Thursday, May 03, 2007

We Have No Bananas: Joke Structure in CANDY STRIPERS (1978)

Exploding Kinetoscope : Work Safe as always!

The adult film shares a key structural element with the musical, the slasher film, and action films. These genres work toward setpieces of their particular raison d'être, respectively sex scenes, songs, murder and action sequences. Adult films as a dominant genre, like musicals and action films, are defined by the form of their content, their format free of iconography, story requirements, tone and stock characters and situations. Additionally, the genre is reception-based, and like the children's film or the women's picture, partially identifiable and bound by requirement and agreement to fulfill certain expectations of its audience; of course the family film makes implicit promise about what boundaries will not be transgressed, while the adult film requires nothing more than the presence of explicit unsimulated sexual activity. From this perspective, there are ways adult film affords a storyteller less latitude than story-identified genres like whodunnits and disaster films. This all seems self-evident, but my purpose is to consider a few of the problems and possibilities dealt to the creative personnel by this generic conundrum. On one hand, the required moments of spectacle in format defined genres make them particularly rigid: if there aren't musical numbers, it's not a musical, and if there isn't graphic sex, isn't an adult film. On the other hand, they are the genres most ripe with possibility for blending with plot-oriented or iconography-based genres. Like solid crystal vases delivered with no flowers, the format genres are not only open forms for any content, but require such bolstering for their completion. Narrative adult films are necessarily blended genre films.

And so we consider the case of Candy Stripers, directed by AVN Hall of Famer Bob Chinn, who made at least eight other features in 1978, including the loony Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls. Like Pizza Girls, Candy Stripers is a zany workplace comedy... and more specifically, a common '70s scenario about service industry businesses whose female staff ends up getting horizontal with the clientelle. This sounds pretty specific, but Candy Stripers is of a family with Hot Rackets (1979) and Taxi Girls (1979). However, while Pizza Girls goes a bit higgledy-piggledy by incorporating parodic noir and slasher elements, Candy Stripers is a model of the antiauthoritarian workplace comedy, albeit skeletal and pornographic.

Ideally, filmmakers may accept the preordained sequences of spectacle as dramatic highlights around which to build a story. That story may be clarifying justification for the threaded-together string of songs/sex scenes/car chases. Those sequences may be treated as if suspended in a rarified space, and a story must be unobtrusively shoehorned around them. The road-marker requirements of the genre may be treated as an obstacle course in which the pleasure is navigating a successful course between bright orange cones ("how can I justify the next song/orgy/explosion?"). This is not to imply a qualitative judgement of these approaches: they're all potentially valid ways to get the job of story-making done. The only Bad Choice is if the writer, director, performers, should ever feel they are slogging through the boring parts to get to the fun stuff, lest the audience feel the same way.

Behind the Janitor Closet Door: The Outrageous Beneath the Mundane

The most difficult trick is to build in these genres without rendering either those Main Attraction scenes as tangential, as interludes to the other, or narrative roadblocks. In short: it is a tougher job to make a porn movie in which the story doesn't stop for the sex. That may be common sense, but while there are no limits to the stories one can tell with a dozen sexual encounters as natural plot points, it is a dire problem for the porn comedy. A choice has to be made between stopping the jokes for several minutes, or sabotaging the audience's expected pleasure by shooting funny sex scenes. Where soft-core satirist Russ Meyer and hardcore Golden Age maestro Alex de Renzy ultimately make anti-erotica by turning their sex scenes into outrageous jokes, in Candy Stripers, Bob Chinn and screenwriter Dean Rogers instead heighten the conventions of the bawdy farce to give purpose and shape to their porn movie... and vice versa.

The central strategy for incorporating hardcore sequences into the narrative of Candy Stripers is that in the abstract the plot is identical to a mainstream sex comedy. It is the last day of work for Sharon (Nancy Hoffman, also in de Renzy'sPretty Peaches that year, and the similar Taxi Girls the next), who, with her party girl pals Pam (Amber Hunt) and Cindy (Chris Cassidy, billed as Montana), is employed as a candy striper at the local hospital. The medical facility is entirely staffed and in service of perfectly healthy young swingers, all of whom have no duties or recuperation to do besides getting hot and heavy in mix-n-match combinations. The only wet blanket is tight-ass 'Striper supervisor Sarge (Sharon Thorpe), who has a full time job just keeping her staff out of the patients' beds. The impending excitement of a farewell party for Sharon, the possibility of romance during an after-shift date between Pam and Dr. George (Joey Silvera, billed as Joey Nassivera), and the constant cat-and-mouse games with Sarge provide the thrust of the narrative; the farce premise itself, and all the major story threads are centered on sexuality to begin with, so they are natural fit.

Candy Stripers' master-joke structure is the reveal that beneath the surface of all daily-grind mundaneness bubbles a constant, irrepressible outrageous spirit. Usually that takes the form of sex but it is repeated in permutations great and small throughout. That is the promise of the premise, which turns a sterile, stultifying hospital environment into a flesh carnival. That is the fantasy of the Candy Stripers, who act like they're in a hospital room to deliver magazines, and help patients pee into specimen jars, but end up wrecking the sheets. The film's opening scene announces this pattern, as Cindy chats blithely on the phone in bed before work, even as the hideous blankets part to reveal George preoccupied with other matters.

The bulk of the sex scenes begin with various patients stuck in the doldrums of hospital life, until the Candy Stripers arrive. But the film also uses its resources for punchy cutaway sight gags which aren't atypical jokes in themselves, but can be be executed in a less coy, more outrageous manner. As in M*A*S*H the rudeness of the humor is an asset in a comedy about rebellion in a stultifying environment. So when Sarge stalks through the halls, hunting Sharon for morning role call, it's a sure bet that behind the janitor supply closet door, Sharon's on her knees in front of Dr. Bishop (Richard Pacheco). Complete with wacky music and Dutch angles, these gags are delivered like a Three's Company scene in which rather than "this is not what it looks like!", it really was what it looked like.

Running Gag Reflex: Character Development and Repeating Patterns

Nurse Allen (Lauren Black) and Nurse Reynolds (Mimi Morgan) don't seem to have any duties besides hanging out at the counter; they banter about patients and gossip about staff, until the chit-chat scene is abruptly punctured by a reveal of the source of Nurse Allen's good mood: Sharon, arguably the dumbest, inarguably the horniest of the Candy Stripers, is concealed beneath the nurse's station desk and between Nurse Allen's legs.

The gag is repeated pretty much verbatim several scenes later, but with the nurses switched. The structure is the same as the closet gag, with Sharon's eager-beavering hidden from Sarge's view behind the hospital's professional veneer; Sarge ponders where the girl could be, but declares "Sharon will do anything with anyone at any time." The audience, staff and patients all see this confirmed - mere inches under Sarge's pointy nose - but as Sarge sneers with disgust, the expression on the nurse's face makes it clear that Sharon's hospitality is a virtue, and Sarge's bedside manner is making her miserable.

Delayed Climax: Tantric Banana Humor

Pity poor Mrs. Rogers, a lonlely lady patient portrayed by effervescent Exploding Kinetoscope favorite Phaedra Grant! For she misses her absent husband, who sends naught but a fruit basket to wish her well. If we think we can see where this is headed, we are correct - except those doubters who may not think Candy Stripers will "go there". Indeed, just as Mrs. Rogers (did the screenwriter name this character after himself? Or his wife? Or mother?), lies in wait for physical gratification, her storyline is Candy Stripers's most prolonged joke of delayed payoffs. The Rogers fruit basket sits on the nurse station counter in an earlier scene, awaiting both delivery, and the opportunity to be the subject of suggestive remarks from the nurse's about how nice the bananas look... and double-entendre-oblivious banana-ogling from Sarge. At last 'Striper Cindy delivers the phallic fruit (and Cassidy nearly knocks the phone off the table in the process), while depressed Mrs. Rogers laments that it will be her only company... But from the second they appear, the bananas are the target of nothing but dirty jokes.

Eventually, after enough scenes that we may have forgotten the lure of produce, Mrs. Rogers is about to finally Peel Slowly And See... only to be disrupted by Sarge, asking if she may sample some of the fruit. Mrs. Rogers concedes, mostly to get Sarge out of her room, as she's frozen under the sheet, banana split. Sarge ignores protests not to take the last banana, and clearly has no designs on the banana but to eat it. The Sarge will not sample the forbidden fruit.

Yet more trials for the Chiquita lady, as Cindy returns to her room... to administer a sponge bath. Already driven to desperation, already the butt of Candy Stripers' delayed joke climax, Mrs. Rogers' terrified face-off with Cindy is a highlight of the film's situational comedy, while mainstream films might, oh, say, play the scene as a joke about being caught having sex with food. The shock-comedy of hardcore banana-love is the starting point for Candy Stripers' comedy, and there is ample time to recover from the image - multiple scenes worth of time - and the tender payoff, as Cindy takes pity on Mrs. Rogers, is something more than a punchline.

And for those unsold on Ms. Grant, check out her how she channels her fear and embarrassment into fake anger and indignation when Cindy wants to pull back the sheet, even though she's the one with the Cavendish cultivar between her legs.

Convergance: Come Together

Several of Candy Stripers' running gags coalesce in the moment at left. Sharon is out of sight, happily going down on Nurse Allen, as opposing-force Sarge stands center and fully visible, kvetching about her girls, even as they exercise their talent in making people happy. The fruit basket watches impassively from the countertop.

Archetype De(con)struction: Broads, Acting

Sharon confronts her nemesis in the final showdown. When Sarge storms into O.R. to break up the late night, illegal goodbye party, in big, color-bursting close up, Sharon asks her ex-boss: "Were you always such a prude?!" While Candy Stripers depicts the 'Stripers cheering up patients in before-during-and-after vignettes, their ultimate challenge has been before them the entire time. Can Sarge be saved?

It is the comic sourpuss' eternal function to either be destroyed, or kicked into reversed. Witness Grumpy in Snow White, Eddie Valient in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, the entire town in Pollyanna; confronted with so much Eros, Thanatos can't beat 'em, and thus joins 'em. Weeping "a prude?! Is that what you all think of me?!" Sarge chugs down a glass of booze that looks suspiciously like water, tears off her glasses and lets down her hair. It may be the predictable cardboard-villain arc for any obviously pretty woman forced into ugly character glasses and hairpins, but Candy Stripers toys with this expectation as only a porn movie can: Sharon Thorpe doesn't appear nude or in sex scenes until the climactic all-cast orgy.

Elsewhere and intercut, back at Pam's pad, her hopes for a nice date with George are dashed when he strips immediately on entering the bedroom. She expresses sadness for a moment - "I expected something more romantic", she says, and he responds by dimming the lights. But she beds down with him anyhow. Pam and George's unromantic tryst is the only sex scene in Candy Stripers that involves disappointment; the pathos comes from reversal of all the patterns the comedy has been built on. On Pam and George's date, it is the Candy Striper whose needs require tending to, but there is no one there for her, and so in the search for the spirit of romance, Pam finds the serviceable but mundane.

Paying off the joke personas that define their characters, the Candy Stripers (with assist by the patients) commit the grand finale of the orgy by ravishing Sarge on the operating table; the girls' healing positive energy makes Sarge's transformation complete. Both mirroring George's emotional uselessness in Pam's bed, and confirming that the 'Stripers are the true healers of character in the piece, Dr. Bishop is reduced to a slobbering, giggling moron who sits in a wheelchair gawking at the ladies and drunkenly making out with an oxygen tank cradled in his arms. All he can do is gawk at the women, alternately laughing and crying (I do not exaggerate to make a point here!), one of the final sterile facades of Candy Stripers to crack and reveal the outrageous beneath.

In the final scene, the nurses are back at their station, the outward pretense of normalcy restored to the hospital. Sharon's replacement (played by one-timer Bron White) reports for duty, clueless and apparently straightlaced. The nurses eye the new girl skeptically as she sashays off down the corridor and drops her binder. But Candy Stripers reconfigures its primary joke premise in meaningful ways up to the end, new punchline, new girl. In the last frames, the girl in the freshly pressed uniform flips up her skirt for the simple hell of it, and the credits roll on a screen-filling freeze frame of her butt.


jpb said...

Great work, here especially but all over the place more generally.

Krantzstone said...

You're making me want to watch this movie now... and not just for a few minutes with my date Palmela.