Monday, February 05, 2007

Lovefest '07: #9. This is Janet! She's a Phenomenon!

Jessica Harper in Shock Treatment (1981)

Janet Majors performs the song "Me of Me" on the DTV network "Breakfast Show", a self-promotion showstopper that in the context of Shock Treatment's perverse satire of media, American idolatry and wholesomeness itself, becomes the film's most chilling anthem of destruction and loss. Harper performs "Me of Me" at full tilt, vamping and purring the sultry verses, and bellowing and growling the rumbling chorus: "Me, me!/ Me, me me!/ Me me me!" She mugs and pouts into the camera, wiggles through a set consisting only of amorphous fog-machine smoke and Greek columns, then demolishes the in-film fourth wall, invading the seating area of the studio audience. The studio itself is the only real world that exists in Shock Treatment, and the DTV cameramen whirl about into that reality-warping space, pinned helplessly to Janet as she single-handedly expands the perimeters of The Breakfast Show to make more elbow room for her own star gone supernova. Janet runs through the set as she performs, becomes a nonspecific, all-encompassing Me, demolishing the set's only solid vector points of reality by knocking over the pillars, and finally wrenching the electric guitar from the hands of the house band. Her face fills the screen as she stares at herself multiplied visually on the studio monitors; Janet's image becomes the only image. As she takes over the diegetic guitar without missing a beat, she consumes/becomes the soundtrack's only sound.

In a film so concerned with image-making, such a display of magnetic performance, self-confidence, and shamelessness should look, sound, and feel like a triumph, a flowering for Janet, who begins the film in the DTV audience, identity half-defined by dismay toward her pathetic, awkward and confused husband Brad (Cliff De Young). But "Me of Me" rather than being the moment in which Janet Finds Herself, is the scene in which she loses her Self entirely.

The same character, previously played by Susan Sarandon, underwent a superficially similar transformation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Janet started in a pastel Sunday dress, ended in feather boa, corset and fishnets, lost her innocence three times over and consumed human flesh. But Janet's RHPS journey is one of liberation, moving from naivete, repression and simple doldrums to knowledge (erotic and otherwise), sensual awakening, and the excitement of personal agency. Rocky Horror, though, is about keeping an overdeveloped Super-Ego in check, Shock Treatment documents the perils of a rampaging Ego. In Shock Treatment, Janet doesn't discover empowerment, capability and confidence; she is used, conned and tricked until she's dissolved away in a Narcissus Pool of solipsism. DTV sponsor Farley Flavors has machinated to exploit Janet's natural girl-next-door charms for reasons of personal vendetta, and a profiteering agenda of selling his deeply unbalanced vision of mental health as a consumer product. For approximately 48 hours, Janet becomes ensconced in the endless maze of utterly content-free DTV programs, all of which star the same few performers, all referring back to the other programs, all openly advertising each other, sometimes showing episodes on TV sets within other shows. The DTV programming schedule melts into itself: one big show about absolutely nothing. So Janet is cajolled into promoting herself on talk shows, soaps starring her parents, and game shows, all apperances entirely to plug more apperances, on the promise that her meteoric rise to stardom will improve the mental health of the wayward Brad, who's been institutionalized in the DTV medical drama Dentonvale.

Janet plays along for Brad's sake, Jessica Harper knitting her inch-thick eyebrows with worry. Slowly — or is it quickly? — she's caught up in the idiocy and madness, stops puzzling over what she's supposed to do on TV, and believes the hype: I make fabulous TV because I'm inherently fabulous. "Me of Me" is the echo-chamber not just of celebrity culture and media autocannibalism, but the fatalist result of following "I think, therefore I am" to its logical conclusion. Janet will eventually escape redeemed, but in "Me of Me" Harper shows us a woman diving headfirst into a black hole. Janet is transformed, but transformed into what? Harper's small, round face is masked with bone-white pancake makeup, hair hidden under a flying saucer hat, widening her high forehead even more, and her dinner-plate-sized dark eyes become glistening black voids; Harper's strange, lovely face is transformed into a dolled-up death's head. She's got the strongest set of pipes ever to tackle Richard O'Brien's tunes, and though much of Shock Treatment's dialogue is, if not non sequitur, a sort of semi-sequitur, it's spooky as Harper sings with increasing throaty passion as the lyrics make less and less sense as anything but masturbatory nihilistic fantasy: "I'd never lie to me!/ I'd be willing to die for moi!/ I pray every day to me!" Janet's empathy for Brad is annihilated in "Me of Me", her motivation no longer to save her husband but sheer selfishness.

When Jessica Harper rocks "Me of Me" with total hell-bent abandon, it's a scene about Janet abandoning her true self. She's a phenomenon!

1 comment:

L. Rob Hubb said...

Great analysis!