Film/TV » Film Features

Man With a Movie Camera

Mike McCarthy returns — and puts Cori Dials in the spotlight — with Cigarette Girl.


Cori Dials - DON PERRY

"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun."

— Jean-Luc Godard

A pioneer of '60s New Wave cinema, Godard was making a case with this famous quote for the ability of image and attitude to triumph over limited means, an idea that fits the cultural thrust of Memphis art in most any medium.

The first feature in nearly a decade from local filmmaking pioneer John Michael McCarthy, Cigarette Girl takes the quote to heart. The low-budget dystopian noir stars Amazonian wonder Cori Dials in the title role, a black-market cigarette dealer who quits smoking and defies her mob employers, forcing her to simultaneously fight against nicotine withdrawal and for her life. The film's tagline: "She'd kill for a smoke."

Mike McCarthy - ROBIN TUCKER
  • robin tucker
  • Mike McCarthy

Cigarette Girl is a different kind of film for Mississippi native McCarthy, a comic book artist turned filmmaker who built a worldwide underground reputation in the '90s as a purveyor of '50s- and '60s-style "exploitation cinema," displaying the natural talents of muse D'Lana Tunnell in films such as the (mostly) black-and-while Teenage Tupelo (a curious, memorable blend of Elvis lore, personal fetish, and mixed-up autobiography) and the lurid color The Sore Losers (a genre-hopping, comic-book-crazy thriller starring garage-rocker Jack Yarber). This stretch of films culminated in 2000's visually striking girls-with-guns Superstarlet A.D., a woman-worshipping spectacular that was something like Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) gone glam-rock.

McCarthy's new film, by contrast, cuts back on spectacle while beefing up story. It also draws on a slightly different mix of cultural influences: girlie mags, trash cinema, and early rock-and-roll giving way to anti-hero comics, film noir, and gritty sci-fi. (Fritz Lang's silent classic Metropolis is repeatedly referenced.)

The film is set in 2035, a future in which cigarette smokers have been ostracized into crumbling ghettos dubbed "smoking sections" and a pack of cigarettes costs more than $60. Dials' character works as a cigarette girl in the mob-controlled, smoking-section hangout the Vice Club, but she is undercutting her employer by dealing packs on the street for $50. Early in the film, her bosses discover her double-dealing as she discovers her cigarette-addicted grandmother (local film vet Helen Bowman, in perhaps her best role) dying of emphysema. Among the other cast members are slender, tomboyish punkette Ivy McLemore (a recent McCarthy discovery who later landed a role in the MTV web series Savage County) as the replacement cigarette girl, J. Lazarus as a menacing mid-level heavy, and D'Army Bailey as a smoking-section quickie-mart owner.

Everything in Cigarette Girl orbits around Dials, though. McCarthy demands a lot from her in what might be considered something of a superhero origin story. She is asked to be an iconic presence, and she delivers. Dials is a spectacle even when not stripped down to bra, panties, and fishnets. (Unlike most of McCarthy's other films, Cigarette Girl contains no full nudity.) Her palpable combination of toughness and vulnerability makes her character click.

"Cori is like the living, breathing embodiment of what a cult movie becomes by sitting on a shelf for 25 years," McCarthy said last week in the attic of his Cooper-Young home, which might double as museum of his work and its influences. "I didn't have a million dollars, but she looks like a million dollars. I haven't made a movie in 10 years [in part] because I hadn't met anyone like Cori in that period of time."

An attraction to Dials as an authentic presence, and a desire to capture that presence on film, was as much an impetus for Cigarette Girl as anything. McCarthy was similarly inspired in some of his early films by Tunnell, whose gold-framed black-and-white nude photo he references to explain Dials' appeal.

"If you look at that picture of D'Lana, that could be 1930. It could be 1950. It could be 1970," McCarthy says. "It's a motorcycle junkyard in Mississippi in 1992. If I have any gift at all — whether the movie is uneven or incoherent or beautiful or has good moments or bad moments — the gift I have is objectifying that, because I drew it first when I was doing comics, and I can still see it when I'm making films.

"The beauty of [Dials] is very much like D'Lana there. She's not an actress. She's a starlet," McCarthy says, deploying a pet word that's been used in the title of two of his films. "Anybody can act. But only certain people that nature spits up can be starlets. They have a charisma."

McCarthy met Dials while working as a tour guide at Sun Studio and later partnered with her in the glam-rock band Fingers Like Saturn before Dials moved to Virginia, where she's now training to be a mortician.

"Cori sings like a pop-culture priestess and looks like a gothic Brigitte Bardot," McCarthy says. "So she has all these inherent pop-culture qualities to her. She has to move around a lot. She gets heckled. Can you imagine walking around on the street and looking like God?"

While not at all rejecting the "exploitation" moniker, McCarthy talks about the women he films in terms of "female empowerment," citing social critic Camille Paglia. He describes Cigarette Girl as a film "about a female character who uses a sexual persona to survive in a dystopian world where men are in control." He also says that he casts women to play himself, an assertion most detectable in Teenage Tupelo and Cigarette Girl. (McCarthy's own mother died of a smoking-related illness.)

"I seem to be the only local filmmaker who has decided to do fantasy — epic fantasy — on a shoestring," McCarthy says of his place in a growing local film scene that he, perhaps more than anyone, helped launch. (In a Flyer interview last year, Craig Brewer described himself as "very much a student of Mike McCarthy.")

McCarthy hopes that more people will join him in the fantasy with Cigarette Girl, though one also has to wonder if all of McCarthy's hardy cult will be as enamored of this more professional film with less camp and sensationalism.

"The other stuff is my street cred," McCarthy says. "This borrows from that but is a little more commercial, a little more formula."

After a world premiere this summer at the Perth Revelation International Film Festival in Australia, Cigarette Girl will have its U.S. premiere this week at Studio on the Square in a pair of screenings co-sponsored by the Indie Memphis Film Festival and the On Location: Memphis International Film Festival, a collaborative first for the two local festivals.

"You know, I predate the festivals," McCarthy says. "I haven't had a lot of stuff play the festivals because I haven't been prolific this decade. But they've both been very good to me, and I couldn't just give the movie to one festival over the other. I wanted them to come together and share it with me."

Cigarette Girl Premiere

Studio on the Square

Thursday, September 10th

7 and 7:30 p.m.; $12

Premiere tickets include admission to a 9 p.m. after party at Nocturnal (1588 Madison). There will also be midnight screenings at Studio on the Square the following Friday and Saturday nights. See the film's official web site for more info on screenings and related events. For more on Mike McCarthy and Cigarette Girl see the Flyer's pop culture blog, Sing All Kinds.

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