Double Feature: Stay Hungry – Frankenweenie (1976 and 2012)

Upon first glance Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie could not be more different, which makes their inclusion in my world-renowned Double Feature series feel rather strange. Not only are the two films separated by 36 years, but the basic genres they belong to are wildly divergent. Stay Hungry is a small dramady from Hollywood’s fruitful 70s period, while Frankenweenie is an stop-motion remake that feels perfectly congruent with our world of cinematic regurgitation. Stay Hungry introduced the icon that is Arnold Schwarzenegger, while Frankenweenie introduced, well, pretty much nothing we didn’t already know about Tim Burton and his gloomy proclivities.

Now, before you go and say, “Gee Adam, maybe we should get you on some medication,” you should consider the following: Both films represent their creators attempting to reconnect with pass successes. Additionally, both films prove that while revisiting old material isn’t necessarily offensive, it is always best to move forward.

Stay Hungry – 1976

“I don’t like being comfortable. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to give up. I’d rather stay hungry.” When these words are spoken by bodybuilder Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger) near the end of Stay Hungry, they aptly sum up the problems of the film’s protagonist, Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges). A member of the southern aristocracy, Blake is a wayward soul whose dissatisfaction with his affluent circumstances push him into the lives of those on the other end of the economic food chain (such as Joe and a young gym worker named Mary Tate – played by Sally Field). Like the earlier Rafelson antihero played by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Blake also cannot fully commit to this type of working class experience, which ultimately threatens to destroy everything he hopes to build.

Stay Hungry is a film about discontent; or, perhaps more appropriately, it is a film about finding contentment with discontent. This notion is manifested in several ways. First and foremost, Bridges’ Blake is a man unmoored from any social circle, possessed with finding a more authentic identity. To do this he attempts to get closer to the various characters that inhabit a small gym that a shady investment firm has actually asked him to buy for the purposes of redevelopment.

Arnold’s Joe Santo on the other hand is a character whose discontent is made explicit with his body. A revered bodybuilder, Santo is striving to win his first Mr. Universe championship. Santo is soon revealed to Blake to be far more than a mere musclebound goon. He is an engaging, considerate and even artistic person, shown, in one bizarre scene, to be an excellent fiddler. He possesses an inner-calm that Blake sorely lacks and appears comfortable with having life be more about the journey than the destination.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned much about the storyline of the film that’s because there really isn’t one. Like so many films of the period, Stay Hungry is not plot driven; the film mainly just observes the characters and their interactions with one another.

Fortunately, the characters are embodied by a sublime cast, including not only Bridges, Arnold and Sally Field, but also Robert Englund, Scatman Crothers and Ed Begley Jr. In many cases the writing is lacking behind these characters. Field’s Mary Tate is a perfect example. An underwritten role, Tate is memorable due to Field’s performance, which is not only touching and genuine but also sexy. Bridges’ Blake is also defined by this quality and seems like an inferior entry to the Rafelson pantheon of tormented male protagonists.

Unlike Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea from Five Easy Pieces, one never gets a sense of what makes Blake tick. In that earlier film, Dupea’s angst was explored more fully. There was a lucid trajectory for the character. The viewer could follow and understand the various economic, social and even spatial circumstances at the heart of Dupea’s perpetual discomfort. It also ended on a more bleak note, with Dupea abandoning his flighty, blue-collared squeeze (played beautifully by Karen Black), hitching a ride and absconding to the north. Blake on the other hand just simply acts depressed and aimless, and the viewer is given little in the way of a window.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t worthwhile, even if it’s just for novelty’s sake. The characters are all colorful, and Rafelson puts out scene after surreal scene which will keep viewers off-balance and engaged. In the end though, it feels like almost like a parody of his past work. Although Rafelson attempts to once again flash his quirky, 70s filmmaking biceps, you never can get over the feeling that Stay Hungry musculature is just for show.

Frankenweenie- 2012

When it was announced that Tim Burton was going to remake his 1984 short film Frankenweenie (itself a variation on Whales classic monster pic that was adapted from Shelly’s iconic novel) the Internet seemed to emit a collective, digital groan. It is largely believed that Burton’s career reached its apex in the 90s, particularly when he unleashed the one, two, three and four punch of Beetlejuice, the two Batman films, Edward Scissorhands and, most spectacularly, the great, great film Ed Wood.

To some degree this isn’t entirely true. Burton has had successes in his post-90s period, particularly when he jettisoned Johnny Depp for Big Fish and turned him into a goth songbird for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. A majority of his career since then, however, has felt like a long, agonizing retread, where even his most ardent supporters have probably wished for a change of pace.

Unfortunately, there is no reprieve from “Tim Burton-ness” to be found in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. It tells the story of, you guessed it, a young, scientifically gifted boy who brings his beloved dog back to life after he is killed in an accident. The film is staggeringly (although perhaps axiomatically) beautiful, with the stop motion aesthetics feeling leaps and bounds beyond something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. The film is also gamely voiced by an eclectic cast, including Burton alums like Martin Landau, Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder.

However, there is an unnerving, perfunctory air to the proceedings of Frankenweenie, which finds Burton revisiting not so much the ins and outs of the original film but the thematic makeup of his classic fantasy Edward Scissorhands. With themes including social alienation, the responsibility attached to giving life and the insular, incestuous cesspool that is suburbia, Frankenweenie often feels like a return to that earlier film. Unfortunately, this return feels like one produced by a neutered old man.

Sorely missing is the darker, subversive edge that drove Edward Scissorhands, particularly the erotic undercurrents of the titular character’s interactions with Kathy Baker’s resident nymphomaniac, not to mention his capacity for violence. Instead of these more peculiar, complex flourishes, Frankenweenie is loaded with what unfortunately feels like filler – things shoved in to appease the kids. This involves a number of monstrous characters, who are created when Victor Frankenstein’s classmates discover that he has reanimated his dog and then seek to do the same.

Similar to Stay Hungry/Five Easy Pieces dynamic, Frankenweenie ends on a far more upbeat tone than Edward Scissorhands, where the conflict at the heart of the story is magically resolved by the final frames. It represents another instance where a prolific director attempted to mine past material yet unfortunately did not remember to bring along his original passion. And I don’t mean to be incredibly harsh. Frankenweenie is fine entertainment. To be perfectly honest, I even leaked out a couple of tears while watching it (if only because the titular pup was so adorable). But despite its entertainment value, Frankenweenie is a film that primarily makes you yearn for the director’s earlier work, and that is never a good sign.

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