Like: TREME Episode 3 “Right Place, Wrong Time” … and the effects Malcolm Gladwell framework from “The Tipping Point”

April 28, 2010

On the plane to New Orleans this past week I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I’ve been meaning to read it for years and so when I saw the paperback in the airport bookstore I bought it as an impulse purchase. This moment I consider to be a bit serendipitous.  It ended up providing a fascinating sociological framework with which to approach my visit to N’awlins.  For those who haven’t read it (like me, last week) the basic conceit of the book is that little, seemingly trivial details can push huge trends and epidemics in the community wildly in one direction or another.  Of course it’s a lot more nuanced than that, but this specifically applies to the idea that context and environments play a huge role in terms of our actual behaviors, far more than we previously believed. One example he explores in great detail is the dramatic turnaround of crime prevention in New York City largely being a matter of physically cleaning up trash and graffiti on the subway. The idea: an environment that accepts simple lawlessness and petty crimes will therefore accept/encourage harsher crimes. So they changed the physical environment and crime plummeted. Context rules.

But what about more specific community traits? For example, Fist-Fighting in Boston is a largely tolerated cultural; two knuckleheads would beat each other up, the cops would show up and ask who started it, and then they’d go to the can for a night and be released. No one would sue anyone else. This happened all the time. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Los Angeles is “where are all the dudes fighting each other in front of bars?” There weren’t any. And if they did, someone for sure was getting sued. Same laws. Same country. It’s just that one place is more culturally tolerant of a behavior and the other is not. But Los Angeles is a city five times the size of Boston and bars are everywhere, so how does this happen? Maybe it’s the kind of people who live here. Maybe it’s the nice weather putting everyone in a better mood. Maybe it’s because people are wearing less clothes. Maybe it’s because people are afraid that the other person is gang affiliated or something and maybe carrying a gun (the violence situation south of the 10, and east of the 5 is far different after all). Either way, I’ve seen hundreds of fist fights in four years in Boston and none in five years in Los Angeles. The difference is the environment, and therefore the context. And context rules.

So what if the difference is about positive behavior? What if a city had a context of joy and indomitable spirit? Would the context of that that spirit really hold sway over the city’s constituents? Over the tourists? Can the overwhelming joy and kindness of a city be as contagious as Gladwell argues? My conclusion was yes. After all, context rules.

By the way, that city is New Orleans. I spent the last four days there and, prompted by the Gladwell read, I spent the entire time being fascinated by the context/environment. Every single person I met was relentless positive, affable, and engaging. Not just the cab drivers, bartenders, hotel managers and assorted folks whose jobs it was to be cheerful and welcoming. And not just the citizens of New Orleans, who always seemed to manage to say a friendly hello as they walked to work, or strike up a conversation as they stood in the doorways to beat the sweltering sun. But what contagiousness argues for best, is to look at your fellow visitors. What mood do the Tourists and the Party Folks take upon their visit? By all accounts, they were likewise celebratory, kind, affectionate. People who you couldn’t imagine dancing on the street would do just that. One wonders how so much (relative) good behavior happens with so much alcohol involved, but it’s a function of the environment. People are there to drink, enjoy music, and have a great time. It’s a kind of debauchery that lacks the animosity that seems to characterize much youthful partying these days (think woodstock 99, etc).  Especially after the storm, where it seems the desire to embrace and reignite the things that make New Orleans special have become priority #1. The environment is now one of healing and pride. And it’s frickin’ contagious.

After all, Context Rules.

So upon arriving home, I watched TREME episode 3, with a sense of… is there a word for “immediate nostalgia?” So as far as cinematics goes, here’s the good and the bad…

Good:

-Wendell Pierce plays the best drunk ever. This is inarguable.

-The episode struck me as funnier than the previous two.

-Khandi Alexander is poised to win some serious awards. Maybe? She’s putting on a clinic.

-I remembered that John Goodman can do subtlety. We’re always wrapped up in his usual gravitas and Walter Sobcheckian-yelling that we forget just how acute he can be too. The scene on the porch between him and Zahn is priceless, “Just piano lessons.”

-Melissa Leo, high marks all around. She’s perfectly cast.

-Zahn. Not as manic as the first episode. A bit more manic then the second. But still finding balance and had some real nice moments. Even his doucheyness is starting to be charming, which seems to be the point. He mostly works as a great foil for Kim Dickens.

Bad:

-Meanwhile, Sonny is the douchiest douche in douchetown. How are we supposed to feel about him again? Are we supposed to like this guy? Because he’s giving hipsters and even badder name. Drinking his girlfriend’s birthday present because she got a surprise big-deal-gig and just happened to be busy for a little bit? And Sonny got to go to the gig too?! What is he, fucking five? Shut up Sonny you whiny little brat. For the record, I find most complaints of hipsterism and/or emo to be inane, simplistic, and often just plain irrelevant, but dear lord Sonny. Come on man. You’re actually justifying all of those diminutions. And yet, because this is David Simon, I will wait patiently. Maybe we’re suppose to hate this douchebag in the long run. My guess though is that his seemingly pretentious stories of saving people in his boat (the ones that people can’t seem corroborate) will actually end up being true. And really he’s just working out his shit or some other backstory. I dunno.

-His girlfriend Annie is far more tolerable, except she makes a face when playing fiddle that looks like she’s passing stones.

-There’s a fine line in film/tv between something that feels real and something that feels forced. This seems obvious, but authenticity is such a rarity in entertainment that we’ve learned to embrace the ridiculous as an alternative. Meanwhile, Simon’s shows (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire) have built a reputation on being authentic above all else. So in regards to the scene in episode 3 where the cops suddenly go ape-shit on Antoine for, like, no reason… well, it immediately set off my bullshit detector. Which is odd, because I’ve seen that exact same kind of horror go down in real life multiple times. But if it is something that’s painfully real, what’s the problem? The problem is the “how” of course. Since DO THE RIGHT THING(1), we’ve seen the no-reason-police-beating many, many times in our cinematic experience, and many of these immitations are often done for contrived/imitative/knee-jerk reasons. Unfortunately, we can’t help but bring all those negative connotations with it. This scene in episode 3, however, builds up beautifully; Antoine drunkenly sings with Annie and Sonny as the police car slides carefully into the backround. They finish their song. He starts to drunkenly walk forward. You slowly feel it coming. It’s perfect film-making. Then the second his horn taps the cop car, the police are instantly on top of him and within a second are beating the shit out of him, spewing the kind of dialogue we see in “evil cop” movies. Even the style of the scene changes, as it ultra-edited and with multiple angles to accentuate the violence.(2) You sense the filmmakers wanted to show how quickly things can turn and how impacting real police violence can be, but in doing so they’ve created a scene that achieves in the exact antithesis of what it was achieving when it started. In this culture of stylistic violence you need to be doubly careful. Even the shaky cam has a action-movie connotation now. You need the same kind of unblinking de-stylization that made the action of The Wire so heartbreaking.

Anywho it’s just something to look out for in future episodes, as it’s the crux of what makes a David Simon show work.

And I swear I’m going to have have another “It’s not just who but when” post up this week, it’s almost done.

(1) – It goes back further of course, but the scene of Radio Raheem remains the last major touchstone for a lot of us.

(2) – In comparison to the normal Simon standards, not, like, Michael Bay.

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Like: TREME, Episode 2: “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”… and the luxury of semantics.

April 20, 2010

So the second episode of TREME was even better than the first.

Let’s tackle this numerically:

1. This tends to happen in David Simon shows as the first episode usually is saddled with the task of introducing a bevy of characters and plotlines. Now that we have some idea as to the nature of our characters, the show can proceed. Typically one would say “go” instead of proceed, but that implies some sort of action-y 24-like pacing, which could not be more inappropriate for TREME. David Simon shows sort of just “happen” in front of your eyes, as if we were just lucky enough to witness the events of real life.(1) Their pace could be considered languid by today’s standards, but I’d argue “deliberate” is better choice of words.

2. This is due to the exquisite care in the storytelling. Nothing is haphazard here. The slightest indulgence is often worth it; usually in the form of a stirring sample of jazz or blues.

3. I love the direction of the prisoner aftermath plot-line. It was the most compelling part of the pilot and the brief parts we got in the second episode were great as well (Slim Charles sighting!)

4. They toned down the Steve Zahn character in a major way. His abrasiveness is largely absent in this go round and we were treated to the better side of his deadpan acting sensibility. His work was my biggest complaint with a performance in the first episode and this was a complete 180, while still somehow being true to the original characterization.

5. They’ve seemingly shifted much the douchey-white-guy quotient that Zahn had in the pilot onto the new hipstery muscian guy named “Sonny.” It was a smart move, as it allowed us to get closer to Zahn’s character while still maintaining the nice racial meta-commentary concerning the white characters of TREME (being that-they-are-well-intentioned-but-ultimately-having-the-kind-of-low-stakes-that-let-you-talk-about-problems-of-the-system-at-large-instead-of-actually-dealing-with-them). Which brings me to:

Blog Post Thesis: I think TREME might partially be about what I’ll call “The Luxury of Semantics.” I’ve already referenced the fact that only characters who seem to be issuing impassioned (and somewhat cliched) rhetoric about Katrina/N.O. wheter it be: the failure of the government’s response, the injustice of the storm in general, and the amazing perseverance of the culture, all tend to be white people that were relatively unaffected or affected merely as a matter of choice. As such, these characters can afford the luxury of talking about hardship in the abstract. Now, this does not render their points any less accurate or diminish the validity of their care, just to say that it is inherently distant. Conversely all those who truly lost the most in Katrina, most of whom belong to the African-American population of the city, don’t seem to be too quick to sue the federal government or blame much of anyone. They’re too busy “doing” for a lack of a better word, usually physically rebuilding their house or business. The difference is clearly intentional. But like all things great, Simon is not dealing in black and white, even on the literal subject of black and white. Many problems with the physical reconstruction stem from the fact that theft has become commonplace. And Simon himself is a master analyzer of semantics (part of what makes him a great writer), so this pointed criticism is just as much self-directed; he even acknowledges frequently how much of an “admiring outsider” of New Orleans he is even though his affiliation with the city goes back decades. The criticism is likewise directed at someone like me, a young white male 2000 miles from the storm, exhibiting all the misplaced compassion I can muster. So yes, indulging yourself in the luxury of semantics is inherently inane(2), but it’s valuable tool in developing an idea of what exactly you want to commit yourself when it comes to the whole “doing” part of the equation. There are varying degrees of “usefulness”, but TREME is ultimately a show about responding to crisis, not in the “of the moment” heroic sense, but the long term nature of resolve.

And quite frankly, how far apart can we really be when there’s so much wonderful music to enjoy?

1- Take the amazing cinematography for THE WIRE, which was beautiful but lacked any kind of kinetic movement or omniscience. Simon once said something like [we never wanted the camera to be smarter than any of the characters in the scene]. It’s a perfect way of describing how the camera behaved in that show.

2 – Heck, I’ve printed hundreds of thousands of words in this blog on the basic matter of nonsense semantics. Mission accomplished!


Like: KICK-ASS

April 16, 2010

No big review.

1) You will enjoy KICK-ASS if you like/don’t mind the following: gleeful amoralism, a sense of irony, insane amounts of violence, punk rock sensibility (the sensibility, not punk rock itself, though there’s some of that too), children dealing insane amounts of violence, children absorbing insane amounts of violence, children swearing, Nic Cage being awesome instead of corny (fine-line), hilarious/filthy dialogue, well-choreographed fight sequences, meta-commentary, surprisingly serious overtones, surprisingly silly overtones, surprising life-affirming overtones, Adam West cadence, and silly costumes.

2) One of the best parts about the movie is the managed to subvert a lot of the negative aspects of the comic. This doesn’t happen that often. It does away with most of the sexist stuff in Millar’s shitty opus and completely does away with the weird racist stuff (and yes, Mark Millar is  racist folks. It’s not “reflexive commentary,” he’s just got straight up issues). On the whole it’s a completely more functional tone and it’s much, much funnier.

3) KICK-ASS may seem to have a confused thematic message, but I’d argue it doesn’t at all; it just plays into a whole lot of gray areas which are more results from seemingly simple decisions… plus so much of the film’s success depends constantly messing with your expectations. It’s sort of a Coen-esque anti-movie at times, but ultimately it plays straight… which yeah, makes it seem uneven, but think of it like this: it’s a movie that uses anti-movie sequences as dramatic events. In the age of super-saavy audiences (especially with comic book movies), it’s a perfect device. I love that and it’s a pretty edgy film sensibility (almost Hanake-esque? In terms of what it’s doing, not how it’s doing).

4) If you’re on the fence, consider the following: the one thing this movie will do is prompt you to have a reaction. Good. Bad. Aghast. Enthralled. You won’t leave the theater and immediately forget it like that vast majority of consumed entertainment.

5) And if you ever see this girl on the street. Walk the other way:


Love: Treme

April 13, 2010

“Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

On the suface, we understand the meaning immediately. It is an unrelenting decree. A manta for city defined by an impassioned will to continue, despite having a litany of reasons to simply stop.

It is not just a tag-line. The words are uttered by Albert Lambreaux (played by the magnificent Clarke Peters A.K.A. Lester Freeman from THE WIRE) as he stands fully clad in his Mardie Gras Chief outfit: decadent, impeccable, absurd. No, Albert is not marching in Mardi Gras, but instead arriving at the door of a friend three months after the day their city drowned. This friend happens to a hauling business, and Albert dances and chants in his magnificent get up asking proudly if this friend will help clear the debris of a bar down the way. Albert’s reason is not practical; he needs a place to practice his Indian Chief routine in anticipation of the next Mardi Gras. His home has been destroyed and there is nowhere else to do so but his old abandoned stomping grounds. The debris just needs to be moved…  The friend has no reason to help. He’d spend that time earning desperately needed money clearing  for FEMA and more significantly, he swears his oath to another Mardi Gras chief.  It would seem to be a sacrilegious act.

Albert: “Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

And with that, the friend consents. After all, these aren’t ordinary times in New Orleans.

This is TREME (and writing in general) at it’s best. It’s a scene steeped in a culture we barely know, but we are made familiar by a sense of osmosis. And yet those familiar with the culture can assure the authenticity: It’s researched. It’s cerebral. It’s cinematic. It’s deeply affecting. Better yet it is wholly analogous to the thematic mission statement of the show. It’s this kind of multi-dynamic that allows moments in TREME to soar. One might counter that there are a few weird moments in the show where we are treated to somewhat banal, cliche-ridden speeches on the unrelenting spirit of the people of New Orleans, but slyly these speeches are often come from the white upper class folks of the city. They love their city dearly all teh same, but simply lack the “real stakes” of devastation.  The kind of poor where you don’t have time to give two shits about semantics. So it’s reasonably understandable when the upper class falls back on these basic platitudes of decency and hardship: it’s in their nature and comes from a place of love. And it’s the kind of observation of meta-semantics that reminds you that you’re in the hands of a writing genius.

And David Simon is most certainly that. Fresh off of his run on the greatest show of all time, THE WIRE, one could say there are certain expectations. Being held in such high esteem could be daunting for some show runners, but David is could not seem to to care whatsoever about expectations. It’s actually that very disinterest which allows the politics of being “the show after” to handle itself nicely. TREME is not THE WIRE, nor is it ever really trying to be. It’s a bit more of an emotional piece. More about tone and character; less about systemic realities and institutions (though there certainly is shades of that). If we’re going to use a metaphor, imagine THE WIRE as an intricate diagram connecting you with human stories in the mire of institutional hell, while TREME instead tries to paint a portrait of personal stories in what might be a physical hell of post-katrina New Orleans. I’ve seen a few folks throwing around Altman comparisons (specifically NASHVILLE) and they are rather apt. But as is Simon’s nature, this is largely based on observation and documentation: an attempt to be honest about New Orleans. About music. About food. About class. About wealth. And about responsibility. And if we’re going to get all technical, this isn’t really Simon’s 2nd act to THE WIRE. That was already the astounding GENERATION KILL, though one might imply that since it was a mini-series it doesn’t count. But none the less we need to come to grips with what it is.

So do Mardi Gras Indians really matter that much? Truth be told, I only knew vaguely what they ever were before the premiere of “TREME” and certainly didn’t know what they were about. A little vague reading on the show beforehand lead to a little more reading, and to answer the question, yes they are important. They are superfluous. Their origins are obscured in hearsay. Their known history is mired in ugly racial tensions and perhaps criminal activity. Yet their real value is in the currency of deep cultural symbolism. They are now universally adored presences during the celebration, but their real lives are often secretive. No one has any real authority over them and each group,  referred to in TREME colloquially as “gangs,” works with a different chief perhaps helping with the amazingly decorative outfits and planning the rigorous planned performances. How does something so, again, superfluous gain such adoration? Because that’s the nature of these things. Silly traditions are often the most beloved because there’s no real reason to dislike them. The ugly side of tradition is often done away with in the name of pleasantries. And New Orleans has indeed had an ugly history. Places don’t become melting pots in the nicest of circumstances (Scorsese tried to tackle that less than flattering history in GANGS OF NEW YORK), but when a place has a strong sense of identity and pride those things can often melt away in the name of something better, usually something fun.

But Mardi Gras Indians are important enough to turn down FEMA dollars. This so much we learn.

“Do You Know What It Means?”

That is the title of the pilot and I can think of none more appropriate. Do you know about Treme (pronouced Truh-MAY), the neighborhood and titular inspiration for the show? Do you know about the Mardi Gras Indians? Do you know about beignets, and… Do you know? One gets the feeling that someone with thin skin would quickly counter that all this “do you know?” is nothing more than hipster bullshit. “I know about the real New Orleans. I got the cred,” and such and such. No. That could not be a more inane interpretation.

“Do You Know What It Means?” is really an invitation. We’re being asked if we would like to come along and discover what it all means. Simon’s loved the city for decades and acknowledges that it is become a part of him. He invited friends and natives of the city to help him create the show and share what “makes New Orleans” with people who may not know; to share it with us. It won’t be in an authoritarian way. They won’t beat you over the head with it. They won’t spoon-feed you. TREME opens with title card simply saying “New Orleans, Louisiana” and then “Three Months After” as even mentioning the subject of Katrina isn’t necessary. It’s redundant. We’re using a shorthand, but it’s a familiar one. It’s just another way of inviting from the very beginning. It’s always an invitation with David Simon. That’s why I will watch everything he ever does.

I may have never seen the Mardi Gras Indians, but I’ve seen New Orleans. I visited just a few months before Katrina struck and it was the highlight of my extended trip across the country. Beautiful. Honest. Gothic. Vibrant. Inspired. Food to die for and that’s from someone who probably loves food more than anything. And good god the music really is everywhere you look. I come from more of a blues background (my older brother is obsessed and I spent my entire childhood watching him develop into a rather good blue guitarist), but the roots of blue are everywhere too. I’ve been to hundreds of cities on this planet across four continents and even after a brief trip to New Orleans I can tell you with strict confidence that there is no other city I’ve seen with such a singular identity. It is the literal uncanny.

So when I watched on TV as an American City was sunk underwater, I knew we were on the verge of losing something much greater than some realized; something I barely had a taste of, but seemed know instinctively. I watched a days worth of horrible news footage when everything was still hazy; they were reporting on the horrible things perhaps occurring in the Superdome, not to mention the indignation of lacking government aid was so outrageous and the efforts put forth so nonsensical, that even Fox News Reporters were actively gnawing their teeth at the Bush administration. It was gut-churning in a way that was aesthetically different from say the complete and total shock of 9-11. It wore on me, but if you ask those around me I’m not the emotional type.  I tend to analyze rather than emote (e.g. 1500 words and counting on a single tv episode), but it really wore on me: the sight of a city destroyed. I took a car ride. It was a hot summers day in los angeles with golden sunshine and seemingly no reason to think about something over 2,000 miles away. At one point a black SUV pulled in front of me. I was looking down so I noticed the license plate first: “Louisiana.” Above it on the window, which had been covered in a fine layer of pollen, soot, someone had used their index finger to write just five simple words:

“Please God Help Our N’Awlins”

And right then I lost it. I cried in the kind of violent, uncontrollable fit that I hadn’t done since I was 7 years old. I’ve cried in movies, sure, but usually just a little eye watering. Nothing even close this. There were times I didn’t cry in moments of genuine personal tragedy. Thus I barely understood it. It was surreal. It was atypical. I sat there in traffic bawling for a minute and then finally got a hold of myself. I spent the ensuing months following it closely. A year went by and progress was still nowhere near where it deserved to be. It served as a critical humane juncture in the Bush Administration as his previous best quality was that he was thought to be “rescue/crisis handler” type of president, and his teams handling of New Orleans stands as one of the great monumental failures of American Government post WW2. Spike Lee handled much of it beautifully in his documentary “When The Levees Broke.” Today, all reports seem to indicate that things have taken a turn in the right direction. The uptick in tourism. The economy rebounding (though the economic crash was yet another roadblock for them). Even The Saints magnificent resurgence and eventual Superbowl run. In two weeks, I’ll find just how different it really is in varying degrees myself when I return to visit with some old friends. I can’t wait. We’re getting a chance to go jazz fest too. Yes, it’s the corporatization/bastardization of something normally so humble (something being the New Orleans jazz scene), but there are going to be A LOT of great acts all out and about around town. By all accounts it is definitely one of THE times to be there. It’s going to be wonderful.

So what does all of this have to do with the pilot again? What’s all this have to do with showing the country all the hardships in New Orleans “3 months after”?

We almost lost one of the best cities in the world. Maybe all that TREME is asking is do you really know what that means?


Like: Ava Gardner (1946)

April 6, 2010

“It’s Not Just Who But When…”

This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”

Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into  a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.

This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.

After a little bit of a diversion it’s time to get back to the mission statement.

Ava Gardner. Of all the people on this list, the “it’s not just who but when” convention applies to her the most. When would you have liked to meet Ava? The Sinatra days? The Howard Hughes days? On the set of MOGAMBO(1953)? On the set of EARTHQUAKE(1974)? There really are a litany of distinct times in her life and all of them feel so terribly different.

First off, I have to confess that I’m not really an “Ava Gardner Guy.”  I have seen a good deal of her films and have read a good deal about her life,  but  no singular thing has stuck with me in a sense of affection. But that’s not supposed to happen, right?  Everyone seems/seemed to be enamored with Ava. She was considered to be “simply darling” and the crush of every red-blooded male. Hell, Frank Sinatra always thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world and never got over his relationship with her. Sinatra!

… I don’t get it.

Yes, she’s unquestionably beautiful (but in many ways, no more so than many others I’ve covered in this series), but that’s not the issue. The problem is that I have no idea who Ava Gardner really is and  everything about her seems to be a contradiction.

For example, most of the descriptions of Ava sort of fall back on the banal adjectives we throw around with classic movie stars (and yes, I’m guilty of using many of them in this series. I have no way of defending that), and all the implications of the specific details seem to negate each other: Some considered her the model of grace. Some talked about how she drank and smoked like a fish. Some characterize her as a shameless flirt. Some say she wouldn’t give you the time of day. Some say she was kind to all.  Some say she was stuck up. Some said she was obsessed with her own image.  Some say she despised her fame and sought to avoid it. Some say she was distrustful of men.  Some talked about how she liked to hang out with the boys and apparently had the filthiest mouth you ever heard.

If you accept all of it at face value, she sounds like the most interesting person in the world. “Who is the real Ava Gardner? I must know!” and so forth.

Let’s go to some quotes (off IMDB. Not the most dependable, but I’m going with the ease of access here).

E.g.: “I have only one rule in acting — trust the director and give him heart and soul.” vs. “I can’t bear to face a camera. But I never brought anything to this business and I have no respect for acting. Maybe if I had learned something it would be different. But I never did anything to be proud of.” And later, “Although no one believes me, I have always been a country girl and still have a country girl’s values.” then “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial.

Granted, context and timing is everything and even though I’m making unfair side by side comparisons, you can see a point to it; a contradictory identity reveals itself. A lot of the problem is due to the fact that in later life Ava became extremely embittered by her Hollywood experience and resentful that her MGM contract forced her to star in mostly crap moves. She removed the filter and talked candidly in those later years, but by all accounts she was happy to engage in the fruits of stardom at the actual time.  In those later years she insisted that she hated and had no use for the spotlight but ALWAYS found herself in a string of relationships with the most famous of the famous: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, you name it. Plus, a whole bunch of rumored of the record trysts with many, many famous men. She was even a queen of tabloid fodder (which would make anyone bitter really). I’ve always thought she had a lot in common with Angelina Jolie, who concurrently seems to have a love/hate relationship with her own fame. What’s apt is I have the same exact indifference to Jolie that I have to Gardner.

So who was Ava Gardner really? My educated guess is that she was a bit of a front runner. When the chips were down she was happy to be candid and had a certain knack for straight talking with a sense of humor. Even when there was genuine stuff behind her Hollywood appraisal you get the sense it might be more bitter than actual observation. And I realize this makes me seem like a judgmental jerk. Lord knows she had plenty of reason to be bitter and a lot of folks treated her pretty darn lousy. But I don’t think she handled the life of a movie star all that well. Maybe sometimes she could keep up the veneer, but sometimes let it get of her too.

In some ways she acknowledged it herself “Maybe I just didn’t have the temperament for stardom,” but the clear problem with that is that definitely Ava Gardner was  born to be a star. She just looked like a movie star. She had this wonderful sultry voice. She could hit all the right notes in scene and pose around a room with the best of them. And so many people loved her. Who knows? Maybe all those gentleman suitors and fans liked the contradiction. Maybe they wanted to go down the rabbit hole and meet the know the real Ava Gardner. I’m just not really sure there was one. I think she had a reactionary personality, in the sense that so much of her personality depended on the context of her given situation. Still, she was such a figure of the era that I HAVE to include her in this series. It’s just when I watch her performances I just so someone so… disinterested.

So that’s why I’m going with meeting Ava Gardner just after the release of THE KILLERS(1946).

It launched her career and she could have perhaps been at her most optimistic. I’m not saying I’d inherently like Optimistic Ava better, but it’s certainly the one I’d be more curious to meet.  This is all a silly projection of course so who knows? But I like the movie and I think they use her well in it (it also has this hilarious habit of dressing down all the female characters in these shlubby clothes and then dressing Ava up in some of the more reveal garb that 1946 would allow).

… And maybe it’s even more lame that that and I picked THE KILLERS because  it’s where she looks the prettiest.

I’m not really sure. It just feels like the right time. I have my doubts, but who wouldn’t have liked to meet Ava Gardner? And honestly If I got to meet Sinatra too I’d pick that era in a millesecond.

So goes our last lady of the 1940s. Next week, get ready for the 50’s.


Like: Gene Tierney (1944)

April 6, 2010

“It’s Not Just Who But When…”

This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”

Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into  a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.

This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.

It’s hard to argue with the merits of Gene Tierney inclusion into this series, considering she once played the literal idealization of a woman.

Otto Perminger’s LAURA (1944) is considered one of the semi-classics of golden age cinema and I personally hold it in even higher regard. It is a deftly constructed story with shades of CITIZEN KANE(1941)’s flashback structure, only instead of focusing the life of a power magnate it delves into a classic femme fatale.(1) Honestly, I love the tone of this film: the traditional atmosphere of the mysterious noir, and yet a quasi-aloof commentary on the nature female projection by males. Aside from the similarly-eponymous titles, I see a lot of influence from Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1941) in the film, particularly in the use of zooms and slow/voyeuristic camera movement.

Perminger was always a bit of kindred spirit to Hitchcock and a bit more of a practitioner of subtlety (by classical standards). While Hitchcock was the revolutionary, the hit-maker, and driving force behind some beautiful, overt, and shocking films, the one thing he never really had in him was a sensesubtlety. I’m not really sure he needed it or anything as he was so assured at working with bold cinema, a graceful character study would just seem limp by his usual standards. Perminger, however, was perfectly adept at taking the thriller and working within a less heightened cinematic style.  Most classical noirs feel stilted to the modern viewer and Hitchcock movies are so uncannily slick/Hitchockian (and therefore “dated” in their own way) that the same modern viewer has a way of relegating them to “old timey” status. Meanwhile, the first thing that jumps out at you about LAURA is just how damn modern it all feels. Check out some of the moving camera work and see if you feel the same.

Note only watch the first two minutes or so, but you’ll get a sense of the cinematography:

The great thing about LAURA is ended up a being a big hit and it marked both Otto’s arrival as an elite director and provided a star-making turn for Tierney.

And yes, she acquits herself most admirably in the role. It helps that Laura herself is so well-conceived to begin with(2), as the very notion of an ambiguous female ideal who is constructed from the various  accounts of other characters just has so many possibilities. It’s the sort of thing that just begs to indulge in our male voyeuristic tendencies and wish-fulfillment and supply commentary from there.  She plays Laura in the flashbacks as a sort of blank slate, again: “a projection of the male ideal.” Unlike most Hollywood female roles which are written that way (often unbeknownst to the writer) and usually completely undermine the humanism of the character, LAURA chooses to relish in the murky morality of that ideal.

Tierney takes what could be a somewhat gimmicky concept and infuses it with this alternately subdued/haunted presence. The subdued/blank canvass act is a tricky dynamic if you think about it: she could so easily tread into the kind of territory where Laura is either The Joke of a perfect woman or offensively/un-ironically the perfect woman that we see in most movies, but she knows that the role has to play. It’s not the Coens and it’s not the kind of modern lead-age comedy where that stuff would fly.  So She splits the difference beautifully. It’s 100% functional in the noir universe, but just enough of that “blankness” let’s us know that she and Perminger are criticizing the idea that man’s ideal woman is a vacant vessel; the literal trophy wife.(3).

It’s all so perfectly subversive.  By the time we’re introduced to the fact that Laura is not really dead and instead in hiding (afraid of the murderer), she exhibits such a subtle, but beautiful change in personality that affects us substantially.Yes, Laura’s very much the same beautiful object of desire, but she’s far-less object-like: emotionally wounded, scared, distrustful. To use my “trophy” footnote example, she is the victim of a male’s desire to literally kill her and turn her into his trophy. Her emotional reaction is perfectly synonymous with the female reaction to being objectified.

I love the layers. It plays perfectly straight to the audience as a classic noir, but the subtext still rules (Hitchcock would later be more forthright in the 50’s and his subtexts would turn into very literal “text” if you will). I really do consider LAURA to be a feminist film even thought it may not appear that way at all (yes if you examine the ending from the detective’s angle it could be construed as that typical movie guy-saves/gets-girl sexist motif, but the first half of the film and the portrayal of the villain play exactly like criticism to me. It’s the way we assume something about our “ideal images” and how we mistake them for “reality.” The mistake is a costly one and often leads to our failings in reality. OUr happiness in life is often reflective of our ability to reconcile the two.

It’s an important question. It’s actually rather analogous to what I do in these series of columns: many of these women had public presences on screen that I find fascinating, and yet their real lives were often tumultuous existences (Tierney had a tragic life for sure). My admiration of them is largely a projection based on surface. I’m regailing them for their beauty, for the moments when they’re putting up a facade. They’re starring in movies often written and directed by men. Aesthetically there’s similarity to dolls being set up in a diarama: models, mannequins, trophies. Sure film can subvert that in some ways because it’s “sculpting in time” but I can’t lose sight of the fact that that’s who I’m idealizing.  I’m fully aware of how potentially damaging they entire dynamic is.

For some reason I think that because I’m aware of it and trying to handle it responsibly I’m somehow absolved of it…  I know that doesn’t fully work.

I just have to find a way reconcile the two.

1 – I realize this could imply that Laura from LAURA is the prototypical “bad girl” femme fatale, but don’t make that assumption; a femme fatale can just as easily (if not preferably) be a good natured girl who gets wrapped up in a whole bunch of trouble, and often bringing the male protagonist down the rabbit hole so to speak.

2- Even if the dialogue comes of a little stilted and on the nose to the modern viewer.

3- People don’t think about the meaning trophy wife as much as they should. It’s critical already, but if you literalize it a trophy also is an inanimate object. speechless. lifeless. pretty. and only signifies the accomplishment of those who obtain them (or possible the ones who “constructed” it). You get the idea. It’s both highly accurate and more insulting then you think.