Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - All in the Family Edition: Mother-Daughter Relationships

Written for the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. You can play, too: Just pick three films that match the week's theme!

This month's All in the Family Edition of Thursday Movie Picks focuses on that trickiest of familial relationships: Mothers and Daughters. These can be either the most loving or the most toxic relationships in a family. I've chosen to focus this week on the latter type, since they're usually more fun. I've included some spoilers for these films, and on the off-chance you haven't seen them (and really, you should, since these are all GREAT films), I've put them in white text. Just highlight and you'll be able to read.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) Poor Erica Sayers. She got knocked up while in the corps of one of the most prestigious ballet companies in America, and it ended her career. Thankfully, she had a daughter that she could raise in her image. All she wanted for her daughter, Nina, was for her to grow up into the prima ballerina Erica herself never got the chance to be. But then her daughter went and got herself some psychological problems, and poor Erica had to work even harder to keep her daughter safe. And then, Nina finally gets noticed by the smarmy Artistic Director of the ballet company and gets the lead in Swan Lake, playing both Odile and Odette! Erica is so excited for her daughter, but this honor goes straight to Nina's head - she starts going out late at night, and locking herself in her bedroom, and stealing things from the company's former lead dancer. What happened to Erica's sweet little girl? And then Nina's crazy starts to manifest again, and despite all Erica does to keep her out of the spotlight that is clearly driving her insane, what does her ungrateful little daughter do? She FUCKING STABS HERSELF IN THE STOMACH WITH A PIECE OF BROKEN MIRROR AND DANCES UNTIL SHE FUCKING DIES. Poor Erica.
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) Annie Johnson is a sweetheart, beloved by all who come into contact with her. Except, that is, for her daughter Sarah Jane. You see, it is the late 40s and early 50s, and Sarah Jane is light-skinned enough (thanks to her father) that she can pass for white. This is something Annie cannot do and is not interested in doing. But as girls grow up, parents have less and less control over them, and soon enough Sarah Jane has graduated from high school and is working at the local library and dating a nice boy from the church. Or so she told her mother. In reality, she was dating a white boy who beat her when he found out she was black, and working as a performer in a seedy nightclub. When Annie finds out about this job, she rushes off to save her daughter, as any mother would. But the girl won't leave, and the commotion causes her to get fired. So she runs away, breaking her poor mother's heart. And what happens next between them will break your heart, too, unless you're a robot, because the final scenes of this version of Imitation of Life make it the single most effective tear-jerker in Hollywood history.
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) Veda Pierce is the biggest little shit of them all. How exactly she got that way is admittedly a bit of a mystery, since her mother is a hard worker who had to scrape and save and work her ass off to get what little she has. But Veda is an aspiring classical musician, and only has eyes for the finer things in life, which her mother who loves her dearly continues to provide - despite it forcing her to live beyond her means. And how does Veda thank her mother for her wonderful life? She puts the moves on her mother's husband (in James M. Cain's novel and Todd Haynes's miniseries with Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, she has a full-blown affair with him), and after he rebuffs her, she FUCKING SHOOTS HIM. And what does our dear Mildred do? She LIES TO SAVE THE LITTLE SHIT. Or at least, she tries to, but can't quite bring herself to go through with it. Which is fine, because no one should be able to slap Joan Crawford and get away with it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bind Spot #3: Diary of a Chambermaid

Written as part of the series hosted by Ryan at The Matinee.

While watching Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid this weekend, I kept asking different "Why..." questions. Namely, why did I choose this particular film for this project?
I mean, I know why in theory: Of the Buñuel films I own, this was the earliest, and it seemed like a good warm-up for both the current version with Lea Seydoux in the title role (as perfect casting for Benoît Jacquot as Jeanne Moreau was for Buñuel) and Buñuel's later psychosexual masterpiece, Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve. Unfortunately, I don't really think it ended up being either of those things, nor was it overall a good representation of Buñuel as a filmmaker.

Things start off well enough, with shots of scenery passing outside of a train window just out of focus enough for us to be not entirely sure what we're looking at. But it eventually becomes clear, and we see Jeanne Moreau as Célestine, a woman from Paris come to the country to serve as chambermaid to a bourgeois family. The family certainly has its quirks: Madame seems to care far more about the things in the house than the people in it, including her own husband who, incidentally, apparently comes on to everything with boobs and legs. And of course, the patriarch, to whom we are introduced as he shoots a butterfly off a flower, only to proclaim instantly afterwards that he has both never shot a gun before and actually quite likes butterflies. Serving him is one of Célestine's primary duties, and in addition to having her serve him herbal tea, he wants her to wear and walk around in some old boots.
That's pretty much the extent of anything sexually perverse in the film. Yes, Monsieur makes some advances to Célestine, which she rebuffs - only after flirting with him extensively (after which he takes the other, "ugly" maid out into the barn to do things with). And yes, there is some drama around a young girl who for some unexplained reason hangs around the house and whose body is found at around the film's midway point, having been raped and murdered. It is strongly implied, although never spoken outright, that the house's farmer/handyman Joseph, who is quite politically active in France's nascent fascist movement, committed this crime.

And that right there is my biggest problem with this film. In adapting the novel by Octave Mirbeau, Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (this is the first of several collaborations between the two, another reason why I chose this film) chose to update the novel's turn-of-the-century setting to the 1930s, a time of some political unrest in France. Apparently. I don't really know French history THAT well. But whatever the history was, politics makes many appearances throughout the film, and strangely, the film ends with Joseph, a proprietor of a café, just like the one he had talked about starting with Célestine (she became intimate with him in order to confirm her suspicion that he killed the little girl). He cheers on protestors saying (among other things) "Vive Chiappe!" Jean Chiappe was a popular police prefect who, because of his very right-leaning politics, had successive governments try in vain to remove him from his post. In February 1934, they finally succeeded, and the far-right leagues launched a demonstration in protest, which - this being France - rapidly deteriorated into a full-on riot against the government. Buñuel had a personal vendetta against Chiappe because he banned L'Age d'Or when he was police prefect in Paris.

Anyway, history lesson aside, the decision to cede the film's final scene to Joseph is odd, since Célestine is very obviously our main character. In the end, she marries the blowhard ex-Army officer neighbor of her former employers, hires the "ugly" maid she used to work with to work for her, and gives the impression of becoming everything her employers were. Not worse, but certainly no better. The film could have ended there just fine. But it continues on to the protest scene with Joseph, and I'm suddenly lost. I'm sure this ending probably had more meaning to the French audiences of 1964, but it went way over my head. Yes, seeing these hordes of people marching in the streets is chilling, but it does not seem of a piece with the story of the rest of the film. There's been political talk in the film, so it doesn't come completely out of left field, but it hasn't been the main storyline, and this one scene hijacks the narrative in such a way that I had to question the entire film I just watched... and not in a good way.
If there's a reason to see Diary of a Chambermaid, it's Jeanne Moreau. She's perfect as Célestine, impenetrable yet somehow completely open. We are constantly aware of what she's thinking, even if what she feels about it remains a tantalizing mystery. She single-handedly gives the film whatever sexiness it has, and that gorgeous face makes the last scene perfectly ambiguous - is Célestine happy to get what she has always wanted and becoming just like her employers whom she hated, or is she finding that this life that once seemed so great really isn't fulfilling at all? It's great, great work.

Buñuel is certainly on good form for most of the film, as well. Diary of a Chambermaid is certainly a great-looking film, and while it largely lacks the surrealist imagery that is a hallmark of the director's work, it does contain its fair share of striking images - the butterfly getting shot off the flower; the dead girl's bare leg, snails slowly crawling up it; and one particular shot of Monsieur and Madame that looks for all the world like a split-screen, emphasizing just how separate their lives are.

But for me, this Diary of a Chambermaid doesn't nearly live up to its potential. The material seems like a good fit for Buñuel, but he doesn't do enough with it: It's not sexy enough, not perverse enough, not funny enough, not subversive enough, and in the end, not focused enough. For all that happens, it doesn't feel like a story with an arc, just a series of events with an arbitrary endpoint that practically comes out of nowhere. Could that be making a larger point about life? Perhaps. But I don't think so. Not in this case. In this case, it looks like Buñuel's personal stuff got in the way of making this as good as it could have been.

Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une Femme de Chambre)
Year: 1964
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
Screenplay by: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, Françoise Lugagne, Jean Ozenne, Daniel Invernel, Muni
Rating: **1/2

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Movies adapted from a Young Adult Novel

Written for the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. It's easy to join - just pick three films that meet the week's theme, all of which are listed at the link!

Ah, Young Adult literature! Along with superheroes, the bane of the modern adult moviegoer's existence. Actually, saying that does a disservice to some very good films. I think everyone has a special spot in their heart for at least one YA novel, and when it gets turned into a movie, they get very protective of it. I know I did with one particular recent adaptation, which exceeded my expectations in all the best ways. Here is that one, along with two other very good picks for when you want to feed your inner teenager.
The Princess Diaries (Garry Marshall, 2001) I don't really understand the hatred directed towards Anne Hathaway, but I freely admit that that is because I have loved her ever since I first laid eyes on her as awkward teen/budding beauty Mia Thermopolis in Garry Marshall's great teen flick. Face it: The girl is a star, and has been ever since her first moment on screen in this, her feature film debut. But good as she as a girl thrust into the spotlight when she learns she is actually of royal blood and is called upon to rule her family's kingdom (by fairy godgrandmother Julie Andrews, because who else would it be?), I really want to acknowledge how damn good the rest of the cast is. There's Mandy Moore, relishing playing the bitchy bad-girl teen queen; Heather Matarazzo, the perfect teenage activist nerd as Mia's best friend Lily; Erik Von Detten as the perfectly sleazy blonde teen dreamboat; Robert Schwartzman, the quietly cool kid any teenage girl wants as their best friend/boyfriend; Caroline Goodall, all warmth and ease and Mia's bohemian mom; Hector Elizondo as Dame Queen Julie's long-time bodyguard/paramour, perfectly Hector Elizondo-ish; and, most gloriously, Sandra Oh as Vice Principal Gupta, stealing the whole entire movie in three short, hilarious, perfectly timed scenes of comic mastery.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012) This was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I was a wallflower, ever the quiet observer, never the active social butterfly seemingly everyone else around me was in middle school and high school. So a whole lot of this book spoke to me on a gut level. I was incredibly nervous when it was announced that the author himself was directing the inevitable feature film version - he had never directed anything before (actually he had directed one feature way back in the 90s)! It smelled of over-protectiveness and over-indulgence. Plus, so much time had passed from the novel's publishing that it would probably feel extremely dated; I mean, mixtapes are central plot points. MIXTAPES. When was the last time you listened to, let alone made, one of those? Imagine my delighted surprise, then, when the film turned out to be a low-key masterpiece, with perfect casting all the way down the line and three truly incredible central performances. Ezra Miller became a star as troubled but nonetheless flamboyant gay teen Patrick. Emma Watson was PERFECTION as his sister Sam (seriously, to my complete and utter shock I can't imagine anyone else playing that part this well). And Logan Lerman. Logan Lerman, giving one of the all-time great teen performances as titular wallflower Charlie. And it turns out Chbosky is no slouch as a director either, choosing his moments for directorial flourishes very carefully for maximum impact. I'm sorry I ever doubted him. Bonus points for a perfect ending.
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013) I do not understand why Perks and this lovely film received platform releases. Teenagers don't go to art house cinemas. They just DON'T. Yes, they're both much quieter than the usual teen fare (like my bonus pick), but being based of popular YA novels, they have a built-in audience. Plus, teens like to go see movies about themselves. Both of these films could have been much bigger hits than they were if they had opened wide. Not massive, world-conquering hits, but still. Anyway, the heart of The Spectacular Now is the lovely, wholly believable relationship between Miles Teller's Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley's Aimee Finecky. You will not find a more authentic-feeling relationship in any other teen movie, YA adaptation or not. Yes, the film is maybe a bit too quiet for its own good, but it has a real empathy for its characters that is lacking in most films of this ilk. I love this scene, where perpetually buzzed bad-ish boy Sutter kisses shy good-girl Aimee (how does Woodley manage to be so movie-star beautiful but perfectly real at the same time?) for the first time. When the film was over, I just wanted to spend more time with these characters, and that's saying something. Bonus points for Kyle Chandler's perfectly calibrated cameo, and an ending that deviates from the book and actually improves on it.

The Fault In Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014) If you don't cry at least once by the end of The Fault in Our Stars, you might not have a heart. Just saying. The story of cancer-stricken Hazel Grace Lancaster and her too-perfect-to-be-true boyfriend/cancer survivor Augustus Waters has been scientifically engineered by author John Green for maximum tear production. The screenplay was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote the superior The Spectacular Now, and it's hard not to wish it had that film's director as well, since the whole thing is far glossier than it should be. The novel makes quite a large point of railing against standard cancer-kid storylines and tropes, and while the film doesn't quite go so far as to play those tropes unironically, it largely replaces them with standard teen rom-com tropes, which the novel tends to twist a bit. Basically, this is one instance - unlike the three I picked this week - where I would happily tell anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet to read the book instead, despite Shailene Woodley's remarkable lead performance.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Quiet Man

February was a bit of a lonely month for me. This winter was the coldest in NYC in recent memory, and that cold, coupled with the fact that this was my first Valentine's Day (a holiday I usually don't put a lot of stock in; if you really love someone, you don't need a day set aside to tell them you love them, you do it every day) alone in eight years made me feel lonelier and more listless than usual. It was just enough to make the idea of Valentine's Day make a whole lot of sense: An oasis of warmth and light in the middle of the cold, dark months.

"But Daniel," I hear you say. "How on God's green Earth does any of that relate to John Ford's The Quiet Man, which Nathaniel chose for the St. Patrick's Day edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot?"

Well, I'll tell you. For nearly all of the past month, I have been aching to watch a romantic movie, but haven't quite been able to bring myself to do so. I didn't want to cry and feel resentful and end up ruining one of my favorite films by watching it under poor circumstances. When I queued up The Quiet Man, I remembered the (ridiculously entertaining) climactic fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen, and the fiery, untamed Maureen O'Hara, and the adorable little Irish imp Barry Fitzgerald. I remembered the impossibly lush green scenery of Ireland. I remembered how the film somehow manages to just barely avoid feeling like one giant Irish cliche, despite by all rights belonging in that realm.

What I had somehow forgotten is that the film also contains two of the hottest kisses ever captured on film.

And this windswept quiet storm of a film turned out to be just what I needed to warm me up and set me right again.

When John Wayne's Sean Thornton first sees Maureen O'Hara's Mary Kate Danaher, she is nothing short of a Technicolor vision of beauty - her bright red hair and underskirt slashing through the film's greens and blues like a fire.
She's just as intrigued by Thornton as he is by her, but she's also afraid, excited, and surprised by her own feelings towards him. If this is love at first sight, it's one of the most interesting images of it ever put on film.
So of course, it's no surprise that when the two actually meet (outside church, because OF COURSE they do) she's not quite sure what to do and basically runs away. She is, after all, a woman who has no problem being just as aggressive as the men in her little Irish village, and this Yankee interloper makes her feel a completely different kind of aggressive - one that scares her, and makes her scared of him.

YES, the film's gender politics are quite wobbly, but as Mary Kate soon learns, sometimes you just have to go with the regressive gender roles, because there's nothing hotter than a big strong man seeing what he wants and just taking it.

...and I swoon as my insides turn to mush. They may have layers and layers of clothing on, but that is downright erotic. For 1952, it's practically porn. This is a romance novel cover-worthy kiss of the highest order. And the best part - why this one is my best shot as opposed to the later kiss - is that there's no score. The only sound we hear is that of the raging wind. Which makes it even hotter - something really special. Mary Kate can feel it, too - when she finally pushes Sean away, it's with a sigh. He's taken all her strength, quenched her fire. It only takes her a second to get it back, though, and she goes to wallop him. If she hadn't taken quite such a large backswing to prepare, she might have landed it, too (apparently Wayne broke O'Hara's hand while blocking that slap, and since the film was shot in sequence, she had to do the entire rest of the film without a bandage - and considering what she has to go through, that's a pretty mean feat).
The shot doesn't stop there, though, as it gets even tighter on the two stars as Mary Kate goes to leave and Sean traps her against the door of his cottage (she came there to sweep up and start a fire, the neighborly, Christian thing to do... AND FOR NO OTHER REASON... she protests, a bit too much). Taking back her power where she can get it, Mary Kate unexpectedly plants one right on Sean's lips and promptly leaves. Oh, Mary Kate. The time for playing hard-to-get has long since passed.

And all this is to say nothing of the film's other big kiss, a rain-soaked as opposed to windswept beauty.

Give me a moment to catch my breath.




Okay, I'm good.

The Quiet Man is mostly a quiet movie, the kind of film that doesn't call too much attention to itself. It's not exactly understated, but it doesn't make any big gestures - and given the gorgeous locations they shot in, director John Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (both of whom won Oscars for this) easily could have. Instead, they get on the wavelength of their star leads, letting the natural elements of Ireland amplify the heat that exists between them (the later scene in which Sean finally gets Mary Kate's dowry money from her lout of a brother and then burns it, is practically bursting with erotic heat from Wayne and O'Hara, and they don't even touch). The rain, and especially the wind, are just the perfect touches to make these stolen embraces impossible to resist... and too hot to ignore.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Live Action Fairy Tale Adaptations

For the blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves, just pick three movies for the week's theme. That's it. Join us! It's fun!

This week's movie picks are Live Action Fairy Tale Adaptations, which is apropos since Disney's Ever After remake live-action Cinderella opens this weekend. But I have to say, this one threw me a bit. Where do you draw the line between a "fairy tale" and a children's fantasy? Or a folktale? For example, is Alice in Wonderland a fairy tale? Is The Wizard of Oz? The Emperor's New Clothes? I'm really not sure. The first two involve a "magical" trip to a strange land, but only Oz actually involves magic, which for me is a key ingredient for a fairy tale. The third involves no actual magic, but was published in Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children, and a version was filmed for Shelley Duvall's Fairie Tale Theatre. I decided that, for me, a fairy tale is a story that involves both magic (in some form) and a royal family (usually in the form of a princess). From there, these three basically picked themselves.
La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946) The Big Kahuna of live-action fairy tale adaptations, and with good reason. This is one of the most stunningly gorgeous films ever made. Jean Cocteau's near-surrealist version of the French fairy tale is so influential that every subsequent fairy tale film owes a debt to it - not just versions of this tale. How Jean Marais is able to emote through his Beast makeup I will never know, but he does, and Josette Day overcomes her resting bitchface to be a Beauty for the ages. But make no mistake, this is Cocteau's show, and even now, over 70 years later, the images he created still retain their ability to inspire wonder and awe.
Ever After (Andy Tennant, 1998) When I first saw the trailer for the new Cinderella, my immediate response was "So... they're just remaking Ever After?" Drew Barrymore makes for a lovely, proto-feminist Cinderella (née Danielle), and Anjelica Huston slyly spins gold from the stock role of the wicked stepmother. Yes, the script contains that heinous line about a bird loving a fish, but in Barrymore's hands, it doesn't feel nearly as cringe-worthy as it should. This is a fairy tale firmly grounded in reality (the role of the fairy godmother, we have.... Leonardo da Vinci?!?) that is all the better for it, reminding us that all stories we tell, however fantastical, have some basis in reality.
Snow White & the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders, 2012) Charlize Theron is God. Make no mistake, Snow White & the Huntsman is... not a good movie, but it is a fantastic-looking one, one of the most striking films in recent years, fairy tale or otherwise. And the centerpiece of the whole enterprise isn't either of the title characters, it's Theron's tremendous performance as the evil Queen Ravenna. Aided by some imaginative, truly special visual effects (the mirror! the soldiers that shatter like glass! the ravens!) and stunning costumes - both deservedly Oscar-nominated - Theron tears into the part like a hungry lioness, a vengeful wraith in medieval rock star couture descending on the land to avenge the pain brought upon her (and all women) by the men who had ruled it.
Oh yeah, and Kirsten Stewart isn't terrible in it, either, so...


Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007) Look, I know it isn't actually based off a pre-existing fairy tale (existing on its own as a send-up of Disney's animated fairy tales), but this is by far the best live-action fairy tale of the past twenty years. Clever Alan Menken-Stephen Schwartz songs, a fun, funny script, and flat-out brilliant performances from James Marsden (as the fairy-tale Prince Charming) and Amy Adams (who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her bonkers princess Giselle) make this one a film I will probably never stop enjoying, no matter how many times I see it. The "That's How You Know" scene still makes me shake with uncontrollable laughter (actually, Patrick Dempsey is really underrated in this - watch him in this scene again and tell me he doesn't make you laugh). Pity about Susan Sarandon's Evil Queen, but you can't have everything!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Paris Is Burning

Written for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series hosted by the wonderful Nathaniel at The Film Experience. Pick your "best shot" from the week's movie and join us!

I don't really know how to talk about Paris is Burning.

When something is as groundbreaking, as important, as Jennie Livingston's documentary is, how does one even begin to talk about it?

I'm not a queer theorist. I've never taken a gender studies class. I'm just one gay man out of thousands, who did (truly, truly terrible) drag once in college as a favor to a friend. And when talking about drag queens, as RuPaul's Drag Race has shown recently, it is very easy to step in it without even knowing.

Paris is Burning remains an essential watch to this day primarily because it so excellently captures a specific time and place and people that no one else in America was looking at: The Drag Houses of New York City in the late 80s/early 90s. In fact, people still don't really look at them, outside of the few who have made Logo's reality competition series a minor cable hit (the impact of the show outside gay culture is minimal).

And on top of all that, Nathaniel wants us to pick the film's "Best Shot". Documentaries are not generally known for their cinematography,  as they generally go about telling their story as truthfully as possible. In documentaries, words are usually more important than pictures. And here, a lot of the film's most arresting images stand out because of the fabulous creatures that fill them - the drag queens that positively set the screen on fire with their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent - and not really for any particular genius of framing or motion or lighting. WHAT cinematographer Paul Gibson's camera captures, in other words, is far more interesting than HOW he captures it. Not that there aren't some lovely images that capture 80s NYC perfectly, as the below image illustrates.
All of this is to say, what I find to be interesting about this film is probably mostly on the surface, and comes from my perspective as a performer who is gay. There are more important things that the film is saying, I'm sure, but I don't feel equipped to really talk about them. I can only speak to what I responded to most in the film.

I've seen Paris is Burning twice over the past six months now, and for me, the heart of the film is in the recurring interview scene of Dorian Corey in her dressing room putting on makeup, endlessly preparing for a ball. Corey has a very dry sort of wit, and it's these scenes that contain the most history of drag/ball culture, as well as general information on being a drag queen (it's Corey who provides this legendary definition of shade: "I don't tell you you're ugly, but... I don't have to tell you, because you know you're ugly."). When watching a documentary, I find it even harder than in a narrative feature to separate an image from the words that accompany it, and the combination of images and words that had the largest impact on me was this one:
"I always had hopes of being a big star. And then I looked - as you get older you, you aim a little lower. And you say, 'Well yeah, you might still make an impression.' Everybody wants to leave something behind them - some impression, some mark upon the world. And then you think you left a mark on the world if you just get through it. And a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues. And enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high? Hooray for you."
Corey is usually quite animated when speaking in other points in the film, even when focusing on putting makeup, but this entire clip (by far the most close-up we have ever been to any of the interview subjects in the film) is spoken with the kind of world-weary resignation of a past-their-prime performer who never hit the big time and is trying to save face, or convince themselves that it's okay they never hit the highs they just knew they were going to reach. Or maybe it's the last sigh of someone who has endured more hardship than anyone should have to take in one lifetime, putting on a brave show for the cameras. Or maybe, just maybe, it's only the sound of someone who is too intently focused on their makeup to sound like they really genuinely mean what they're saying. It's just enough to make you question whether or not Corey actually believes these words.
And that last bit? "Hooray for you"? THE SHADE. But who is it directed toward? The young kids who she excoriated as people who "wouldn't know what a ball was if it knocked 'em in the head"? The clique-y houses, to one of which it does not appear Corey belongs? Or the heterosexuals who run the world? The ones who the ball contestants dress up as, both to mock and to show that, in Corey's words, "I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one. Your peers, your friends, are telling you, 'Oh, you'd make a wonderful executive.' Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just a pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and the ones that do, are usually straight."

Hooray for you, straight, white world. You are fine just as you are. You can walk out the door with nothing on and no one would bat an eye and you would still have your money and your respect and your social standing. But the subjects of Paris is Burning can not. And if they did, they might not make it back to their homes alive (RIP Venus Xtravaganza). In order to go out, to be who they are, the subjects of Paris is Burning (and the generations of gay men who have come after, be they drag queens or otherwise) have to spend hours in front of a mirror, telling themselves whatever they need to in order to give themselves the confidence and self-esteem they need to get the only honor they can: A trophy from a ball. They will in all likelihood not get the chance to be an executive, or a movie star, or even a suburban housewife. But for those precious few moments when they are walking in a ball, they can own the world. Just like you do every day.

If I had to guess, that is the ultimate message of Paris is Burning. That when these enterprising people couldn't get anywhere by being themselves in the "real world", they created their own space, a safe space, where they could not only be themselves, but be rewarded for being the best version of themselves they could be. It's the story of America itself, and these people, who you would likely only look at with disdain or confusion if you passed them on the street, are living that story every damn day, no matter how hard it gets or how few people notice they're here. But here they are. And here they'll stay.

*                               *                               *

This shot also sticks out in my mind because of two other scenes that had an impact in 2014: One in the film Belle, in which Gugu Mbatha-Raw's colonial-era mulatto woman, born into wealth in a society that does not know how to handle her, sits in front of a mirror and tries to wipe off the color of her skin, wishing that she could somehow not be what she is. The other, in the TV show How To Get Away With Murder, in which Viola Davis's black attorney sits in front of her vanity and removes the makeup and wig she has to wear in order to command respect on a daily basis, and under which she hides the scared, uncertain parts of herself. It's interesting that these scenes, both undeniably powerful, involve someone taking off (or trying to take off) makeup.
Rewatching Paris is Burning for this project, I couldn't help but flash back to these scenes (particularly Davis's) whenever Corey popped back up onscreen. Annalise Keating showed her true colors by removing, but Corey - and the rest of the cast of Paris is Burning, for that matter - are only able to become their true selves by adding. Makeup, wigs, clothes... only by putting these things on can they be who they are (or would like to be) at their core.

I don't know what my larger point is here, or if I even have one, but it was something that struck me.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks - Black & White Movies Made Since 1970

Part of the weekly blogathon hosted by the lovely blog Wandering Through the Shelves. To participate, just pick three movies based around the week's given theme. Come join us!

This week's theme is pretty self-explanatory. Black & White can be extremely effective when used well, and indeed is usually used to make a point. Arguably all of my picks this week are throwbacks to an older style of filmmaking, which is why they went for B&W instead of color. I love them all for very different reasons.
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974) "It's FRAHNK-un-shteen!" "Roll, roll, roll in ze hay!" "What hump?" "Put. Ze candle. BACK." "It's pronounced eye-gore." "SAY IT! He... vas... my... BOYFRIEND!" "Could be worse. Could be raining." I could quote this film from here to eternity. Mel Brooks's delightful horror spoof is utter perfection from first frame to last, with Gene Wilder as Frederick, the grandson of the famous Dr. Victor Frankenstein, lured back to his family castle in Transylvania, which he has inherited after the death of his great-grandfather. Despite trying to distance himself from his family name and history, he finds his grandfather's lab - along with a book helpfully titled "How I Did It" - and decides to recreate his grandfather's experiment. Wilder is at his crazed. manic best here, and ultimate Mel Brooks sidekick Marty Feldman is priceless as his assistant Igor. The rest of the cast (Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, and of course Madeline Kahn) are also their usual brilliant selves. As with any Brooks film, the gags are fast, furious, and flawlessly funny.
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicious, 2011) The first movie about movies to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and a most deserving winner. Yes, it looks and feels just like a silent film, and that's a great enough feat in this day and age, but it's also very sly in the way it uses its soundtrack, first noticeable in one early scene where film star George Valentin (the effortlessly charming and charismatic Jean Dujardin) and up-and-coming extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the most interesting new face in movies) are shooting a scene for a film where they bump into each other on the dance floor, and they keep making mistakes or breaking character, and as they reshoot and reshoot the scene, the score ever so slowly drops out, until we're just watching them dance together, falling in love at first sight. Hazanavicious has made a film that condenses virtually all of film history into one delightful package. The Artist is why I love movies.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) Greta Gerwig's performance here is one of the greatest female lead performances of the last ten years. But, as with my other two picks, the entire ensemble is just perfection (although special shout-out to Mickey Summer, who is just as brilliant as Gerwig in the role of Frances's best friend). And even though the film revolves around Gerwig's awkward Frances, each ensemble member gets a chance to shine, even if it's just one quick reaction shot. Blisteringly funny, beautifully painful, and acutely observed, this is the finest film about... whatever this generation that just graduated from college is called. I can't praise it enough.

Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, 2005) One of the most distinctive and visually stunning films of the new millennium, I didn't feel I could in good conscience pick Sin City because it technically does have color. But goddamn do I love this movie. The images, largely pulled almost directly from Frank Miller's singular graphic novels, sear themselves into your brain after just one viewing. It may be almost too hard-boiled for its own good, but what a vision it is to behold.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Sound of Music

Yay! The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is back! In order to play, just select your favorite shot from the week's film, share it, and write a bit about it. It's fun, I promise!

There are two things that immediately pop into my head whenever I think of Robert Wise's Best Picture winner The Sound of Music. It seems odd that there are only two, when you consider how iconic the film has become, but I am what I am, and whenever I think of the film, I always think of that opening shot of Julie Andrews spinning on the mountaintop (a vision of pure joy matched only by Gene Kelly on the lamppost singing Singin' in the Rain) and the gazebo.

Yes, the gazebo. Not the sailor uniforms, not the clothes made from drapes. Not the marionettes, not the nuns. Not the gorgeous location shots of Vienna, not the stained glass windows of the abbey. The gazebo.

The gazebo on the von Trapp family property is where declarations of love are made. And coming out of the coldest February in memory in NYC (thanks, Mother Nature, for making my first winter living here such a delight!), and my first Valentine's Day as a singleton in eight years, I find myself needing the warmth of movie romance right now. Thankfully, The Sound of Music delivers on that front spectacularly.

Early in the film, the gazebo is the site of our first real glimpse into the character of anyone in the von Trapp family, as eldest child Liesl excuses herself from dinner to meet her paramour, letter-delivery boy Rolf. They have a lovely duet, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" to declare their love as it starts to rain, and Liesl gets a lovely moment of joy in the rain to herself.

In keeping with the film's two halves (or acts, as it were, this being an adaptation of a stage show), the next time we see the gazebo is for a meeting between adults, postulate-nun-turned-nanny-to-seven-children Maria and Captain Georg von Trapp. They've been slowly needling their way into each other's hearts, almost without knowing it, but they finally confront each other (at the urging, it must be said, of poor Baroness Schrader, and the fact that you can even say that about the woman who callously tossed off a line about sending those adorable children to boarding school just so she could have the Captain all to herself is a testament to Eleanor Parker's great, great performance). As joyous as Liesl and Rolf's first kiss is, that of Maria and the Captain is muted, thoughtful, and mature. And beautifully, defiantly soft focus.
I'm sure this isn't the first time kissing lovers have been filmed like this, but it's one of the defining images of The Sound of Music for me, mostly for just how old-fashioned romantic it is. It's as though cinematographer Ted D. McCord applied a whole jar of Vaseline to the camera lens while filming this entire scene (is this where RuPaul's Drag Race got the idea for its first season?) - everything bleeds into each other, the colors are a gorgeous palette of pastels, and we see our two lovers in complete silhouette, their bodies very nearly creating a heart shape. It's the silhouette that does it for me. These people could be anyone. They were your parents, or grandparents. They could be you. It's a classic vision of cinematic romance. Everything else melts into the background and all you care about is this person standing in front of you loving you. Whether or not they should.

It's also interesting in how it mirrors the earlier, younger kiss. The women in flowy, almost sheer dresses, the men buttoned up; the men on the right side, the women on the left... but in this case, Maria and the Captain are equals. No games, no shyness. They come to each other openly and honestly and sing their love for each other in as beautiful a song as Richard Rodgers ever wrote.

It's shots like this one that lead people to deride The Sound of Music. "It's too sickeningly sweet!" they say. "It's dull and boring!" they cry. "The Sound of Mucus" they call it. But I think that shots like this are exactly why the film not only works, but has become an enduring classic. Yes, the image is a cliché, but it is also deployed thoughtfully, meaningfully. This is a sweet film, no doubt about it, but it rises above any stage version (despite the lessening of the show's two liveliest characters, the Baroness and "Uncle" Max and the removal of their duet "How Can Love Survive", one of the show's best songs) because it brings out an intimacy and maturity the stage show so often lacks.

The other reason the film works so well, of course, is Julie Andrews. I always think she won an Oscar for this, and frankly, she should have. Point blank, the film does not work without her. It's not just her golden singing voice, but her presence, and the thoughtfulness behind her acting. She works with the (seven!) children astonishingly well, and also paints an always-vivid picture of Maria's inner life. Her eyes and body language tell you absolutely everything you need to know about how Maria is feeling and just how much she cannot bring herself to say. It's a remarkably full performance from a character who can read extremely simple on the page, and far better than most people realize, because Andrews makes it all look so effortless. Which is a perfect word for the whole film, really. The Sound of Music breezes through its 174 minutes with effortless scene after effortless scene. It takes real skill to make a film look as effortless as this one feels. And oh, what a feeling!