Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
July 14th, 2012
[Brows Held High intro]
[fade in to Oancitizen reading "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues & My Own Private Idaho" by Gus Van Sant.]
Oan: [singing] Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cow ... [Oan notices the camera and puts the book down] Ah, Welcome to Brows Held High. You know, I've only done one film by Gus Van Sant. You know, the one that existential meditation on the meaninglessness of urbanity and the light of the grand void that is the universe- [cut to clip of "Gerry"; extreme closeup of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck's faces as they walk beside each other in an empty desert] Yes, yes, that's the one. [cut back to Oan] It's not really the best representation of Van Sant's work as a whole ... well, neither is Good Will Hunting. The thing about Van Sant, he's not always dull, or Oscarbaiting, sometimes he's balls-out cuckoo pants.
[cut to clips from Milk, Gerry, and Finding Forrester; the music playing is "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Part]
Oan [v/o]: Before he nabbed an Oscar for Sean Penn, before he dehydrated Matt Damon, before he got Sean Connery to tell Rob Brown that he had become "the man now, dog," [show a photo of Gus Van Sant] Gus Van Sant Jr. started out exploring themes of queer sexuality and the myth of Americana. His first feature, Mala Noche, explored the former. While his next two excellent follow-ups, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, spread out into the latter. [posters and clips of the mentioned movies are shown] Like many artists in the American Indie movement, his stories were of outsiders, outcasts, outlaws even, which is probably what drew him to Tom Robbins' 1976 novel, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." It's structurally to sell well to a road movie, which Van Sant had already proven he can do amazingly well.
Oan: The book was a favorite amongst 1970's hippies ... and it shows. This does not hold up well when the high goes down.
Oan [v/o]: Tom Robbins himself serves as the narrator for his own story. The story? Well, once upon a time, there was a girl named Sissy Hankshaw, who would grow up to become Uma Thurman, who was born with a gift, the gift... of thumbs.
Oan: Thumbs.The protagonist's defining feature ... [holding up his two thumbs] is her giant thumbs.
Oan [v/o]: [cut to clip from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone] Like Harry Potter and his scar, or more appropriately [cut to clip from Manos: The Hands of Fate] Torgo and his knees, Sissy Hankshaw's character is driven by her gargantuan pendulous thumbs. Her kielbasa-like opposable mockeries of evolution, her big thumbs, thumbs so big you wonder why a girl like that would ever leave the house.
Oan: But she does leave the house, because, you see, her thumbs are magical.
Narrator: Hitchhiking would become her customary mode of travel. Hitchhiking would become, in fact, her way of life.
Oan: Her magical thumbs make her the greatest hitchhiker who ever lived.
Oan [v/o]: And I don't exaggerate when I say that her thumbs are magical. It's not just that her thumbs are more visible from a distance and thus being more likely to attract attention to potential rides. I mean that the compass is bound to her thumbs and the four directions are her's to command. Behold, how she works her mystical thumb-fu. They're a divine gift, a superpower. And all of that would make you think that they would put effort into making the damn things look good.
Oan: [Demonstrating using one of his thumbs, comparing his to Sissy's obviously fake ones in the film] I mean, normal thumbs have shading and saturation and it's not obviously made out of the same material that dildos are made from.
Oan [v/o]: And if it seems like I'm focusing too much on the thumbs, it's mainly because I don't want to have to focus on the rest of Uma Thurman.
Sissy: [in a really, really bad Southern accent] I hitchhiked 127 hours without stopping, across the continent twice in six days, cooled my thumbs in both oceans.
Oan: And that's because ... she sucks!
Sissy: You may say that my pleasure in Indianhood and my passion for car travel might be incongruous if not mutually exclusive.
Oan: She really, really sucks!
Oan [v/o]: [Showing a Wikipedia page for "Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress," under 1994: Uma Thurman's name appears in the nomination list, her name and film are circled] She was nominated for a Razzie in this and it's painfully hard not to miss why. [cut to Sissy, with her feet in the mud, holding two guns and shooting at the sky] It's not just that her keeps approaching Foghorn Leghorn.
[cut to Sissy in a fancy, slim, glittering dress, outside in front of a taxi cab]
Sissy: Oh, I've never ridden in a cab before. The whole idea of paying for a ride just makes my thumbs hurt.
Oan: [mocking her accent] Well, I do declare!!
Oan [v/o]: It's that her acting never approaches the actions of a human being.
Sissy: And I embody the spirit in my heart for hitchhiking ... I have the rhythms of the universe inside me.
Oan [v/o]: Though, to be fair, I think part of that is the script. Her lines aren't written like human speech. Listen.
[Cut to Sissy sitting on her bed eating watermelon slices and talking to another character (her name will be mentioned later in the episode.)]
Sissy: Now, you may claim that I have an unfair advantage, but no more so than Megensky, whose reputation as the world's most incomparable dancers untainted by the fact that his feet were ...
Oan [v/o]: It's a novel. Her lines are written like the prose of a novel. These lines feel like they're meant to be read, not spoken. It's descriptive and trivia-filled, like a proto-Chuck Palahnuik. And there's only so much you can do with a script like that before you devolve into sounding like a high school kid auditioning for a stage reading. Not that most of the other actors are any better, [showing the opening credits, listing all the A-list actors] and there are many, many other actors. Half of this film is this endless daisy-chain of crying out actors' names in surprise. [Each actor listed has at least one second of footage featuring them] Lorraine Bracco? Carol Kane? Roseanne Barr? Pat Morita? Ed Begley, Jr? Paul Lynde, I mean, um, John Hurt? Keanu Reeves? Heather Graham? Udo Kier? Author of "Naked Lunch," William S. Burroughs? That one guy I really don't feel like talking about [Crispin Glover, whose entire face is covered by a snail]? I don't know if they all just want to be involved in a Van Sant production or if they all had some affinity for the novel. I'm willing to bet the former. Keanu Reeves, after giving Van Sant one of the best performances of his career, [cut to clip of said actor in My Own Private Idaho] No, really, [cut back to "Cowgirls"] is given such a thankless role as a Native American dork who collapses with desire after meeting Sissy. He's setup as some potential love interest and dropped as one just as fast.
Oan: Also, Redface. [pause; Oan gives a unsure look]
Oan [v/o]: So, Keanu is just brushed aside along with most of the New York cast, Begley, Kane, that one guy, all of them, to make way for the real plot, feminine hygiene products.
Oan: The launching point of the film ... is the politics... of douching.
Oan [v/o]: John Hurt plays The Countess, who is the king ... slash queen of feminine hygiene products. I stand by my earlier Paul Lynde comparison.
Countess: You pathetic little cutesy-poos.
Oan [v/o]: Okay, follow along now. He is the owner of the Rubber Rose Ranch, named after his most successful douche bag. It just so happens to be in the migratory path for stock footage of whooping cranes. Sissy's modeled for him in the past, and so he sends her to the ranch in order to shoot an advertisement for a new douche bag. Said advertisement consists of Uma Thurman dressed like a whooping crane doing a mating dance, to sell douche bags.
Oan: [concerned] Gus, have your ideas ever felt, you know, [shrugs] not so fresh?
Oan [v/o]: All right, to be fair, this wasn't Van Sant's idea. He didn't write the book. Still, it's rather unusual to have a central motif be female crotch stank. The illumination of said body odor seems to be a metaphor for oppression.
Countess: Like a tuna fish's retirement party, they all stink from the Queen of England to Bonanza Jellybean.
Oan: You know, at first, I thought John Hurt had hit the bottle and started spouting random words. But no, it turns out, that's someone's name.
[Montage of characters mentioning that particular name]
Sissy: Bonanza Jellybean?
Sissy: [reading a note] Bonanza Jellybean.
Miss Adrian: With Bonanza Jellybean ...
Oan [v/o]: Bonanza Jellybean is a role that should have gone to Groucho Marx, on the name alone. She's played by the equally oddly-named Rain Phoenix, AKA the Phoenix sibling [cut to the opening credits, again. This time the text shows "For River."] with the least sad biography. She's leader of the group of lesbian cowgirls ...
Oan: Which sounds like a setup for a joke, but isn't.
Oan [v/o]: ... who are taking over the ranch by doing things like cattle-shooting, yoga, chicken hypnotizing, [pause; Bonanza grabs a chicken and whirls it around] Look at them go, and doing, above all, each other.
Debbie: I don't care who sleeps with who or where or how, but the moaners and the groaners and the screamers outta turn down their volume.
Oan [v/o]: When Sissy arrives, Bonanza Jellybean-
Oan: I will never get used to saying that.
Oan [v/o]: -this character explains her life goals.
Bonanza: I saw my first cowgirl in a Sears catalog. I was three. Up until then, I had only heard of cowboys. I've been teased by my classmates for some time about my particular fantasy.
Oan: Yes, Bonanza Jellybean's goal in life is to become the ideal cowgirl... Which is interesting, considering that her name is fitting for My Little Pony. [cut to a picture of a MLP version of character. It is browish-yellow with freckles on its nose, semi-long straight brown hair, blue eyes, and two jellybeans stamped near its rump. It also wears a white Stetson hat and two pairs of green round-toed cowboy boots. Its front legs stand on top of the words "Bonanza Jellybean." The theme from "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" plays. Cut back to Oan] Not, not a brony, so we're clear.
Bonanza: Cowgirls exist as an image, a fairly common one. The idea of cowgirls, especially for little girls, prevails in our culture. Therefore, it seems to me that the existence of cowgirls should prevail. And otherwise, they would be fooled.
Oan [v/o]: I'll be honest, the cowgirl idea is the most interesting part of the movie. Bonanza mentions ties to the myth of the Indian Gopi and their divine love for Krishna, but the concept has a much more contemporary vibe to it. I'll admit that researching this one was tough.
Oan: Mostly because Google searching "Lesbian Cowgirl" didn't get me anywhere.
Oan [v/o]: The ranch cowgirls allude to a concept of the feminist movements at the time. In May 1970, the Women's Conference was taken over by a group calling themselves Radicalesbians, one word. There, they read aloud a document titled "The Woman Identified Woman," whose opening sentence reads, [caption appears] "What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of women condensed to the point of explosion." The group argued that lesbian feminism ought to be the role model of women's liberation movement, since lesbians were freed from the influence of men. Traditional feminine roles were defined almost solely by their relationship to men, forever keeping them of subservient class. And as women who love women, so the thinking went, lesbians understood the need for having women define women's roles. The essay is considered a key document in the history of radical feminism and we see it in practice in the novel. A community of women, taking roles previously the exclusive domain to men and defining themselves socially, culturally, and sexually, creating new roles for women.
Oan: In short, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is a fascinating piece of radicalesbian fiction........ which was written by a man.
Oan [v/o]: The same reasoning can be taken to the body odor thing, casting feminine hygiene products as a way of suppressing natural femininity by men who disagree with it. [Cut to scenes with the Countess, as pictures of feminine hygiene products spin around and the screen dissolves black and red satuartion; the music playing is from Koyaanisqatsi] Sisters of the world, stare into the faces of your oppressors.
Countess: [slowed down] You pathetic little cutesy-poos.
Oan: And I bring that all up because, it's the only real explanation I can give for why they do ... this.
Bonanza: Go for it girls! [She steps aside to perform her act]
Miss Adrian: Go to your bunk house and stay there!
[All the cowgirls unfasten their belts and pull down their pants revealing their vaginas, which are censored by cats. The Countess and the party guests stare in disgust.]
Gloria: Better reach for your spray cans.
[All the cowgirls walk toward the party guests in protest and revenge, as the Countess plugs his nose.]
Bonanza: Not one of these pussies has been washed in a week.
Delores: Yah, smell this.
Oan [v/o]: [sarcastically] Yah, this is how feminism works, right? [next scene] So, using the power of crotch stank, they take over the ranch, leading Sissy to flee into the hills where she meets Pat Morita, playing a character whose name I refuse to repeat. [So do I]
[Cut to opening credits]
Narrator: ... known as The Chink, although apparently he was Japanese-American.
Oan [v/o]: There we go. [Anyway, back to the scene] Pat Morita plays the Yoda of the film, a refugee from a World War II internment camp who spends his time casually sleeping with the cowgirls, [Cut to the Morita character kissing Sissy] the lesbian cowgirls free of male influences.
Oan: [pinching between his eyebrows] Yah, forget anything I said about radical feminism, the movie doesn't really care.
Oan [v/o]: Of all the people in the movie, Pat Morita seems to have gotten screwed over the most. The original cut of this film debuted in 1993. And after getting thoroughly pounded by the critics, it was cut to ribbons in a desperate attempt to save this turd. Evidently, most of those ribbons were Morita's as a lot of his philosophizing about the life, the universe and everything were left out of the final cut. Which may be why so many of his lines don't seem to lead in to one another.
[Cut to Sissy and Morita sitting near a campfire at his den, at night.]
Morita: [remember, not repeating his character name] Well, I say you can dance to anything as long as you feel like dancing. [the scenes of him getting up and dancing are sped up. Caption reads: "30 seconds and one dance break later." The speeding up continues until Morita sits back down.] Sissy, the earth is alive.
Oan: And what remains of his philosophy convinces me that absolutely no amount of editing could save this one
Sissy: Then, what do you believe in?
Morita: Ha ha ........ ho ho....... hee hee.
[Cut to Sissy and Morita kissing.]
Oan [v/o]: So, for the lols, essentially.
Oan: But the thing that really drove me up the wall, the thing that made me really start weeping for everyone involved in this, is the climax. The final stand against the man.
Oan [v/o]: After the cowgirls take over the Rubber Rose Ranch, they decide to make a statement against the powers that be. It involves the whooping cranes. It involves stealing the whooping cranes.
Bonanza: [taking through a tape recorder] A patriarchal society does not deserve anything as grand and beautiful and wild and free as the whooping crane.
Oan: They take their local population of whooping cranes... hostage........ In the name of women's rights. It's like..... It's like kidnapping a live panda to stop offshore drilling.
[Cut to the White House, where the President talks to reporters about the said issue. Cut to the ranch where the cowgirls stand in front of the gate where a bunch of police cars and park rangers gather around.]
Oan [v/o]: And here's the clencher, it works. Somehow this becomes a federal issue. the National Guard blockades their ranch. And yah, part of that makes sense. A group of eco-terrorists abducting an endangered species, [cut to a table chart showing a decadely population of whooping cranes] whose total wild population in the 1970's numbered about, [a red circle goes over 1970 and 1980, which reads that about 56 to 76 whooping cranes existed.] oh, sixty, would certainly make news, [Cut back to footage of the film] but here, it's played up like it's womanhood's last stand. [Cut to a photo of radicalesbians protesting] In a country which only recently gone through Roe v. Wade, [Cut to a photo of a law Meritor Savings: Bank v. Vinson 477 US 57 (1986)] in a country which had yet to officially say that sexual harassment was, in fact, an illegal form of workplace discrimination, [Cut to a line chart, comparing weekly salary between women and men] which still hasn't guaranteed equal pay or equal work between genders [Cut back to the film] and they draw the line at not protecting the whooping crane.
[cut to the cowgirls at a picnic bench eating lunch, Sissy is eating a grilled cheese sandwich.]
Bonanza: Cowgirls give in to authority on this crane issue. Can cowgirls be come just another compromise?
Oan [v/o]: I'm not convinced this is all some heavily-coated screed against feminism as a whole. This is diving head-first into caricature.
Oan: And the stupidest thing about this .... has yet to be said.
Sissy: Why are the bird's nests in here?
Debbie: You're aware we were feeding them, weren't you? We feed them brown rice and they stood for a couple of extra days. Delores suggested another ingredient, I think that's what did the trick.
Sissy: You mean ...
Oan: [gives an intense glare for a couple of seconds and then calms down] Okay, peyote.
[Camille Saint-Saens's "Elephant" plays]
Debbie: The way I see it, the peyote mellowed them out.
Oan [v/o]: [pictue of a peyote plant is shown] Peyote is a drug, yes. It's not really a recreational drug. [Cut to two pictures of frat parties] It's not like you'll ever see college burn-outs hanging out in their friend's house on the weekends going, "Whoo! Peyote!" [Cut to Native American paintings of tribes using peyote.] It's a religious drug, primarily; used by Native American cultures for ritual purposes, supposedly to communicate with the spirits and such. [Fade to a psychedelic picture that changes color and changes size. The picture interlaces with footage of flying whooping cranes.] It is a powerful hallucinogen that doesn't really mellow you out. If anything, those cranes should be riving on the ground, paint the swamp with bird vomit, and wondering why there are spiders inside their eyeballs.
Bonanza: What do you mean, drugged? Every living thing has a chemical composition, and anything that is added to it changes that composition. [A warning alarm sounds along with the words "YOU ARE NOT HELPING" in huge red letters.] If you eat a cheeseburger or a Three Musketeers bar, it changes your body chemistry. The kind of food you eat, the kind of air you breathe, can change your mental state. Does that mean you're drugged?
Oan: Yes! [pause for a couple of seconds]
[Cut to a campire at night, where Delores makes a standing ovation for the others.]
Oan [v/o]: You know what the problem is? The tone. The tone of this movie is all over the map. Given everything that has happened up until this point, I don't know if I'm supposed to take this whole whooping crane thing seriously.
Delores: This is an extremely important confrontation. This is womankind's chance to prove to our enemy that she is willing to fight down! [Cowgirls cheer]
Oan: [scottish accent a la Braveheart] They may take our right to vote, plan a family, and receive the equal pay in the workplace, but they'll never take ... our ....... [normal accent] stoned endangered birds.
Oan [v/o]: This'll sound really trite to say, but all of this would only make sense on peyote.
[At that same scene, Bonanza and Sissy sleep in the same sleeping bag, naked. Sissy raises her thumb to the sky and controls a single distant meteor, which curves 65 degrees downward.]
Oan: [Having a loss of words] ......... Thumbs.
Oan [v/o]: The ending is an absolute dud as well. After coming down from their hive, the stock footage of whooping cranes does the logical thing and flees from the horrible mammal-beasts that brought the demon-food with them. The cowgirls stand down, Bonanza Jellybean gets shot, and there's a dull monologue involving a brown paper bag, which, again, sounds like it was lifted directly from the novel.
Oan: And it's a sad ending.... One that wasn't in the original script. But, since I have the shooting script right here, [pulls out the same book he had at the beginning of the video] I can look up what it originally was. [Starts reading from it. Cut to page of the script that shows the said original ending] Okay, "View inside the belly of Sissy's unborn baby. It is half-Japanese, one thirty-second Siwash and all thumbs." [cut to sissy and Morita kissing. Cut to Oan pulling his face away from the book and glaring at the camera. Pause.]
[Cut to trailer for the movie]
Oan [v/o]: This is a damn trainwreck, not just in the film's execution but probably in the novel's execution as well. It's a hodgepodge of stirred-up ideas which never coagulate to form a solid whole. It's not just silly, it's seven different brands of silly.
Oan: Half of this movie can be explained by shrugging and going, "Eh, it's the seventies." Well, the nineties trying to be the seventies, but still.
Oan [v/o]: It's dated. Hell, it was even dated when the film was made. Film's politics no longer apply. The social relevance died out with the hippies. Any poignancy it might have had is lost in the preposterousness. [high] But despite that, there's camp here. I suppose there is some value to recognize in that camp and all the lesbian cowgirls, drugged whooping cranes, crotch stank and thumb-waving that comes with it. At the end of the day, I'm a sucker for camp. So, just for the sheer ridiculousness in design, concept, and execution ...
Oan: Two thumbs up! [He then, literally pulls his thumbs up. Each of them have hot-dogs taped to them.]