Sunday, April 24, 2011

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK 1969

The label of "misogynist" has followed the late director Robert Altman around since audiences were first invited to laugh at and identify with the anti-female, frat-boy antics of that annoyingly smug 70s geek duo of Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in  "M*A*S*H" (hands down my least favorite Altman film).

Despite being responsible for some of the more cringe-worthy scenes of cruelty to women ever attributed to a single director (the coke-bottle-to-the-face scene in "The Long Goodbye" is the worst) , in interviews Altman has always asserted, rather persuasively, that he was in fact very sympathetic to the plight of women and that his films only reflected reality and what a raw deal women were often handed by a sexist culture. This argument of course would hold a good deal more weight if the women in his films were not so frequently the sexualized objects of the male gaze, or depicted so unsympathetically in comparison to their male oppressors. (As certain as a Hitchcock cameo, an Altman film almost always features a scene of a woman in some state of blunt nudity [usually in the presence of some form of humiliation] while male characters remain chastely clothed). 
But while Robert Altman may get it wrong a good deal of the time when it comes to depicting women onscreen, he's also one of the few directors to get it really right. Except for  "M*A*S*H,  which I consider to be sophomoric dreck in spite of its reputation, Altman has an impressive track record of providing terrific roles for women in his films. The women may not be pillars of feminist ideology (in fact, almost all are neurotic or downright insane, as is most everyone in an Altman film) but they are undeniably human and always compelling.
In his "plus" column I place "That Cold Day in the Park" (Altman's 2nd film), an off-beat, forgotten masterpiece of loneliness and sexual obsession.
Sandy Dennis as Frances Austen
Michael Burns as The Boy
Academy-Award winning actress Sandy Dennis, on the downside of an unsustainable fire-hot popularity that began with 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," stars as Frances Austen, a wealthy, 32-year-old woman living alone in a spacious apartment in Vancouver, Canada. Prim and cripplingly repressed, Frances lives a life of formal ritual, surrounded by friends who are at least 20 years her senior (they, like her staid apartment, appear to have been inherited from her dead mother).
One rainy afternoon she spies a young man sitting alone on a park bench and invites him in to get dry. The blankly cherubic 19 year-old (Michael Burns) speaks not a word, but allows the solicitous woman to bathe, feed, and eventually house him. The boy's silent passivity (he's never named) and apparent lack of friends or family enables Frances to project a great deal of her own loneliness onto his situation, awakening in her an acute awareness of long-repressed desires. Before long, Frances' initial maternal concern gives way to darker obsessions as the boy comes to symbolize a last-chance grasp at life.
One of Frances' many joyless,ritualized social commitments
 Something about the boy sitting alone in the rain touches Frances. A repressed woman who, up until this point, has given the impression of being rather icy and removed.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Movies about older women and kept men go at least as far back as 1950s "Sunset Blvd." But whether due to gender perceptions that ignore the strong-woman / weak-male dynamic (a soberingly recurring phenomenon on today's television court shows), or their close association with homosexual authors (Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" & "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone"; Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), films on the subject have always seemed to court a gay sensibility. By this I mean that in each of these films, one could substitute the dominant older woman with a male without significantly altering the narrative.
Sex Object
A rarity in most American films - Robert Altman asks us to share the feminine gaze.
Movie audiences by now are quite used to the fact that (due to the predominance of male directors and cinematographers) movies almost always represent the subjective male gaze. When, on those rare occasions, that gaze turns feminine and it's the male torso upon whom the leering close-ups are trained, audiences (particularly American male audiences) are made instantly uncomfortable and don't quite know what to do with themselves. Film critics (as evidenced by the outcry against the unarguably lousy but harmless "Sex and the City" movies) usually go the gay sensibility route (see above) or invoke the double-standard by labeling the nudity "gratuitous."  One of the strengths of "That Cold Day in the Park" is how it commits to reinforcing the gaze of its female protagonist and uses any ensuing audience discomfort to its atmospheric advantage. In a refreshing change of pace for an Altman film, a male (Michael Burns) spends most of the movie in various states of fetishized undress with the camera lingering over his bareness in a way usually reserved for comely starlets. From a narrative standpoint, all this suggested nudity underscores the character's vulnerability. But psychologically speaking, I like the way something so simple can have the power to mess with so many minds.
Michael Burns, giving Joe Dallesandro a run for his money in the "passive, objectified male" sweepstakes

PERFORMANCES:
Few actresses are as appealingly quirky as the late Sandy Dennis. Her performances are full of nervous mannerisms, eccentric tics, and vocal hiccups that you either love her or she annoys the hell out of you. I fall into the former category. In "That Cold Day in the Park" Dennis has a role in which her trademark idiosyncrasies work towards defining an emotionally needy character stunted by a disturbing social awkwardness. I can't say her character is exactly likable (creepy is more the word) but Dennis' performance is touching and moves one to empathy.
Frances: "I remember my mother never stopped saying how lonely she was after my father died. She kept talking on and on, always reminding me how little company I was for her."
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I love it when directors do more than just use the camera to record the action. Altman makes great use of the concealment / distortion value of shadows, glass, mirrors and reflective surfaces. A good deal of the sense of unease that the movie elicits is due to the way Altman bisects and divides the screen, keeping the characters in their own separate worlds even when they share the same space.
Isolated WorldsAlthough lonely herself, Frances is unable to return the affection an equally lonely suitor (Edward Greenhalgh) extends to her.
Barriers
An attempt to reach out.
Separated
Frances holds one-sided  conversations with the boy who cannot (will not?) speak.
Window Blinds or Iron Bars?
The characters in That Cold Day in the Park live in various self-imposed prisons.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I first saw "That Cold Day in the Park" back in the early 70s on a now-defunct San Francisco TV channel: KEMO-TV Channel 20 -that had this great late-night program called "The Adults Only Movie."  (Thank you, www.uhfnocturne.com)  The movies were mostly foreign or art films (I must have been the only kid in my class who knew who Catherine Spaak was), but what 13-year-old could resist a program with a title like that? The version of "That Cold Day In The Park" I saw was heavily edited and viewed on a tiny black and white TV set in my bedroom, but it nevertheless blew me away and I sought it out many years later at revival theaters. Back then, the film mostly impressed me as a kinky suspense thriller with a very powerful final act (and the male nudity didn't hurt, either), but over the years I have come to grow fonder of it as a labyrinthine character piece and dark treatise on loneliness. The shift of tone from somber drama to something unanticipatingly perverse is like a slow descent into madness.
Despite some cinematic evidence to the contrary, I really don't believe Robert Altman was a misogynist. His films with male leads have an off-putting thread of misanthropy and cruelty running through them, yet his films with female leads ("The Company," "3 Women", "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") are infinitely gentler and markedly more humane. "That Cold Day in the Park" is almost delicate in the way it handles the Sandy Dennis character when it could have easily made her into a some kind of a gynophobia-inspired monster.
OK, so the "grasping female" imagery doesn't support my argument, but is this a cool ad, or what?
I think in his own twisted way, Altman liked women a good deal more than men.

DVD of That Cold Day in the Park at last available!! February 19, 2013

*ADDENDUM      May 2, 2011
I recently had the opportunity to acquire Richard Miles’ long-out-of-print 1965 novel upon which this film is based (thank you, Ebay!) and have to say I was more than a little surprised by how greatly the source novel and adapted film differ. This is one of those rare occasions where a film (screenplay by Gillian Freeman) is a vast improvement over the book.
The basic plot structure is the same: lonely spinster takes in mute boy she spies on a park bench, but little else follows the plot of the movie. Unlike the appropriately gray winter of Canada that sets the mood for the film, the novel takes place in Paris, France and takes the form of an alternating narrative told from the perspective of its three protagonists.
First person is employed for the Sandy Dennis character (known only as “Madame”) while third-person is used for the boy (given the name Mignon here- French for “cute” or “sweet”) and his friend, Yves. Mignon and Yves (a character that does not appear in the film) are a pair of bisexual street hustler/ prostitutes who plot to rob the isolated woman.
In a curious turnabout from tradition, the histories, character, and motivations of the individuals in the film are considerably more fleshed out than those of the novel.
The narrative arc of the story is similar, but in all significant aspects, Altman’s film has the stronger psychological subtext. Given that the film is a thriller still unknown to many, even ardent Robert Altman fans, I won’t spoil the ending by revealing it here. I will say that the novel has a quite different conclusion and that the film’s is both more shocking and convincing.
getting the opportunity to read the source novel to an obscure, undeservedly forgotten film I've enjoyed for so many decades provides fascinating insight into the art of adapting material for the screen.

Friday, April 15, 2011

BLACK SWAN 2010

For sheer baroque audacity, few films not directed by Ken Russell can hold a candle (or toe shoe) to Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” It takes a certain kind of impassioned genius to attempt a psycho-sexual horror fable centered in the mystique-laden world of classical ballet, yet Aronofsky succeeds beyond all reason. By turns disturbing, transgressive, sensual, absurdist, and achingly beautiful, “Black Swan” is almost swoon-inducing in its willingness to go straight over-the-top in a effort to alight on something as keen as a pinhead.

Ostensively a grim fairy tale excursion into madness wherein a repressed ballerina's obsessive desire to dance the lead in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" takes a startlingly animorphic turn, the real themes of "Black Swan" are infinitely broader in scope and defy any single, unqualified interpretation.
Natalie Portman as ballerina Nina Sayers
Vincent Cassell (does he have the sexiest nose, or what?) as ballet company manager Thomas Leroy
Mila Kunis as rival ballerina Lily
Barbara Hershey as stage-mother-from-hell Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder as soon-to-be-disposed-of prima ballerina Beth Macintyre
Taken at face value alone, "Black Swan" is an astonishingly effective psychological thriller blessed with a consistently creepy vibe born of Aronofsky's almost intrusively subjective shooting style. In its ability to (sometimes literally) peel back and expose the layers of compulsion: artistic, sexual, & otherwise, "Black Swan" is a worthy contemporary companion-piece to Roman Polanski's 1965 thriller, "Repulsion."  

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Far and beyond the surface enjoyment I derived from "Black Swan"s stylishly novel take on the horror/ thriller, was my delight in discovering that the film resonated so deeply with me.
I've been a professional dancer for over a quarter of a century (an eternity in the dance world),  and while I love seeing any kind of dance in film, it's disheartening to contemplate that, by its nature, one's experience of dance in film is limited exclusively to the "display" aspect of the art. The finished product that is the result of the blood, sweat, and tears. In its ability to render visible the sublime and chimerical, dance has the power to make the illusion of perfection seem possible. That is its magic. The flaw of dance is that, devoid of a glimpse into the human imperfection that creates such an illusion, too many people (most notably young girls lured by the romantic-fantasy, "little princess" fetishism side of classical ballet) find it all too easy to believe that perfection is actually an attainable goal. The striving for perfection in ballet is reflected in the constant dieting (did you check out that "ballerina breakfast" Portman has?) and damaged body image (Portman's character has a history of compulsive scratching) of so many dancers.
Shattered illusion: Broken music box dancer
I've seen many films that showed me what dance looks like, but Black Swan is the first and only film that reflected back to me my own experience of what it "feels" like to dance. How you can't expect to create anything meaningful unless you are brave enough to dig deep within yourself to unearth what lies beneath. Aronofsky has fashioned a film that is a visual representation of that transportive internal maelstrom  (with all its soul-searching, anguish, and conflict) that defines the creative process. A visible answer, if you will, to the question "Where does one have to go internally to create great art?" 
As is frequently the case with people in the performing arts, I am, at my core, a painfully shy person. I was a retiring bookworm who spent his high-school years undesirous of attention and terrified of being called on in class, I chewed my fingernails nervously and rarely looked people in the eye. Yet, in choosing a profession, I was drawn to something as emotionally revealing as dance. In it I have had to regularly access and reveal parts of my inner self that were antithetical to who I am and how I was raised (VERY Catholic). Though the results occasionally surprise me to this day, no one seeing me dance would ever believe that I wasn't a born exhibitionist, lifelong extrovert, and passionate sensualist.
How is it possible? Take look at Black Swan for the answer.
Though highly-dramatized, the internal transformation necessary to turn a reserved personage like me into that passionate, expressive creature that is a dancer, can feel every bit as terrifying as the events in this film. That's why the events that unfold in Black Swan don't strike me as being intended for literal interpretation. The images and story feel like an operatically allegorical representation of the state of creative transformation and transcendence of self that is necessary to create the illusion of perfection that is dance.
Ballet as fetish: Dance de-romanticized
 PERFORMANCES:
Much like the mentally-disturbed character of Carol (Catherine Deneuve) in Polanski's "Repulsion," "Black Swan"s Nina (Natalie Portman) is already a little off the barre before the film even begins. With no specifics given as to why she scratches herself or why she lives in a state of adolescent arrested development with her mother, we are left to pick out the clues of her past as the events of the present conspire to send her over the edge. Of course, the kicker is that we see the entire film from Nina's perspective, and, as a troubled young woman going through a paranoid identity crisis, she is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Since she has little grasp of what is real or imagined, neither do we. Welcome to the roller coaster ride.
Natalie Portman gives a truly fearless performance in "Black Swan," totally deserving of all the awards heaped on her for her work. I thought she was amazing in Mike Nichols' Closer but she completely blew me away with her intensity here. She takes a very complex character in more-than-fantastic circumstances and makes you believe in (and even care about) what is happening to her.
The ballerina haunted by her obsession with perfection: One of my favorite images from the film

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I don't know why, but I'm a sucker for movies about identity and duality. Like Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek in 3 Women , there is something compelling about separate characters that embody an idealized whole. I love how "Black Swan" makes literal and stylistic use of reflections, doubles, and the distortions therein.
Mirrors are intriguing objects. They do nothing but reflect that which is before them, but at the same time they seem to lie. They have the power to reflect back at us the gaze of another (without mirrors we have no idea how we look to someone else) but provocatively, that gaze must first be filtered through our own psyche. If we are self-enchanted, we are happy no matter what we see in the mirror. If we suffer insecurities, mirrors don't contradict us.
“They can romanticize us so, mirrors, and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities?”
Truman Capote Other Voices, Other Rooms

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
You can't make a movie about passion without displaying some yourself, and on that score, "Black Swan" is a seriously sexy success. The obvious physical beauty of Portman and her sensual doppelganger/rival Mila Kunis aside, there is some major heat generated by these women that is refreshing in its removal from the male gaze. Indeed, as the perspective of the film is exclusively that of the repressed Nina, the male gaze is frequently portrayed as repellent or predatory. What erotic underpinnings there are emanate from Nina's awakening to herself and exploring her own sexuality as exemplified by the comfortable carnality of her "Swan" double.
Sensual self-exploration: A dance with Rothbart? 
Although several of my dancer friends didn't care for Black Swan (I suspect because it didn't uphold the romanticized ideal of dance like say, "The Turning Point"), but almost anybody who knows my tastes in film and attitude toward dance could guess that it would wind up being one of my favorites. It crosses the identity theft themes of Robert Altman's 3 Women with Polanski's penchant for P.O.V. insanity, adds Martin Scorsese's fluid cinematography, and tops it all off with Ken Russell's taste for visual grandiosity.
I admire the film for the chances it takes in refusing to adhere to specific genre constructs and for not falling into the trap of over-explaining everything. I like that in this age of formulaic rom-coms and by-the-numbers action films, Black Swan is a movie that allows itself to be misunderstood. Everyone involved is so obviously invested in what they're doing that it makes it easy to put your trust in the film and allow it to take you wherever it takes you. Seeing it for the first time was a thrill that stayed with me long after. Seeing it several times again...I find the experience gets richer and more layered with each viewing.
"It was perfect."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TRUE GRIT 1969


I have to make two things clear from the start: I am not a fan of westerns and I’m REALLY not a fan of John Wayne. Having firmly established that fact, I’m afraid I must also lay simultaneous claim to the patently contradictory declaration that “True Grit”— incontestably both a western and a John Wayne film — is one of my all-time favorite movies.

I've loved movies since I was kid, but even then, there were only two kinds of films I didn't like: westerns and war movies. Seeing as these genres exemplified virtually the entire John Wayne oeuvre, by the time "True Grit" appeared at the local movie house on a double bill with "The Odd Couple" back in 1969 (I was a big fan of Jack Lemmon), I was 12 years-old and had never seen a John Wayne movie. Well, as luck would have it, my first John Wayne movie was what I consider (then and to this day) his best. "True Grit" is an engagingly robust and entertaining western adventure that is satisfying in all the ways that a good, old-fashioned, "popcorn movie" should be.
John Wayne as Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn
Kim Darby as Mattie Ross
Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf
The by-now familiar story concerns the efforts of a headstrong girl (the appealingly androgynous Kim Darby, whose haircut here makes her look like a somewhat more masculine Justin Bieber) to bring to justice the murderer of her father. To assist her in her quest she enlists the aid of a boozy, trigger-happy U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) and a chubby-cheeked Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (the genial singing star Glen Campbell, whose acting style consists of scrunching up his face a lot).

So what was it about "True Grit" that made it different from the rest?

For starters it has a great "quest" storyline...(something akin to a frontier "The Wizard of Oz" or prairie "Alice in Wonderland") populated with colorful characters, crackling dialog, and centered on a young protagonist with whom a kid could both identify and root for; its cinematography is fittingly crisp and offers up a storybook vision of the old west— all breathtaking mountain vistas and majestic trees; it has a sweeping Elmer Bernstein "Aaron Copland meets the Marlboro Man" score of rousing, orchestrated music that imbues every scene with the thrust of American myth; and best of all, in its subtle integration of emancipated women, Indians, African-Americans, and Chinese into the fabric of everyday western life, it is a refreshingly modern take on a over-exhausted genre.
Mattie Ross (toting her father's gun) tries to convince Marshal Cogburn that she means business.
The first time I saw "True Grit" it played out for me like a thrill-a-minute tall-tale told around a campfire at night. It engaged me from its first frames to its last, doling out equal parts thrills, laughs, and heart. To this day I can watch the film, aware of its artificiality and inauthenticity, yet powerless and unwilling to allow that to mar the enjoyment I find in the likable characters, ofttimes hilarious dialog, and terrific performances. Much like 1965s "Cat Ballou," "True Grit" is the perfect western for people who don't like westerns.
Rooster- "By God! She reminds me of me!"

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Part of the charm of "True Grit" is its gentle send-up of the John Wayne myth. Outwardly the story of a young girl's pursuit of justice, running beneath the surface of "True Grit" is a story about a man out of step with the times. In the tamed West of "True Grit": a West of lawyers, evolving women's roles, and boarding houses that eschew spurs in the dining room, Rooster Cogburn is something of a dinosaur. A symbol of a lawless time that civilized townsfolk would be happy to put behind them. In the America of 1969 John Wayne was also a bit of a dinosaur. His ultra- conservative screen image and off-screen pro-war politics alienated him from the very individuals that were emerging as the core movie-going audience of the New Hollywood — the young college crowd. After the gung-ho embarrassment that was "The Green Berets" (a 1968 film I had the misfortune to see several decades later) Wayne gets a chance at big-screen redemption in "True Grit."
John Wayne's right eye, outacting Glen Campbell
 In "True Grit" John Wayne gives a bravely self-deprecating performance, allowing himself to be called a fat, slovenly, kill-happy, sexist drunk by most of the cast for a good deal of the picture. His machismo is met and bested in nearly every scene by the resourceful Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell, while not really anybody's idea of a western hero, cuts a more dashing figure of youth and vitality. This subtle peeling away of the anachronistic myth of the Great White Frontiersman has the not-undesired effect of making Wayne into a more sympathetic character.
Rooster meets his match.
Indeed, Wayne has so much abuse heaped on his head in the film that by the time of the climactic gun battle where he single-handedly takes on 4 desperadoes while wielding a pistol, a rifle, and holding his horse's reins in his teeth, the audience is practically on its feet cheering, happy to see a moment of old-school Wayne in this sea of western revisionism.
No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much! 

PERFORMANCES:
I've never held with the accepted belief that John Wayne so overpowers the film that the story shifts focus from Darby's Mattie Ross to Wayne's Rooster Cogburn the moment he appears. I'm sure that's what Wayne fans experience, but as good as Wayne is (and he's VERY good. I can't imagine how he made that one eye so expressive!) the under-appreciated and very talented Kim Darby is the main reason I like the film so much.
Her performance is surprisingly strong and she holds the narrative thread together by investing her character's single-minded indomitability with a deep sense of loss and pugnacious vulnerability. Just watch how she matches the energy and skill of veterans like Wayne and Strother Martin in their scenes together. Much like Mattie Ross, Darby refuses to be shunted off to the sidelines by the seasoned, all-male cast, and brilliantly holds her own. Her gutsy yet gentle portrayal also serves to smooth over and humanize all the macho gunplay and violence that tends to get so tiresome in westerns.
Lightening failed to strike twice for Darby and Campell who were reteamed a year later in "Norwood," a forgotten film also based on a Charles Portis novel and adapted by Marguerite Roberts.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
For a city boy like me, a western couldn't look more like a western than "True Grit." A huge departure from the B&W TV westerns of the day that all seemed to use the same fake-looking, studio backlot town, "True Grit" has eye-poppingly spectacular locations that are lush and majestic in their scope.
With traditional western mythology at the core of the narrative, director Henry Hathaway treats the locations like another character in the story. Not only do the mountains and streams provide colorful backdrop, but each scene that plays out in front of one of these magnificent landscapes seems to pay homage to decades of western (movie) tradition. And for those purists who would balk at the Colorado Rockies standing in for the plains of Arkansas and Oklahoma...are we really looking for authenticity in a movie where we're asked to believe 4 hardened gunmen can miss a big target like Rooster Cogburn in a faceoff?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Movies are a visual medium to be sure, but there is nothing like a well written story. The source novel by Charles Portis is a great bit of storytelling brought to vivid life on the screen  by Marguerite Roberts. The dialog, the characters, and the simple structure of the plot is perfection itself. So many films today suffer from over-plotting; afraid of losing an audience's attention, they trip themselves up with A, B & even C storylines, subplots piled upon subplots, and they still never make sense. Here you have a direct narrative with three acts, rising action, character arc, sentimentality, heroism, and probably one of the most satisfyingly resolved conclusions ever. Great storytelling, great moviemaking.
Consummate character actor Strother Martin is memorable in his scenes as the exasperated autioneer who has one too many encounters with the headstrong Mattie Ross
You have to look far to find a more menacing western villain than Robert Duvall as "Lucky" Ned Pepper

I have not yet seen the Coen brothers' 2010 remake, but I am very much looking forward to the DVD release. As stated, I think the source novel is foolproof, and any film that claims to hew closely to it is on a winning track from the getgo. I am not usually fond of remakes, but in this case I am eager to see these great characters interpreted by a new generation of actors and a new sensibility. Though it will always be special to me and irreplaceable for the film that it is, the original "True Grit" came with a lot of baggage (not only the John Wayne issue, but the casting of the then-immensely popular Glen Campbell was a blatant box-office gesture). It's been a while now and I think it's high time I see another western...who cares if it's the same one?
"Well, come see a fat old man sometime!"