Wednesday, March 30, 2011

8 WOMEN (8 FEMMES) 2002

Every now and then, if you're lucky, you come across a film that so nails your particular tastes and fancies that it feels as if someone had snuck into your dreams and extracted a fragment of your psyche. Take George Cukor's The Women, cross it with Agatha Christie, throw in a dash of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and you get 8 Women: an intoxicatingly charming cinematic confection aimed directly at the heart of a nostalgia-prone film fan like me.

This Gallic homage to the days of the Hollywood "woman's picture" stars a galaxy of France's greatest actresses in a musical comedy murder mystery that doesn't just tease camp, but envelopes it in a loving embrace.
Danielle Darrieux: Would she kill her husband just because he was too perfect?
Catherine Deneuve: Would she kill her husband just to run off with a lover?
Isabelle Huppert: Would she kill a man just because he resisted her advances?
Fanny Ardant: Would she kill a man just for money?
Emmanuelle Beart: Would she kill her employer?

Virginie Ledoyen: Would she kill the man who betrayed her?

Ludivine Sagnier: Would she kill to protect someone?
Fermine Richard: Would she kill to hide a secret?
It's Christmastime in the 1950s and 8 wildly divergent women, each with a conventionally dark secret, are trapped by a blizzard in an isolated chateau in the French countryside. The sole male resident of the household has been discovered with a knife sticking out of his back and it is up to the women to discover, through bouts of hysteria, temperament, deceptions, and revelations, the identity of the culprit. That this house should harbor more secrets than a game of "Clue" is no surprise. That the film (directed by Francois Ozon and adapted from a play by Robert Thomas) so playfully and effectively balances the at-odds genres of musical, melodrama, and mystery...well, that's a marvel.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I am just crazy about the way this film looks. The phrase "eye candy" was invented for movies like this. Sporting art direction seemingly inspired by an exploded petit four factory and a color palette taken from a drag queen's makeup case, "8 Women" is one sumptuous viewing experience. The rich, hyper-vibrancy of the cinematography intentionally harkens back to the 50s Technicolor melodramas of Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk, while the tailored, color-specific costuming recalls the glory days of Edith Head and the Hollywood studio system. A system that demanded that stars look like stars no matter the requirements of the script. 
Deneuve & Beart face off...and look fabulous doing so!
And speaking of stars...WOW! You can seriously overdose on glamour and all-around gorgeousness here. I mean, the sight of Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant on screen at the same time is enough to make a person's eyes fall right out of their head. Ranging in ages from 21 (Sagnier) to 84 (Darrieux), it's striking to see that the smooth, unlined prettiness of the younger stars can't hold a candle to the kind of sensual beauty that age and experience add to a woman's face.
Ardant & Deneuve in the cat-fight of the century!

PERFORMANCES
It shouldn't be the cinema anomaly that it is, but one of the more satisfying things about 8 Women is that after taking the trouble to assemble a first-class cast of iconic French actresses, Ozon actually shows off each to her best advantage and allows them to play to their strengths. Consequently, the entire cast is consistently firing on all cylinders and the film fairly crackles with electricity and star-quality in each scene. (My head still aches from the lost, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of 70s icons Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman teamed for...Meet the Fockers???? Heaven wept!)
 Anyhow, all the actresses in 8 Women are a joy. Super serious Isabelle Huppert proves to be a wonderfully wacky comedienne; Fanny Ardant, heat personified, is intelligent and earthy; Deneuve wittily sends up her own icy screen image; and French legend Danielle Darrieux has a marvelous way with a reaction shot. You really have to watch the film at least twice: once for the subtitles and plot, a second time just to watch the faces. Possibly even a third time, just to pick up all the inside film references (like Emmanuelle Beart's maid costume - down to the kinky, lace-up boots - paying homage to Jeanne Moreau in Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, or Ledoyen's Audrey Hepburn bangs).
Spinster aunt Augustine's response to being asked why she was up at 3am cleaning her comb!
The previously wheelchair-bound, sympathy-milking grandmama suddenly reveals she can walk.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
More difficult than catching lightening in a bottle (and twice as foolhardy) is to attempt to create intentional camp. Camp is a cultural phenomenon easily identified but notoriously resistant to commodification. At its worst its like a comic who ruins the punchline by cracking up at his own joke. At it's best, its feels like something that comes from a place of gentle affection and nostalgia. The stylistic excesses of 8 Women are so funny because its so clear that the director is so fond of them.
Each of the actresses is given her own musical number. Here the exquisite Fanny Ardant channels Rita Hayworth


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Old-style Hollywood films were peerless at using the hyper-reality of the cinema to emphasize real-life issues. All manner of otherwise objectionable material was made digestible if the leading lady was suffering in mink and her surroundings were plush.
8 Women is not out to make any big social statements, but there are a great many smart, feminist underpinnings behind the ingeniousness of taking the structurally rigid genre of the murder mystery and having that serve as the environment in which repressive gender roles of the 1950s are stylistically juxtaposed with the artifice of old-fashioned Hollywood. A perfect melding of style and content.
The late, great Romy Schneider makes a surprise appearance as the 9th woman.

In this age of remake mania, it's impossible to watch 8 Women and not fantasize about who might be cast in an American remake. My mind goes to the actresses I grew up with: Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset, and Julie Christie. Unfortunately, I suspect that the brain-numbing awfulness that was  the 2008 remake of The Women (the film Ozon initially wanted to do) may have forever killed any interest in an American version of this utterly beguiling, utterly original film.
On the plus side, my enjoyment of 8 Women at least sparked an interest in seeing these great actresses in other films. A decision that introduced me to a 35-year old Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophul's masterful The Earrings of Madame de...,  and Catherine Deneuve in Truffaut's sentimental The Last Metro, among others. Seeing all of these actresses in the many different roles they've played over the years only makes me appreciate more the depth and breadth of talent they bring to 8 Women, and grateful for how this film pays such loving tribute to them.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SHADOW OF A DOUBT 1943

Decades before David Lynch turned his twisted lens on small-town perversity in the masterfully weird Blue Velvet, Alfred Hitchcock had already taken what I consider to be the definitive look at the pernicious effect of evil on small town life in Shadow of a Doubt. You can keep your Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window — classics all— but for me, there isn't a Hitchcock film that compares with Shadow of a Doubt.
Hitchcock to the left : Holding all the Aces

As a thriller, it has a simplicity of plot that is near-irresistible: A beloved uncle with a dark secret (Joseph Cotten) visits his family in a small northern California town. A figure of evil, his presence threatens to disrupt the conventional lives of the townsfolk and initiates a shattering coming-of-age for his adoring niece (Teresa Wright).
Santa Rosa, California
 If you can imagine Vincente Minnelli's small-town valentine, Meet Me in St. Louis crossed with Orson Welles' noirish thriller The Stranger, then you have a pretty good idea of what a delightfully sinister mélange Hitchcock concocts in Shadow of a Doubt.(Both Thornton Wilder of Our Town and Sally Benson of Meet Me in St. Louis worked on the script for Shadow of a Doubt).
Teresa Wright as Charlotte Newton
Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley
Macdonald Carey as Det. Jack Graham

Patricia Collinge as Emma Newton

Henry Travers as Joseph Newton

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I've always been impressed by Alfred Hitchcock's ability to balance humor and terror in his films. It always seemed like such a dangerous risk to take...potentially sacrificing mood or suspense for the sake of interjecting some bit of levity...but his films always carry it off. Almost always. The humor in Frenzy and Family Plot verges on the painful.
In "Shadow of a Doubt" the humor on display is of the gentle type derived exclusively from the characters. To great effect, Joseph Cotten's self-serious, misanthropic sociopath (how's that for a description? Reminds me of Wood Allen's line: "I'd call him a sadistic, sodomistic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse.") is contrasted with the practical and sweet Teresa Wright and her decidedly dotty family. Each is lovably offbeat in some very real way, and their harmless eccentricity lends them an endearing vulnerability in the face of Cotten's poisonous view of mankind.
"Really Poppa, you'd think Momma had never SEEN a phone! She makes no allowance for science. She thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power!"
The Newton Family: If cast today, the parents look too much like grandparents

PERFORMANCES
I've always liked how Joseph Cotten never seemed to be too taken with his own good looks. He played both villains and romantic leads with such a refreshing lack of ego that even his monsters were likable.
Charlie- "The whole world's a joke to me."

As good as the entire cast of Shadow of a Doubt is, it's the work of Teresa Wright that towers over the rest. A stage-trained actress Oscar nominated for her first three film roles, Wright gives one of those performances that makes the film unimaginable without her. She is a wonderfully natural presence in the film, very contemporary in her acting style and apparently incapable of having a false moment on the screen. I can't think of another actress from this era who exudes such a down-to-earth quality. While so many of her contemporaries spoke in that stagy, mid-Atlantic dialect that telegraphed "acting!" Wright seemed not to be playacting at all. Her performance under Hitchcock's direction is one of her strongest.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Years before he would succumb to stylistic self-consciousness, Shadow of a Doubt shows Hitchcock in full control of his gifts as a master storyteller. The film is sharp and compact and zips by at an entertaining and very suspenseful 108 minutes. Indeed, in this era where a film like Sex and the City 2 can eat up more than two hours with a virtually non-existent plot, or Quentin Tarantino can actually lose his way when confronted with a running time of less than 2 ½ hours (Death Proof is like the work of a gifted 10 year-old let loose with a camera), Shadow of a Doubt looks like nothing short of a miracle. There isn't a wasted frame, superfluous scene, or self-indulgent moment in this tightly-structured film that economically achieves its desired effect without skimping on character development or plot detail.
The almost psychic connection between Charlie and his niece Charlotte (Little Charlie), rendered cinematically.

Uncle Charlie- "We're old friends, Charlie. More than that. We're like twins."  

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My absolute favorite parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes chronicling Teresa Wright's mounting disillusion with her idealized uncle, Joseph Cotten. The psychological authenticity of her behavior and reactions are so keenly observed and subtly performed. It's marvelous to me that the screenwriters had the sense and took the time to really let Wright's awakening to her uncle's true nature be an integral part of the film's second half.
Everything is Suspect: Charlotte watches her uncle's powerful hands twisting a napkin.


Filmmakers today, afraid of losing the short attention-span of their audience, never seem to understand that unless you devote enough time to the psychology of your characters, no degree of plot twists or action scenes can generate interest in the outcome of a film. The most gripping moments from Shadow of a Doubt come from the scenes where the loss of idealism in Wright's character is something we can literally see. The defeated body language, the hardening of the voice, the way you can tell that she mourns for her previous state of ignorance. It's masterful! I love how her once-free physicality around him slowly becomes awkward , and how she can't seem to stand looking at him. There are these great fleeting moments when you can see her studying him when he's not looking, searching for a betraying trace of the evil she knows is there but somehow missed.
The post-library dinner table scene is, from a psychological standpoint, one of the most emotionally true, discomfiting scenes of mounting family discord in modern cinema. It's in this scene that Teresa Wright really shines. Scarcely an actress today could handle the complexities of that scene (Ok, maybe Natalie Portman or Cate Blanchett...).
Charlotte notices a mysterious inscription inside of a ring her uncle just gave her.
As I've stated, Teresa Wright gives a stellar performance here, but kudos go to the team of writers who were smart enough to mine the dramatic possibilities in a young girl being forced to confront the ugliness of the real world. They could have played up the police/manhunt angle for the obvious action potential, but the film benefits greatly from keeping its focus on what the characters are going through rather than the chase and the procedurals of police work.

Though the term is bandied about a lot these days, Shadow of a Doubt has a deserved reputation as a Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. A solid entertainment and suspenseful drama, but what resonates for me is that at its core it is a cunningly perceptive treatise on nostalgia and the romanticism of the past.

Charlie: "I keep remembering those things. The old things. Everybody was sweet and pretty then, the whole world. A wonderful world. Not like the world today. Not like the world now. It was great to be young then."

These words, spoken by a character embittered by what he sees as the corruption of good around him, are no truer then than they are now. Every age thinks the age past is the ultimate age of innocence. If you look on YouTube you can even read comments by people lamenting the state of the world today and denoting the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s as a "kinder, gentler time." As a man past middle-age, I find myself caught in that inevitable "curmudgeon zone" where everything about the world today seems somehow inferior (as is evident from my comments about contemporary filmmakers) and my past seems endlessly cheerier and innocent. Now mind you, the innocent and cheerier time I look back at with such rose-colored glasses are the 70s. And we all KNOW that the 70s were anything but innocent.
But that's what I mean, the world of the past is always soothing to our minds and we go to great lengths to recreate it as we wish to remember it. No matter how far from the truth it may be.
Hume Cronyn (right) making his film debut as a neighbor obsessed with the details of crime and murder.
The small-town life depicted in Shadow of a Doubt is a vision of America that never existed except in our minds and perhaps on our TV screens and in our movies. It takes a special kind of myopia to be able to (or need to) see the world in such a narrow fashion. To paraphrase Dickens, history has always been a combination of the best of times and the worst of times. The world is never all good, nor is it all evil. Shadow of a Doubt artistically shakes us out of our fantasies and reminds us that remaining in a state of ignorance is not the same as remaining in a state of innocence. Charlotte Newton has her eyes opened to some of the darkness that exists in the world, but seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, is just a part of growing up.
On Uncle Charlie's twisted opinion of the world: "It's not quite as bad as all that, but sometimes it needs a lot of watching. It seems to go crazy every now and then."

And wasn't it Norman Bates in "Psycho" who said, "We all go a little mad sometimes" ?

Something Wicked This Way Comes:
Uncle Charlie arrives.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, March 14, 2011

SWEET CHARITY 1969

Although I majored in film at college, for the past 28 years I’ve made my living as a professional dancer. Small wonder then that movie musicals mean more to me than mere escapist entertainment; they represent the convergence of my twin passions.

The first movie musical to really make me sit up and take notice of the genre's potential for expressing grand emotions like joy, longing, and love, was Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Admittedly, I was 12 years-old at the time (1969 – balcony of the Embassy Theater – Market St. – San Francisco) but I had never had such a roller coaster thrill ride experience from a film before. I mean, I remember getting goosebumps just from the way the film opened with the Universal Studios logo fading in to the accompaniment of a choral/orchestral crescendo. It was all so theatrical!
Charity and her "Charlie" tattoo: Decades before every man, woman, child, and grandparent would be sporting hipster body ink
Unfamiliar with the music or any kind of dancing that wasn't the sort seen on The Jackie Gleason Show, I was instantly transported into a dizzying world of color, movement, music, and spectacle; I don't think my mouth closed once over the course of the film's two-hour plus running time.
I sat though Sweet Charity twice that day, returned the following week and saw it two times more, then thereafter sought it out at every revival theater or TV airing I could. To this day it remains one of my favorite screen musicals, though more for nostalgia and all that iconic Fosse choreography than anything else.
Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine
John McMartin as Oliver Lindquist
Sammy Davis, Jr. as Big Daddy
Ricardo Matalban as Vittorio Vidal
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
A victim of really bad timing, Sweet Charity was pretty much raked over the coals by the critics and ignored by the public when it was released. The New Hollywood was just emerging and young audiences were making hits of films like Easy Rider & Midnight Cowboy. In this atmosphere of gritty naturalism, Sweet Charity looked elephantine, dated, and more like entertainment geared towards your mom and dad. Indeed, 1931's Ten Cents a Dance (a Barbara Stanwyck pre-code movie) was a good deal less coy about the life of a dance-hall hostess than this 1969 feature that tiresomely skirted around the fact that sweet ol' Charity may have needed to turn a trick or two to pay the bills.
Ominous Omen Unheeded: Maybe the set designer was trying to give Fosse a hint, but in this scene from "Sweet Charity" this 1967 issue of "Time" magazine - featuring a cover story on "Bonnie & Clyde" and The New Cinema - sits in ironic counterpoint to the old-fashioned antics occurring onscreen.
Movies like "Bonnie & Clyde" spelled the end for big-budget Hollywood musicals.


But the passing years have been kind to Sweet Charity. In light of Nine and Burlesque and the fact that virtually no one knows how to make a decent musical nowadays, Bob Fosse's 20 million dollar folly now looks endlessly inventive and borders on genius by comparison. Most everything that's pleasing about Sweet Charity Fosse would hone and polish to greater effect in Cabaret, but it's all there: Fosse's unique ability to make the camera a part of the choreography, his love of tableau, the use of color and space, the eye for detail....
Jazz Hands Jamboree
Whether or not you like the results, the one thing you know about Fosse (like Gene Kelly) is that you are looking at the work of a man who understands and loves the genre.

PERFORMANCES:
For several years I really considered Shirley MacLaine's performance in Sweet Charity to be one of her best. But much in the way that the film itself plays better if you've never seen the Fellini masterpiece upon which it is based (Nights of Cabiria), MacLaine's performance as Charity is a lot more persuasive if you've never seen her in 1958's Some Came Running. They're essentially the same role. The major difference being that MacLaine in Some Came Running is touching and tragic, while her Charity Hope Valentine is a little strenuously waifish and not a little exhausting. A film director once made the observation that audiences root for and sympathize with a character struggling NOT to burst into tears. Sweet Charity has so many moments of MacLaine exploding into mascara-streaked tears that by the third or fourth time, you've grown somewhat numb to her suffering.
Shirley MacLaine is very good in Sweet Charity, but her performance virtually screams "Oscar Bait" (she was nominated for "Some Came Running" but didn't have the same luck this time out). Also, in merely rehashing a characterization from a film made 10 years earlier, the older MacLaine misses an opportunity to show us the bitter poignancy in the life of an aging "good-time girl."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Sweet Charity has a killer musical score. Those six notes that start "Big Spender" are as iconic as the Jaws rumble or the moment Strauss meets the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Aside from the disposable "Rhythm of Life" number, I enjoy all the music in Sweet Charity...the arrangements are very much of the time and are very "Austin Powers." Today's musicals seem to be comprised exclusively of tin-eared, sound-alike Randy Newman songs, or the score is a disconnected grab bag of ditties with their eye set on becoming Top-40 hits rather than suiting the material at hand.
"It's ME! Charity!"
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The dancing! The dancing! The dancing! Bob Fosse is my all-time favorite choreographer. The genius on display in "Rich Man's Frug," "Big Spender," and "I'm a Brass Band" make this film a musical classic no matter what its flaws.

Big Spender: Anthem to assembly-line sex

"Big Spender" is seriously a mind-blower (contemporary theatrical revivals of this show always get it wrong. This isn't a SEXY number...its a number about mechanized sexuality. The women on the bar are robotically spouting the words the "johns" want to hear while lifelessly assuming postures of fake sexual allure), but it's the "Rich Man's Frug" that floors me each and every time.
You can watch it a hundred times and still find more to catch the eye and captivate. The technique of the dancers is impeccable. If you doubt it, take a gander at the DVD of the 1999 Broadway revue Fosse. "Rich Man's Frug," recreated by some of Broadway's best dancers, is almost jarringly inept in its execution. The overly-muscled frames of the contemporary dancers are no match for Fosse's precise isolations. The dancers in the 1969 film are like liquid dynamite.
"Rich Man's Frug" - It helps to know what the 60s dance called "The Frug" really looked like in order to know just how witty this number is.

Mention should be made of Sweet Charitys alternate "happy ending" (included as an extra on the beautifully restored DVD release). Fosse fought hard and won to keep the film's bittersweet ending that has Charity abandoned by her suitor, yet still hopeful about life and love. This duplicates the heartbreaking ending of the Fellini film.

I think I am alone in feeling that Sweet Charity would have been a better film with the happy ending, which Fosse thought too corny.
The sad ending was right for Fellini's film because Cabiria's (Giulietta Mesina) desire to change her life spoke to the film's broader, quasi-religious, theme of redemption being possible only after divesting oneself of everything material. When Cabiria loses all of her worldly belongings (fearful of ending up homeless and abandoned like the aging prostitute she sees residing in one of the town's many hillside caves, Cabiria is proud of her tiny home and clings to her money. She ultimately sells her home to a very poor family and loses her money to a faithless lover), the movie's magical denouement hints at the possibility that now, at last, after all of her previous efforts to find inner peace while holding onto the money and property she had amassed through the debasement of her body, she has a real shot at redemption and love. With nothing material left to her name, she is once again the clean, pure, innocent girl she was revealed to be by the hypnotist, and free to start a new life for herself.  The "sad" ending here makes sense. That's not true of Sweet Charity.

The sad ending doesn't suit the musical because the film hasn't earned it. Of course, this is the ending the Broadway show gave us, but even Neil Simon (the show's playwright) has gone on record saying, "We played around with the ending a lot," and that it was Fosse who pressed for a dark conclusion. Nights of Cabiria offered pathos: A spunky post-war Italian prostitute, who survives in spite of her girlish innocence, struggles in vain to change her life; while "Sweet Charity" gives us bathos: The sympathy cards are so heavily stacked in Charity's corner that there is no real journey for her. She is merely set up to be knocked down.
Flower Power: The appearance of flower children in any movie was sure to date it terribly. By the time "Sweet Charity" hit theaters, the Summer of Love was already two years past, and four months after the film's release, the emergence of The Manson Family sounded the death-knell of the hippie mystique.
The corniest thing about Sweet Charity IS the unhappy ending! It tacks an inappropriate gravitas onto this overblown fable that feels less genuine to the plot and more like a self-conscious effort on Fosse's part to appear hip. Granted, the cynicism in much of Fosse's work is now legendary, but it doesn't sit right in Sweet Charity. We have sat through a gargantuan spectacle of a musical that, despite its best efforts, is very old-fashioned in structure and neck-deep in fantasy, and now, here at the end we are asked to be "realistic" and deny Charity the obvious happy ending she has coming to her. Well, in the words  of Fosse protégé Liza Minnelli, "Balls to you!"
Original Ending: Charity walks off alone but hopeful
Alternate Ending: Charity and Oscar attempt to make a go of it in spite of her past and in spite of his fears
A movie doesn't instantly become profound just because it makes you cry. That's sentiment. A movie should make you cry because it's true, and the true ending for Charity Hope Valentine is to end up with the buttoned-down Oscar Lindquist. The fact that their happiness is not guaranteed is what makes it a fittingly bittersweet ending. Whenever I watch it on DVD, that's the ending I put on and it's the ending the feels the most authentic. If the semi-autobiographical film "All That Jazz" was any indication (or even his problems with the ending of his Broadway show, Pippin) Fosse's disbelief in happy endings wasn't born of wisdom or world-weary cynicism, it was just his own personal hang-up.
Charity: "I'm nuts about happy endings!"

Copyright © Ken Anderson