Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Screwballs (1983)

The one thing that becomes readily apparent when one enters high school is that everyone is in a clique of some sort or another.  And as broad and dismissive as it may be to say it, they really are as we’ve come to expect from pop culture.  You have your nerds, your jocks, your loads, your punks (Goths, whatever), and so on.  Most people, however, are not defined solely by the company they keep nor by the seemingly self-defined, self-limiting rules ascribed by their social status, so they can, will, and should associate with those outside their clique, at least on some level.  What’s interesting is that once one gets out of high school, one discovers that cliques carry on through college, into the work place, and they even run the world (shocking, I know).  It’s all a part of man’s tribal nature.  We gravitate to those who either share our personal belief systems or seem to have the most to offer us (or a combination of both).  Of course, this isn’t meant as a blanket statement.  There are exceptions to every rule.  But I think that even a person engaging with the broadest spectrum of societal cliques recognizes that these do exist, and that they, in fact, belong to them, even if they belong to a lot of them.  Thus do we come to the main characters of Rafal Zielinski’s Screwballs.  I don’t think anything else needs be said (but I’m going to say it, anyway).

Five high school horndogs, jock Rick (Peter Keleghan), rich boy Brent (Kent Deuters), nerd Howie (Alan Deveau), slob Melvin (Jason Warren), and new kid Tim (Jim Coburn), all find themselves in detention because of the cruel manipulations of the snotty, virginal Purity Busch (Linda Speciale).  The five disparate youths vow to get a glimpse of Purity’s boobies before the Homecoming dance and set about making it happen.  Hilarity is supposed to ensue.

The Teen Sex Comedy has a long tradition, and following in the popular trend in youth-oriented media of the time (think Happy Days, Porky’s, The Wanderers, etcetera), Screwballs is a period piece.  Outside of the window dressing (and scant though that dressing is due to budgetary constraints), the film doesn’t feel of the Fifties.  This is really neither here nor there, since it’s so focused on its grabassery, you would never notice the disparities.  Despite the film’s more graphic sexual references (throbbing erections [yes, really], blunt character monikers, female nudity), it is little more than a collection of misadventures along the lines of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon or a silent comedy of the Twenties.  We don’t need more development of the characters or the plot than what we’re given, because none of it matters.  This is the broadest of broad comedies in the vein of a turd in a punch bowl.  Characters have names like Jerkovski, Howie Bates (get it?), and Sara Bellum (before The Powerpuff Girls).  The librarian silences people who use sign language in her library.  The school is referred to as T&A High (named after Presidents William Taft and John Adams, natch).  The film lacks any of the sophistication of its aforementioned ancestors.  In a way, this makes Screwballs almost critique-proof.  You can’t truly complain about its prurient interest or its unsubtleties, because the only reason it exists is to give fourteen-year-old boys hard-ons  (witness the fascination with and multiple closeups on women’s lips, tongues, and breasts) and make them giggle at humor that would likely still make fourteen-year-old boys groan.  Yet, there are some things at play underneath because of its base, primal makeup.

Comedy and Horror share a lot of common traits, perhaps the most prevalent being the attention given to obvious set-up and payoff scenarios.  So, in Comedies like this we have things like Howie setting up an elaborate series of mirrors just to see up the skirts of the school’s girls.  Similarly, in Horror films, we have lone characters walking through excessively dark spaces.  Both build tensions on simple expectations and then pay them off by fulfilling or subverting those expectations (and if you’ve seen enough of either, those subversions can be rare).  Nonetheless, Screwballs very intentionally uses Horror-type images to play as humor.  Bootsie (co-writer Linda Shayne) finds herself (and more importantly her breasts) pushed against the rear window of a van as she screams and struggles in vain.  Melvin rises out of the beach like a member of the living dead.  A girls’ gym class feign being hypnotized and march, arms out, like zombies.  Most telling on a subtextual level is the scene where Purity cuts into and eats a sausage, while the lads wince in sympathy pain.  

Along those same lines, the plot of the film is a Revenge tale.  Purity is the antagonist, and she delights in tormenting everyone around her by getting them into trouble for following their natural instincts.  The other characters are all fascinated by her, because she’s a virgin, and in a way, this is the sin she commits (combined with her attitude of superiority) that garners the indignation of her peers (and something which would signify her as a Final Girl in a Slasher movie of this era).  For being slighted, the boys seek revenge, and the route they choose to achieve it is through Purity’s humiliation.  This seems sort of lopsided, since none of the boys seem in any way humiliated themselves in how they came to be in detention.  If anything, they are proud of how they got there.  In fact, it seems like a regular occurrence in their scholastic careers.  What they are miffed about is that they got caught at all.  

For all her haughtiness, Purity is little different from everyone else, and she has the same urges they do.  She simply represses them, making her shenanigans something of a werewolf motif (work with me on this).  This is illustrated in the scene where, while deep in dreamland, she hits on and dry humps her oversized teddy bear.  It serves to knock her down a peg and almost even humanizes her in the eyes of the audience, but it doesn’t absolve her misbehavior.  So, like Larry Talbot, she has to be proverbially clubbed with a silver-headed cane.  Purity may be a human in private, but she is a monster in public.  The cost is her chaste public image.  Even though she doesn’t lose her virginity, her exposure comes close, because now everyone has seen what she has held back.  It somehow feels anticlimactic, since there are so many naked boobs throughout the film, another pair really doesn’t seem all that special.  I’ll leave it to you to compare and contrast, if you like.

MVT:  There is pulchritude in excess herein, and if your life has been short of this, then Screwballs is the perfect remedy.

Make Or Break:  The opening scene is the Make.  Bootsie and Rhonda (Terrea Smith) are hanging a sign outside the local diner.  Meanwhile, a giant inflatable sausage flops thither and yon between them, poking both lasses in the nethers.  Really says it all, doesn’t it?

Score:  6/10     

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