is beginning to show. Because—plot twist!—it turns out the Britney Spears character can sing, is not just a bookish good girl. With the help of a creative KJ tossing some Fred Durst worthy spins into the Joan Jett track we learn that Britney Spears’ character—and maybe even the singer herself!—loves rock and roll in a relevant, radio friendly way. Taryn Manning also is in 8 Mile which came out in the same year in which we see Eminem in a more autobiographical origin story, should we just say more of a story story. I haven’t finished the string of cliched set pieces, so here we go [“SPOILER” “ALERT” (as though you would actually watch this and, in that case, not see any of this coming)] Yelling (not words, mind you) across the grand canyon/breakdown on highway, argument about problem in which (get this) the girl is right/dude pulls the car over all upset and walks into desert, upset about something/somebody decides just to call home and get picked up [by the way, it feels like it takes them a month to get from Georgia to Texas, then suddenly they are in Arizona]/the aforementioned karaoke song contest victory/dude tinkering on a grand piano (which happens to be in a hotel lobby), Britney Spears sitting down with some words she wrote/long lost daughter finds her mom (Kim Cattrall) who rejects her [back in the car, that was rough]/arriving in LA, looking around, gettin’ the band together, waiting for the contest, checking into ANOTHER FANCY HOTEL/bonding/going to UCLA so Zoe Saldana’s character can see her future husband who [gasp!] is cheating on her!/plot twist: he’s the rapist!/shock, stairs tumble, accidental abortion (an actual abortion was never even referenced as per hella Christian themes throughout, which is why Rhimes’ control of screenplay is dubious)/denoument as Britney performs the song she’s been writing with the dude the last 500 miles or so, which turns out the be the big number from the movie: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”!/finishing Lewis & Clark style at the Pacific, the girls are the Corps of Discovery of true friendship.

So where is everybody now? Britney Spears did not continue with acting. The philosophy of stardom associated with her has changed from win a karaoke competition and rake in the benefits to the more diligent can do attitude of “You better work, bitch.” Zoe Saldana is super famous, breaking through as a blue creature. The dude (who, by the way, was almost thirty when Crossroads was filmed) is now the star of AMC’s Raise Hell, which I’m sure people watch. Just as I’m sure people watched Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden the TV movie in which he played Cherry, I assume one of the six. Besides for Zoe Saldana who is in “good movies” like Avatar and Star Trek, the only one of the four to make enduring art is Taryn Manning who has spent nearly a dozen hours in my living room as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, arguably a character whose very existence is a commentary on her character in Crossroads, whose name I’ve failed to mentioned is Mimi.

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We did not watch a bad movie last night. Orange is the New Black has dominated my media consumption since its availability on Friday because it is a good show in every way a show should be. Its politics are not transparent, as in a Shonda Rhimes show; its production value is not mesmerizing, as in a James Cameron or J.J. Abrams blockbuster; and the blondeness and privilege implied of its main character is constantly under attack. She is the protagonist, but the show got better and continues to as that position of power is undermined. The viewer rebels against her protagonism just because she lives in the cultured, NPR-listening world that you and I might inhabit. Her oppression is incidental in a system that feels designed to oppress a population that is exactly not her. Pennsatucky makes comically explicit the horrors of abortion, while Crossroads leave them implied but unspoken. If Kim Cattrall had an abortion Britney Spears would never have been born! Unthinkable! If Pennsatucky didn’t have a shit-ton of abortions she would have a shit-ton of meth-addled kids. Even more unthinkable! If her character didn’t have an accidental stair-tumble abortion she would have had to consider a real option in a bad movie. Impossible to think!

The reality of Orange is the New Black is contradictory, difficult, kafkaesque, and morally indecipherable. I don’t really want to get into it in an already to long essay about Crossroads, but I do want to return to the idea of the prison of roles in a more literal way: standing in a bow tie and brightly colored vest behind the ticket-tearing podium for those months and the hours within that felt eternal; watching the required media because that is what someone with your identity does, and that is how you maintain that identity; becoming unintentionally pregnant, but believing that abortion is wrong, etc.; these roles are prisons, and when you spend the bulk of your weekends’ free time almost literally in a prison, it makes you wonder what control you have over what you do. At least I have the freedom to say that. My afternoon’s writing is not someone else’s homework about UK tax policy, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), or some ironic mindfuck discussion of the need of honesty as discussed in Psalms. In terms of existential prisons constructed by webs of my own choice, this reality is not that bad, however shitty culture was when I was 16.

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