Saturday, December 5, 2020

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG 1968

Last year, whenever I came across a review complaining about the 3½-hour running time of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), my first thought was that none of these folks would have survived being a kid in the 1960s. Not at a time when Hollywood's most eagerly-anticipated family movies all wore their lengthy running times like emblems of prestige: Mary Poppins (1964): 2hr 20m; The Sound of Music (1965): 2hr 55m; Doctor Dolittle (1967): 2hr 32m; Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): 2hr 33m; and Oliver! (1968): 2hr 33m.

And certainly not at a time when double-features were the norm, and theaters, under the guise of presenting “Top Family Entertainment” offered child-abuse programming like pairing the 2hr 25m Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the 3hr 4m Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Such was the bladder-challenging bill at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in the summer of 1969 when I was 11-years-old and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time.

click image to enlarge
A 1968 Christmas season release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in San Francisco as a reserved-seat roadshow attraction (complete with overture, intermission, & exit music) at a then-steep minimum $3 ticket price. When it played regular engagements in 1969, its revamped ad campaign underplayed the musical and magical car angles in favor of emphasizing the comedic figure of Dick Van Dyke and anachronistically (the film is set in 1910) showcasing Sally Ann Howes' legs.   

Most roadshow films went immediately into wide release after their exclusive engagements were over (Continuous Performances! Popular Prices!) but the underperforming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was swiftly yanked from screens after its poorly-reviewed initial run (The SF Examiner called it “abysmally saccharine”), re-emerging six months later as a get-the-kids-from-underfoot summer release in August of 1969. But by then it was too late. Over the Easter holidays, America’s fickle kiddie population had fallen in love with another four-fendered friend…Herbie, the matchmaking Volkswagen Beetle of Disney’s The Love Bug. A case of love at first sight that saw the modest feature earning more than ten times its $5 million budget at the boxoffice while the heavily-promoted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remained unable to recoup its $12 million budget. 

Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts
Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious 

Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley as Jeremy & Jemima Potts

Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the only children’s book written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. It’s also the only non-Bond film made by James Bond franchise producer Albert R. Broccoli. Fleming’s slight story of a family and their magical car was made into a grand-scale movie musical (at the time, the most expensive musical ever made in England) that is commonly (and accurately) described these days as a James Bond film for children.

This is certainly true of its story, which pits a good guy devoted to gadgetry (crackpot inventor Caracticus Potts) and a woman with an outrageous name (candy heiress Truly Scrumptious) against an eccentric villain (Auric Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst). But the Bond connection also applies to the production team, many of whom began work on CCBB fresh from completing the latest Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967). The screenplay of that film was written by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang screenwriter Roald Dahl (with director Ken Hughes), and Hughes, along with Baroness Bomburst Anna Quayle, had just finished work on the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967).

Desmond Llewelyn as garage owner Mr. Coggins, portrayed "Q" in 17 James Bond films. 

But in 1968, the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most eagerly sought to emulate was Disney’s blockbuster Mary Poppins (1964). And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was so sincerely devoted to flattering Mary Poppins that it all but followed a blueprint. Same songwriters (Robert and Richard Sherman Sherman); same choreographers (Mark Breaux & Dee Dee Wood); same period (the book's contemporary setting was changed to Mary Poppins' Edwardian era); same casting (Poppins’ Dick Van Dyke—mercifully, minus the English accent), and a Julie Andrews substitute (Sally Ann Howes). I've read that the producers sought to reunite Mary Poppins costars Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke, but unless the role of Truly was conceived as significantly larger than what we see in the final film, it's hard to imagine that Andrews--a headlining Oscar-winner--ever seriously entertained the idea of playing anybody's second lead.

So intent was CCBB on duplicating Mary Poppins' winning formula, it features a copy of what has always been my least-favorite Poppins number: "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank." In this instance, the 'comical old coots' song is the livelier but no-less-deadly "The Roses of Success."

But Hollywood wishes do come true, and when released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did indeed have critics comparing it to Mary Poppins…unfavorably on all counts. In his memoirs, even star Dick Van Dyke joined the chorus, citing that he felt Hughes was the wrong director for the job and that the film ultimately failed to capture the magic of Disney's classic. Given that Ken Hughes would go on to direct the Mae West travesty Sextette (1978), perhaps Van Dyke has a point. Falling short of its fantasmagorical expectations Chitty Chitty Bang Bang joined the ranks of Camelot (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) as representative of a form of "Bigger is Better" filmmaking whose era was nearing its end. But time has been kind, and in the 50-plus years since its release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has emerged from the shadow of Mary Poppins enough to be hailed as a beloved children’s classic judged and appreciated on its own considerable merits. A far cry from the days when my attempts to recommend the movie to schoolmates were met with chants of “Shitty Shitty Bang Bang.” 

Anna Quayle and Gert Frobe as Baroness & Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria

Seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time on a double-bill with Around the World in 80 Days was quite the thrill and nowhere near the backache challenge for my 11-year-old self as I would find it today. Though I confess to having fallen asleep during part of Around the World in 80 Days (one moment Shirley MacLaine hadn’t yet entered the movie, the next, there she was in that balloon) by and large, as long as the Jujyfruits and popcorn held out, I was a happy camper. 

The only big musical I’d seen at this point was Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), so without prior visions of Mary Poppins dancing in my head, I thought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the most extraordinary movie I’d ever seen. I was utterly wowed by it. On an enormous screen and with glorious stereophonic sound Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a storybook fantasy adventure come to life. It seemed to have everything: action, laughs, chases, comic schtick, rousing songs, zany characters, romance, dance, spectacle, and a big wooly sheepdog named Edison. It even had a bit of a dark side.

Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher
I was too old to find this legendary kindertrauma character scary at the time, but as an adult, I've often found myself wishing (usually in a restaurant or on a plane) that such a service actually existed.

I remember being very taken with Potts’ kooky Rube Goldberg-style inventions (the work of Frederick Rowland Emett), particularly that ingenious breakfast-making machine I still would love to own. But what stands out best of all and most memorably is the titular automobile itself. Designed by Academy Award-winning production designer Ken Adams under what must have been no small degree of pressure to live up to the laundry list of glowing superlatives ascribed to it in the title song, the magical car dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is every bit the iconically miraculous motorcar the movie needed it to be. 

Critics were tough on the film for what they asserted were disappointingly primitive special effects for a movie of this size and expense (they may have had a point, as Chitty's budget was equal to or larger than that of another 1968 release, Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey whose special effects had set a new standard), but back then I didn't notice or didn't care. When Chitty turned into a boat or the first time it takes wing, just the sight of it (crude special effects and all) hit a fanciful, fantasy nerve in me. I remember getting such a goosebump charge out of it.   

Custom cars were all the rage on TV in the '60s, the George Barris-designed automobiles on Batman, The Monkees, The Munsters, & The Green Hornet were big hits with the young set. But even amongst these memorably snazzy machines, Ken Adam's whimsical design for the flying, amphibious Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stands out with class and distinction. 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY

I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang two more times that summer, by then paired with Heaven with a Gun, a truly awful Glenn Ford western made bearable only by its being half the running time of Around the World in 80 Days. And in all these years my love of it as a cheerful, brightly-colored confection as sweet and loaded with empty calories as anything whipped up by the Scrumptious Sweet Company, has only increased. I say empty calories because Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a delectable film that, for all its whimsy and charm, has always engaged my spirits more than my heart. The story—essentially a kidnap/rescue adventure fantasy—is fun in a cartoon kind of way…full of activity and “business” meant to entertain and amuse. But the screenplay keeps the characters at a bit of a remove, their personalities and goals presented so cursorily that the movie never touches me or gives me waterworks in the manner of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

It's not entirely true that nothing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gives me waterworks. For some reason, the duet performance of "Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious" gets to me every time. It's a lovely courtship dance in a film skimpy on romance, so when Truly breaks character at the end to give Caractacus a loving smile, I always melt. 


Maybe this is owed to the fact that, as children’s movies go, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s emotional stakes are kept on a low boil. Both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins saw lonely children reclaiming their fathers thanks to the spunky intervention of Julie Andrews, and in Oliver! a severely brutalized and exploited orphan finds a home. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang presents us with a cast of characters whose lives, when the film begins, may not be perfect, but are far from unhappy. Caractacus is a widowed fantasist whose inventions come to naught, but his loving children’s belief in him is unshakable. And I couldn’t have been the only kid who thought Jemima & Jeremy had it pretty sweet living with minimal parental supervision out there in the country in a picturesque windmill crammed with toys and gadgets made by a fun dad. 

You Two
Caractacus Potts and his two unaccountably British children. Though Potts' father and children speak with English accents, Dick Van Dyke, still stinging from criticism of his problematic Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, only agreed to appear in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang if he could forgo the accent.


Even Jemima & Jeremy’s quest to rescue the junked Chitty from the fiery furnace is a low-wattage conflict due to the notion of Chitty being a sentient machine is never fully developed (she shivers at the mention of being melted and rescues the family at moments of danger, but has no personality to speak of) not mention the kids are ready to abandon their salvage mission when it appears doing so will cause their dad undue hardship. However, one thing the film gets right is to grant the frosty Truly Scrumptious character a thawing-out musical number with the children. What's ideal about the casting of Sally Ann Howes is that' she's pretty in precisely the way a child can relate to...like a teacher one develops a crush on. By the end of the number, it's been firmly established that Jeremy & Jemima need a mom, and we in the audience can identify with them in their wish for Truly and their dad to fall in love.

Benny Hill as The Toymaker

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

I didn’t like movie musicals very much when I was young. No fewer than 13 musicals were released in 1968 (3 by Elvis alone!) and to this day I could kick myself for passing opportunities to see current favorites like Funny Girl, Finian’s Rainbow, and Star! in their original release. But what I did like were cars. Toy cars, model cars, and, after seeing the 1967 theatrical re-release of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), flying cars. Fred MacMurray’s flying Flubbermobile captivated me to no end, so when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came on the scene, the car was the primary attraction for me. Nowadays, my absolute favorite thing about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are its songs and musical sequences. The eleven songs by Robert and Richard Sherman (showcased by Irwin Kostal’s brilliant orchestrations) are catchy and hummable and have aged remarkably well. Not a clunker in the bunch, the entire original score is splendid...even the dreaded “The Roses of Success” has started to grow on me.

Toot Sweets
This pitch-perfect musical pitch meeting is a visual delight. The candy factory set is an eye-popper, and I still get woozy with vertigo when I see those dancers up on that narrow ledge near the rafters.
 

Me Ol' Bamboo
CCBB's answer to Mary Poppins' "Step in Time" is this rousingly entertaining and athletic number in which clever choreography takes center stage. Production on the film was shut down for a week due to 41-year-old Dick Van Dyke sustaining a leg injury while performing one of the dances in the film (sources vary as to whether it was this one, the most likely suspect, or "Toot Sweets"). 

Chu-Chi Face
My partner never saw the film, but when I played this song for fun in my dance class, the silly lyrics and comical vocal performances of Gert Frobe & Anna Quayle made it one of his instant favorites. When we finally watched it together, he was so surprised by its ironic staging (cloying terms of endearment are exchanged amidst the Baron's many unsuccessful attempts to kill the Baroness). I don't think the number ever made much of an impression on me as a kid, but because it never ceases to make my sweetheart laugh, this sequence has become my most-replayed favorite.

Though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of the more eagerly-anticipated releases of 1968, when award season rolled around, only the music of the Sherman brothers (their first non-Disney score) garnered any attention...no wins, but attention. Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for that irresistible earworm of a title song, and a second Globe nomination for Best Original Score. 

Emmy Award-winning TV star Dick Van Dyke had the opportunity to display his versatility as an actor, dancer, and singer in several iconic movies. He made his film debut opposite Janet Leigh in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), his likable persona transferring easily to the big screen. 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS

I’d allowed a lot of time to pass between viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, this recent revisit stirring up dust clouds of nostalgia of such density as to fairly obscure my awareness of what I might have once characterized as the film’s flaws. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hasn’t changed, but in the last few years, my appreciation of the value of good, old-fashioned schmaltz, cornball comedy, and sweet-natured sentimentality has. One doesn’t have to try very hard to draw contemporary parallels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-caging Vulgarians and the tyrannical, childishly petulant, tantrum-throwing Baron Bomburst. And indeed, it’s for that very reason that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s liveliness, tuneful good cheer, and elemental, storybook sweetness (and silliness) proved to be just the right “happy endings” spoonful of sugar medicine I needed to make the waning days of 2020 a little easier to deal with. (There go those Mary Poppins comparisons, again!)




BONUS MATERIAL:


Two of my favorite stars from Ken Russell's The Boy Friend (1971) appear briefly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: British cinema icon Barbara Windsor (top photo) and dancer Antonia Ellis (bottom photo, far right)

Ballet star Robert Helpmann (The Child Catcher) with Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)


Actress/dancer Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) dances to an instrumental rendition of the Oscar-nominated title song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on the 41st Academy Awards. It lost to "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.



Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2020

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 that 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 (when 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”). Given Dani's family history (her sister's bipolarism), the emotional toll of her family's death (Dani's anguish is laceratingly deep), and what she 'settles for' in her relationship with the emotionally unavailable Christian, all indicate that she is in no mental condition to process the horrors visited upon her psyche at the commune. Something in her would have to give in order to make sense of the madness. 

It's my opinion that Dani has most definitely lost her mind at the end (a descriptive passage from the screenplay reads --"She has surrendered to a joy known only by the insane" ), 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