An Analysis of STUCK! (2009) by Joseph Suglia
If you want to properly understand Steve Balderson’s fourth feature film, Stuck! (2009), you must disabuse yourself of the illusion that it is all a joke. Balderson is not engaging in parody, or satire, or camp. His film is blissfully free of irony. There is no smugness here, no attempt to levitate above its story with postmodernist cynicism. Balderson’s film demands to be taken seriously, despite its more felicitous moments.
The easiest way to describe Stuck! would be to say that it follows the downward slide of a Midwestern girl named Daisy (played by the angelic Starina Johnson) from innocence to corruption–or her ascension from fragility to strength. Daisy is the victim of the trumped-up charge of killing her mother (September Carter in one of the film’s strongest performances), sentenced to death by hanging, and incarcerated. In prison, she keeps company with a religious fanatic (Mink Stole), a predatory obsessive (Pleasant Gehman), a serial widow (Susan Traylor), and a withdrawn infanticide who suffers from echolalia (the Go-Gos’ beautiful Jane Wiedlin). All these women have to make their lives tolerable are music, passion, storytelling, and the desire for revenge.
From a narrow perspective, there are clichés–because clichés are unavoidable when developing any story that is set in a prison. Balderson and screenwriter Frank Krainz had a difficult decision to make. They could have resolved that no clichés would materialize in the space of their production (and thus have fallen prey to them). Instead, they made the more intelligent decision and welcomed and affirmed the women-in-prison conventions that appear in their film. They do not sneer at the clichés, affecting the smug, self-complacent revisionism of Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat) or John McNaughton (Girls in Prison). Rather, they expand the clichés to their breaking point, infuse them with new life, and thus reinvent them from within. Balderson’s world is not an etiolated world: Every cliché is richly personalized, defamiliarized, transformed into something other than a cliché.
The film is absolutely beautiful to watch, from the Dreyeresque close-ups of Starina Johnson, whose suffering is palpable in nearly every frame, to the Godardian jump-cuts, to the painterly images of the prison cells, which the inmates decorate with talismans and totems. Seldom has black-and-white been used so colorfully.
It would be impossible to do justice to Stuck! without meditating on its more carnal elements. This is a very erotic film, but it is not a work of eroticism. Eroticism, by definition, is not erotic. Why? Because eroticism focuses upon the body and ignores the soul–and nothing is less erotic than a soulless body. Cinematic eroticism, in particular, is a mass spectacle of stinking, putrefying carcasses. If Stuck! is erotic, that is because we, as viewers, come to know Daisy as a dreaming, feeling, thinking, LIVING human being. Starina Johnson gives off erotic sparks for reasons that have nothing to do with soma, for reasons that have nothing to do with physicality. She represents the perfect synthesis of innocence and sexiness, radiating a light-heartedness and deep sensuality in everything that she does, in her every gesture and delicately nuanced facial expression. Her character only gradually becomes conscious of what we notice from the very beginning: the power of her charm. “What is sexy?” Balderson asked in a parvum opus, Phone Sex (2006). He never asked me, but if he did, I would have replied: What is “sexy” is self-consciousness, the consciousness of one’s own sexiness. And Stuck! is sexy because its characters–particularly those of Starina Johnson and Pleasant Gehman–are conscious of the electricity of their sensuality and especially in a stunningly powerful lovemaking scene in which neither lover removes her clothing. By unwrapping the body only after he reveals the soul, Balderson, same-sexualist, has proven that he has greater insight into the dynamics of heteroerotic desire than any heterosexual filmmaker.
To say that Stuck! is the finest women-in-prison film ever made would be to say too little. It recalls not primarily the women-in-prison genre, but rather the German Expressionist-inspired American noir of the 1950s and 1960s. If you have seen Daughter of Horror (1955), Carnival of Souls (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), or Spider Baby (1968), you know that to which I am referring. If one insists upon calling it a “women-in-prison film,” then it must be conceded that Stuck! is easily the only women-in-prison film that could justifiably be called a serious work of art.