March 29, 2009

Sexual Archetypes: the 30th Anniversary of "Sooner or Later"

We all react to subconscious triggers embedded in our brains, and often the key to breaking a habit is making the effort to unlock that code. Sometimes it's impossible to identify Ground Zero, while other times we know exactly what it is and the struggle is to try and lessen the power it has over you.

There is a certain type of guy that always sets off my alarm. While I don't consider this a bad habit, it does tend to make me overlook a more appropriate type of mate simply because he doesn't match the archetype. This was never considered a problem when I was younger, but now that I'm on the other side of 40, I wonder if remaining keenly attracted to this specific archetype will eventually back me into a corner? Should I try to break this spell? Can I? And do I want to?

I know my Boy Ground Zero: It was March 25, 1979 when ABC aired Sooner or Later, starring Denise Miller (fresh off the TV series Fish) and Rex Smith. If you don't know the story, within this page, I've depicted the most crucial plot points of the story, as remembered from the perspective of a 13-year old girl. That's exactly how old I was when it aired, that's how old the character Jessie was in the movie, and that was the target audience.

The film was written, produced and directed by Carole and Bruce Hart, who did a masterful job of knowing exactly what things 13 year old girls obsessed about. Horrible job yes, but if you've got a job to do you gotta do it well. There are plenty of money guns aimed at that demographic at any given moment, but it takes a little more effort and heart to create something that goes off like a bomb at the time and then continues to resonate for years after.

On a Friday, not a single junior high girl knew who Rex Smith was, but come the following Monday, it was a wonder we'd survived that long without him. I was blown away because his singing voice sounded quite a bit like David Cassidy (my first true love), and unlike the fawn-like Shaun Cassidy (who was on my walls at this time - as well as on the walls of a character in the movie), Rex was a dangerous, sexy MAN. And he fell for someone my age!

Denise Miller was the perfect blank page for writing yourself into the story. She was cute, but not exceptional, so not a threat. She was audacious without being precocious, so a believable role model for a confusing period of life. She confirmed the secret to jump starting a love life - makeup. And she landed the hottest rock guy in a not too improbable way. It was the most believable of scenarios, and that air of real life possibility is probably what makes it an emotionally enduring film.

I bought the paperback book. I bought the album. I bought the issue of Us magazine with a feature on Rex Smith that featured a photo of him by a pool, completely naked save for an electric guitar. I swear to you the tip of his penis was visible in the picture. I threw Shaun Cassidy under the bus. I got a $35 acoustic guitar from Sears. I waited expectantly for my Michael Skye.

About 14 years later, I finally got around to proper guitar lessons. I about plotzed when my teacher was a long-haired, Italian stallion metal guy. Knee-to-knee in a tiny room, I could barely concentrate as he put my new Telecaster through its paces. I soon dropped the lessons because he was too hot for me to be serious about learning, and because it made all those latent Sooner Or Later emotions well up. That, and I also had a boyfriend who played guitar and had hair much like Michael Skye.

So, I went home and put the dog-eared paperback and the well-worn vinyl into a box of stuff that went off to a garage sale. This was the grunge era, so these items from a bygone era were way uncool and embarrassing.

Sooner or Later happened right after my puberty kickoff. The whole point of the movie was dealing with the issues of girlish daydreams becoming all too real. "They tell me I should slow up/ Take my time and grow up/ But sooner or later is too late."

It quickly becomes apparent that the dividing line between child and teenager is hormones, and what to do about it. Your body tells you plenty, you're all ears, but you don't understand and are mortified by what it's saying. The outcome - sex - is inevitable, but it's the steps toward it that were the most confusing. Wait, that aspect doesn't change much, no matter how old you are. I guess we just have so much practice with it that it's no longer as scary.

But it was that fear of the unknown that made it so indelible and so special. Just like first love, the lead up to first sex is filled with rush of new emotions that then become unsustainable once you've experienced it. They are replaced with sensations that we experience over and over again, in many new and different ways, but The Firsts have a powerful hold on our psyche.

Many, many years later, my Mother ran across Sooner Or Later on cable, and was kind enough to tape it for me. I circled that tape for a few days, afraid to watch it again 20 years later because what if it sucked? I loved those memories from that time; why chance ruining it?

Have you ever run across an old commercial from your childhood that you completely forgot until you saw it again, but it was like being transported right back to that very moment in time, and you recall it all crystal clear? The sensory input actually produces a physical reaction; it can make you feel good, instantly. I believe the physical sensation it produces is why we spend so much time on YouTube - it's like huffing emotional glue.

My second viewing of Sooner Or Later was the second coming of puberty, and it was good. Real good. It turned out to be an exceptionally well-written and executed piece of work with an honest, emotional core that allows it to float past being unduly dated by its time period. Yeah, all that... and it had me giggling and screeching like a 13 year old girl, all over again!

I swooned and cringed in the exact same spots as before. Every emotion was just as pure and expansive as it was at 13, and being able to fully conjure that at such a late date was a heady experience. It reminded me of a Rufus Wainwright song: "I twist like a corkscrew, the sweetness rising, I drink from the bottle, weeping why won't you last? Why can't you last?"

Well, yes, it can last - just hit rewind!

Viewing it from an adult perspective just adds to the fun. Considering my age, it's now PG cougar porn primo, and I appreciate the care they took in lingering on certain camera angles. It produces this weird sensation of my teen and adult selves swooning simultaneously for different - but just as valid - reasons. It's as close to an out of body experience as I'm going to get without meditation or medication.

During the drive-in scene, Michael sings "She's Still a Mystery To Me" to himself as Jessie stuffs her face with junk food to avoid the necking that accompanied drive-in dates. Jessie asks what's the song, and Michael teaches her about John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful, following up with another pointed reference by singing "Young Girls." This makes Jessie cry, because she has a bucketful of secrets to soon reveal, but at the time, it sent me to the library to dig deeper into the Spoonful, beyond the radio hits. So, Rex, thanks for another enduring gift!

Jessie is 13, Michael is 17. Yes, technically, it will be statutory rape (if 17 was considered adult in Yonkers in 1979). That's the first lens we view through, today. But of far more emotional impact is the deep sea change within that 4 year age difference at that time of life. The writers didn't need to cite laws to make the revelation of the concealed age difference so gut-wrenching for both of them.

But it does beg the question: could this story be told as convincingly today? For multiple cultural reasons, a 13 year old girl is a much different creature than she was 30 years ago, outwardly. Could the changing shape of society, parenting and criminal paranoia make this a quaint, old-fashioned story?

I've now watched Sooner Or Later with male and female friends around my age, some seeing it again, some seeing it for the first time. Everyone enjoys it, which verifies that it truly is quality work. But I've yet to have a clock in from a young girl of today. Would the story resonate? Would the Michael Skye type still be considered foxy in this era?

Personally, the Michael Skye type still resonates within me. Maybe a bit too strong... depends on the perspective and the day. I didn't need to see the movie again to conjure that, only to verify the starting point. But now that I know what the trigger is, maybe it will be easier to quell the sensation and explore the world of Non-Michael Skye types. Especially when I can get my fix any time I want by popping in the DVD!

Turns out there is a part two and three to the story of Jessie and Michael. The Harts wrote two more books about it. Waiting Games takes place immediately after, with 14 year old Jessie deep in a sexual relationship with Michael, whom after declaring his undying love for her, leaves for Los Angeles to become a rock star.

Now or Never zooms ahead 4 years, finding Michael a drunken and failed rock star coming back home and hoping Jessie will take him back.

I haven't read the sequels, though I'd certainly love to. They are not available at any of the libraries, and the third book is fetching some crazy high prices in the eBay world, so that's not happening for me. I'm content with leaving it right where it is, and wishing we could get a little more 30th anniversary love for this romance classic.