Love: INCEPTION

July 17, 2010

First a non spoiler review:

INCEPTION may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Now, this is just a first reaction mind you, but I saw the midnight show last night and I felt this way the second I walked out of the theater.  I was on an emotional and intellectual high… It has continued all day long.

Important things to know:  I am not a “Nolan Guy.” I very much like THE DARK KNIGHT and found it to be entertaining and interesting. I only like a few parts of BATMAN BEGINS. I thought MEMENTO was rather clever, but not too much else. I thought INSOMNIA was a step backward from there. My favorite Nolan film is actually THE PRESTIGE because it’s a straightforward puzzle that relied on laying actually clues in the groundwork rather than being an nonsensical stupid “twist movie.” I hate the nonsensical twist (unlike the logical twist, which is a wonderful thing when done right) and thankfully Nolan seems to hate the nonsensical twist as well. For this alone I will always appreciate Nolan in some way. But while I embrace the intellectual puzzle-building nature of his work I think he too often slides into unemotional arcs and formalism over content.

So please understand, this is the opinion of someone who is not predisposed to gush.

INCEPTION satisfies on all levels.

First off, it is an enthralling heist film. I honestly cannot remember a movie where I was on the edge of my seat so long let alone the entire last hour and 45 minutes. The tension is immense and every time you think it has to let up, it manages to go deeper down the rabbit hole.  One of the things I loved about the film is that it’s actually pretty straight forward. Everything is perfectly explained so you’re rarely wondering “what’s going on.” (The key is just not to miss anything. If you don’t know what’s going on, you missed something and it’s your fault. I realize this sounds really esoteric, but the entire film takes its time to set up it’s layers and be deliberate… so really there’s no excuse). In this regard, from pure entertainment standpoint, it is one of the best popcorn movies I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a popcorn movie is it? Secondly, INCEPTION is incredibly satisfying on an intellectual level and not just in the typical Nolan puzzle sense. There’s honest to god thematics going on here. Ones that aren’t hammered over and over again like THE PRESTIGE and its issues of control, but ones that run the gamut: love, marriage, death, father issues, propagation, and the nature of reality. The film is about the rich textures psychoanalysis. These themes are not window dressing either but somehow the driving force of the film.

You see, INCEPTION manages to use psychoanalysis as actual plot points. How a character feels, their catharsis, their arcs, their emotional states… these are god damn macguffins folks. It’s sounds like it would be obtuse, but it’s so seemless and not clunky. It’s dramatic, emotional, real, and damn suspenseful. I honestly cannot believe that a movie managed to achieve all this.

In a way, Nolan has finally managed to “go emotional.” He has turned the soft-hearted and tender emotions of repression into the engine for one of his brilliant narratives. I said that he always has problems with formalism over content, but what if the formalism is the content? The action of  INCEPTION not only reinforces the arc, it is an arc.

The performances are stellar across the board. Dicaprio delivers his best work to date. I very much like his performance in THE DEPARTED, but that role is mostly a sort of one-dimensional projection of paranoia, angst, and affectation. His role in INCEPTION, meanwhile, is the most rounded and interesting one we’ve gotten from Nolan yet. His character motives are so emotional and what at first seems slightly one note, is revealed to be so textured and beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. Much of this is due to the enchanting and haunting work of Marion Cotiallard who provides such weight and organic tone. She is the absolute crux of his arc. But against her, Dicaprio toes the line between focused and unhinged so beautifully. He really the perfect carrion for the film’s lead character.

The rest of the cast isn’t given the same showcase, but Nolan does a wonderful job of giving them little moments, glimpses even to reveal their characters and motivations.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is fantastic; one of the smoothest badasses we’ve seen on screen in a while. Have we forgotten about making characters like this? Badasses that aren’t “bad” in any sense, but smooth operators who astound us. I’m hoping this film elevates his profile out of the indie scene because he has the potential to be amazing. Especially, because he easily delivers in one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever seen. Ellen Page provides a real emotional anchor for the film by grounding Dicaprio’s character and operating as the audience surrogate in the film’s first half.  Tom Hardy, fresh of his tour de force in BRONSON, gets to shine as the most vivacious and theatrical character of the group (but of course, this is Nolan so never, ever does it even approach anything camp or unrealistic feeling). At this point it seems like I’m just trying to name everyone in the film, but I have to mention Cillian Murphy who does a somewhat thankless job so beautifully. Really, his emotional work and inner turmoil is the engine of the entire film; meaning without his performance, the film doesn’t work. And of course Michael Caine lends his perfect skills of being fatherly Michael Caine.

There have been three times where I have sat down and watched something and realized “In my entire life, I will never ever be able to do something anywhere near as good as this.” It’s depressing in a small way, but largely you’re awed by the work you’ve witnessed.

The first time for me was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In someways it feels like the off-beat comedic version of this same film and that Gondry-Kauffman cinematic marriage was the best film of that decade.  The second time for me was THE WIRE, whose depth and novelistic tapestry was the perfect amalgamation of profoundity, characterization, and plotting.

The third time was INCEPTION. The film is a big budget brilliant idea, perfectly executed. I am literally in awe of it.

INCEPTION is a flat out masterpiece.

And now….

Point by Point Spoiler Review:

-The hotel hallway fight scene…. Unreal. My biggest bone to pick with Nolan is he often films his action poorly (his best being the joker’s chase of the armored car). But this was absolutely hands down one of the best filmed action scenes I have ever seen. Nevermind the fact that he has merely pulled back the camera, but the movement is fluid and well-defined, not to mention that the action itself completely totally jaw dropping.

-How badass was Joseph Gordon Levitt in that hotel scene? Just unreal. So freaking good. I can’t stop gushing about it.

-Cillian Murphy’s arc and the moment of “inception” was so spectacularly well done. They way they built the layers falls exactly in line with what we know about psychoanalysis. And it managed to be emotional in a way that I never thought Nolan could be (he certainly had to dress it up though didn’t he?) Brilliant. Goddamn brilliant.

-The entire Marion Cotillard relationship was haunting and the end reveal was so surprisingly cathartic. It’s the kind of reveal that doesn’t make you go “huh!? What!?” but instead makes you go “YES! THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE!” and helps explain the motivations of the movie. Just brilliant.

-Some people see the ending moment as a mind-fuck and tease. I strongly do not agree. On one hand the fact that the fact that the spinning wheel even falters a bit is indication that it is very much real so we can give up on feeling like “none of it mattered it was all fake!” And more importantly it doesn’t matter, Nolan’s deliberate choice to cut is not a tease or a forced withholding, but a brilliant way of telling us to embrace the ambiguity (and not in that shitty didactic LOST way either). And what’s more it’s a brilliant little wink. Want to know why that last layer is “not” real?

Nolan’s acknowledging that INCEPTION isn’t really because it’s a damn movie.

A little meta, but how is that not perfect?


Love: Audrey Hepburn (1953/1961 [tie])

June 22, 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.

Hoo boy.

Where to start… I’m not sure. I’m sort of nervous just writing about her. There’s a lot to live up to. For all the noble dames of classic Hollywood, she’s the one that is held in the highest regard. The Nobleiest Dame if you will. I mean, people adore this woman. You want to live up to that. You have to live up to that.

Where to start… This was sorta inevitable right? I mean there was no way in hell that Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t be included in this series, right? She has to be here. Heck, her and Rita Hayworth will be elected captains and then they’ll just pick the rest.

Where to start… Maybe a transition? Some of the same things that make Grace Kelly awesome are the same things that make Audrey Hepburn awesome. The key difference is a matter of affectation. Audrey had the same quality of being austere, only she was somehow more accessible. Maybe it was just her inherent “cuteness.” Maybe it was how so many of her films were about the austere girl falling for the gruff regular Joe. Maybe it’s because there was something so effortless kind about her. Maybe it’s that she was approachable.

Where to start… Well, she’s gorgeous. Yeah that’s for sure. She’s not Grace Kelly, with the pristine model looks, but unquestionably beautiful. Sure, it seems there’s a little bit of Elf in the DNA there, but unquestionably beautiful. So that helps right? Or is that too obvious…

Where to start… How about the mission statement? When would I want to meet her? How about 1953? ROMAN HOLIDAY(1953) made her a star and for good reason. She’s simply charming in it. She’s delightful. She’s the life and integrity of the film and she’s playing of Gregory Peck for chrissakes. She’d win an oscar and become and instant icon.  It would have to be 1953…

Where to start… No, actually I have to say 1961. Yeah that’s the ticket, I mean BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S(1961)… what other choice is there? It might be one of the most iconic performances in anyone’s career let alone hers.  Even the image of her Audrey in character is seminal enough. Google “Audrey Hepburn” images and 95% of them are from that movie. The film is fantastic to boot: incredible source material from Capote, Blake Edwards making his mark as a director, just stunning quality all around. And perhaps what’s best is Hepburn’s complete inversion on her image, albeit done in the most graceful way possible. In many ways, Holly Golightly is the  same demure princess that we always consider Audrey to be, only she’s fallen from grace. It’s not abashed or sordid mind you, she’s just a small-town girl whose efforts to make it in the big city fell flat so she became just another playgirl trying to land a big whale. She’s just so damn alluring. Hepburn’s Holly is the complete characterization of the the oft-chased wild girl with a heart of gold. And coming from Capote’s novel, they do an incredible job both indulging in that stereotype (though it wasn’t really so much a stereotype at the time) and transcending it. It’s a perfect movie/role/performance. But that’s not really a place to start is it? More like the climax?

Where to start… I feel like I always had a deep connection with Hepburn. It honestly started with the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster and for some reason I just abstractly decided she was one of my favorites. We often forget that we do this sort of thing when we’re kids: you like something for some silly reason, like a baseball player having the same name as you, or you like the logo on the front of something, or some other weak connection. So that’s why I started liking Audrey Hepburn. But like anything you keep up with, that circumstantial “like” turned into something tangible and genuine; a lifelong affinity for a timeless actress. And let’s be honest that poster is just fantastic.

Where to start… I don’t know. There’s so much to say, but nothing feels like it fully captures what makes Audrey Hepburn, well,  Audrey Hepburn.

Where to start…


Love: Stephen Strasburg

June 9, 2010

Okay. We’re one start in. It’s a bit early to be declaring love for a player, right?

Of course. But so what?

This kid is a fucking star.

Perhaps we should back up a moment. I love baseball. I’m from Boston and have been a Red Sox fan all my life, but if I were to be honest, I would say that I love the game itself more than any one team. Likewise, I love fantasy baseball and tend to look for up and coming young talent on the horizon, particularly in one of my deep prospect leagues. So two years ago I started hearing rumblings about a kid who looks absolutely fantastic down in San Diego State. He shows remarkable control and just filthy break on all his pitches. He continues to move along and mow folks down that season. He becomes the absolute-lock number 1 pick. Scouts pour into see him, weary of the hype, and then become converts after about an hour. He is just that good. The Washington Nationals select him #1 overall and begin to pimp him out as the next coming of whatever, the Lebron of Baseball. This is merely as a matter of economics, as they’re struggling and want people to be excited about the team. He gets to spring training and everyone agrees, he’s the real deal and could probably start for them now. Understandably cautious, they relegate him to AA, where he dominates after several starts. So they move him up to AAA. He dominates. So they target a june call up date (which was really the target date all along) and he proceeds to give them no reason not to.

His Minor league stats: 7-2 – 1.30 ERA – 65 Ks – .79 whip! – 13 walks. ( http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=strasb001ste )

He’s ready. June 8th he will be called up.

The start gets national attention. The Nationals sell out the game in 2 hours. Some folks already herald him as the next great pitcher. Some folks are cautious and don’t believe the hype. The town of Strasburg VA thinks about changing their name to Stephen Strasburg VA just for the day. Curt Schilling comes out on ESPN and says that Strasburg could be the best pitcher in the league as soon as he’s called up. Fellow baseball analysts laugh him out of the room, somehow failing to recognize that Schilling was an absurdly cerebral pitcher and thus he might know more about pitching than anyone other than like 3 other dudes on the planet (maddux, smoltz for example). ESPN runs a pre-show three hours before the start time of the game explaining to everyone why this is such a big deal. Even if you don’t have an opinion, you’re at least curious.

For all the talk, Strasburg finally gets a chance to go out there and show what he’s got…

And what he’s got is unreal:

7 IP. 4 hits. 2 Earned runs. 14 Ks. Zero Walks.

Believe it or not, these stats are actually somewhat misleading. I watched the whole game and I can tell you he was even MORE dominating than that stat line. He still had a sub-100 pitch count so he could have gone into the 8th easy, but they’re being cautious. Three of the four hits were scattered-barely-there-opposite-field hits that only-professionals-can-make. The home run was off a mistake pitch, but not really on his part. Pudge called a really bad pitch on a 3-2 count to Delvy Young. He called for the change-up which is easily his weakest pitch and wanted it low and inside. Young had a beautiful piece of hitting and muscled it over the fence. The pitch wasn’t horrible, but Pudge had no business asking for it in that full count situation. It’s big leagues, they can hit your worst pitch even if it’s actually decent. Especially when they know their swinging. Besides that change-up isn’t a strike out pitch yet it’s a foul pitch. The 14 Ks, however, were simply ridiculous. He K’d seven batters in a row… Twice. He struck out every hitter in their lineup. He struck out the last 7 batters he faced. On one of them in the seventh inning he hit 103 mph on the park’s gun. THE SEVENTH INNING. Just electric stuff: His 4 seem fastball moves left or right. His 1 seam sinker works just like a hybrid of Rivera’s cut fastball mixed with a traditional downward movement of a split… only he can throw it 95-97 mph. His slurve is just stupid in terms of break and he can target it on either side. His change-up is weakest, but it’s still a totally viable major league pitch.

And most important is that last stat on his line… He didn’t walk anyone.

That is the thing about about young pitchers. They have great stuff, but can’t command the strike zone. The walk people. This was King Felix’s problem. Lirano’s problem. Dontre Willis’s problem. Jon Lester’s problem. It’s a standard problem really, and the good ones learn to overcome it in due time… But Strasburg didn’t walk anyone. And he barely walked anyone in the minors.

He’s the complete package. Here. Now. At 21.

Unreal.

Here’s every strike out from the 14 K performance: http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=8802881&c_id=was

Naturally, this is real life so things could fizzle out at any second. He could blow his arm out or get hit by a bus. But unlike guys with control problems, or mental problems, or maturity problems, or physical problems, Strasburg shows us no reason not to believe in him. So, why not believe in him?

Here’s hoping he stays healthy.

It’s going to be a lot of fun for all of us if he does.


Love: Grace Kelly (1954)

May 21, 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 amazing what a couple of Hitchcock movies can do for a actress’s legacy.

Let’s be honest, acting is not really Grace Kelly’s legacy, is it? After all, this is a woman who ended up being an honest-to-god Princess.

Grace Kelly was probably too beautiful to be confined to a normal life. She had the kind of beauty that doesn’t exactly feel real. If you asked someone to sketch an ideal version of a “pretty blonde lady” it would probably look like her: pristine, bright and colorful, free of imperfection. This is not to imply that Grace was a bombshell type mind you. She wasn’t Marilyn. She wasn’t overly curvaceous. Nor sultry. Grace Kelly was elegant. Shapely, but slender. Statuesque. She truly had this eponymous grace… Gosh…  Here I am, hurling around adjectives like someone who can’t articulate a coherent narrative, but oddly it feels like the best approach…

… Impeccable… Perhaps that’s the best word.

In my previous piece on Elizabeth Taylor I mistakenly made it seem like Taylor was the defining style icon of this era. It was the wrong appraisal: Taylor had a defining and highly influential look, but it was Grace Kelly who was THE style icon of the time. So much so that fashion and clothing were synonymous to her identity.

Let’s do an exercise. Those of you who are familiar with her, picture Grace Kelly in your head right now. How does she look?

I bet her clothing and hair is a big part of what you picture. There’s no singular facial trait (like with Julia Roberts you’d go “big smile”), she just had a perfect symmetrical face. So it’s about the look. She had a few different looks, but we likely know them all. She would most likely be wearing white. She could be wearing a stunning evening dress with a large, conservative skirt,  but a liberal reveal of her shoulders. She’s most likely wearing diamonds. Her hair could curve into an elegant wave, or be pulled straight back with a bit of volume. She could be going to a fancy cocktail party, she a fancy dinner, or be the belle of the ball. It wouldn’t matter because she’d never be under-dressed for an outing, would she? It’s all so classic. You have your more casual looks as well though. Maybe, she could see her lounging on some fancy sailboat. White khaki shorts. A modest sweater. Sunglasses. A forerunner to Jackie O. The air of the distinguished. The yachting crowd.

There’s a reason you can picture Grace so easily. It’s because we all have the same iconic images in burned into our minds. Her physical presence and style are inexorably tied together, and specifically tied up with something very important in addition…

There’s this popular cliche about how men like to worship women from afar.  It’s not necessarily voyeurism, but more of an ingrained belief that the immaculate feminine perfection can only be maintained in absolute form from a distance (otherwise you see the imperfections). Other kinds of figures give us shortcuts around the imperfections, often upfront. Unlike television stars, the buddy-like comediennes, or even the hapless airheads, who are considered approachable and accessible, the “movie star” is the perfect example of the effects of that distance. We go into darkened theaters and stare up at these amazing specimens with our mouths agape. It is there that the distance becomes a chasm. And with someone like Grace Kelly: whose looks are so perfect, with every bit of her definitive flair of upper class style which we (generally) so desperately envy, that chasm instead becomes a vast expanse.

We love her, because it’s almost inconceivable to be her. So really, what other choice is there?

Back to Hitchcock.

Did you know that Grace Kelly only starred in movies for 5 freaking years?

I bet you didn’t know that. She’s considered one of the great movie stars of our time after all. But just five years of work: Two bit parts in FOURTEEN HOURS (1951) and HIGH NOON(1952). She erupted on the scene as “that beautiful blonde woman who stole the scenes from Ava Gardner” in MOGAMBO (1953). The next year was a big one as she starred in five freaking movies alone. GREEN FIRE and THE FIRE OF TOKO-RI. Then she starred in two consecutive Hitchcock classics, DIAL M FOR MURDER and REAR WINDOW. !!!.  She didn’t even do all that much in them, but they have virtually defined her screen career. She’s often considered the ideal model of “The Hitchcock Blonde.”  I guess it helps that both are just outrageously good movies. The fifth film of that year? THE COUNTRY GIRL, which earned Grace Kelly a freaking Oscar. You haven’t heard of it (most likely) because it’s not all that good. But really, that’s often what people win Oscars for, their not-so-good work at the just-the-right time. I’ve gone on my “oscars just being awards for previous performances and politics” rant before so I won’t again… but please note that this forgotten, blah performance prevented Judy Garland for winning in A STAR IS BORN and Audrey Hepburn for winning in SABRINA. Ugh. Moving on… Grace seemed sort of weary of a lot of the attention that came after all this. She didn’t look forward to raising kids like this (and she wanted kids). So she only did three more films (which I honestly haven’t seen so I can’t really comment), but at the end of 1956 she hung up her acting shoes for good. She was 26.

Again. She was 26…. Whoa.

Of course it helps if you meet the Prince of Monaco and he falls hopelessly in love with you. Anytime you can get the fairy tale ending I say you go for it. If only to see what it’s like, right? She never really acted again, though she was tempted by her old friend Hitchcock a few times. Instead, she did all the princess/stately duties. She did an immense amount of humanitarian work (the funniest of which was breast feeding advocacy thing). She gave birth to Princess Caroline.  Basically, she got to be a princess.

Given everything we’ve discussed… A fitting conclusion for Grace Kelly, isn’t it?


Like: Elizabeth Taylor (1952)

May 5, 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.

Once upon a time Elizabeth Taylor was just smoking.

I realize that comment is about as blunt as it gets, but let’s just acknowledge that she was the kind of attractive that can make people feel uncomfortable. So with that, the first half of this article is largely concerned with the aesthetical value of Ms. Taylor, but I promise that this article will delve into the things that made Taylor a legend and not just some pretty person.

So now then. By looking at the picture of above, you realize that we have unquestionably left the sensibility of the 40’s, with the glamor ringlet hair-doos and vaseline-caked camera lenses,  and are now in a completely different era all together. Elizabeth Taylor’s look was so distinct that it was actually ahead of its time: the thick slanted eyebrows countering years of impossibly thin arch-shaped ones (for comparison see Stanwyck, Barbara), the uber-dark mascara, the shaping at the far corners of her eyes. It was so divergent. You know what? We can even go further than that: she wasn’t just ahead of the curve, she invented the curve. Think about the “mod” look of the 60’s and tell me that it doesn’t stem from Taylor’s look (see Twiggy).  Taylor’s one of those honest-to-god trendsetters.(1) Even more astounding is that Taylor was at this pinnacle of everyone’s collective “wow” for about 15 straight years.

So the question at hand… when would you like to meet Elizabeth Taylor?

But first a quick tangent: One thing I’ve noticed in doing this “it’s not just who but when” series is that people can really look different in different periods of their lives (and I’ve already picked everyone I’m going to write about in the series so I have a big sample size here). Some stars have aged beautifully. Some not. Some shock you with their youthful, luminous glow at age 20 that you never knew they had, while others barely look like their ultimately famous personas years we come to know later. And so far, many of the upstanding women I have covered have been in that latter category.

Taylor is different. Up until a certain point in her career she just seemed so… ageless. She first got her start as a child star, where her presence is somewhat jarring in retrospect, because she just looks like a Tiny-Elizabeth-Taylor. It’s bizarre. Check out THERE’S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE (1942)  and be thoroughly weirded out.  It is less jarring with her “awkward years”(2)  in NATIONAL VELVET (1944) and CYNTHIA(1947), where certain features seemed out of whack with the mini and adult versions of Taylor. She got closer to her period of distinction with her role as Amy in LITTLE WOMEN(1942), except she has this scary platinum blonde hair. I mean, yikes. Then her breakthrough role came in the original FATHER OF THE BRIDE(1950).  It marked her transition from teenager to “young woman”(3) and from that point on she was the “it” girl until about 1966. Picking a moment to meet Taylor in that long period is a daunting task.

And sadly, my answer depends on hair. Yes. Hair.

You see Taylor spent much of that period with a hairstyle I that particular hairstyle that many of us younger folks recognize. You know what I’m talking about. This one:

She had Grandma hair.

Yes, it was the style at the time (and she certainly knew how to rock it,) but the problem for today’s onlooker is that Taylor’s face had such a relate-able, modern aesthetic; she would simply look so much better with modern and/or longer hair. Perhaps it’s just generational and simply due to how our current era identifies someone as being in their 20’s. Granted this is astoundingly subjective and I’m behaving as if it’s not, but it is an interesting dynamic to consider when discussing the timelessness of “style.” Could there be people who are “style” outliers? Born out of a time that style fits their features best? Maybe it’s more black and white than that;  certain people look great with long hair, certain people look great with short hair. So I insist there can be a rough consensus on the basis on facial structure and norms of symmetry. And even if there isn’t, screw it.  I subjectively think Taylor looked stunning with longer hair. So there.

Her first cinematic appearance with longer hair would be in QUO VADIS(1951)… but since she was barely in that movie anyway so we must go to IVANHOE(1952). (1)

So there’s the long hair (props to getty images, a great overall resource for old movie pictures). You can’t see her so well, but you get a sense of how much it works with her profile and facial structure. And yes, I know those are probably extensions, but whatever! It’s what we got to go on. So what about pictures that show her more clearly?

Damn.

Coincidentally, IVANHOE was the first film I saw her in…  I think. It was elementary school and I had to do a book report on one one of those silly abridged novels and I picked Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.”  In traditional lazy fashion I watched the movie instead. (5) And boom, I was hooked on Liz. Then again, I had a surprising amount of crushes in elementary school and they tended to be out of left field (Alley Mills!?!). So as silly as this childhood crush seemed, it was really just par for the course.

Taylor dominated the next six years in terms of star power, including a starring role in the uber-popular film GIANT (1956). But while her work was always high profile, she was not necessarily known for her actual acting ability. Then came CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF(1958).  I love all of Tennessee Williams’ work and I feel like this is one of the best adaptations. Between Paul Newman’s drunken seething and Taylor’s smoldering sultriness/angry fireworks, this film provides such a tangible mix of mood and energy. You can practically feel the oppressive and titular heat. And Burl Ives, ladies and gentleman! Burl Ives! If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list for sure. It marked Taylor’s arrival as a real talent and established a persona she could really sink her teeth into in the coming years (aside from the “attractive woman” she had been playing before).

Taylor was deservingly nominated for an Oscar in the role, but of course it went to the immortal performance of Susan Heyward’s I WANT TO LIVE!(1958)… Huh?!? That nonsense movie won her an Oscar?! See, this is a great example of why I can’t stand the Oscars.  Little do people realize, they’ve always sucked. Mostly because the level of misappropriation is off the charts. Yes, I know “opinion” is a part of it, but the politics of choosing a winner truly is the rule of the thumb. Trust me, I know Oscar voters. They don’t watch a lot of the films. They pick to spread awards around and reward past performances, their friends, and whoever would be the better story over the more impacting and lasting performance almost every time. Case in point: everyone was so impressed with Taylor’s performance in CAT that it garnered her sufficient clout that she actually won the Oscar for her subsequent performance in the completely mediocre BUTTERFIELD 8(1960). Plus she was then sick in real life  and everyone felt sympathetic for her [Facepalm].  Of course that undeserving reward had further consequences: Taylor receiving the nonsense Oscar is what prevented Shirley Maclaine from winning an Oscar for THE APARTMENT (1960). This horrible cycle has gone on and on for years. We’re giving out awards to people because we fucked up and didn’t give it to them for the performance they deserved it. This happens every year. It happens in every category (only like 30% of the movies on AFI’s list are best picture winners). It’s political, inane, and nonsensical. That’s why I hate watching the Oscars…  Sorry about the tangent. End Rant.

Anycrap… Taylor’s pin-up heyday had one last Hurrah with THE SANDPIPER(1965), but her next film was a dramatic reversal of that image. A singular performance that took what she established in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and brought it to fruition.  I’m speaking of course, of Martha.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?(1966) is probably on the list of my 50 favorite films. Some of the most ardent readers here might find that odd because I’ve hated pretty much every modern incantation of the “marriage sucks” mini-genre (Revolutionary Road, etc). You know the kind of movie I’m talking about: a married couple yells at each other and say bitchy things and it’s all about how the institution of marriage is  corrupt, yada, yada, yada. It the kind of assessment that is so far off base from my personal disposition, but that’s they the whole when-the-film-was-made thing comes into play. The film works best as a counterpoint to the long tradition of sterile marriage comedies of the 40’s and 50’s.(6)  It’s scathing really; the popular discourse is something that really, truly matters in this world and WOOLF had a sincere and lasting impact. It was the kind of sobering portrait that made a lot of couples really uncomfortable the night after watching. Particularly, a lot of intellectual, “progressive” couples. Plus, WOOLF isn’t really saying those inane negative things about marriage itself. In the best tradition of grim art, it’s meant to work as a mirror, albeit one with constructive intentions. It never caves to banal platitudes or trite moralism, but instead presents an distressing alternative to your own life. It is meant to give you a glimpse into the abyss, so that you can stay clear away. After all, most of us are not like George and Martha.

What also helps WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is that it is, you know, a flawlessly constructed work. Richard Burton channels the empty vessel of nihilism, a man clinging to his last shreds longing, so completely that it’s frightening.(7) George Segal and Sandy Dennis simply nail the young couple, who ride the roller coaster of the evening, falling into various context after context, examining themselves. And then there’s Taylor. She imbues Martha with pure venom, her words are practically corrosive. More importantly, they’re often right. She’s is at once an acute characterization of all the points in the feminist movement, while still being a singular, faulty, and angry-as-hell human being. The movie depends on Martha having credibility and a (distanced) sense of sympathy, otherwise it’s an indictment of women at large. (8)  As horrible as these people are, most of their anger comes from the fact that deep down they need each other. That reality cannot be conveyed in some cheesy way either or else the whole thing collapses in on itself. Luckily, it all comes together beautifully. The source material of Albee’s seminal play is the main reason for this; it’s a work that should stand the test of time, but the director of WOOLF understood exactly what to do with it. In fact, I can only think of a handful of directors whose first film is a total masterpiece and with WOOLF, Mike Nichols is one of them. (9)

There is a true lasting legacy of WOOLF upon Taylor’s career. It defined her late period roles and showed she was better than a pin-up, even better than a political choice for an academy award. She could deliver an iconic performance. Something that more than set the model for the litany of “unhappy marriage performances” that followed, but actually altered the discourse of feminism and liberalism. The word iconic was chosen carefully. Unlike most others, she is an Icon with every facet of her career.

So there. There’s over two-thousand-five-hundred words of my long, rambling thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor.  I could actually say a lot more as I feel like I barely covered anything. Like most of the people in this series, she has a crazy personal life and a ton of marriages that a lot of people seem to care about. I just don’t. I care about the performances. I care about the legacy. I care about her effect on culture, aesthetics, and politics.

She’s the game changer.

Welcome to the 50’s.

ENDNOTES

1- You know… like J-Lo.(a)

(a) intentionally semi-dated reference. (i)

(i) I hate having to explain jokes in blog/extended-footnote from. This is more because of my selfish insecurity that people won’t get it, because, yes, I know most people get it… ugh. Moving on.

2 – Awkward for her standards, not our hellish ones.

3 – Remember, this was back when teenagers didn’t act like young women in films.

4 – Ivanhoe. I can’t think of it without thinking about the classic Simpsons line. [Bart is writing a book report and reads it back to himself]: “Ivanhoe is the story of a Russian Farmer and his tool.”

5 – My more studious nature didn’t kick in until middle school.

6 – Which is not to say the era was devoid of more adult themes. It’s just of societal darkness was crammed subtlely or uns-ubtlely into the Noir genre.

7 – I realize this could be interpreted like I’m advocating the idea that women tear down men until they are shells of their former selves, which is an opinion many take away from the film. I could not disagree more. Burton’s nihilism is strictly his own doing.

8 – Similar themed works by Updike and Yates, fail to understand that basic principal. They’re pretty much sexist pigs who think women are to blame.

9 – He actually upped things with his next film “The Graduate”… or as it’s more colloquially regarded “the best comedy of all time” and/or “one of the top 7 movies of all time”… If you want to get all qualitative or whatever.


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?


Love: Rita Hayworth (1941)

February 27, 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.

…So of course it starts with Rita Hayworth.

And how couldn’t it? Rita Hayworth is considered to be in the top five movie stars of the classic movie era, but she is far and away my vote for the most beautiful and distinctive. She didn’t nearly have the chops but her entire look was transcendent and ahead of its time. And by her third major film she learned how to hone in her natural personality and translate it to her performance, much like Marilyn would do later on. The difference being that Rita’s screen presence was so effortless. Rita was inherently in three dimensions, and glided about the screen with guile. Marilyn more seemed to stomp about, hit her marks, and pose accordingly. To put it bluntly, Rita could be watched, but Marilyn could be looked at.

Perhaps Rita’s natural presence had something to do with her extensive background in dance. Admittedly, I’m not talking about the illustrious ballet at the MET kind of background, but more the smokey nightclub sort. She did have formal training from youth and professional Latin dance training; she never worked anywhere scandalous mind you, but she did work in the sort of high end nightclubs where  someone with her talent and beauty could rise to prominence without necessarily having to engage in the more sordid ends of that world (like so many others did). And so as one of these promising young dancers she showed up in a host of background dancing roles and B movies.

The first big break for Rita was ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) by Howard Hawks. Going by the logic discussed in the italicized intro above you would expect this to be the optimum moment to meet her, but I disagree. She wasn’t Rita Hayworth yet. She was still too rough around the edges (and I’m not necessarily talking about her eyebrows, which weren’t shaped into their defining status yet, but that would be… shallow? But she really didn’t look like “Rita” yet). More importantly, she just needed a little more seasoning on her on screen persona. Of course I could also go with GILDA(1948) and that oh-so-famous hair flip which has defined her for decades, but that isn’t it either.

For me the answer is easy to when Rita really became Rita. She’s a dancer right? So what happens when you pair her with Fred Astaire. The legacy of Rita Hayworth always seems to forget this in the wake of Gilda-hair-flip, but for me she was never more amazing then when she was teamed up with Astaire in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH (1941). The movie’s not all that perfect, but they are. In a way that’s all that matters when you go back and watch it today. It’s one of my favorites.  Even though Astaire is famously linked to Ginger Rogers as he dance partner, he always spoke most fondly of Hayworth’s influence on him. They were able to use a lot of her Latin influences and they would then go on to make YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942) together as their last collaboration. Don’t believe me that they were an amazing pairing?

Start this video at 2:25. It really shows just how glamorous, beautiful and elegant she was:

Pretty, but nothing special? Okay now check this one out as it actually shows off their moves.

Of course she’s just trying to keep up with Fred during a lot of the fast stuff, but come on… How is Rita NOT amazing? When I think of my favorite classic film actresses. I think of her. When I think of the most beautiful I think of her. How could I not start this series with Rita Hayworth?

… Of course like most stars of the era there were behind the scenes troubles. Ups and downs and heavy drinking. All that stuff. Honestly I’m not all that interested in that part of the story. To me there’s merely what’s on screen and that knocks me out. Nothing else needed. As far as ends go, she ended up suffering from Alzheimer’s the last 5 years of her life. Ugh. I watched my grandmother die from Alzheimer’s and I can tell you that the very thought of this is tragic to me… No one should ever forget Rita Hayworth.