ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #6: Baby It’s You)

Baby It’s You
John Sayles, Director (1983)

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[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]

The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.

The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.

Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.

At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.

If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Always a heady place to be, that.

I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.

It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”

I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.

What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?

Nothing, actually.

Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.

And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.

But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.

And the more it’s possible for us to care.

I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!

So, no, not imperative. But possible.

Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.

And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.

I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.

The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.

Disorienting to say the least.

Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.

I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.

So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.

But it doesn’t get under my skin.

Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.

Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”

Those little half-pauses are everything.

This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.

And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?

Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.

Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.

The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?

And vice versa.

The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.

We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).

Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.

His father isn’t a doctor.

He isn’t applying for college.

The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.

What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.

He is as it turns out.

And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.

After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!

But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.

So how does she relate anyway?

Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:

“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.

“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.

“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.

Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.

But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.

So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?

It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.

Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).

Upshot?

That future is all they can lose.

This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.

Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.

Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.

It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.

Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.

Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.

Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.

To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.

That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.

It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.

“Maybe…” that face says.

Maybe what?

Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”

Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?

Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.

Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.

Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.

And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.

Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.

I think I’ll try to get up now.

Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.

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2 thoughts on “ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #6: Baby It’s You)

  1. JR

    I tripped over John Sayles in 1984 with BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, one of the most amazing movies about prejudice/racism I have ever seen. I saw most of his next few movies (all at the very least, interesting) then lost track. I don’t believe that I have seen BABY IT’S YOU and, alas, our library does not have a copy to borrow . . .

  2. Ah well, it’s available cheap on amazon if you swing that way (being penurious and broke myself I can understand if not but I do highly recommend it)…I liked Brother from Another Planet at the the time but I’ve never revisited it….My general John Sayles reaction, actually. I think seeing this one again has made me think I should revisit a few of his other movies and get to know the new ones as well. He always seemed a little too careful to me, but I might be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time!

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