Cheerfully billed as “A Saturday Night Television Special” starring Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg), writer/director Amanda Kramer’s film may feel as if it’s beaming in from another planet to those unfamiliar with 1970s/80s variety shows. Devotees of camp classics such as Donny and Marie, The Lynda Carter Special or the finale of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz will recognize all the genre tropes being lovingly replicated and satirized but even they might feel bewildered (or perhaps transported) by the dark interior spaces an increasingly taxed and frayed Sissy inhabits.
Kramer understands that if you’re going to make a feature-length pastiche, pinpoint accuracy is required. Not only does she shoot on smeary video in the classic 1:33 analog format, stylistically, she replicates everything of the era from the sequined clothing, elaborate wigs, neon colors and piercing lasers to the requisite hanging mirrorball, vintage-looking graphics and Donna Summer-worthy disco anthems including the title track and “Making It” (not a David Naughton cover.) If she left it at that, it would be nothing more than an elaborate tribute to an ultra-specific type of entertainment from a bygone era. However, as with last year’s Please Baby Please, a 1950s-set mashup of West Side Story-style bohemia and genderqueer studies starring Andrea Riseborough (!), this pushes the viewer much further than that.
Not even a few minutes in, Sissy literally faces her demon(s) while the screen glitches and distorts and continues to do so intermittently. Effervescent and hungry for attention, she seems to shrug it off at first, for the show must go on and she’s made it clear she’s giving it her all. As the special moves from one titled set piece to another (“The America Number” answers the question, “What if Laurie Anderson had been given one of these specials circa ‘O Superman’”?), we see the implications and consequences of this. Touches of surrealism such as a literally faceless psychic and an interpretive death-dance with a nurse that climaxes with Sissy declaring, “You will never, never, ever, ever have your own television special, so don’t even DARE to DREAM!” add to the disorientation, burrowing deeper into madness. But you can’t stop ever-resilient Sissy who is dead set on triumphing, even if it means nearly losing what’s left of her sanity while delivering an epic, climactic monologue about a defining, near-traumatic childhood memory and how it made her who she is today.
Whereas Please Baby Please, while fabulous, occasionally muddles its intentions with its many intellectual diversions, this firmly retains its focus (being just 79 minutes helps.) Von Haselberg’s casting is especially inspired—I didn’t even know who her famous mother (someone who might’ve starred in a special like this back in the day) was until afterwards; it’s the type of role that could make her career if it wasn’t such a genuinely strange little film. Regardless, as we get to know Sissy (who appears in nearly every frame) rather intimately, Give Me Pity! gradually transcends its premise, revealing layer after layer of everything that goes into a performance and the toll it can take on the performer’s psyche.