Moments of sartorial significance, and that glimmer of recognition that we feel upon seeing an onscreen outfit worn more than once are found throughout Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s underseen 1986 adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates short story. The film is rife with all the monotony of life and charming ensembles we expect of a teenage girl in the summer, yet it simultaneously offers complexity and creepiness. Laura Dern plays Connie, an ingénue spending her days as an “unfinished girl, waiting for completion of some sort” (Quart 74). In her essay, “Smoothing Out the Rough Spots: The Film Adaptation of ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Rebecca Sumner discusses some of the costumes in Smooth Talk (as designed by Carol Oditz) in the midst of a larger argument of how well the film functions as an adaptation. She writes that Connie’s wardrobe is “not sufficiently versatile to communicate different things depending on where it is worn” (Lupack 88). The capacity of fashion to “communicate different things” in different locations is an important lesson often learned in adolescence. What matters is not so much whether Connie’s outfits are “sufficiently versatile” as the fact that her efforts to “communicate different things” through fashion are given screen time at all.
After a day out with friends, which ends with the discovery of Frank’s, the classic Americana burger joint hangout that glimmers with the potential for teenage summer fun, Connie goes home. In a long take that serves no narrative purpose outside of showing Connie’s private moment of self-fashioning, we see her fumble and pose in front of a full-length mirror as she tries on a cropped white lace-up halter. The scene has no dialogue, but as she adjusts the skimpy top, we can practically hear her asking, “How do I look?” and imagining responses to flirtatious boys. As she twirls and tosses her hair, we hear the rustling of her movements, the twangy instrumental music and the crickets outside. We note that she is still wearing the jumpsuit she had on earlier in the day, it is just folded now so she can see how the halter looks and get a sense of whether or not she should wear it to Frank’s. It’s likely Connie has just purchased the top or been saving it for a special occasion. This trying-on scene is short and intermediate. It is not a moment of drama, but the images are integral to the narrative because they are shown and thus given more attention than would be expected.
The idea of finding one’s self, of being able to label one’s identity, is often overvalued during the adolescent years. In this scene Connie is not finding herself so much as making herself, and this familiar teenage feeling manifests itself when she tests the versatility of her wardrobe. Sumner writes that Connie’s corset “looks as provocative at home as it does at the drive in” (Lupack 88). This may be true, indeed we can tell that the shirt is meant to be sexy, particularly when Connie turns around to reveal its open back, but Sumner downplays the significance of dressing to Connie’s personhood. Yes, Connie wants to look provocative, but Chopra allows us to see the thought process behind this desire. The “insufficient versatility” of Connie’s wardrobe may be a subtle way of adding depth to her character; if her wardrobe were versatile, if she had a sexy outfit for every occasion, the slight insecurity implicit as she performs for herself in front of the mirror would not be quite so authentic.
After Connie has finished fiddling with the halter we cut to an exterior of her house and then fade to a medium shot with friend, Laura, their backs to the camera. Now Connie wears a baseball shirt. The inference is she decided against the corset, claiming it to be too risqué after all. When the shot moves to show the girls from the front, Laura teasingly tells Connie to take off her modest shirt. Connie protests, saying, “Look, tomorrow night I’ll wear the halter. Tonight we should just check it out.” Laura continues to tease her, saying, “Don’t you love me? C’mon, take off your blouse!” and “C’mon Connie baby…” until she frustratedly agrees, “OK!” and takes the shirt off. Laura’s teasing is good natured and comes across as a teenage girl’s parody of the male gaze. Her leering, sing-song tone suggests that she knows the way teenage boys act, and finds it silly. At the same time, though, she likely wants to experience this kind of attention, and knows all the while how fashion plays into it. The scene reads as one of adolescent girl insecurity that is typically left off-screen in favor of romanticisation of the teenage temptress. Sumner, however, does not find this level of nuance. Rather, she writes that:
‘Connie covers the token of her femininity with an appropriated symbol of adolescent masculinity. Lest we think, however, that Chopra is conveying a message about gender identity, she reminds us that Connie is really still a child: in shedding the baseball shirt as she prepares to enter the sexualized adult world of Frank’s, Connie inadvertently gets ice cream on her nose.’ (Lupack 88)
While it is refreshing to see a critic who takes a closer look at Connie’s sartorial self, it seems that Sumner seeks to find a meaning in the shirt that is not there, or does not have to be attributed to it. Yes, the baseball shirt is “an appropriated symbol of adolescent masculinity,” but it is not necessarily a flaw in Chopra’s filmmaking that she does not use it to convey a “message about gender identity.” The baseball shirt already takes on meaning, without being explicitly presented as a signifier of gender identity, by virtue of the fact that the previous scene showed Connie vamping (or perhaps more accurately, practicing vamping) in front of the mirror. There’s a process that Chopra is interested in showing, and Connie’s act of looking at herself, and considering how she will be looked at by others, gives the shirt meaning beyond simply being a masculine signifier. These two garments, the halter and the baseball shirt, are objects that Connie has invested in with a personal significance. Here the fashion object embodies what Quart calls an “endless working away at appearances” (70), an essential part of girlhood in countless images and texts.
In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Connie’s blouse is described as looking “one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home.” Much screen time in Smooth Talk, certainly more narrative space than in the short story, is given to elaboration on this sentiment. The different looks Connie has for home and away are not purely superficial. She does not just go from dressing like a good girl to a bad girl; if she did this, the film would be far less intriguing. Rather, her dressing shows her all too familiar adolescent trepidation about looking and being looked at, and developing a personal style. As Oates describes, “Everything about her had two sides to it,” (36) and these two sides are literalised in the halter and the baseball shirt—the objects with which Connie fashions her femininity as she wants it to be seen. In her essay, “Sonia Rykiel in Translation,” Hélène Cixous talks about a dress that “contains in its bosom life in the process of reconstituting itself” (Benstock and Ferriss 99). A French feminist theorist may seem out of place in discussion of a film often dismissed as a “didactic betrayal of feminist principles” (Dickinson 212), but what better pop image of Cixous’ elegantly phrased quote can we find than Connie’s halter, and all the complex possibilities of new selves that are tangled in its white, laced up fabric?
“Is That the Way You Look?”
The shopping mall in pop culture has always been a place where teenagers go to express themselves and fritter away the hours outside of the watchful eyes of their parents. Though she never explicitly states it, Connie is aware of the mall’s significance. She wants to get away from her overbearing mother and leave her disarrayed house that, tellingly, is in need of repainting. Peter Dickinson, mirroring Quart’s assessment of the film, writes that, “the unfinished house… and Connie’s mother’s attempts to stay on top of the work, becomes an apt metaphor for her own unfinished life” (204). Connie has no time to share in her mother’s domestic concerns. She would rather work on herself, and who could blame her? The film takes place over the summer, and built into every summer day is that sad understanding that the season does not last. And so Connie gets ready to go to the mall, taking her time.
The preparations begin with a close-up of Connie’s face. Her blonde hair, which Sumner calls “an essential element of her femininity” (Lupack 89), is fluffy and shines like a halo, and her expression is hard to read; Connie looks pensive, but we cannot be quite sure what she is thinking. The shot cuts to her feet. She is painting her toenails. The shot of toenails being painted under soft light recalls the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), and this likely is not an accident. There are allusions to the Lolita aesthetic throughout the film, yet thankfully Chopra does not use them in a purely superficial way. Lolita is an unquestionably subversive film, but the iconic images it presents are often bastardised as shorthand for “sexy forbidden teenager” without alluding to any of the strange, problematic things relating to this iconography. Connie recalls this image more subtly and by doing so brings up the ambiguities and strangeness of the “teenage temptress” role. One cannot help but wonder whether Smooth Talk would have presented these images in the same ambiguous light if it were made by a male director? Quart writes that the film is “unimaginable through the eyes of a male director, as it undertakes to examine a girl’s rite of passage that few if any films have really looked at before” (74). Perhaps a female director is uniquely equipped to present the process of getting ready as a playground of enigmatic thoughts, a place where the audience is left wondering what is on Connie’s mind?
Connie’s body is mostly in shadow, with some hazy summer light falling around her as she sits in bed. Chopra explained that she “wanted a particular kind of light to suffuse the movie” (qtd. in Lupack 91), and this directorial choice is especially apparent here. The light is inviting, yet mournful, creating an overall aesthetic that suggests a teen film shot by Edward Hopper. The shot cuts back to her face, and she still appears pensive. Is she thinking about the nuances of her teenage life? The lyrics of the maudlin song she is listening to? The pickup lines she might be trying out later? Her gaze is downcast. Maybe she is just thinking about the intricacies of nail polish application. Connie then looks up and off to the side, before down again. What is she looking at? This part of her getting ready is not shown for very long, but in just these few shots Chopra shows us how the process can become a site of mystery and confused iconographies.
Connie then showers, though all we see is her manicured hand reaching out to put a tape in a boombox atop the toilet as water trickles in the background. After showering, wrapped in a towel, she practices come-ons in front of the mirror. “Hi, how you feelin’ tonight?” “Lookin’ for fun?” “How are ya?” “How are you?” “Hi.” Every line is tinged with uncertainty. As Sumner notes, Connie’s facial expression here signifies awareness that her words connote “a level of sexual intensity with which she is uncomfortable… she is speaking the unspeakable” (Lupack 91). Before we can see her giggle and point out boys’ “buns” at the mall, we need to first see her in this more vulnerable state, fidgeting before the mirror, her voice low, as she tries to decide how best to present herself.
After one of countless tense exchanges with her mother—this time she criticizes Connie’s hairspray, proving once again that she does not understand, or chooses to ignore, the importance of seemingly superficial rituals to her daughter’s life, Connie finally heads out to the mall. Her mother asks how long she will be there. When she responds, “Till 9 or 9:30,” her mother scornfully says, “Oh, so you’ll be at the mall for six hours.” Connie is exasperated. “Mother,” she whines, in the quintessential tone of teenage frustration. Connie’s mother, whose first line in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” (34), stands in direct opposition to the moments of primping. Gawking at one’s self can become something like an art form, and though Connie’s mother acts harshly she has her own reasons for doing so. As Oates describes, “[she] had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was after Connie” (34-5). Though she likely can recall the allure of such moments from her own girlhood, Connie’s mother does not wish to acknowledge that for her daughter, six hours of parading herself, of finally feeling the acknowledgment of her self-preparation from others and being able to look at boys, is a summer luxury.
So Connie and her two friends finally arrive at the mall. Before they stroll and shop, though, there is still more getting ready to be done. In a series of quick close-up shots, Chopra cuts from Connie to Laura as they put on their finishing touches. The director wanted to present Connie’s story in “specific images,” in a style Sumner describes as “impressionistic” (Lupack 91). The mall sequence relies on the power of specific images as a means of immersing us within the teenage experience. Chopra described the mall as “huge [and] impersonal,” (qtd. in Lupack 91) yet by emphasizing the girls’ accessorising, she finds moments of the personal within the arena of the impersonal. Scenes that would typically be elided are given extra screen time, and we become a part of the sun-dappled world of the teen girl consumer who wants nothing more than to look and be looked at.
The mall scene is defined by a series of quick, feminine images: Connie puts on earrings, and she and Laura take bangles out of their purses. Connie puts on makeup, with a serious expression on her face, and the shot then cuts to a close-up of Laura’s shoulder as she suggestively pushes the sleeve of her striped tee shirt down, it is the eighties after all. We then cut to the pièce de résistance – a tightly framed close-up of Connie’s chest as she unzips her purple bodysuit. In two more cuts, she puts on a waist-cinching belt and turns up her collar and fluffs her hair. The quick shots continue as the two girls continue accessorising, and the sequence ends with Connie’s application of lipstick. Initially it may seem gratuitous to lavish so much attention on the mall. Yet the scene serves a greater function outside of merely appealing to the popular teen girl mentality. We can understand the mall, as presented by Chopra in all these shots of potentially tacky fashion accessories, as indicative of self-fashioning. While the transformations of Connie and her friends are mentioned briefly in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in Smooth Talk they are not only shown but made into key visual elements.
The mall scene is soundtracked by James Taylor’s “Is That the Way You Look?” The repeated question of this jaunty pop tune takes on a new significance here. The question can be asked of both of the ways in which Connie and her friends superficially appear. We can imagine a guy posing Taylor’s question to them as a come-on, an early bit of the smooth talk before it goes terribly wrong at the film’s end. Or we can read the lyric as a question of the way the girls look. That is, we can read looking as a verb, if we so wish. The girls are getting themselves ready to be looked at, yes, but they are also getting ready to look themselves. They accessorise, they put on makeup, they unzip, and for what? Yes, to get male attention, but also to associate within their group. By showing this scene of the girls primping, Chopra, refreshingly, makes them the bearers of the look. They look at themselves, at each other, and then, as they prepare to strut through the palace of consumption, they say, with girlish enthusiasm, “Scopin’!”
By Abbey Bender
Abbey Bender’s work has appeared in Joan’s Digest and Not Coming to a Theater Near You. You can also find her on Twitter. She’s been told her film writing taste is very 1980s, and this is actually her second time writing about Laura Dern’s underwear-as-outerwear.
* Benstock, Shari, and Suzanne Ferriss, Eds. On Fashion. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Print.
* Dickinson, Peter. “Riding In Cars With Boys: Reconsidering Smooth Talk.” Literature Film Quarterly 36.3 (2008): 202-14. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.
* Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Wheel of Love. New York: Vanguard, 1970. 34-54. Print.
* Quart, Barbara Koenig. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1988. Print.
* Sumner, Rebecca. “Smoothing Out the Rough Spots: The Film Adaptation of ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Vision/Re-Vision: Adapting Contemporary American Fiction by Women to Film. Ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996. 85-100. Print.
* Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, 1952.
* Opening credits from Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1962.
© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.