Saturday, June 30, 2012

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
last seen @ The Museum of Art and Design, New York, NY

Years ago, a close friend gave me a gift: it was an anthology CD of Carpenters cover songs. It wasn't as if I was a Carpenters fan; she just thought it'd be something I'd like. And I did. I was naturally familiar with a few of the songs, like "Close To You" and "Top of the World" (my mother always liked that song, as I recall), but hearing them with a bit of a harder edge was a definite improvement.

I vaguely remember the days of AM radio in the 70s. Riding in the back seat of my parents' car, fighting with my sister over the radio, those were the days of "soft rock," so to speak: Gordon Lightfoot and Olivia Newton-John and Anne Murray and The Captain & Tennille and Air Supply (my sister loved Air Supply). Every now and then I'll hear a song from that period on the radio and I'll go, oh yeah, I remember that, and I'll be a kid in my parents' car again, or listening to my sister's 45s again. It's not like I have any deep abiding love for those records; it's more that they take me back to when life was a whole lot simpler.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Apollo 13

Apollo 13
first seen in Pittsfield, MA

Writing about summer camp last week made me think a little more about it and I thought I'd go into a bit more detail this week. In the summers of 1995 and 1996, I was a counselor at a little sleepaway camp called Shire Village (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings). 

It's located in a tiny western Massachusetts town called Cummington. To get there I had to take the Greyhound to Northampton, where someone from the camp would greet us staff members coming up from New York and drive us the rest of the way. The camp ground is a converted farm, complete with a central courtyard, sleeping cabins, a dining area, and a few surrounding buildings, such as A-frames.

Shire was unique for several reasons. For one thing, the campers would pick their own activities. We counselors would arrange things like arts and crafts, woodworking, theater, sports, etc., and four times a day, the kids would pick what they wanted to do. Some activities would naturally get more participants than other, but that was to be expected. 

If no one came to your activity, then you'd just hook up with someone else's, but most of the time that wasn't a problem.  I usually varied between a sport of some kind (always an easy way to attract campers) and something arts-and-crafts-related, though I took part in others as well.

What also made Shire so unique was its politically-correct policy. It was something that they stressed to us staff during an orientation week before the kids arrived. Competitive attitudes were considered verboten, and not just sporting activities. Equality and inclusiveness was an absolute must. Kids who had been coming to Shire for years would joke about it, saying one had to act "Shire-ly." Personally, I found few problems with this philosophy, though some days it was easier to implement than others - but that's for another post.

The staff would usually spend their off days off the camp grounds. Often we'd go into Northampton, a college town with lots of cool stuff to do. Sometimes we'd head into the smaller South Hadley to see movies (I saw Independence Day there, in a theater that was part of a mall.)

Pittsfield was a town to the west of Cummington that, to be honest, had much less to recommend it. However, it did have baseball! Both summers I worked at Shire, I arranged trips out to Pittsfield to see the minor league team play there. It so happens that the ballfield there, Wahconah Park, is one of the oldest inprofessional baseball. For more about the place, I highly recommend reading the book Foul Ball by former big-league pitcher Jim Bouton, who led a movement to preserve Wahconah Park and keep it from the wrecking ball.

In the summer of 1995, a bunch of us counselors went into Pittsfield one evening to see Apollo 13 at the local mall.I don't remember where exactly in Pittsfield the mall was, nor do I remember much about the theater. There were about 8-10 of us, more or less, all piled into a van. I think it was a Saturday night. The mall was definitely packed. I think some of us also wanted to see Babe, which also came out that summer, but I definitely opted for Apollo 13, which I loved.

As much as I enjoyed my two summers at Shire Village, I don't believe I would wanna return there. Too old. Plus, as I mentioned last week, now that cell phones and iPads are everywhere, who knows how it would affect dealing with the kids? Bad enough that they fought over Magic: The Gathering cards...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria
seen on TV @ TCM

Years ago, I saw a Broadway musical, one of the very few Broadway musicals I've ever seen, called The Life. It was about the old Times Square, centered around a group of pimps and hos and hustlers making their way the only way they know how, hoping to one day escape "the life." It was an ensemble, but if any character was the main one, it was this ho named Queenie who has the most to lose and everything to gain in trying to leave the life behind with her lover - but, of course, it's not that easy.

I never gave much thought about the lives of those in the streetwalking trade until New York, under former mayor Rudy Giuliani, started renovating Times Square and kicking out the pimps and hos. I remember talking to Jenny about it at the time. She was, as you might imagine, no fan of Giuliani and was completely sympathetic to the working girls whose lives were being turned upside down. Regardless of what you may think about them from a moral perspective, the fact is that they didn't ask for this fate. Nowadays, Times Square doesn't really have a red light "district" as such; you can, of course, find porno theaters and hookers in the area, but they're not quite as prevalent as they were 30 or 40 years ago.

The working girls in Nights of Cabiria don't appear to have it so bad, all things considered. I don't recall seeing any pimps, they have decent places to live, and they get by. We see them hanging out with some of their tricks, and we see some of them trying to attract johns on the street, but that's about the extent of it. We never see any of the harsher realities of the skin trade, but then, one could argue it's not that kind of movie. That's okay, though...

...because I was really impressed with it on the whole. I remember seeing some of the films of Federico Fellini when I still worked in video retail, but that was a long time ago and I can't say I remember a great deal about them. I remember liking La Dolce Vita and being indifferent towards 8 1/2.

Cabiria, however, was different. I completely believed in Giulietta Masina's performance and I was caught up in it from beginning to end. No hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype here; she felt like a three-dimensional character, with passions and desires, sometimes happy, sometimes crabby, sometimes sad or innocent or nasty. And even when things don't turn out well for her, the film still manages to find a hopeful grace note to end on. Remarkable film.

So, of course, somebody has gotten the bright idea to remake it. I like Juliette Lewis, and I have no doubt that she would do a good job, but after seeing the original, I have to wonder if a remake could possibly touch it. I guess we'll find out soon enough, but man, I wish they'd leave this one alone...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

I was never a Boy Scout or a Cub Scout, but I did have my share of overnight camp-outs while attending summer day camp. To hear my mother tell it, the reason she never sent me to sleepaway camp is because she knew I'd get homesick. Maybe that was true... but even at day camp, I got to experience overnight camping on a number of occasions. I think I still have my sleeping bag, but I'm not sure and I don't feel like looking for it.

I remember sleeping in lean-tos with other boys, which was awkward and uncomfortable most of the time. I remember trying and failing to start a fire the old-fashioned way, without lighter fluid. Of course we roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories, and used lots of cans of bug spray. And it's not even like we went all that far - I think we spent one overnight in a park in Staten Island, though I'm not sure. My mind is fixated on that being the place, and maybe it was.

It was the simplest, most basic form of camping. We never had to learn any hardcore camping skills; why would we need to, when we were only doing this for one or two nights a summer? My most vivid memory from that period is getting a nasty rash on my thighs while I was walking down a road with a counselor late at night. I don't remember how I got it, nor do I recall where we were coming from or going to, but that rash stands out - as you might imagine.

When I was older, I spent a couple of summers as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in Massachusetts. The site was a converted farm, with a dirt road leading to it from the street. We didn't teach the kids any outdoor camping skills either - we had a woodworking class, but most of the things taught there weren't necessarily for camping. And of course, the kids brought with them all manner of non-essential items from home, in particular - this being the 90s - Magic: The Gathering cards. While they played with them all the time, they also tended to be a bone of contention more often than not. I shudder to think what it would be like today, with kids carrying around cell phones and iPads.

While not a direct comparison, the unlikely love affair at the heart of Moonrise Kingdom reminds me a little bit of one of my earliest crushes as a kid. It was the summer of 1985, and I was traveling with my mother, my aunt and my cousin to California to visit relatives. At one point we stayed in a lodge at Sequoia National Park for a few days to see the giant trees. At the same time there was a girls' camp staying there, and that's how I met this chick named Amanda. 

We only knew each other for three days, but we clicked. I hung out with her friends, we went swimming, that kinda stuff. I recall we took part in some kind of nighttime game - it may have been a scavenger hunt or something. We didn't run away together into the woods like the kids in the movie, and though she was a camper, she wasn't a Girl Scout or anything like that, but the point is, to my young mind, it felt like an ultra-romantic affair. We promised to write each other once it came time to go, and we did for a little bit before the memories faded. I mooned over her for awhile and then got over her. Hadn't even thought about her in years until now...

Everything feels so much more intense at that age. What's nothing more than a mutual infatuation seems indistinguishable from Twoo Wuv. Sam and Suzy come across as so deadpan earnest (like many Wes Anderson characters) that it's easy to forget that they really are in love. There's nothing cynical or ironic about it, and it's nice to see.

I rode my bike to the theater. I had never done that before, which is a bit unusual, since the Kew Gardens is so close to me, but I had just bought a new bike lock a few days prior, so now I had no excuse. Truth be told, I combined riding and walking, because there's a steep incline leading to the theater and I did not wanna challenge it on the bike. Just don't have the legs for it! From my direction, you go up the hill, and then you make a left and you go down the hill from a different angle, and then you go up a little bit and there's the theater. I walked all this section. Even in Columbus I approached hills with great trepidation, but then, I had a better bike there. My current bike is one I bought second-hand.

Monday, June 18, 2012

George Cukor and his women

The Queer Film Blogathon is an event celebrating gay cinema, including its films, its filmmakers and its themes, hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr. For a complete list of participating blogs, click on the links to either site.

George Cukor is one of the all-time great Hollywood filmmakers. In a career that spans from the dawn of the sound era all the way into the 70s and even the 80s, his films alternated between the most delightful comedies and the most compelling dramas, and his best ones always seemed to have great roles for women.

This point in particular holds significant meaning, even today. Earlier this month, at a ceremony honoring women in film, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, considered by many to be America's greatest living actress, castigated modern Hollywood for their continued marginalization of female-centric films, as well as for the under-representation of women behind the camera. Even though films like Bridesmaids, The Help, and Mamma Mia have been huge financial successes in recent years, the studios prefer to aggressively court the young male demographic to a disproportionate degree. Once upon a time, however, "women's pictures" were practically a genre all its own, and many of the industry's biggest female stars, at one time or another, appeared in a George Cukor film. Here are five notable examples:
Cukor with Katharine Hepburn
- Katharine Hepburn (A Bill of Divorcement, Little Women, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Keeper of the Flame, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, Love Among the Ruins, The Corn Is Green). Cukor's greatest co-collaborator, Hepburn made her debut in Bill and took off as a star with Little Women. Story was originally a play written for Hepburn and she was given the film rights by Howard Hughes, who bought them. It is said that she incorporated some of Cukor's mannerisms in her role. Story ended up reviving her film career after a slump. Rib and Pat and Mike were both made with Spencer Tracy and written by the team of Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin, who met at Cukor's home in 1939. Love and Corn were TV films made in the 70s.

- Judy Holliday (Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, It Should Happen to You). According to legend, Hepburn, in Rib, urged Cukor to focus on Holliday more in their shared scenes because Hepburn was a fan (she built her up in the gossip columns) and hoped it would lead to Holliday getting to star in Born Yesterday, which Holliday originated on Broadway. Columbia head Harry Kohn wanted Rita Hayworth for Born, but she wasn't interested, and once he saw Holliday in Rib, he decided she was the right choice after all. Holliday would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar for Born. Kind was also written by Gordon & Kanin.

Cukor with Marilyn Monroe
- Joan Crawford (No More Ladies, The Women, Susan and God, A Woman's Face). The Women had an all-female cast which also included Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. Cukor was acquired as director after he was fired from Gone With the Wind due to uber-producer David O. Selznick's dissatisfaction with him. In later years, Crawford made a string of mostly forgetable genre pictures, as did her chief rival, Bette Davis. Cukor, late in life, spoke of this: "Of course she rationalized what she did. Joan even lied to herself. She would write to me about these pictures, actually believing that they were quality scripts. You could never tell her they were garbage. She was a star, and this was her next picture. She had to keep working, as did Bette. The two of them spawned a regrettable cycle in motion pictures."

- Greta Garbo (Camille, Two-Faced Woman). Camille was Garbo's favorite film that she made, and indeed, it garnered some of her best reviews ever. Woman was her last film, and it was condemned by the National Legion of Decency, the Roman Catholic Hollywood watchdog group, for its sexual content. Cukor, in talking about Garbo, praised her work ethic: "Garbo went through a great deal to get a scene right. She worked out every gesture in advance and learned every syllable of dialogue exactly as written. She never improvised and I respected her for that."

Cukor with Audrey Hepburn
- Judy Garland (A Star is Born). Cukor's first Technicolor film, as well as his first musical, it was considered a comeback vehicle for Garland, who hadn't made a movie in four years, since she left MGM. The initial cut screened at 210 minutes, then Cukor and his editor reduced it to 182 minutes, but Warner Brothers drastically chopped it down to 154 minutes without Cukor. Despite suffering drug problems, weight fluctuations, and psychosomatic illnesses during the filming, Garland would gain a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role, only to lose to Grace Kelly, a controversial decision that hurt her. (In addition, Cukor was an advisor on The Wizard of Oz, and though he never shot any scenes, he made a few notable suggestions, such as removing Garland's blonde wig.)

Cukor's homosexuality was known within Hollywood, though he never flaunted it. In fact, he was one of the leading lights of the industry's gay subculture, throwing lavish Sunday afternoon parties at his house which attracted big-name stars and directors, some of them closeted gays. Among his close friendships included that of writer W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote, among other works, Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge and The Letter, all of which were turned into films. 

Cukor with Ingrid Bergman
During Cukor's time at MGM, the studio managed to cover up at least one incident in which he was arrested on a vice charge, which was later dropped and erased from the record. In the late 50s, Cukor had a relationship with a younger man named George Towers, though the latter would go on to get married in the 60s. Their relationship would evolve into that of a father to a son.

Cukor was a five-time Oscar nominee for Best Director, winning for My Fair Lady (with Audrey Hepburn), a Best Picture winner, and he was nominated for Little Women, The Philadelphia Story, A Double Life (also written by Gordon & Kanin) and Born Yesterday. He also won an Emmy for his TV film Love Among the Ruins, with Katharine Hepburn.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


last seen on TV @ FX

Hope you're sitting comfortably... this'll be a long one.

I've written before about Greenwich Village and how it's always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. I think I've always favored, however slightly, the east side of the Village over the west side. I've worked there; for a month, I lived there; and I have stronger memories there, of good times and bad.

In high school, I took art classes at Cooper Union, a prestigious art college in the East Village, in addition to my regular classes in high school. I had a summer class during the week and a fall class on Saturdays. During the summer, some of us would hang around St. Mark's Place, a hip street that runs from CU to Tompkins Square Park, full of stylish boutiques, restaurants, and shops. We were, what, sixteen? Seventeen? We'd never seen anyplace like this - with all the punks and cross-dressers and musicians and artists and what have you. In the fall, when it got darker, we'd imagine we were out late at night, partying like rock stars.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

The movie Contact, which I've written about here, is based on a novel by astronomer Carl Sagan about humans encountering extraterrestrials for the first time. A major theme in the story concerns whether or not alien life can tell us anything about our own, in the spiritual sense: whether or not alien life is proof of the existence of God. When I first saw the movie (which I liked), I wasn't convinced there was a connection and didn't see how so many people could make one, especially since different cultures interpret the concept of a Supreme Being in different ways. (The movie, of course, sticks with the Christian version.)

I'm still unconvinced. Even if aliens had anything resembling religion, who's to say what they think of as a "god" has anything to do with ours, or that it's any proof of divinity? After all, you and I, with our cell phones and our cars and even our superior health and intelligence, would seem like gods to primitive man.

If alien life is any indication of the presence of God, then this also implies the presence of a moral code of some sort that guides their actions - after all, they say God created man in His own image. Think of Klaatu and his warning and ultimatum against humanity if we don't change our warlike ways. Unfortunately, so many other cinematic aliens are depicted with hardly any moral code at all, especially in recent years, when it seems like all they wanna do is blow us to smithereens.

Give Ridley Scott credit for trying to provide something more with Prometheus. There's a genuine sense of exploration, of looking for answers to the Big Questions through the search for alien life, however that sense is fleeting. the film doesn't delve as deeply into the implications behind this search as much as I had hoped it would, and while it was an entertaining movie, it still left me wanting a bit more.

Prometheus is set within the same continuity as Scott's sci-fi masterpiece Alien (and its sequels). There were definitely moments that attempted to recall moments in the rest of the Alien franchise. They weren't a big distraction, but they did remind me that the characters here didn't have as much personality as those in the other films, beginning, of course, with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley.

In the movie, we see an alien race (though not the Alien race, sometimes referred to as the Xenomorphs), one of whom kills himself on either Earth or an Earth-like world in order to provide the spark of sentient life. Does this make him, if not the Christian God, then a god at least? I understand not wanting to provide direct answers, but the vague clues we're given don't even suggest an answer - at least, not in this installment. The ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel, which felt unsatisfying because I didn't expect that.

To be honest, I'm getting kinda tired of seeing aliens as inscrutable bad guys bent on destruction. Ever since Independence Day, it seems, Hollywood has mined this concept for all its worth and more, and it's lost its luster for me. Not that I'm comparing Prometheus to Independence Day, mind you, but I'd like movie aliens to have a little more thought put into them (and not just the world-conquering types, either). Prometheus, at least, was a step in that direction.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The Cinematic World Tour Blogathon is an event in which participants use the movies to take virtual trips around the world, using settings and moments in movies to inform their writing approach, hosted by All Good Things. This blogathon lasts from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so check back periodically at the host site for posts from participating blogs.

seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

Greetings from Tokyo!

Amazing city - just amazing. My sister and her husband went here on their honeymoon - in fact, they went all over Japan. I remember seeing the pictures. They didn't go to as many of the cool places in the city as I thought they would; they stuck mostly to the country. Not me, though. I've been going all over the town. Strange thing though...

...the buildings all have this flimsy, impermanent quality to them. It almost feels like walking through a model set. 

But I'm sure that's just my imagination.

Anyway, check this out: I went to this awesome outdoor concert! I've heard J-pop bands like Shonen Knife and Puffy Amiyumi before and I was expecting something along those lines, but you won't believe the kinda show this was! This is gonna sound completely crazy, but I swear - this all really happened!

Saturday, June 9, 2012


seen on TV @ TCM

When I lived in Columbus, there was this guy I saw twice, maybe three times. I have no idea what his deal was, but he had some kind of... skin disorder, I suppose you could call it. I can't say for sure because I tried very hard not to look too closely at him, but I thought he looked like a Jem'Hadar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I wish I were kidding. I'm totally not.

I naturally felt terrible for the poor guy. I mean, this is a fate you would not wish on your worst enemy. Absolutely no one should have to live like this. Eventually, though, I came to realize something: yeah, this guy looked like a monster, but he wasn't letting it keep him from living his life. I saw him at art-related events around the city, part of large crowds of people. He could've gone out wearing a mask or hood, Elephant Man-style - god knows I sure would - but he didn't. I can't begin to imagine the amount of guts it would take to be able to do that. Hell, finding a reason to keep living has to be a challenge for someone like him, yet he does.

Most of us are damn lucky. But for a random chromosome change here, or a bit of genetic drift there, we coulda turned out looking a lot different than we do. Now, it seems, the possibility of controlling your unborn child's genetic sequence, Gattaca-style, is closer than we think. If and when that becomes an everyday thing, the ethics of such a practice will surely be debated. What parent wouldn't want their kids to be healthy and fit? At the same time, however, I can easily imagine  some who would classify genetic tampering as going against God's will. And of course, there's the slippery-slope argument: if one can delete any genes that cause deformity - why stop there?

Many of the genetic abnormalities possessed by the supporting cast of Freaks could be compensated for by modern medical science: prosthetic and even cybernetic limbs for those without arms or legs; laser surgery to separate Siamese twins; even gender reassignment surgery to make a woman into a man, or vice versa. As the movie shows, however, they learned how to compensate on their own, one way or another. This may seem like an exploitation movie, but honestly, given the kindly and even sensitive way they're portrayed, they don't look like they're being exploited.

I spent Memorial Day down at Coney Island, as I usually do, and they still have the "freakshow," complete with old-fashioned carnival-style barker. I actually went to it once, with Jenny, and all I remember of it was a "bearded lady" who was more of a stand-up comic than anything else. Coney, of course, has a long history of being home to "freaks of nature," not to mention alternative entertainers in general. Were they exploited? Don't know. I imagine a number of them probably liked the attention.

There are always gonna be outsiders of some sort in society - those who don't fit the norm, whatever that may be. Throughout history, "freaks" could've just as easily have been blacks, or gays, or Jews, or political dissidents, or what have you. Sometimes society learns to accommodate them over time. Sometimes they don't. Either way, outsiders learn to adapt somehow, and the "freaks" of this thoroughly unique film were no exception.

(As a post-script, it's interesting to note that in recent times, the connotation of the word "freak" has changed to also refer to unbridled sexual passion - think of the Rick James song "Superfreak," for example. While there's still a hint of the "outsider" tinge to the meaning, it's perhaps less of a pejorative in this context.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012


seen on TV @ Oxygen

When I lived in Columbus, I would often check out DVDs from the excellent, award-winning library system. Whenever I passed the kids section, I'd see Enchanted on the shelf, and though I was tempted to take it out, I never did. I guess I was a little embarrassed by it. I remember when it came out. I knew the premise, and I remember seeing Amy Adams perform the songs from the movie at the Oscars (for awhile there was talk of a possible Best Actress nomination for her), but I could never bring myself to actually watch it - until Tuesday night, when I happened to see it playing, on the Oxygen Channel, of all places.

As you might imagine, though I grew up watching Disney animated films like everyone else, my head was never stuffed with fairy-tale fantasies of rescuing princesses from dragons or evil queens or what have you. I was too busy reading superhero comics! Still, I can see real-world parallels to the little-girl fantasy of being good and virtuous so that a handsome prince can come save her - isn't that basically the notion of the Second Coming of Jesus in a different form? They're both so easy to buy into because they both require nothing from you other than blind faith, despite the total lack of empirical evidence, as we all discovered a little over a year ago.

The feminist movement, of course, has taken the fantasy of passively waiting for Prince Charming and beaten it over the head with a baseball bat, but like the Second Coming concept, it refuses to die - and Disney has had a lot to do with that. They've made a pretty penny with their Princesses marketing scheme in recent years, and as a result, they've brainwashed a whole new generation of little girls into thinking that they're princesses in their own right. Harmless indulgence in fantasy, or subservience to male power?

So along comes Enchanted, which attempts to straddle the line between the classical ideal of being a docile, passive princess in thrall to her prince; and the modern ideal of being a freethinking, active woman who stands side-by-side with her man as equals. And it just barely works, I think. I expected Giselle to become "corrupted" by her time in the real world and become a completely modern woman, making her incapable of returning to the "animated world," but it doesn't play out quite that way. Giselle seems like a more balanced woman in the end...

...and it's all thanks to Twoo Wuv! Okay, even I am not so much of a cynical bastard to think that this, too, is a fantasy. I've known it myself; I know that it's real and that it can last. What I like about how it's addressed in Enchanted is that it's looked at from both sides: the Wuv of your life may be someone you don't (or can't) recognize on the one hand, but also, the one you're so sure about may not be the one that's right for you. Tricky thing, Wuv.

Once upon a time, I had Twoo Wuv in my hands but didn't know how to keep it, and the older I get, the more convinced I am that I won't get it back - at the very least, not in the same form. Why is it so hard to keep? You could say it's because modern life makes it so difficult, but that doesn't feel like the right answer. We all want the same basic things now as we did thousands of years ago. No, I think the problem is us, as flawed, messy, confused and generally fucked-up as we are. And it doesn't help when we grow up seeing Twoo Wuv fantasies - such as the ones Disney has churned out for decades - played out again and again, making us believe that it's waiting right around the corner for all of us. Still, we keep believing in it. Why? Maybe because it simply helps us get through the day.

(One more thing: putting Idina Menzel in a musical and not having her sing is like putting John Wayne in a western and not having him shoot anybody.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

 A Face in the Crowd
seen on TV @ TCM

Does it really make a difference to you if a celebrity endorses a product? This being America, it's entirely possible that we are subconsciously influenced by them on some level, whether we admit it or not. When I was younger, I wore a Kangol hat because I wanted to look like Run DMC (and I did kinda look like DMC, glasses and all).

I understand why it matters to us. Celebrities are popular, glamorous and wealthy. We see them on a stage or on a screen and we want to be like them in some way, to have some of their glitter rub off on us. When we start doing what they tell us, however, that's when it can get a little dicey. It can be so easy to be led around by a certain someone with the right amount of charisma and charm - and not just by entertainment celebrities, either. When I saw Barack Obama speak live during his presidential campaign, I remember steeling myself, trying my best to remain as objective and open-minded as possible and to not get caught up in the fervor of the crowd. I knew I would vote for him anyway, but I still wanted to really hear what he was saying and not take it for granted just because I wanted him to win. It was tough, though.

The blending of politics and entertainment is certainly not a recent one, but it's more popular than ever now. My old roommate Max is a big Stephen Colbert fan, so much so that one weekend, back when we were still living together, he and his teenage daughter (also a fan) took a trip to New York to see a live taping of his show. Every now and then I'd watch Colbert with Max. Colbert's alright, I guess, though he didn't leave that big an impression on me. I suppose I like Jon Stewart a little better. (Max would watch him too.)

I remember how involved Oprah Winfrey was in the Obama presidential campaign. There was a front-page newspaper photo - might've been from the New York Daily News - of Oprah and Obama, around the time he got the nomination from the Democratic party, with the headline, "Kingmaker." That front page gave me pause: to think that a Hollywood celebrity could be that influential...?

Oprah in particular is an excellent example of someone who is much, much more than a celebrity; she's a brand name. For instance, when her magazine O came out, I remember thinking how narcissistic it seems to have a magazine devoted to yourself - and now she's got her own network on top of everything else. Don't get me wrong, she's done a lot of good and I don't really have anything against her per se - a successful black woman in America is absolutely something to take pride in - but sometimes it does seem as if some of her fans take everything she says as the gospel truth.

A Face in the Crowd was made three years before the Kennedy-versus-Nixon presidential campaign of 1960, during a time when television was still a relatively new medium, with its true potential only beginning to be discovered, and it's remarkable how it predicts the course the course the 1960 campaign would take: Kennedy, the photogenic, TV-friendly candidate defeating the swarthier Nixon, who many thought was the better debater of the two. But then, they probably didn't see him on TV.

Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane used his newspapers to spread his influence, but he at least was a highly educated man who more or less had one foot already in the political sphere. With Andy Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes, here's a film character who conquers a medium despite not having much more to say than easy platitudes and selling his image as much as, if not more, than his message. We've become so used to it now, in this reality-TV age where any idiot can grab their fifteen minutes of fame, but Face predicts all of that, to such an accurate degree it's scary.

Face was written by Budd Schulberg, author of the infamous Hollywood insider novel What Makes Sammy Run?, and like Face director Elia Kazan, was an informant to Congress during the Red Scare of the 1950s. It always disturbs me whenever I read about stuff like this. I mean, guys like Schulberg and Kazan were rats, but at the same time, they made movies like this. It's difficult to accept the bad as well as the good about a creative person, but what else can you do?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Chico & Rita

Chico & Rita
seen @ reRun Gastropub Theater @ reBar

American animation has never been better than it is now. Whether or not you believe that computer-generated animation has pushed hand-drawn animation out the door for good, the visual splendors they've provided have been phenomenal. Still, for all the advances in the medium we've seen over the past twenty years, one thing has remained the same: in Hollywood, animation still tends to be made for a primarily kiddie audience.

Toys, cars, dairy tale characters, robots, fish, superheroes, and a menagerie's worth of animals: we've seen them all, in action-adventure, sci-fi settings, and the majority of them have been great - but why is it that animated films about everyday life, about normal people, seem to only come from other countries? For all of the success of Pixar and Dreamworks, they tend to stick to only genre material, unlike filmmakers abroad. Films like The Illusionist, Waltz With Bashir, The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, and now Chico and Rita, have proven that there's an audience for real-world animated films, for lack of a better description.

To be fair, animated genre films make tons of money. Pixar, in particular, has truly redefined the medium, while producing some of the most original, creative stories of any studio in recent memory. I'm still hoping, however, that sooner or later they'll make a film that doesn't rely on flights of fancy of any kind - no talking animals, no epic adventure stories, no fantasy worlds of any kind - just a simple story with regular humans in the real world. (Ratatouille might be the closest they've come to that.) 

Chico & Rita begins in 1948 Havana and moves to New York. It's about a pair of on-again, off-again lovers who become musicians, both together and separately. There are cameos by famous musicians of the day, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, and more. It got a big boost popularity-wise when it was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. I liked it, though I didn't completely buy the notion of Chico and Rita's love as a special, lasting, enduring one - he cheats on her several times and she's not exactly faithful herself. Their music is what binds them, though, and the Latin/jazz soundtrack is dynamite.

The animation has a fine-art quality to it. The colors are sharp, the outlines of the figures and landscapes are rendered nicely, with an illustrative quality to them, and the backgrounds are great. I suspect this was a combination of hand-drawn work and computers. Rita might be the sexiest animated woman since Jessica Rabbit, and she gets naked more than once - she even fights another woman in the buff in one scene!

This was my second trip to reRun, and while it wasn't as packed as it was last time, there was a large crowd. I might have mentioned the last time I wrote about reRun that among their special delicacies includes popcorn with powder coatings: garlic, paprika and herb salt. I tried paprika with my popcorn this time - lightly, I emphasized to the clerk behind the bar - and it wasn't bad. I don't know if it's something that makes a big difference to me personally, but I appreciate the fact that they serve different kinds of snacks.

The event was co-hosted by a film "salon" called Big. Shade. Tree. (that's how it's punctuated). There was one guy there who introduced the film and there was supposed to be someone else with him, only she couldn't make it - which was unfortunate, since he didn't have a whole lot of useful knowledge about the movie. The brief after-film discussion was kinda light as a result. Still, I won't hold it against them.