Saturday, November 14, 2020

MIDSOMMAR 2019

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for analysis. 

Like every other Black family I knew growing up, I was raised in a household that normalized living with a savagely tortured semi-naked white man. On the wall of the hallway leading from our living room to my bedroom hung an ornately-framed painting of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. This meant that the first thing I saw each morning and the last thing I saw before bed was the gruesome spectacle of a bearded, emaciated man captured in the throes of unspeakable agony from having spikes driven through his hands and feet, and thorns crammed into his skull. This nightmare tableau was illuminated by a tubular electric light attached to a heavy, gilt-metal frame, and, as it was one of those lenticular, Vari-Vue prints much-coveted among the Catholic set at the time, when you stood in front of it and moved side to side, Jesus’ pleading, heavenward-cast eyes would close and open.

That the painting’s over-the-top kitschiness disturbed me more than the pious torture-porn it depicted speaks to why, in later years, my Catholic status graduated to lapsed. I always had a problem with what I came to view as the religion's glorification of suffering and the preponderant role violence plays in the spiritual instruction of children. The alignment of violence and morality makes it all too easy to convince people to accept, justify, and even legitimize all manner of cruelty, repression, and brutality. Provided there's the reassurance of said carnage being carried out in the name of a perceived sense of righteousness, a presumed moral authority, or an unquestioning fealty to religious dogma.

In the minds and hearts of many, there exists the humane assumption that spirituality and violence represent a paradox; that they are inherently and at once at odds with one another. In the alternatingly glorious/grotesque very grim fairy tale that is Midsommar, director Ari Aster posits the dualist theory that spirituality and violence are in actuality--and as one finds in all aspects of nature--symbiotically linked. Intensely and inextricably joined...dark and light, despair and joy...the winter and summer of human experience.

Midsommar's first image, which serves as a kind of panel-curtain opening for this pagan passion play, is this disturbing mural by Taiwanese artist Mu Pan. Its content is impossible to comprehend the first time you see the film, but revisiting it reveals that the entire plot of the film you're about to see is laid out in drawings which take us from winter to summer. This spoiler stands as the first of the film's many instances of foreshadowing.

Director Ari Aster hit a horror home run with his breakout film debut Hereditary (2018), a harrowing shocker about a dysfunctional family crumbling under the weight of grief, mental illness, and the insidious machinations of a demonic cult. By contrasting the chaotic dynamics of an unstable family with the regimentally orderly rituals of a Satanic sect, Hereditary drew discomfiting parallels to the intersections of religion/cult, devout/fanatic, and tradition /predeterminism. 

With Midsommar, we see Aster continuing to explore the world of single-word titles, family dysfunction, cultism, mental illness, the ways we process grief, unhealthy relationships, and the shriek factor of head trauma. The focus of this, his unsettling and sure-footed sophomore effort, has four American grad students visiting a Swedish commune to witness a 9-day midsummer celebration. The plot places Midsommar as a contemporary blood-descendant of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man. But where The Wicker Man contrasted Christian extremism with pagan zealotry, Midsommar sees Aster casting his twisted gaze on our culture of isolation and souls left untethered and adrift in the pursuit of individualism, provocatively juxtaposing it with the spirituality-based interdependence of a Swedish pagan commune. 

Florence Pugh as Dani Ardor

Jack Reynor as Christian Hughes

Vilhelm Blomgren as Pelle

William Jackson Harper as Josh

Will Poulter as Mark

Midsommar begins in winter, the heavy snowfall obscuring the film's opening titles a forecast of the emotional cold front piercing the nearly four-year relationship of New York graduate students Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) and Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor). Christian, an anthropology student with a sub-major in waffling and gaslighting has been angling towards a break-up for a year but lingers out of fear of the alternative. Dani, an anxiety-prone psychology student who pops Ativan to cope with panic attacks and dysfunction-stress linked to her family in Minnesota, is an exposed nerve so steeped in denial about Christian’s emotional abuse she fails to notice half the content of their conversations consists of her apologizing. 

Alas, at the precise moment when it's most obvious that the dissolution of this relationship would be the healthiest outcome for all parties involved, a devastating tragedy sends Dani into an agonizing spiral of grief and despair. And in an instant, we realize the bonds of emotional neediness and the shackles of guilty resentment will be added to this already toxic union.   

(Top) Christian consoles a traumatized Dani after the death of her entire family, his face betraying his feelings of entrapment. On the rare occasion when men in movies are shown bearing any of the emotional weight of a relationship, it tends to be depicted as a burden (1971’s Play Misty for Me [pictured] and Fatal Attraction -1981 come to mind). But male-gaze identification is subverted in Midsommar—as Dani’s anguish speaks more eloquently than Christian’s “good guy” sense of aggrieved obligation.


Six months later—winter to summer—finds Dani still traumatized and frozen in the process of her bereavement. Meanwhile, Christian, by way of a profoundly hurtful and pusillanimous move, is on course to forging a passive breakup by surreptitiously accepting an invitation from fellow anthropology student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to join friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) on a trip to Hårga, Sweden for study. When Dani accidentally discovers Christian’s plans, only co-dependency and utter isolation account for her accepting his brazenly reluctant, 11th-hour invitation to join them on their all-boys’ excursion. In an amusing touch that feels deliberate for a film in which the necessity of family is a major theme, scenes depicting the journey to Pelle’s “hometown” perfectly capture the traditional joyless torpor of family vacations.

In an inversion of colonial tradition, Josh, a Black anthropology student, is conducting a study of a primitive white culture. The side-eye he's giving here is a reaction to Pelle's veiled response to Dani's foreshadowing statement " See that Pelle, you've managed to brainwash all of your friends."

The arrival of the Americans to the hippie-like village of Hårga, a sunny paradise of smiling faces and flowers, flowers everywhere, signals Midsommar’s entrance into The Wicker Man folk-horror territory. And if that sounds like a spoiler, it is. Midsommar’s horror doesn’t come from the shock of the unexpected (although there’s plenty of that to go around) so much as the dread of the foreordained and perhaps inevitable.

Since we know we’re watching a horror film, the depiction of Hårga as an idyllic, welcoming place of tranquility is discordantly unsettling from the get-go. A feeling compounded as details of the lives and traditions of the Hårgas come to light via elaborate ceremonial rituals that grow increasingly bizarre. Things initially perceived as benign—those wide-eyed smiles, the blissed-out solicitousness—take on a sinister air as the village’s overriding atmosphere of compliant conformity begins to feel less like being in the presence of worshippers of ancient pagan religion and more like being trapped in the clutches of a hyper-cheerful death-cult.

London lovebirds Connie and Simon (Ellora Torchia & Archie Madekwi) are guests of Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg). That the affable, baby-faced fellow's invitation masks a petty personal grievance (outside of the ethnic targeting thing) makes him one of the film's most amusingly creepy characters.


There’s a scene in Hanna & Her Sisters where the character played by Max Von Sydow comments on having just seen a TV program about the Holocaust: "Intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. They can never answer the question 'How could it happen?' It's the wrong question. The question is 'Why doesn't it happen more often?'"

In Midsommar, Aster uses nature’s inalterable earth schedule of changing seasons and the phase cycles of the sun to metaphorically comment on humanity’s own predetermined…even destructive…cycles. We accept that it is in our natures to seek connection, community, family, faith, and the shared expression of love and sorrow. But is it also an equal part of our human hard-wiring to be desirous of and susceptible to codependence, collectivism, religious populism, and moralized violence? The blood-stained global record of history repeating would say yes.

"You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night. Step into the sun,
step into the light."
 Midsommar's The Wizard of Oz moment.


Hereditary was my favorite film of 2018, so after seeing Midsommar’s poster (seems like ever since Naomi Watts in tears served as poster art for 2007’s Funny Games, crying faces came to replace screaming faces on horror movie posters), I was uncommonly stoked for its June 24, 2019 release. 

My reaction to seeing Midsommar for the first time was a kind of mental loss of equilibrium. So much of it played out like an extended anxiety dream, I had to watch it twice just to appreciate how Ari Aster was able to build such a compellingly unique and disturbing film out of what is essentially a dramatization of a psychotic break (Aster is the king of nervous breakdown horror). The movie is so hallucinatory and weird, that when my partner and I watched the 24-minutes-longer director's cut a year later (it was his first time, this marked my fourth) he was certain the film would end (like The Wizard of Oz) with everything revealed to have been a dream.

The difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts lie chiefly in the latter’s ability to expand on a few themes (the cult viewed through the prism of white supremacy and Anglo-European nativism, for example) and provide broader context and insight into the unhealthy dynamics of Dani and Christian’s relationship. 

Swedish actor Bjorn Andresen as Dan, a man at the end of his Harga life cycle in Midsommar. At age 15, Andresen portrayed Tadzio, the symbol of youth in Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971). 

I loved every minute of Midsommar. Grateful that once again Aster was expanding the concept of what "horror" films can be and impressed by how...no matter how far-out the film went...the psychological drama remained the most dynamic and moving element.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

Loaded with challenging themes and disturbing images, there’s so much to unpack in Midsommar it's hard to even nail it down to a single genre, much less walk away from it with a singular sense of what it’s all about. Like Jordan Peele’s US (2019) Midsommar is a puzzle of a film that, by staunchly refusing to explain itself, courts ambiguity and invites multiple interpretations. As one of the film’s creators remarked in an interview, what one comes away with after seeing Midsommar has a great deal to do with what one brings to it.

At its most elemental level, Midsommar is a story about the worst breakup on record. Many saw the film as a woman's journey of empowerment, leading to a cleansed-by-fire finale that brings our heroine the love and acceptance of a chosen family. At a price.

Another view places Midsommar as a tortuous treatise on the need to feel, express, and process grief. Dani's impulse to repress her feelings so as not to scare Christian away with her neediness is a denial of her humanity. This denial of humanity was emphasized when I watched this film during the summer of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests. Impressed by how seriously grief and bereavement are treated in Midsommar, I reflected on the way Black grief is minimized in American culture, its psychological & emotional scars trivialized over a societal fixation with needing the display of the traumatized forgiving and embracing their abusers...encouraged to move quickly past their pain so as to affect a superficial unity. Just like many a toxic relationship.
Another persuasive take is that the film is an exploration of the pernicious allure of religion and cultism to the vulnerable. Drawing black comedy parallels between the elements of dysfunctional personal relationships (codependency, brainwashing, control, isolation, making self-negating sacrifices) and religious addictions. This view finds the ending to be far from a happy one as Dani is seen to have traded one codependent attachment for another.
Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) tapped into the reality of the danger white spaces pose for Black lives. This perspective sees Midsommar equating the all-white commune's obsession with blood purity (and quick dispatch of ethnic couple Connie & Simon) as reflective of the current climate of exploit-then-erase racism, anti-immigrant nationalism, white supremacy, and the proliferation of hate groups. 

The thing that grounds all these scenarios and makes them work, no matter how high-flown or fantastic, is the emotional truth & depth of the character of Dani. As written, and especially as portrayed by the remarkable Florence Pugh, Dani’s recognizable humanity tethers Midsommar’s nightmare landscape to an authentic, shared emotional reality that anchors the film to the real world.

Another cryptic entry: In a drugged haze after being crowned May Queen, Dani hallucinates seeing her dead family at the festivities. The loving look from her father contrasts with the harsh stares of her sister and mother. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS

Memories of my Catholic upbringing kicked in big-time watching Midsommar, specifically concerning the role sadistic violence and death play in Hårga tradition. Like the grisly Christian artwork that greeted me each morning as a child, the walls throughout the Hårga village are covered with violent biblical/religious imagery. In the film, every ritual human sacrifice and blood offering to the gods share one thing in common: cruelty seems to be the point. That none of those sacrificed are dispatched mercifully or in even remotely humane ways (indeed, some methods appear to be needlessly sadistic) reminded me of when, as a youngster, I was told that stories in the Bible were so violent and full of death and suffering because they wanted to convey God's wrath and power. A sort of "Scared Straight" method of discouraging sin. 

Midsommar proposes something similar in suggesting that the violence embraced in the Hårga rituals is a form of acknowledging nature's power and ultimate dominance. Fine, but then the human element enters into it. When we learn that resentment is a motive behind Ingemar's sacrifice selection, the point is reinforced that people have always twisted and perverted spirituality and religion to fit their own needs, justify their prejudices, and morally rationalize their innate brutality.

In many ways, the commune of Harga is an outdoor iteration of the Old Dark House horror movie trope: a handful of characters confined to a large, often haunted, house, discover its limited avenues of exits during the traditional finale that has the sole survivor running through the house looking for escape. In The Stepford Wives, another movie about an epically terrible breakup, when Katharine Ross recognizes the danger she's in, her escape is thwarted by the hemmed-in confines of a dark mansion. Turning another horror trope on its head, in Midsommar when Christian awakens to his peril, he finds himself equally trapped, but in wide-open spaces and in broad daylight. 


It's so nice to be insane. No one asks you to explain.

The above line is a lyric from the 1975 Helen Reddy song "Angie Baby" and clues you into my particular take on Midsommar's famously ambiguous final image. I take the position that mental illness has always been a struggle with Dani (Pelle asks her if she’s studying psychiatry--Dani: “Psychology. That’s how you know I'm nuts.” Pelle: “Yeah. Also that funny look in your eye”) and what with her history and how strongly she responded to her family's death, that her mind could withstand the horrors visited upon her psyche at the commune. Something in her would have to give in order to make sense of the madness. 

I think Dani has most definitely lost her mind at the end ("She has surrendered to a joy known only by the insane" - descriptive passage from the Midsommar screenplay), but it appears her break with reality brings her a freedom and sense of peace heretofore elusive in her life. It also places her among and on even footing with the demented Hårga death cultists with whom she has at last found love, community, family, and acceptance. 

It’s a monstrously sad/happy ending quite fitting with Midsommar's perversely optimistic view of fatalism. I don't see how any sane person could keep their sanity long in Hårga (and it's unlikely they would ever have allowed her to leave and possibly tell others about this place of ritual murder), so, in its way, the ending is also quite merciful to Dani, a character I came to like and care a great deal about over the course of the film. I agree with those who have called the ending horrible and beautiful.

It is. Just like Midsommar.

Here's something to chew on: Midsommar ends on something like the 4th or 5th day
of a 9-day midsummer festival! What the hell could they have lined up next on the schedule?


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2020


Monday, September 28, 2020

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS 2001

A couple of years back I remember reading an article about a social-media feud between two contemporary recording artists popular with teenagers. I confess to even now only having the most superficial awareness of either singer, but what drew my attention to the article was a specific aspect of the pair's very public internet beef. It seems one artist (a music industry "veteran" of all of 10 years) was questioning the career legitimacy of a rival upstart who, in approximately half the career time, had already amassed platinum records, Grammy nominations, and other bragging stats comparable to and (the real crux of the grievance) surpassing those of the complainant: the barely-out-of-diapers recording star for whom 10-years of iTunes downloads qualifies for Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award consideration.

To my geriatric ears, both “stars” are pretty much equal-opportunity music offenders, so their one-upmanship feud struck me as largely moot. But what stood out about their dispute was the degree to which each referenced things like concert venue sizes, number of awards won, Twitter follower numbers, and quantity of endorsement deals, as the final word, bottom-line determiners of credibility. Conspicuously missing from this materialism-fed back-and-forth was any mention of music. No talk of their love for what they're doing, devotion to craft, belief in the integrity of their expression, or even a commitment to its quality. The entire swath of recording artist legitimacy rested on which artist had the highest degree of fame, popularity, and marketability.  

The thrill that'll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone -  Dr. Hook

It got me to wondering whether this has always been the case. Have music, merchandising, and materialism always been bedfellows? After all, I remember way back in the ‘60s at the height of the anti-establishment, don't-trust-anyone-over-30 movement, pop star Donovan’s 1967 hit “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was licensed for TV commercials featuring Geraldine Chaplin hawking Love Cosmetics products. The Beatles in their day were merchandised to the heavens, I remember when Blondie's "Rip Her To Shreds" was reworked for a clothing ad, and in the '80s David Bowie and Heart were featured as "The Coffee Achievers" in an ad campaign by the American Coffee Association.

Maybe music has always been used to sell us stuff...but at least in the old days, the con was kept on the down-low. With authenticity and rebellion as their buzzwords, recording artists were able to make reams of money by convincing their fans that money was the last thing they cared about. Then, the absolute worst thing you could say about a band or singer was that they had "sold out." Now,  music hopefuls by the thousands flock to American Idol and The Voice clamoring just for the mere opportunity to sell out.

The Year of the Cat

Music & Marketing: In 1967, the same year Donovan went Madison Avenue corporate while retaining his image as the ultimate flower child, the insta-fame, pre-fab commercialism of the music business was amusingly satirized in the British film Smashing Time: an ultra-mod, cartoonishly silly, proto girl-power musical comedy starring Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham as pop stardom hopefuls. 
Set in London at the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, Smashing Time tanked at the boxoffice due—at least in part—to its having been marketed to the wrong audience. Hoping to capitalize on the '60s mania for all things British, the film was pitched as a mad, mod, Carnaby Street romp for the youth market. But it was actually a fairly brutal satire of pop-culture, the easy gullibility of teenagers, and the whole media-driven “England Swings Like a Pendulum Do” thing. In essence, it was a movie that was taking the piss out of the very people it was being sold to. The targeted audience neither understood it nor appreciated it.

History Repeating: Hello, Josie & the Pussycats

Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie McCoy (Vocals & Guitar)

Rosario Dawson as Valerie Brown (Bass)

Tara Reid as Melody Valentine (Drums)

Alan Cummng as Wyatt Frame

Parker Posey as Fiona

Hollywood’s mania for cannibalizing its recent past hit a $30 million snag with the 2001 live-action film based on the Archie comic book spin-off, cartoon-inspired Josie & the Pussycats. A market-minded, going-to-the-well-too-often high-concept project born of the trend in cartoon-based movies flooding multiplexes at the time (The Flintstones, Casper, Mr. Magoo, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), it was also one of the few cartoon-based movies not to star Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right). Still, Josie & the Pussycats had a lot of things going for it.

First off, it was about an all-girl band (Me: Hey!...just like The Carrie Nations in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls!!) and they called themselves The Pussycats (Me: Hey!...just like the larcenous go-go dancers in Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!). So despite being an entire generation too old for the tween demographic it was targeting, I was on board with the Pussycats movie from the start. 

Further upping the attraction quotient: the film featured an appealing cast of talented and charismatic up-and-comers; celebrity cameos (now so obscure they've become inadvertent emblems of the film’s “fickleness of fame” theme); a terrific soundtrack of original songs produced by multi-Grammy-winner Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds (Waiting to Exhale); and to counterbalance all that clean-cut Riverdale sincerity, a couple of edgy, indie darlings cast as the over-the-top villains of the piece. 

In an ironic twist that even Wyatt Frame would appreciate, a movie summarized (not inaccurately) by a cast member as "A sociopolitical statement about materialism and our hype-driven society," bombed at the boxoffice because it was so poorly marketed 

Under circumstances not dissimilar to those surrounding the release of Smashing Time 34-years earlier, Josie and the Pussycatshyped to the skies in shimmery shades of purple and bubblegum pink that all but dared anyone who was not an 11-to-13-year-old girl to take an interestsold itself as an ultra-hip, cartoonishly silly, girl-power musical comedy set in the rockin' world of tweenage punk-pop. In actuality, it was an adult-targeted, scathingly acerbic, subversively cynical, sharp-eyed satire that poked fun at the commodification of music; the synthetic fabrication of celebrity, and the omnipotent influence of advertising. More than a decade before the fact, Josie and the Pussycats delivered a tongue-in-cheek cautionary fable signaling where the music industry is heading (or arrived): a time when bands and recording artists have become little more than prepackaged commercials for their individual marketing brands.

Josie and the Pussycats was poised for success with a great release date (spring break), a well-publicized soundtrack album, and untold merchandising licenses lurking in the wings. By rights it should have spawned a hit single, a sequel (I sincerely would have loved a Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space movie), and an inevitable TV series. But for some reason, 13-year-olds failed to warm to a movie that mercilessly mocked trend whores and teenage faddism and the effortlessness with which media and marketing can lead 13-year-olds around by their soon-to-be-pierced noses.

Gabriel Mann as Alan M (aka Alec N or Adam 12)

Written and directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont of the modest teen hit Can’t Hardly Wait -1998 (for me it was Can’t Hardly Watch), Josie and the Pussycatswhile ultimately lacking any real clawsis cleverly-conceived, often hilarious, and delightfully offbeat in a way that should have made it as popular with 2001 teens as Heathers was in 1989 and Clueless in 1995. I most appreciated how the film didn't take itself too seriously and was willing to send everything up, including the whole rock 'n' roll musical genre.  
Alas, perhaps because the powers that be at MGM and Universal were so fixated on Josie’s broad-appeal, toy-friendly franchise potential, it entirely overlooked its niche appeal to an older demographic. After all,  Josie and the Pussycats had the highest name-recognition among parents and boomers who were likely tweens in 1970 when the Josie and the Pussycats cartoon aired on Saturday mornings on CBS.
Missi Pyle and Paulo Costanzo as siblings Alexandra & Alexander Cabot

Fear of looking like a middle-aged perv kept me from seeing Josie and the Pussycats when it came out (I envisioned being the only adult in a sea of little girls...little did I know, I’d likely have had the theater all to myself), but it appeared on DVD a scant four months later. Due to the near-unanimous pans it received from the critics, when I finally got my Netflix copy in the mail (red envelope!) I kept my expectations low. When it was over I was left wondering whether the critics and I had seen the same movie. I wound up watching Josie and the Pussycats three times before mailing it back, and by year’s end, it had made my personal 2001 Top Ten List
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
Mulholland Drive
The Others
Training Day
Josie and the Pussycats
Pauline and Paulette
Moulin Rouge
The Piano Teacher
Monsters Inc.
(National year-end boxoffice charts for 2001 ranked Josie and the Pussycats very near the bottom at #123, sandwiched between those classics Joe Dirt and Freddy Got Fingered.)
A candy-colored, TV-commercial-glossy vision of consumer-culture on steroids, Josie and the Pussycats looks like it was filmed inside the head of a Madison Avenue ad executive. Lensed with flashy panache by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream), the film's comic-book version of reality depicts a hyper-stylized world where immersive advertising has been carried to a surreal, comically literal-minded extreme. A world populated almost exclusively by parentless, purposeless teens with nothing but disposable income and a fad-driven devotion to the almighty gods of Capitalism.
 
Its story sees us following the adventures of the titular small-town trio, a struggling female punk-pop group hastily recruited by oily Megarecords executive Wyatt Frame to be the anybody-will-do, last-ditch replacements for the recently-ditched boy band DuJour. Swept up in the world of instant fame and success, The Pussycats (now called Josie and the Pussycats thanks to a Diana Ross-esque ploy by Wyatt) have no idea they are really the unwitting pawns in a conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America through pop music. The scheme hatched by Megarecords CEO Fiona bears a slight resemblance to what the Future Villain Band (Aerosmith) had in mind for America’s youth in that other pop music movie bomb Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).
"They come and they go...pop stars." -  Performance (1970)
The soon-to-go boy band DuJour (Alexander Martin, Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, and Donald Faison) interviewed by Entertainment Tonight host Jann Carl


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Growing up, teen rock ‘n’ roll movies came in two varieties: One was the jukebox musical (Don’t Knock the Rock, Twist Around the Clock) aimed to promote rock and R & B while reassuring concerned (and racist) parents that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t going to corrupt their clean-cut kids and turn them into juvenile delinquents. The second was the musical fake-out (Bye, Bye Birdie, The Girl Can’t Help It): these films featured rock ‘n’ roll but their overall outlook was so condemnatory of teenagers and their music that they wound up being essentially anti-rock 'n' roll musicals. 
I had most of the songs from Josie and the Pussycats committed to memory by the time I got around to seeing the movie. The songs remind me of the '80s/'90s sound of Blondie, Josie Cotton, E.G. Daily, The Bangles, & The Go-Gos. Josie's vocals are by Kay Hanley, lead singer of the band Letters to Cleo

The music of Josie and the Pussycats isn't kidding around, but much of the film's humor is at the expense of teenagers and the kind of manufactured, by-the-numbers corporate pop that was clogging up the charts at the time.

Since I’ve never cared much for teenagerseven when I was oneand the ‘90s represented for me the very last decade of listenable music (I've turned into my Dad!)...Josie and the Pussycats' riotously scornful view of ad-susceptible adolescents and the assembly-line practices of the music business quickly became my favorite thing about the film. I liked the characters of Josie, Valerie, and Melody, a great deal...the relaxed chemistry between the actresses going a long way to making them a likable trio of heroines you could root for. Personal fave-rave Parker Posey walks off with each of her scenes, playing the power-mad music CEO like a high school bully.
But the minute I saw him remorselessly decide to let a boy band perish in a plane crash, I knew Alan Cummings' Wyatt Frame would be the character I'd most identify with. 
Fashion-forward Fiona and snide Wyatt scheming, scheming, scheming.
As is often the case with villains, Posey and Cummings are Josie's MVPs

Movies whose concept threatens to veer too close into corny, sincere, or sentimental territory often defuse the situation by featuring a character who serves as the surrogate voice of those audience members least willing to suspend their disbelief. In Josie and the Pussycats that character is Alexandra (Missi Pyle, who is absolutely priceless), a one-woman Greek chorus of wry put-downs, and possessor most of the film's funniest lines. 
Another means of keeping potential fluff afloat is to keep the action moving so fast, no dust of doubt has time to settle on anything. I'm convinced one of the reasons Josie and the Pussycats was so misunderstood on initial release was because so many of the jokey asides and visual gags flew over all those pre-adolescent heads. For example, it's my guess that few teens picked up on the film depicting the character of Alexander as gay (in the comics he's Melody's boyfriend) because none of the indicators were underlined: In one scene, when under the influence of subliminal brainwashing, Alexander blurts out he wants a vintage tee shirt and Heath Ledger. Later in the film, he lets out with a muffled "I love you, Les!" to the DuJour boy band member when he makes a surprise appearance.
Pussycats manager & wannabe music mogul Alexander Cabot reading the biography of gay music mogul David Geffen penned by openly-gay WSJ writer Tom King

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Where Josie and the Pussycats won me over and proved itself so persuasive as a cannily self-aware send-up of pop culture is in the way it established and sustained a consistent comedic tone and point of view throughout. The film strikes a chord combining the neo-nostalgia reinvention of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (We’re all new, just the way you remember us!) and the pop-group-makes-a-movie tropes virtually invented by Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (Slow-motion trampoline jumping! Success montages!). 
The Pussycats themselves arrive updated but unchanged. Appealing Rachael Leigh Cook assures Josie is still the sensible, charmingly nerdy redhead. Tara Reid keeps Melody’s sweet-natured optimism while subtly defanging the character’s archaic “dumb blonde” origins. And brainy Valerie is still perceptive & sardonic, but as embodied by Rosario Dawson, also drop-dead gorgeous.
To my dying day, I'll never understand how so many outraged grown-ass critics at the time failed to "get" that the film's blatantly exaggerated product placement was precisely the point. 

Since this film marks my first time seeing any of these actresses, for me, they ARE the real-life incarnation of The Pussycats and I can't imagine anyone else in the roles. But some fans—and with good reason—saw Dawson’s casting a problematic example of the filmmakers light-washing a Black character heretofore always depicted as being dark-skinned (Beyonce, Aaliyah, and Lisa Lopes lost out on the part, so it seems colorism was definitely on the casting menu). 
On a similar note, the character of Valerie is also ill-served by a story arc in the film that has Wyatt, in a divide-and-conquer move, singling her out for exclusion by constantly forgetting she’s around or part of the group.
Narratively, we get it: Wyatt wants Valerie gone because, as the smart one, she’s the one most likely to catch on to Fiona’s scheme. But since the erasure of Black women and women of color is common practice in Hollywood and the music industry (where the Black sound is coveted...but not from Black artists), it appears not to have occurred to anyone that with Dawson being the only lead ethnic character in the film, all these scenes have a slightly cringy subtext.
What's New, Pussycat?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’ve little doubt that a movie version of Josie and the Pussycats was green-lit for its franchise potential and marketability. In which case, I suppose its eventual decimation at the boxoffice could be looked upon as a kind of corporate hubris victory. But now that the film has gone on to find cult success, it's nice that instead of being celebrated for how much money it made for the industry fat cats (hee hee), Josie and the Pussycats can instead be championed for being a female-driven major motion picture about three women in the boy-centric world of rock 'n' roll who ultimately triumph because of their loving, dedicated friendship.
 And the whole "Be happy with yourself as you are" message isn't bad, either. 
"Jerkin!"

BONUS MATERIAL

The first human incarnation of Josie and the Pussycats was a trio of singers assembled, Monkees-style, to represent the fictional band on an LP and to provide the singing voices for the animated series. Left to right we have Patrice Holloway as Valerie, future Angel Cheryl Ladd (then Cherie Moor) as Melody, and Cathy Dougher as Josie. The character of Valerie almost didn't get the opportunity to make TV history as the first Black female main character in an animated series. It seems Hanna-Barbera wanted to make The Pussycats an all-white trio. The album's producer (Danny Janssen) refused to cooperate, leading to a three-week standoff during which time Hanna-Barbara came to their bigoted senses. 
In 2017 another flesh-and-blood Josie and the Pussycats materialized, this time in the TV series Riverdale and portrayed as a Black female trio. Left to right: Hayley Law as Valerie, Ashleigh Murray as Josie, and Asha Bromfield as Melody. I've never seen Riverdale, a position that's unlikely to change any time soon, but let me tell you I'm here for a Black Josie and the Pussycats.
Any and everything you could ever want to know about the making of Josie and the Pussycats is available in the remarkably thorough Josie and the Podcats. But watch out for subliminal messages!


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2020

Friday, August 21, 2020

PSYCHE-59 1964

Submerged passions and mid-‘60s elan ooze from every impressionist frame of Psyche 59, a dreamily stylish, low-simmer psychological drama with an irresistible title. The second feature film from American director Alexander Singer (whose debut, 1961’s A Cold Wind in August, infused a pulpy May-December sexploitation melodrama with something resembling poignance), Psyche 59 is a British production starring Patricia Neal in her first role following her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for her earthy performance in Hud (1963). Psyche 59 has Neal, in a return to the kind of sophisticated characters she played in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Fountainhead (1949), trading in her A Face in the Crowd/Hud housedresses and Kentucky drawl for Paris couture and posh urban neurosis.

Neal plays Allison Crawford, a wealthy Londoner with a townhouse, two daughters, a live-in nanny, and a rakishly handsome industrialist husband named Eric (Curt Jurgens). Filling out Allison’s well-upholstered life is the extended-family-of-sorts represented by devoted friend and business associate Paul (Ian Bannen); her perceptive, astrology-ruled grandmother ( Beatrix Lehmann); and the return of the prodigal sibling...Allison’s vixenish baby sister Robin (Samantha Eggar), self-invited back into the family fold after a failed marriage in America. 

And one other little detail...five years ago, Allison was struck blind. 

Patricia Neal as Allison Crawford
Curt Jurgens as Eric
Samantha Eggar as Robin Crawford
Ian Bannen as Paul

It was five years ago, on the night her second child was born, Allison was stricken blind after she fell down a flight of stairs in her home. But doctors have determined that the loss of sight is not the result of an injury sustained in the fall, but rather—like the plight of the titular character of The Who’s 1969 rock-opera Tommy—a psychosomatic, shock-induced reaction to witnessing something traumatic. Alas, Allison can't remember a thing about that night except being awakened by labor pains, finding her husband missing from their bed, and leaving the bedroom to look for him. At this point, she draws a blank. All attempts to reconstruct the further events of that evening in her mind are met with piercing headaches and a subconscious resistance: “My brain won’t accept the images my eyes make.”

We viewers, however, face no such resistance. Both the source and content of Allison’s trauma becomes crystal clear the instant we lay eyes on baby sister Robin—a laser-eyed chaos agent on two very long and shapely legs—and see how angry and agitated (i.e., hot and bothered) Eric becomes at the mere thought of her re-insinuating herself into their lives. Although Allison remains clueless, the film doesn't waste time mounting false suspense over the question of "Did they, or didn't they?" (They did.) Rather, we're left to wonder if a woman as intelligent and sensitive as Allison can really be so oblivious to events blatantly happening directly under her nose and "right before her very eyes," or if, in causing her to lose both her sight and her memory of that night, is her mind shielding her or simply carrying out her will? 

Just how much Allison does know or doesn't know is the ambiguous tease and Freudian thrust of Psyche 59...an arthouse-influenced mood piece of deceit and self-deception among the literally and figuratively blind. A film about subjective honesty, emotional truth, and coming to terms with the fact that...at least in matters of the heart...insight is inarguably more eloquent than sight. 

Lady in the Dark
"I can tell you what the psychiatrist said. I'm afraid to see. There's something I'm afraid to look at."

I‘m not sure how it is I never heard of Psyche 59 until now, but this kind of erotically-charged domestic dysfunction psychodrama—to use an appropriately UK idiom—ticks all the right boxes for me. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the feel of the film is strictly European arthouse, but its premise—a wealthy woman driven hysterically blind by obsessive love—is pure studio-era Joan Crawford. The film’s photogenic cast, forming a kind of 4-character chamber ensemble, play disparate, desperate individuals caught up in a mating-dance roundelay of unrequited love and unreciprocated desire. The structure of their thorny interrelationships a psychological hall-of-mirrors where what most needs to be sad is never uttered and no two are ever in love unless it’s with the absolute wrong person at the worst possible time.

While taking in the emotionally inarticulate fumblings of Psyche 59's passion-ruled characters, my mind kept flashing to the romantic entanglements in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the 1973 Broadway musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). There’s nothing light or farcical about Psyche 59's somber quartet, but once they all go traipsing off for an ill-fated holiday in the country, the memory of Sondheim's lyrics underscored every day's little death.

He assumes I lose my reason. And I do.

Men are stupid. Men are vain.

Love's disgusting. Love's insane.

A humiliating business.

Oh, how true!

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

As I’ve mentioned, I think Psyche 59 is an absolutely fabulous title for a movie. It’s certainly evocative. Too much so, perhaps, as it initially had me anticipating a suspense thriller along the lines of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963). Psyche 59 is the title of the 1959 French novel by Françoise des Ligneris upon which Julian Halevy’s oblique screenplay is based. The title’s numerical significance appears to be linked to its contemporaneity: the 1963 English edition was titled Psyche 63. The film version never explains the title’s meaning, leaving us with the suggestion (set in London, 1964 and Allison & Eric’s second daughter looks to be about 5-years-old) that it applies to the year of Allison's psychological breakdown.

Beatrix Lehmann as Mrs. Crawford (Allison & Robin's grandmother)

The  ”Psyche” of the title has a bifurcated significance to the narrative, most explicitly as it pertains to the psyche of Freudian psychological theory. This is psyche defined as the housing of the human personality (the id, ego, and superego) as it relates to the conscious and subconscious mind.

Allison, a woman we come to learn was blind long before she lost the ability to see, allows her subconscious to erase what her conscious mind is unwilling to face. In the tradition of true Freudian symbolism, the warring components of Allison’s inner personality crisis manifest themselves externally in her relationships: Robin is the sexually impulsive id; the sincere and stable Paul, the ego; and her grandmother is the judgemental, guilt-tripping superego.

Who's in control, the rider or the horse?
Horses are both motif and symbol in Psyche 59, referencing a Freudian analogy comparing the id to a wild horse and the ego as the rider who must control and guide its path

But Psyche 59 is also a contemporary reworking of the Greek myth of Psyche, the goddess of the soul. The parallels abound. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, vows revenge on the mortal Psyche for stealing the attentions of men (Robin sees Allison as having stolen Eric from her). Psyche’s father abandons her on a mountaintop (Allison and Robin were abandoned by their father) where she is fated by the gods to marry a cruel and savage beast (that would be Eric), a beast whose hideous form Psyche is forbidden to gaze upon (psychosomatic blindness). Unable to see his form, Psyche falls in love with the man she imagines him to be. The beast is actually Eros the god of love and fertility (the virile Eric/Eros harbors a god-like image of himself). I won’t go into how further events play out, only adding that Greek myths are not generally known for their happy endings.
Eric and Paul represent the two combative 
  aspects of love...the physical & the emotional

PERFORMANCES

Effective as an ensemble, rising to the occasion when given their moments to shine in individual scenes, Psyche 59 may be sparsely populated, but its few roles are extremely well cast.  It's no surprise that the always-wonderful Patricia Neal gives a sensitive and compelling performance (even with her eyes shaded, there's no barrier to us knowing what her character is feeling). Like her subtextual namesake, she's the soul of this movie. This is the second film I've seen in which Samantha Eggar plays a femme fatale (my first was Return from the Ashes - 1965) and I've fallen in love. She may be the least-experienced member of the cast, but I think she gives a hell of a performance. More to my liking than her great work in The Collector (1965). 

Judging You
Beatrix Lehmann registers strongly in a small but pivotal role. 

I've seen talented character actor Ian Bannen is many things, but mostly from late in his career. I had no idea he was such a babe! Distractingly handsome appearance aside, his character is not showy, but in his quietude, he's fascinating to watch. Bannen's catalog of disdainful looks aimed at Curt Jurgen are a virtual lexicon of disgust. Jurgens, and actor who has heretofore never registered much on my radar because he always seemed to be cast as something officious and stern, caught me off guard in his ability to exude genuine dominating sex appeal of the sort that has little to do with looks, and all to do with attitude. If Neal is the soul of the film, Jurgens is the magnetism.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS

Though they can sometimes prove grueling, I have a soft spot for self-serious dramas about neurotic women in stylish hats agonizing over louche husbands (a la The Pumpkin Eater – 1963). Especially if every frame of their suffering looks as though it were shot by Richard Avedon. And looks do count for a great deal in Psyche 59, a Gallic-flavored psycho-sexual soufflé about sight that I feel intentionally emphasizes the visual in its storytelling (the viewer is encouraged to not just look, but see) as a means of underscoring Allison’s inability/unwillingness to open her eyes. The striking cinematography is by Walter Lassalley (Oscar winner for Zorba the Greek - 1964) and is the real name-above-the-title star of Psyche 59. Frequently, the intensity of Lassalley's gorgeous high-contrast B&W cinematography achieves an intensity that is heart-achingly moving.

I love this shot. It's from a lovely scene where Allison & Robin allow their affection for one another to show. Allison, unable to see, reaches out to touch Robin, and in the effort, winds up shielding her eyes from the sun. Robin's move to guide her sister's hand ultimately turns into a caress. Hands and the sense of touch are another recurring visual motif in the film, touch being the only means by which Psyche was initially able to "see" Eros in the myth.

Because I dote on movies about character conflict, Psyche 59 practically qualifies as an action movie for me. But I fully understand how a leisurely-paced film such as this might call to mind for some another A Little Night Music lyric: “So inactive that one has to lie down.”

I'm Your Venus
Robin, reassuring herself of her power to allure, assumes an "armless"
de Milo-esque pose in a department store changing room

I can’t help but recognize that some of the major factors contributing to my finding Psyche 59 so utterly fascinating are its similarities to Mike Nichols’ trilogy of marital dysfunction: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Carnal Knowledge (1970), and Closer (2004); three films that speak to love’s vulnerability to willful self-deception. Psyche 59 is a worthy addition to my collection, not a masterpiece, but a film so pleasingly guarded with its intentions, yet so self-assured (like Eric), it allows itself to be misunderstood. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020