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“Pretty Dead Girl” – Love by Another Name

A New ‘Off the Beaten Pathé’

“She doesn’t say much.

She keeps to herself,

Her silence is quietly radical.

She’s so cool to the touch

That I start to melt.

Her eyes are so vacantly vulnerable…”

He/She’s in Love

By Ernest Kearney  —  There’s a title that holds promise, wouldn’t you say?

Written by Shawn Ku with music & lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo (with some additional lyrics by Ku) this 2004 short film tells of two star crossed lovers,

Mortie (Christian Campbell) who heads a hospital morgue and is the apple of the eye of Nurse Viola (Christina Souza), but whereas she likes the dimples in his cheeks, he prefers his women…eh…sans pulse.

Ku packs a baker’s dozen in his short six-pack flick that served in part to fulfill the requirements for an M.F.A. at the University of Southern California.

We are posed to observe Campbell and Souza suffering for their passions.  Campbell wishes to curtail his career as a cad with cadavers, while Souza laments in an early ballad –

“I know that he’d loved me only if –

If it was me that was the stiff.”

He/She’s in Love

We are witness to a rather early “11 O’Clock number” as Campbell’s character endures electro-shocks and a dose of “Little Alex’s” aversion therapy while his psychologist (Shrink – Michael A. Shepperd) belts out “Alive,” with bravado and grand garra in which he advises Mortie of the benefits in being attracted to —

“A woman you can talk to

Who’s not always lying down.”

The scene also provides Choreographer Tim Albrecht the opportunity of challenging the late Bob Fosse to a match of “Anything you can do….”  And damn if Albrecht doesn’t pull it off.

Ku also gives a nod to diversity a full decade and a half before it became a hash-tag.  Though still limited to a stereotype it has the bitter aura of irony about it; as Viola goes to Old Fong’s (Ken Takemoto) apothecary in search of a “love portion,” only to be disabused by Young Fong (Leonard Wu) “That’s only in movies.”

Now before you go snorting, Pretty Dead Girl – A Musical Necromance?  Ah, Kearney’s finally gone “beyond the pale,” you need to know:

 

First, Ku has succeeded here on three essential levels — he has assembled a top-drawer team.

Alice Brooks’ skillful cinematography covers all the demands this mini-musical requires.

Chad Galster’s editing is masterful and Albrecht’s contribution spot-on.

Next, Pretty Dead Girl works as a musical.  One of the pitfalls of the genre is presenting a medley of songs that are all the same song reworked.

Take the Robert Altman’s 1980 misfire Popeye.

A cast to die for!

Robin Williams as Popeye, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Paul L. Smith in the role he was born for, not to mention Ray Walston, Roberta Maxwell (who was also in Special Bulletin), Paul Dooley (as Wimpy), the marvelous Donald Moffat and the doubly marvelous Bill Irwin!

Popeye was a visual triumph and an audio nose bleed, thanks to Harry Nilssons’ score which pitches the same tune and tempo about a dozen times.

Good musicals have a score with hills and valleys.

Great musicals have a score with hills and valleys, a couple of mountain ranges, couple of plains (“amber waves of grain” optional), some caverns, a canyon and even a fjord or two.

Think West Side Story. Think Hello Dolly. 

Milazzo, with arrangement and orchestration by Martin Erskine, provides that type of crowd-pleasing variation.

Third, Pretty Dead Girl is great fun.

And finally, “beyond the pale?”  I have a timeshare there.

Still from Shawn Ku’s “Pretty Dead Girl”

In the years since this work was released some who were involved have done well:

In 2010 Ku directed another solidly crafted work Beautiful Boy with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, working from a script co-written with Michael Armbruster.  It tells with restraint and intelligence the tale of a couple on the verge of divorcing whose young son goes on a murderous shooting spree at his college then takes his own life; an unorthodox film concerning a topic that is becoming hideously “ordinary.”

He followed this with Seeds of Yesterday in 2015, a TV movie version of the fourth novel in V.C. Andrews’ gothic Dollanganger Series, which began with the 1979 publication of Flowers in the Attic.  Haven’t seen Seeds. No desire to, I fear. However, it featured Jason Lewis who appeared as Jerry ‘Smith’ Jerrod in the closing season of Sex In the City.

 Campbell would later show up as the character Greg Ivey in eight episodes of Big Love HBO’s polygamist family drama starring Bill Paxton. ** writer's hand **

Wu was seen in the Netflix original series,  Marco Polo in 2016, and as Shiwei Chen in the fourth season of Amazon’s Bosch, based on Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch detective novels.

Robert James (Dark Man) must be making a mint as America’s most ubiquitous addict.

Michael A. Shepperd and Christina Souza regrettably have been underused, though Souza did appear in the final episode of Lost and that’s got to be a winning cocktail party conversion opener.

Shepperd’s talents were apparent years ago on the stages of Los Angeles, especially in Monster Duet the first production of one of the most incensing and idiosyncratic personalities working in L.A. theatre today. **writer's hand **

 

Now yes, this is still a student film, and with rigor mortis tongue fixed in a desiccated cheek, Ku falls back on some tried and true plot devices to whisk his narrative along to a keenly satisfactory conclusion.  (I won’t tell you if everybody lives happily ever after.)

Regardless of all the limitations imposed upon it, Pretty Dead Girl is as solid a piece of movie making as you’re likely to come across and a truly toe-tapping, totally tasteless treat as one could wish for.

♦     ♦     ♦

Author’s Notes:

 

**  writer's hand ** Okay, here’s an odd bit of cocktail trivia; Bill Paxton directed the beloved 1980 surreal music video of Barnes and Barnes’ Fish Heads.  He also plays the man carrying that golden-voiced fish head who belts out the classic tune….  Who knew?

** writer's hand **  And that would be me.

 

♦     ♦     ♦

 

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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