Sunday, February 07, 2010

Whip It: Confused Anachronism or Fervent Nostalgia?

I called it the former in my review, but not all is terribly clear in Drew Barrymore's roller derby film. The story of Whip It! seems deliberately set in the '80s and peppered with careless anachronisms from the '00s. But you could look at it the other way: a story set in the '00s with a nostalgic '80s tone to it.

I've yet to read a single review that takes a side. The Real to Reel critic says, "I defy you you to figure out the time period of this movie," and leaves it at that -- probably the smart thing to do. But I wouldn't mind getting more closure if possible, and so I watched the film again and made a list of items which favor an '80s setting and an '00s setting. I've also noted certain comparisons to Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl which the film is based on, and which is unambiguously set in the '00s.

In favor of an '80s setting:
* Today's roller derby -- the grass-roots feminist incarnation reborn in the year 2000 -- doesn't involve as much brawling and bruises as portrayed in the film. There's some of that today, but not to the degree found in pockets of roller derby that were revived throughout the late '70s and '80s, which harked back to the "bloody derby" of the '60s.

* The songs heard in the actual narrative are from no later than the '80s. Bliss and Pash listen to The Ramones' "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" ('77) on the car radio, and they sing & dance to Dolly Parton's "Jolene" ('74) on the radio in the Oink Joint. Bliss' mother and sister sing to Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ('86) on the car radio. (In Shauna Cross' novel, "Jolene" is never mentioned, and the song heard by Bliss' mother and sister in the car is not by Whitney Houston, but Celine Dion from the late '90s. There's a lot of '00s music in the book -- The Hot Hot Heat, The Killers, etc. -- not found in the film. The only exception is the song played on Oliver's phonograph, on which see below.)

* The abundance of tank tops points to an '80s setting: Corbi's boyfriend, Bliss' father, the guy in the shower with Pash, and many others. (In Shauna Cross' novel, I didn't catch any reference to tank tops.)

* Bliss tells her mother to stop "shoving '50s womanhood down her throat", in response to her mother's claim that roller derby won't help her get into college or find a decent husband. This implies that Bliss' mother came of age in the '50s, which would make Bliss a teen of the '80s. (In Shauna Cross' novel, there is no remark about '50s womanhood and Bliss is clearly a teen of the '00s.)
In favor of an '00s setting:
* At the first roller derby game, the emcee announces: "Some of you may remember watching derby on TV back in the '70s, but it was reborn right here in the heart of Texas, a true Austin tradition." As I mentioned in my review, roller derby was reborn in Austin in the year 2000, not the '80s.

* When Oliver tells Bliss that it looks like she's wearing a Stryper shirt, she says, "Stryper? Yeah, '80s Christian heavy metal." This could be a reinforcement of the present -- as if to say, "Yeah, of course; this is the '80s: Christian heavy metal". But we later learn that the shirt was her mother's from many years ago, putting the '80s in the distant past.

* Oliver has a CD of his band's music. CDs came out in the mid-'80s, of course, but the plastic casing of the CD-ROM looks distinctly '00s, like the dime-a-dozen used by everyone these days for home recording purposes.

* Common internet use makes an '80s setting impossible. Bliss surfs Oliver's website at school, and Bliss' father uses Google (born in '98) to search for videos of Bliss and roller derby.
In favor of an '80s and '00s setting at the same time:
* Oliver has a phonograph and zillions of record albums, plus his shelf on the left contain cases that look like audiocassettes (not CDs). It's true that he's a musician and that some audiophiles today continue to prefer record players, but they're in the minority, and vinyl is hard to come by. Audiocassettes, of course, are completely passe. On the other hand, the record which Bliss plays is by Little Joy -- the song "Unattainable", which is from '08. So this item counts toward either time period.
In other words, the film is a mess. But if we have to choose, I think it makes more sense to see Whip It! as an anachronism set in the '80s, rather than a nostalgia set in the '00s. The '80s items are very deliberate (Barrymore didn't mistakenly throw in tank tops, old music on the radio, and a mother mired in her '50s values), while the '00s cues are so commonplace and things we take for granted that they just seem like careless injections -- so much that I didn't even notice them on first viewing. The scenes involving the internet were probably carried over from Shauna Cross' novel by sheer necessity. How else was Bliss supposed to discover that her boyfriend was cheating on her miles away? How else was her father supposed to see her in action on the skating rink, thus prompting him to reconsider allowing her to play in the league championship? And let's not forget what Whip It! is really about at heart: Drew Barrymore's love for '80s films, themes, and settings, which she was evidently trying to portray.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

So it's basically an 80s period piece with more than the usual anachronisms?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

That's my take, yes.

Anonymous Dan Ochwat said...

A solid effort to try and place it for us! Good post and thanks for reading my review. I will revisit the movie and will be fun to pick out the eras. I think what adds to the confusion is these characters are very much modern-day hipsters, too. Hipsters where vintage t-shirts in almost a mock-appreciation of the decades before them. So you see her in her mother's shirt and think this could be a 2000s hipster. She plays a lot of indie rock over the soundtrack, which also gives off this current hipster vibe. It's really confusing stuff.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia was one of the websites on the computers at school. And wikipedia launches in 2001 so there is your answer. It was driving me crazy watching the movie myself and trying to figure it out.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Good catch with the Wikipedia. Yet another anachronism.

Blogger Laura said...

Honestly, I think it is intended to be set in the 00's with just a retro feel. A prevalence of tank tops doesn't really allude to anything...I am a teen of the 00's and tank tops were all over the place, as was colored hair, fishnets and striped socks, and 80's T-shirts, music, vinyl and yes...casettes. As for her mother's "50's" kinda of upbringing, my mom is about the same age as the mother in the film and had the same kind of upbringing, despite being born in the 1960's. That just a matter of family values and personality, not really time period.
Also, the roller derby in the film is much more underground. I used to go watch the salt lake derby girls, but they had radio endorsements and all that. The teams in whip it almost seemed like they were competing much more "in secret" (warehouse and everything, kicked out by cops, etc), hence there was more leeway in how they play.

I have to say, watching the movie, nothing alluded 80's to me at all. All the "anachronisms" I noticed seemed to me to be nothing more than the side effect of living in a small town. The smaller the town the more rooted in previous decades things are, unless you live in Salt Lake. Then it's 1980's all the time ;)

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks Laura. That's a good point about small towns clinging to aspects of previous generations.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its obvious its in the 00's because the mom used a modern cell phone when they were in the head shop when she called the dad.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its a combination i was chatting with Drew the other day and she said that it was hard to buy things from the 80's witch is when she thought it should be set.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Drew also said that although she wanted it to be in the 80's the book was in the 00's so she decided to make it 00's but with a really retro feel.



Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for your comments, Izzybel. The more I've thought about it over the past year, it does seem right that the film is set in the '00s with a retro feel. So my initial hunch was apparently wrong, especially if Drew herself says so.

BTW, you may enjoy my tribute to Ellen.

Blogger JKMG said...

The "Keep Austin Weird" culture here in Austin is such that you will all different kinds of people here that you wouldn't typically see anywhere else in the state. Take a walk down South Congress or any other hot spots and you will feel that 80's vibe and nods to Retro culture alive and well even today ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

During the Blue Bonnet mother-daughter brunch scene, at the beginning Bliss's mom shows Bliss her picture on the wall, and it's dated '1981'.

If her mom was a beauty queen in 1981, it makes it pretty hard for this to be set in the 80's.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Good catch.

Blogger TinaRose said...

Plus if you look at all of the cars they're modern versus retro.

Blogger Becki C. said...

There is a scene that takes place in front of an Alamo Drafthouse Theater, which seems like a very deliberate placement. Alamo Drafthouse started in 1997.


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