#0105 - LITTLE GIRL LOST - On the same weekend as Iraq was to meet its disclosure deadline and surrender up all the details of its weapons and nuclear programs, Winona Ryder sat in an Beverly Hills courtroom and got 36 months probation for shoplifting. For a seemingly endless stretch last Friday night, it was all CNN seemed to be covering, at least while Larry King's show squatted over endless late night hours, in what seemed to be a constantly recycled repeat.
No one seemed to be able to sum up the same total for the dollar value of the goods Ryder shoplifted from Saks - Film Comment said "nearly $5,000", The NY Times said "more than $5,500 worth of designer goods", and the Guardian, in two separate stories, put her misappropriated swag at "20 items worth $5,560" and "over $6,000 worth of goods". The Guardian did, in the end, itemize the punishment quite scupulously: 480 hours of community service, drug and psychological counselling, a $2,700 fine and a restriction that she "stay away from places where buyers and sellers of narcotics were known to congregate."
The previous Guardian feature on the trial went so far as to enumerate some of the contents of Ryder's shopping bags: "...a $760 Marc Jacobs thermal top, a $540 Natori handbag, a $220 Eric Javits hat, a $750 Yves St Laurent blouse and a pair of Donna Karan cashmere socks, worth $80." No surprise then that the fashion industry so eagerly, if ironically, adopted her cause, starting with the Billy Tsangares "Free Winona" t-shirt, and then Ryder herself on the cover of W, looking waifish and forlorn in the same t-shirt. (Funny, but I always thought the bouffant-headed profile on the t-shirt looked more like Sharon Tate than Winona.) If someone is putting together a time capsule of the year 2002, that shirt should go in, along with the "Free Martha" aprons. What a silly fucking year - aren't we supposed to be at war or something?
At the paper where I work, Reuters serviced us with a handful of photos of Ryder at every court date, and we ran one practically every day. Having just played Jean Arthur's role in Adam Sandler's re-make of Mr. Deeds, she seemed to have stolen some of Arthur's wardrobe and wore it to court - twin sets and prim 30s stenographer outfits with high necklines, foldover cuffs and bows. Alas, no one seems to have taught Winona about the quintessential 30s fashion item - the slip - and on two days running the harsh strobes revealed a tragic lack of coordination in the scanties department; a black bra and white panties one day, white bra and black panties the next. You could hear the fashion types howling as the thumbnails popped up on their desktops, and the echoes no doubt reached poor Winona, as she showed up at almost every subsequent court date in the kind of plain "Republican cloth coat" that would have done Pat Nixon proud.
Leaving aside the actual details of jurisprudence, and the allegations of a "show trial" by the city's D.A.'s office, aided by overzealous Saks employees, the Winona trial was a peculiar example of what Toby Young, in the British Tory humour magazine, The Spectator, referred to as "the strong religious component" in the cult of celebrity:
"...whether the famous person in question is a pop star like Madonna or a sportsman like David Beckham, the reason they have such extraordinary power over our imaginations is because they embody certain archetypes. As soon as their behaviour fails to live up to these exalted standards — as soon as they violate the small print — the public will turn on them, terrified that if they're allowed to remain on Mount Olympus a moment longer, they'll pollute the rarefied atmosphere."
It's probably some echo of this imperative that prompted Mark Geragos, Winona's lawyer, to hint darkly that the Sak's employees who testified against his client had "all the best reasons in the world to fabricate evidence."
Andrew Leonard in Salon took on the mantle of the disappointed acolyte with "My Winona", an arch but heartfelt account of his soured crush on the actress. "These are sad days for a Winona boy," Leonard writes, regarding the trial as "the last mote of tragedy confirming, once and for all, that those halcyon days of the late 80s, when we were all slackers searching for our Winona, are gone forever."
Leonard recalls the Winona of Beetlejuice and Heathers and, to a lesser extent, Reality Bites, the "girl with the great musical taste and the wry putdown, the one that made you feel cool just because you had her attention. Neither blonde nor bombshell, whe was also a girlfriend who could be aspired to. She wasn't looking for hunks or he-men - she could see through all that stuff to the real you, that incredibly desirable guy who wasn't really a loser, no sir, but was in fact an artist who needed only the love or a girl like Winona before blossoming into true creativity." As mash notes go, it's actually sort of touching, if only because, many years ago, and for about a week after I saw Heathers, I probably felt the same way.
Leonard wasn't unprepared for the heartbreak of the trial, however. For him, Winona's fall from grace began with her messy affairs with the rock musicians we all resented slightly more than we admired them, like her first indie rock star boyfriend, a man who, pre-Winona, I once sold some sweet, high-quality acid: "Her sin reminds me of the heartbreak I felt when Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum dumped his girlfriend for her. Sure, Pirner was the real asshole, but Winona did not escape the general taint of yuckiness. The Winona I loved had more character than that."
Leonard casts Winona's fall as a generational one, a pathetic spectacle where whatever remnants of a paltry, qualified, timid idealism that Generation X was allowed to entertain are finally, ritually snuffed out. In the end, Winona turns out to have been one of the people we always thought she stood with us in despising: "The Winona I loved was an accessory to the murder of people who dressed in Saks knockoffs, for crying out loud! The Winona I loved dressed in a black that hinted of Baudelaire and Sartre, not of a grieving widow trying to gain sympathy in a courtroom."
In the end, Leonard takes it like a man; his generation, the slackers, are "accustomed to being blamed and despised." If she'd only dump the Marc Jacobs and the Ryan Adams, she'll be welcomed back. You have to admire the man's faithfulness to what even he admits is a spoiled ideal.
The ultimate dissection of Ryder's career - or rather the dismal nadir it's reached, for which the trial is merely a last piece of ballast - is Alissa Quart's "Puzzle of a Downfall Child" in the Sept./Oct. issue of Film Comment. Quart sees Ryder as "something of a tautology: Winona = Winona." While there have been dozens of "types" of actress personalities - never more so, it would seem, than now - Ryder exists alone, which would explain how she ends up playing herself in two recent movies (Zoolander, Being John Malkovich) and variaions on herself in two others (Celebrity, Simone). It worked in Ryder's favor, once, but it all went bad with Girl, Interrupted, a self-produced star vehicle that Angelina Jolie ("a performance seemingly inspired by another famous pop culture borderline personality: Animal on the Muppet Show") stole from Ryder. Quart sums up the Ryder anomaly in one brilliant paragraph:
"Maybe it was because disaffection is mule-like - it doesn't reproduce - while the super-energetic, tanned, surgically enhanced teen and young-adult stars, even "bad girls" like Jolie and fellow Girl, Interrupted alumnus Brittany Murphy, tend to multiply like spores. Maybe it's just because up-and-coming actresses of the late Nineties knew - or intuited - that the materialist Generation Y likes it role models tawny, bodacious and eager to sell their wares, rather than Winona-like: stick-figured, internal and ambivalent."
Leonard's Salon eulogy for his lost love hinted at the deep disappointment that her erstwhile fans have witnessed since Ryder became an established star. Quart's piece lays it on the line, speculating that Winona was drawn to her stable of alterna-rock star boyfriends because "they both maintained a dependence on an 'alternative culture,' defined, like them, by early Nineties oppositional cultural production. They also consider PR gauche, even repellent. Ryder famously eschews TV appearances and promotional junkets - she'll make the movies, then won't sell them 'properly'."
Which is why, for those sorry souls who felt vindicated by grunge and the internet boom, Ryder's case is a kind of final humiliation. There is no more Soul Asylum, Soundgarden, Feed magazine or Suck.com. The cultural moment has moved on, and Gen X's brief moment in the sun - from couch potato rebels to shock troops of the dot.com era - is over. As for Ryder, according to Quart: "She's still trapped in her X-generation's favorite equation: shill your authenticity, sock away the profits, and then feel sort of guilty about the whole thing."
Quart doesn't hold a lot of hope for Winona; if she's capable of salvaging her career and transforming herself from punchline to knowing joke to wry observer, it will be by discovering new resources of ironic self-regard, but against all precedent - "the past few years have shown that we overestimated her depth". What remains unsaid is that Generation X, ultimately, overestimated its own depth. The bands weren't that good, the internet not all that interesting, and our whole cultural moment all too easily hijacked by the far more culturally deft and demographically numerous cultures of the boomer and Gen-Y on either side of us. It's the brief, six year journey from Heathers to Pump up the Volume to Singles to Ryder again in Reality Bites.
Six years from proud owners of our own angst to selling it piecemeal in the media souk. No wonder someone had to invent eBay - it was the perfect forum for us to express our core philosophy of "buy dear, sell cheap". No wonder our totem screen idol flamed out, chastised by the prosecutor in court for using an act of charity as a character witness, strung up on a tawdry shoplifting charge.
(posted 01:32pm | 12.10.02)
SOMETHING NEW - A DVD review section, which is really just a bit of crass commerce disguised as a dumping ground for my weekly gig. That said, I do hope you like it. And, by the way, I've started a notify list if you want to know about updates to this site - just send me an e-mail at "rick at rickmcginnis.com".
#0104 - REBEL WITHOUT APPLAUSE - Most of the films I review are forgotten about within weeks of seeing them; I have to be conscientious and write my reviews fast, or else risk relying too heavily on sketchy impressions, other reviews, and the inevitably unreliable press kit. Lately, since I've started reviewing DVDs, I have to force myself to watch the disc of a movie I saw at a screening only months before - most of the time, I find myself watching the film with a sense of deja vu, nodding at the familiar parts, amazed at just how much I've forgotten.
Films rarely stick with me, even really good ones, so it's hard to predict what might leave me pondering a film a week, a month, even a year after I saw it. Zhang Yang's Quitting was still buzzing in my head over a week after the bleary autumn morning I watched it on an advance screener cassette, so I retrieved the press kit from the recycling pile and pulled up as many reviews as I could find on Rotten Tomatoes.
The first thing that struck me as I watched Quitting was how improbable it still seems to me that China, alone among countries, is producing the most consistently interesting, watchable cinema around these days. "Yet another good Chinese film," I mumbled to myself. "I'm sure the handful of readers who actually care might be getting suspicious that I give practically every Chinese film I see four stars or better." It's true, though: Beijing Bicycle, The Orphan of Anyang, and especially Jia Zhangke's Platform are among the best films I've seen all year, and I don't know precisely why.
Without exception, all of these films paint a harsh view of Jiang Zemin's post-communist capitalism, from the eternal poverty of the countryside, to the wholesale lay-offs in the provincial cities where unprofitable industries are cut loose, to the avaricious materialism in big urban centres like Beijing. So why does China, an authoritarian if no longer quite totalitarian state, tolerate the implicit criticism? I don't actually have an answer, but I can say that if economic turmoil can create fertile ground for interesting cinema, then why hasn't Japan shaken off the doldrums and become a movie powerhouse again?
(Interestingly, though, I've seen a lot of good films from Argentina in the last year or so. If China is experiencing cataclysmic growing pains, then Argentina is ecnomically virtually terminal. So my theory might still have legs.)
Unlike all the films I've mentioned, Quitting is mostly unconcerned with economics, and more with the social upheaval post-Tiananmen. As brutal as the government suppression of the pro-democracy student movement was, the phenomenon was broad and impossible to utterly crush, and one of its byproducts was Jia Hongsheng, a young actor who became famous for playing pretty thugs, quickly rebelled against typecasting, then became a junkie while playing the lead in a 1992 production of the play "Kiss of the Spider Woman".
Where the Tiananmen protesters took to the streets, Jia - and doubtless thousands of young people like him - went inward with their rebellion. In the director's statement that comes with the press kit, Zhang Yang writes that "the changes (Jia) went through and the problems he faced are very typical of the generation that experienced the late 80s/early 90s in China...The influx of rock music, western pop culture and first-time experimentation with drugs led to the birth of a new lifestyle...Jia was unable to adapt and make compromises to fit into the society developing around him."
In other words, China is having its 1970s, the unhappy hangover from its tumultuous, rebellious 60s, where young people who want to rebel are discouraged from doing so in open defiance of authority either because it's been done before and become tired (the 70s here) or it's simply bad for your health (China, where it took months to clean the bloodstains off the paving stones in Tiananmen.)
In the L.A. Weekly, John Patterson tries to put Quitting's context in a nutshell by describing it as "a representative story of young people in the rapidly changing new China, where Walkmans and Big Macs jostle for space in a world still overseen by the gerontocracy that gave China the cultural revolution." It's tidy, but it's too simple, and not entirely true. Many of the party elders, like Zhu Rongji, spent the cultural revolution being "re-educated" by youthful Red Guards on rural pig farms. If they're surprisingly tolerant of small acts of rebellion, it's because they know all too well what kind of whirlwind can be reaped by screwing the lid down too tightly on youthful energy.
In the N.Y. Observer, Andrew Sarris takes a more nuanced, if somewhat penitent, view of Jia and his generation:
"America, and the rest of the Western world, may have much to answer for in the disruptions caused to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. But before we succumb to the fruitless self-flagellation, we should stop to realize that we, too, are victims of the most pernicious vices of our omnivorous capitalist system. Ultimately, Jia's strenuous self-portrait is not merely lifelike; it is life itself."
As with most liberal perspectives on the world, Sarris reaches for the ashes and the hair shirt before he glances at the facts; China, after a long and glorious history, was a political and economic basketcase by the 19th century, and if Britain or Germany - or, much later, America - wasn't meddling in its affairs, it was being eyed with cold intent by its neighbour, Japan, whose incursions and abuses on the mainland over most of the first half of the 20th century are more specifically atrocious than any "disruptions" caused by the west. Even today, America might be the distant capital of pernicious pop culture, but Japan is the unsleeping invasion HQ.
In fact, Jia is that most typical of rebels - an undeniable, essentially insufferable snob. While most Chinese youth listen to Cantopop and long to spend their money on Japanese fashions and fads, he goes straight for the jeans-and-leather uniform of Brando and Dean, and listens to nothing but the Beatles, while lying in bed all day under a poster of John Lennon, reciting the lyrics to "Let It Be" (oddly enough, a Paul song) to himself like a koan. His rebellion is pure and non-materialistic, classic Byronian romanticism filtered through 60s spiritual idealism, enabled by the "visionary" properties of drugs, apparently Jia's sole cash outlay.
I've never been too sold on the "visionary" aspects of drug use, despite doing a load of the stuff in the course of a rather aimless, undramatically rebellious youth. Whatever your drug of choice - speed, the hypercaffeine; pot, the great brain oppressor; acid, the daytripper's funicular ride through controlled psychosis; "magic" mushrooms, which turn the world into one big special effect; cocaine, distilled, unearned confidence for ten minutes a snort; heroin, the painkiller of painkillers - the overall effect is the always the same. Drugs make you feel superior by making the world seem silly, laughable, pointless, trite, distant, or merely an amusing spectacle put on solely for your entertainment. It's a great mental accessory for the rebel, who strives to maintain a stance of disdainful aloofness at all costs. It's also the significant reason why junkies, and rebels, quickly become the most tiresome people you've ever known.
Patterson in the L.A. Weekly nails it in one sentence: "Whether Quitting will prove absorbing to American audiences is debatable: After all, it's not like we don't have enough rehab stories of our own, and Jia often comes across as a sullen, unreachable brat." The really impressive theatrical conceit behind Quitting is that Jia plays himself, almost ten years on, along with his parents, also professional actors, and the actual inmates of the asylum where Jia was sent to dry out. There's something incredibly brave about playing a really objectionable asshole with the audience's full knowledge that you're playing yourself.
In the NY Times, A.O. Scott applauds the bravery - and rare, unsentimental emotional payoff - of the film: "Somehow, inviting people to recreate moments of vulnerability and confusion affirms their dignity rather than stripping it away." Roger Ebert also finds it remarkable: "This gives the film an eerie, intrinsic interest: they act in scenes based on remembered pain. This is however not a documentary, and a startling shot late in the film underlines the fact that it is artistry, not fact." I suppose someone, somewhere, will use the word "empower" - and I hope everyone reading it will roll their eyes at this now-meaningless term - but the complicity of the cast, and particularly the protagonist, in telling their story, makes it fairly certain that the film's ending was nearly exactly the summing up that they wanted the audience to see.
Jia, whose drug-induced paranoia has grown around the delusion that he's really John Lennon's son, is committed by his parents after he assaults his father and threatens the family. Frankly, I only wondered why they hadn't taken that step much earlier, but I'm sure that's a question every family with an addict in their midst asks themselves. In the asylum, Jia is forced to become part of a society, albeit one comprised of the mentally unbalanced, and in the process has some of his haughty, aesthete's disdain stripped away. Andrew Sarris describes the transformation this forces on the film, as well as Jia, quite well: "Once he starts learning to compromise with reality enough to become comparitively sane and healthy, the film becomes predictably conventional. The problem is tha any addiction becomes hopelessly banal when it's treated as a 'problem' to be solved or cured or even exorcised."
And so Jia returns home, humbled and sedate, if not actually sedated. In his absence, his family has re-decorated the apartment, turning a junkie's crash pad into a middle-class flat, boxing up Jia's belongings for him to go through and - the implication is clear - begin to discard along with his old life. In his director's statement, Zhang concludes that "we will leave it to the audience to decide whether the conclusion of the film represents success or failure."
Jia's IMDB filmography is definitely not complete, but it does indicate that he has continued to work as an actor in the intervening years between making Quitting and the events that inspired it. His decision to revisit his former self seems, to me, a brave and healthy one, and it's to be assumed that his family have cultivated enough distance from the events in question that they've been able to live through them, once again, with some confidence. To me, that makes Quitting the story of a success, an unquestionable redemption, if only because it was so apparently awful to live with - and be - Jia Hongsheng as a junkie, and so much better to live with the more sedate, thoughtful, realistic man that he becomes.
Which is why I find Roger Ebert's take on the film to be so confounding. Quitting, in his mind, "buys into the whole false notion that artists are somehow too brilliant to be sober - that drugs and booze are almost necessary to tame their creativity, dull their pain, and allow them to tolerate life with the clods around them. Thus the 'cure' is not so much to stop using as to stop dreaming; one must become boring to become clean and sober."
For not the first time, I wonder whether I've seen the same film as Roger Ebert. That perhaps there are two different versions; that my advance tape contains some radically different edit of the film; that Ebert has, in his spare time, learned Mandarin, and is thus able to divine nuances in the film that I, relying on subtitles, am doomed to miss. But no - I think the difference is, once again, generational. The clue for me is Ebert's use of the word "clods" to describe everyone not hip, not creative, not in tune with their dreams.
He's done nothing to force us to ignore the fact, but I'm once again reminded that Ebert co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, hardly a counterculture product as bona fide as, say, Easy Rider, but one that tried manfully - if a bit sleazily - to partake of the 60s zeitgeist, while sending it up at the same time. While on the one hand Ebert admits that there's "nothing more boring than a drunk or an addict repeating the same failed pattern every day", he still finds the "wasted Romantic" ideal compelling enough to impose it on Zhang's film. Where I saw a great performance by an actor playing, with some familiarity, a really objectionable, compulsively self-destructive, delusional egotist, Ebert seems to have seen a compelling, striving dreamer tamed and forced to conform. I saw someone like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend; Ebert saw something like Alec in A Clockwork Orange.
Just as I can't help but applaud Jia's decision to buckle down, to grasp reality, and don't consider this to be conformity, but rather a re-assertion of healthy social instincts, I can't help but wonder whether some of the genius behind Quitting - an unexpected leap from Zhang as a director, it has to be said - is a response to the particular demands of making a film in mainland "communist" China today. As Andrew Sarris wrote in his review, "I don't know enough about Chinese censors to be sure that a completely downbeat tale of drug addiction could ever be made, even in the name of a cautionary realism." We never see Jia score, or spend much time being shown where he gets the money - unusual in the best of "fourth-generation" Chinese cinema, where very banal financial transaction is carefully enumerated.
Perhaps, prevented from making that cautionary tale, Zhang was forced to take a different approach, to dwell on the rare conceit of cinematic autobiography, and the implicit theatricality that his casting demanded. In some way, then, we can thank the gerontocracy of the People's Republic of China for Quitting; as for myself, I can't help but mutter to myself a little truism I once coined, learned the hard way, after drugs became boring, and flamboyant, inarticulate rebellion tedious: In art as in life, sometimes a little repression goes a long way.
(posted 12:52pm | 12.03.02)
#0103 - "WORLD DOMINATION. SAME OLD DREAM." - "Clearly, it's time to do what we always do when psycopaths are threatening the civilized world - while civil-libertarian absolutists bray and Kofi Annan calls for more 'patience' - and we've exhausted all other alternatives," writes Jason Riley on the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal site. "It's time to call in 007."
Riley isn't the only other person who's noticed the similarity between Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and the non-aligned baddies in Ian Fleming's espionage novels and the movies that spun out from them like mutant jungle creepers. In his introduction to Penguin's Modern Classics reissue of three Bond novels this year, Christopher Hitchens writes:
"By some latent intuition, Fleming was able to peer beyond the Cold War limitations of mere spy fiction and to anticipate the emerging milieu of the Columbian cartels, Osama bin Laden and, indeed, the Russian mafia, as well as the nightmarish idea that some fanatical megalomaniac would eventually collar some weapons-grade plutonium."
I came across Hitchens' quote in Jeet Heer's Boston Globe account of Fleming's re-assessment as a writer, which recounts how the creator of Bond, once a favorite of grumpy Tories like Kingsley Amis and Ken Follett, has now been claimed by leftists like Hitchens and Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, whose revisionist view of Bond moves him from the "sexist pig" camp to a place in the pantheon of feminist fellow travelers:
"Both James Bond and Playboy were saying, 'Screw marriage, sex should be a toy.' Here were all these women stuck with washer-dryers and suddenly men were waying 'I want a bunny.' The women responded 'Hey, wait a minute, we did everything we were supposed to, and now you're walking out?' The result was the women's movement."
I'm not entirely certain that the "sexual revolution" can be summed up as a seven-year itch argument between resentful spouses, but it's interesting to read alongside, say, Jeannette Winterson's recent re-imagining of Bond as a lesbian.
Anyone who wants to read something more substantive on the Bond phenomenon might want to look at the Toronto Globe & Mail's analysis of the importance of Die Another Day, the 20th Bond film, to MGM, "the last major Hollywood studio that is not part of a media conglomerate", and which relies on profits from feature films for 85% of its annual revenue. MGM has had a lousy year, as films like Hart's War and Rollerball have underperformed, and John Woo's Windtalkers, which cost US$115 million, made back only $40 million. MGM has only 2.7% of the U.S. and Canadian box office share, compared to Sony's 19 percent.
Die Another Day cost US$130 million to make, with another $30 million earmarked for marketing, which may or may not include tie-ins with Revlon, Finlandia Vodka, and Ford. (I suppose Aston Martin can't really compare to Ford in marketing muscle, but the new Ford Thunderbird being relaunched with Pierce Brosnan at the wheel really is a sweet-looking piece of car.) The good news is the movie made $47 million in its opening weekend. The bad news is that there's nothing to stop MGM from making another Rollerball this year.
Bill Desowitz interviews all of the Bonds in an L.A. Times piece, where Sean Connery admits he'd be willing to play a Bond villain if the price was right. He also explains why he left the series: "One wound up doing less and less, as it were. And the other thing was that they were always committing to an opening before they had a script ready, which is rather like the studios now." In other words, every major studio action picture is made on the same basis as Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die, which explains quite a bit.
George Lazenby regrets that he left the series after only one film, but recounts that a London hipster advised him that Easy Rider was going to kill off the franchise. (Now there's an alternate universe I never want to visit.) I would love to find that hipster today, corner him in his early-Conran-furnished flat, duct tape him into his bubble chair and play him Duran Duran's "A View To A Kill" over and over.
New Statesman film critic Phillip Kerr analyses Bond in a Telegraph piece, and uncovers an Oedipal strain in Bond. M was also the nickname of Ian Fleming's mother, apparently, which gives the majority of Bond films when M was played by Bernard Lee a funny twist. It requires some contortion, so Kerr casts Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny as Jocasta: "Moneypenny strokes Bond's hair like an indulgent mother, while Bond tells her she is the only woman for him, like a properly Oedipal son. Jealously, M interrupts this tender moment on the intercom..." Frankly, it's all a bit more like Hamlet to me, but who am I, a mere colonial, to argue with a British film critic?
Now that M is a woman, played by Judi Dench, Kerr is happy to let the theory mutate further, describing it as a "one-parent home ... just right for the millenium." Kerr doesn't have a lot of love for the franchise, obviously - "there hasn't been a decent Bond film since Goldfinger" - so the whole piece smacks of the perfunctory, yet another piece commissioned for the occasion of the relase of yet another Bond.
Anthony Lane's Bond round-up in The New Yorker comes from a much fonder place, and begins with a priceless anecdote of Lane's own birth, around the time of the release of the first Bond:
"I speak with a vested interest, since my mother went to see James Bond when she was expecting me. I was already two weeks late, enjoying the cinematic darkness of the womb, and my father, with a vague but prophetic belief that I could be induced by sheer excitement, took my mother to see Dr. No. Sadly, the experiment failed. I am told that I took another three days to appear, although I like to think that my parents spared me the truth, that I was indeed born in a movie theatre, and that the first thing I ever saw in the universe was Ursala Andress' conch."
Lane digs up some great anecdotes, like how Cubby Broccoli donated one of his own Rolex Oysters from his own wrist when it became apparent that Dr. No's budget wouldn't allow for the purchase of a decent watch for Connery's Bond. He describes the Bond series in one perfect phrase - "a B-movie franchise that turned into an A-list event" - and anatomises the appeal of the Connery Bonds: "Style junkies have long looked to the early Bonds for their fix of sixties allure, and there is something addictive in the lightweight suits with their slender lapels, the shirts of palest blue, and - a lovely touch for the holder of a 00 prefix, whose entitlement to murder goes with the job - the tie of unobtrusive black."
Lane also nails the particular flaw from which all Bond films suffer, a systemic one, built into each of the twenty films from the DNA they inherited from the first, Dr. No. It used to happen about halfway through each Bond film, and seems to creep closer and closer to the traditional pre-credit chase sequence:
"Out goes the flirting and the tuxedo, and in comes a grim set of the jaw and a generous but random distribution of giant fireballs. I know of no moviegoer who finds this transformation remotely cathartic. The only genre that clings to such unsatisfying structures with anything liek the same conservatism is the porno flick; as the performers heave and bellow their way toward the climactic blowout, you sense the absolute drainage not just of humor but - and this is really bad news - of genuine arousal, and so it is with Bond. All the sexiness of a Bond movie, all the glimmers of a desirable existence, are there in the buildup. The salvation of mankind, by comparison, is a bit of a letdown."
Lane's solution is simple: pull Casino Royale, the only remaining, untouched Fleming Bond (the absurd David Niven/Peter Sellers film doesn't count) out of mothballs and give it to Ang Lee to film - as a period thriller. "You know the form: convertible Bentley for you, conical bras for the ladies. Got that? Oh, and a message from Q: Grow up, 007."
(posted 09:55am | 11.26.02)
#0102 - FAR, BUT NOT THAT FAR - Reviews of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, including my own, have been uniformly raving, the few quibbles coming across as almost embarassed, as if the reviewers were simply unwilling, embarassed even, to be seen loving a film quite as much as they did. So far, I'd call it the best film I've seen all year, and if it doesn't get Haynes, Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Ed Lachman and composer Elmer Bernstein Oscar nominations, then this will be the first Oscar ceremony in my adult life I'll boycott out of outraged principle.
Writing about a period melodrama - one based explicitly on the work of Douglas Sirk, the master of the genre - naturally gives the writers an opportunity to discuss with some familiarity their perceptions of the 50s, a decade that few of them, with one notable exception, actually lived through as adults. Most reviewers don't make it past the second paragraph without a prim dismissal of the era: "...its story of thwarted desire and soul-killing pretense ... a ruthless social machinery devoted to their suppression" - A.O. Scott in the NY Times; "...a small town where people go about their business quietly, including the business of dying inside...a world of repressed feeling..." - Manohla Dargis in the L.A. Times; "Haynes communicates how helpless and imprisoned these people are - how hard it is to make a move that hasn't been choreographed...A society that styles itself as open is actually rigorously and thoroughly proscribed." - David Edelstein in Slate.
Interestingly, the language they use is as melodramatic as the film they're writing about, probably even more so. Scott of the NY Times goes so far as to state that this sense of repression, of "thwarted desire", was "hardly a new idea; it was, indeed, part of the era's understanding of itself." The logic is simple: Haynes is known as an ironist, working in a genre that is understood as inherently ironic, which imbues the whole project with an essential archness. Edelstein calls it "a movie so postmodern and infused with irony and at the same time so sincere and emotionally accessible". Anthony Lane in the New Yorker writes: "I confess to feeling the hot breath of an agenda on my neck..." Andrew Sarris, the only writer I've read who experienced the 50s as not only an adult but as a film critic, writes in the New York Observer that "Mr. Haynes is too much the ironist to satisfy my craving for full-bodied romanticism," adding that "it can be argued that this is more my problem than his, and so be it."
What's intriguing about the reviews I've read is how conflicted they seem, how they appreciate Haynes' supposed irony, yet (with the notable exception of Sarris) gush over his ability to, in Manola Dargis' words, "sweep (his audience) away in a flood of tears." It's not so surprising, then, that the consensus take on the 50s is all over the map. It was personally satisfying to read a few admissions of longing for the look and even the sensibilities of the supposedly crushingly conformist Eisenhower decade; I'm not as partisan as my wife, who's given to expressing bitter frustration of being cheated of living in the only period where she could afford to stay at home and raise kids in a modicum of comfort, but I've always suspected that so much of the vilification directed at the 50s by baby boomers had a sour ring that made me think to myself "methinks thou dost protest too much..."
Anthony Lane gets past the perfunctory aversion fast, in the first paragraph of his review, when he admits to finding the suburban 50s world created by Haynes and his crew undeniably attractive. "I wanted nothing more than a buzz cut, a bourbon, a fridge the size of a car, and a car the size of a killer whale." He moves in quickly on Julianne Moore's magnificent performance as Cathy, and compares her to Annette Bening in another tale of suburban crisis, the overrated American Beauty:
"We were being more or less instructed to mock her, and the society that spawned her, whereas Moore gives herself room to explore the idea less condescending, more historically accurate, and in an odd sense more liberating that the kempt and orderly mores of the age were indeed enough to make millions of people happy, and that it is not the predestined duty of all facades to crack."
Scott in the Times edges toward the same conclusion but stops a few steps short, concluding that the film "rediscovers the aching, desiring humanity in the genre - and a period - too often subjected to easy parody or ironic appropriation." Andrew O'Hehir in Salon finds the relationship between Moore's Cathy and Dennis Haysbert's sensitive black gardener Raymond particularly touching, and as a critic finds one particular line, where Raymond wishes that people could "see beyond the colour, the surface of things", as a kind of mission statement from Haynes: "I understand the line as Haynes' plea to his audiences to resist the easy allure of style and superficial beauty, to seek profound connections in life as in art. Raymond and Cathy are trapped in a lovingly realized era, a kind of beautiful confection, from which they can never escape. But they've had their fleeting instant together. In our own age of so-called liberation, are we so much better off?" David Edelstein admits to his attraction to Far From Heaven's world much more bluntly, crediting Haynes' film with another level of irony, noting that the New York premiere was a collaboration with House & Garden magazine. "How wonderfully subversive! And how about those gorgeous houses and gardens!"
As someone who was born in the years just after the 50s, I have memories that suggest that the style and feel of the decade died hard, which might explain some of the attraction. And as anyone who suffered through the 70s as a sentient being, I can swear that uncomfortable synthetics and an official culture of "acting out" and flagrant celebration of insecurity is hardly preferable to cotton and wool, clean, bright lines and a sense of optimism, even if it is meant to hide deeper fears. It's not the kind of thing you build a philosophy on, but I think it gives some hint of why so many reviewers seem to grapple with their attraction, making rote statements about conformity and oppression while celebrating the clothes, the style, and the emotional directness of a genre that Haynes as director approaches with obvious respect, and only as much irony as any modern person would bring to a period piece.
Of all the reviews I've read, Andrew Sarris' is the most interesting, if not the one closest to my own reactions. (That would be Lane, almost inevitably.) Sarris, a Korean war vet, is often obliged to defend the decade, and his attitude has become a bit defensive - "...the 50s are still my favorite moviemaking decade, both here and abroad, but it would take me too long to explain why." Perhaps it's the kind of reactions he witnessed at a showing of Far From Heaven, where "Ms.Moore elicited condescending giggles from the largely youthful, hip audience at the screening I attended. How ridiculous people were back in the 50s!"
As the only major critical voice not utterly in thrall to Julianne Moore as Cathy, Sarris complains that the role is "modeled more on 50s sitcoms than on the actual 50s incarnations of Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows." With this in mind, he suggests, it's not surprising that the hipsters were giggling - they'd been primed to do so, practically in the womb, by "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best".
Sarris draws on his deep knowledge of film history to debunk any idea that Haynes film is bent on "'exposing the dark corners of our national life in the Eisenhower years." He begins with an attack on the irony that's accrued around Sirk and his favorite leading man, "closet-gay icon Rock Hudson": "The fact that Rock Hudson didn't reveal his homosexuality in his screen roles during this period does not in itself make his Sirk-Hunter vehicles retroactively ironic." There is still, Sarris says, a closet in Hollywood, making the point that if hypocrisy is essential for the ironic perspective, what right do we have to mete out judgement in the form of irony?
The race issue, Sarris recalls, was hardly banned from the screens in the 50s - far from it, as Sirk's own 1959 Imitation of Life, regarded by many critics as his masterpiece, attests. Sarris accuses Haynes of loading the dice with Far From Heaven: "I would suggest that Haynes has indulged in sentimental overkill to make Cathy so earnest and self-sacrificing, her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) so convulsively anguished about his gay instincts, and Raymond ... so noble and rational as to make Sidney Poitier at his noblest seem a competitive rascal." It's a reaction echoed in Lane's review when he writes, after summing up the plot's two life-shattering conflicts, that "I can't help feeling that one would have been more than enough."
And I'd disagree, if only because of my own memories of watching Sirk's Written on the Wind for the first time, in the back room of The Rivoli, a local rock club, one weekday winter night almost twenty years ago. Like Giant, with which it shares a setting, it seemed a film constantly on the verge of teetering over, collapsing under the weight of its own hyperdrama, its loaded imagery (the landscape of oil wells, the little boy bucking madly on the mechanical horse) and the top-heavy anguish of its characters. I was embarassed by it all, and probably giggled like the hipsters at Sarris' screening, but it stayed with me more than a lot of films I probably thought more highly of at the time, and today I own the Criterion DVD.
More than the 60s, I'd always thought of the 50s as a period of real drama. The 60s, thanks to the baby boomers, became known as the acme of change, the watershed decade, after which nothing would be the same. I've never been able to but it. As Haynes himself puts it in an interview published in Salon: "There's this idea that history is innately progressive and that as we move forward we become a more open and sophisticated society. Sorry guys! It's just not true."
It's hard to call the 60s more pivotal than the war years, or the depression that went before them, or the social and economic frenzy of the 20s, or the morally cataclysmic four years of WW1. The first half of the decade was about real historical change, while the 60s, for the most part, were about the celebration of change, the borrowing of rhetoric and imagery from the past to decorate and legitimize what was really mostly about demographic shifts, the first time in recent memory that young people dictated the agenda of a society, and if you're at all realistic about young people, you'll recognize what a disaster that can be and, in fact, really was.
The 50s, regarded and later retailed by boomers as an era of stagnation, rumbled with change and conflict, though it would be hard to see that as a grade school child in a suburb, then or now. As Haynes puts it, "...the civil rights changes that had begun during the war were starting to bristle under the surface. The 50s are interesting because there's so much going on under the surface that's about to explode; the decade was just this very quick patch job from what had just prededed it."
And yes, the clothes and the cars were much, much nicer than what was to come.
(posted 02:52pm | 11.22.02)