Friday, August 10, 2018

June Allyson's Top 4 Performances

June Allyson was one of the most popular stars in her day, a husky-voiced, adorable girl next door as famous for her magnificent crying scenes as she was for a sunny, infectious smile. She had a scrappy quality that lent her bubbly onscreen persona an edge of rebelliousness and determined ambition. Very pretty, but not stunningly beautiful, small in stature, Allyson could play much younger than she was, but she especially excelled in roles that called for a hard edge around her essential sweetness. Here are her four finest performances:

4. Connie Lane in Good News (1947)
Good News is widely regarded as the best of the so-called 'college musicals,' and it's a showcase for the qualities that made Allyson so popular. She plays Connie Lane, a librarian and French tutor hired by football star Tommy (Peter Lawford), who hopes learning the langue de l'amour will get him in chilly new girl, Pat's (Patricia Marshall) good graces. The dance numbers are wildly dated - a number called "Pass the Peace Pipe" is particularly spectacular - but robustly athletic and infectiously cheery. Allyson's lack of pretension serves her in good stead as a young woman who's had to earn her own way and only gradually, as he matures, comes to see Tommy as a potential boyfriend. Allyson and Lawford were repeatedly paired and their relationship's growth comes across as sweet and wholesome, a partnership of two people who respect each other, rather than the power coupling that Tommy originally pursues.

3. Dr. Emily Barringer in The Girl in White (1952)
In my review of this film, I praised it for its "emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers women doctors faced" in the 19th century, and indeed, although The Girl in White is decidedly short on the sorts of anthem-creating, triumphal moments contemporary feminism tends to glorify, it offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic depiction of what it meant for women to enter the medical profession. Allyson's performance as a young woman determined to become a doctor, come hell, high water, or haughty men doctors, is spunky, steely, but also soft and romantic. Instead of imitating the male doctors, Allyson's Dr. Barringer takes a different, yes, feminine approach - and in the process shows her colleagues a thing or two. The strongest scenes in the picture feature Allyson sparring not with the obnoxious doctors who won't give her the time of day, but with the one (Arthur Kennedy) who encourages her to pursue medicine until he decides to propose.

2. Leslie Odell in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945)
Allyson is especially heartbreaking in a role that, played by the average Hollywood ingenue, could have proved disastrously maudlin, but not with her, not least of all because Allyson knew something about this character's misery: Leslie has lost her ability to walk after an accident, while Allyson nearly suffered the same fate after being crushed by a branch when she was a child. Leslie, confined to her room, takes comfort in the sweet attentions of Jimmy (Robert Walker), but realizes she may very well lose him when he becomes infatuated with a princess (Hedy Lamarr) staying at the hotel where he works. This romantically melancholic film is more occupied with dreams and fantasies of love than with letting the characters fulfill those dreams. Thus, despite its decadent romantic aesthetic, Her Highness and the Bellboy is less a fairy tale than an interrupted dream of a film.

1. Jo March in Little Women (1949)
Although Allyson was most often cast as the lovely girl that the guy has to learn to love, in contrast to a flashier, more glamorous rival, this type-casting often resulted in her characters ending up in relationships that were more accepting of personality differences and that left room for them to pursue professional goals. Allyson is my favorite Jo March, in part because her performance is so staunchly unsentimental and so grounded in the character's development as a writer. In this version, her refusal of Laurie (Peter Lawford, again, looking decades too old for the part) rings true because her Jo is so constantly, insistently unromantic and for once, one believes her when she says she prefers romance to "be confined to the page." The common line on this version is that it's the most romanticized and politically regressive, but as Jo, Allyson is far less affected and theatrical than Katharine Hepburn and not at all tremulously dreamy like Winona Ryder.

Though she doesn't have a cultish following like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and she doesn't have a die-hard, devoted fanbase like Esther Williams (though why, I will never understand) or Carole Lombard, and none of her films tend to be regarded as masterpieces, June Allyson deserves to be better remembered and recognized. She exuded rays of sunshine from every pore, that is, when a storm of tears wasn't clouding her over, and we could all use more sunshine these days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Stupidity of the New Oscars Category for Popular Film

This morning news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be introducing a new awards category "around achievement in popular film." While Slate's commentator, Marissa Martinelli, objected principally because such a new category marginalized the films it ostensibly is meant to include, the idea is wrong-headed for numerous reasons, most of them founded on fundamentally silly notions of what the Oscars mean.

Any film critic is going to assume that the Academy is going to get it wrong, for a plenitude of reasons. For one, many of the films later recognized as masterpieces in any given year aren't even eligible for the Oscars. In the case of foreign releases, they need to have distribution in the United States, if they're not submitted by the country in which they were produced for the Best Foreign Film category, but in all cases, failure to get the right distribution at the right time can mean not qualifying for the Oscars. 

For another, the Oscars don't, and have never, actually recognized the 'best' in film. Awards are given as a statement of politics (Crash, being the most obvious one), or because a highly achieving individual hasn't managed to snag one yet and is getting elderly (Cecil B. DeMille, for the bloated and ironically titled The Greatest Show on Earth). The assessment isn't based on stated criteria, so the taste of the (notoriously old, white, male) Academy voters largely determines what wins, and those voters tend to be conservative and keen on protecting the industry. It's common knowledge that many voters don't even watch the films, voting based on their impressions of what is 'important' or 'significant' at the time. As such, the fury that accompanies every 'unjustified' loss becomes absurd: there is no objective evaluative method to determine the best film, performance, screenplay, etc. 

Thus, the Oscars are not, and have never been, a good measure of the best films and contributions to films. The choices of nominees are heavily weighted towards American and British films, produced and distributed by major studios who have the clout and financial resources to woo voters, and advertised and released widely. Let's take a look at an example, the Best Picture nominees of 2004: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways, and the winner, Million Dollar Baby. They were all distributed by major distributors like Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Universal, and even the indie, Sideways, got distribution through Fox Searchlight, which is about as mainstream an indie distributor as you can get. They have big name directors - Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese - and big name stars - Hillary Swank, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx. They're the sort of projects that have historically appealed to Academy voters: three are based on true stories, four are redemptive stories of people who make huge sacrifices for success, and even the outlier, that indie, is as tightly structured a narrative as any MFA workshop instructor could ask for. 

The notion that Academy voters ignore box office (and thus popularity) is absurd. Every one of those 2004 nominees made well over 100 million at the box office and two made well over 200 million. Those are not small box office returns. It's true that mega-blockbusters rarely get nominations in the so-called 'major' categories, though they more often than not sweep through the technical awards, for achievements in sound mixing and editing, special effects, make-up, and so on. However, mega-blockbusters are also designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men - the Academy voters are old men, not at all the audience those superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas are meant to appeal to. Even if a blockbuster is a fantastic film, by design, it will seldom have much attraction to Academy voters, who already fail to watch all nominees, let alone most of those films eligible for nomination.

The problem boils down to a series of false assumptions: first, that the Oscars are supposed to reflect objective excellence in global cinema; second, that the Oscar nominations are based on unfair criteria (they are based on no meaningful criteria); third, that the Oscars ought to reflect a majority opinion; fourth, that the majority opinion can be based off of box office returns. Popularity is not the same as excellence, though the two can coincide. But even if the Academy had nominated, say, Mike Leigh's quiet chamber drama Vera Drake, or the introspective German release, The Edukators, for Best Picture in 2004, the idea that failing to choose popular films is somehow prejudicial remains a fallacy. Awards in excellence are not democratically granted because the film industry is not a democracy. The new category promises to be a flat-footed, decidedly unwelcome, and essentially stupid category not because it continues to marginalize the most popular films (which is quite a whingdinger of an idea in the first place, since marginalization and popularity are antithetical by nature), but because all it accomplishes is the distribution of more awards to more films that, whether they are excellent or not, have earned a lot of money. It is purely redundant and a signal that the Academy Awards are nothing more than an exercise in industry self-congratulation. 

Then again, why the hell should any of us give a damn about the Oscars? For the record, my nominees for 2004 would be A Very Long Engagement, which I would make the winner, Head-On, Downfall, Vera Drake, and Howl's Moving Castle, five films that together received seven Oscar nominations, with no wins. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

What Elizabeth Taylor - The Novelist! - Tells Us About Writing in "Angel"

In Angel, novelist Elizabeth Taylor gives us a biography of a fictional Edwardian writer, Angelica Deverell, her heady rise and disastrous fall. Angel is not a genius, she is not even talented. She writes verbose, flowery, ludicrous, deadly serious tomes full of aristocrats tippling champagne and enchanting royalty with their exquisite beauty, wearing crimson velvet evening gowns and losing their virginities in games of poker. She dislikes reading, claims her main influences as Shakespeare and (a mispronounced) Goethe, disdains research, and absolutely refuses to have a copy editor touch The Lady Irania or An Eastern Tragedy. When she tires of European aristocrats, she simply sets the story in ancient Greece or a harem in a vague location in the East; as she claims "Human nature never changes," such new settings require no study. Her long-suffering editor is forced to invent a Mr. Delbanco, the "man behind the scenes" who serves as a scapegoat for every decision that brings down Angel's wrath. Her books sell: the public devours their escapism and the critics howl over their absurdity. Angel, having no sense of humor, least of all about herself, believes the critics to be insanely jealous of her literary prowess and to have thus marked her as an enemy. In old age, she takes to paying off the ever mounting bills with signed first editions of her works.

Taylor's magic in Angel is to present the reader with an extremely eccentric, morally vacuous, undeservedly self-righteous, and totally untalented character, a writer whose books really are plainly and simply bad. And since Angel doesn't have the smallest capacity to laugh at herself, the critical barbs and ridicule are horrifically cruel. Yet Taylor isn't cruel to her creation. She parades out this figure and refuses to lampoon her. The reader doesn't get impatient, in part because Taylor's style, elegant, yet clean, with an ever so slightly acerbic edge, is quite pleasant to read, but also, and more importantly, because Angel - in modern terms, profoundly 'unrelatable' - is plumbed to her very depth. It becomes difficult to laugh at her, no matter how many times she describes things as "corruscating," when her suffering is so vividly described, when her success, soon and irrevocably quashed by a hairpin turn in taste precipitated by World War I, blooms into failure and leaves her mouldering away in a decaying mansion, sparring with a cranky chauffeur and trailing around in fungus-infected evening gowns.

For writers, Angel has a message it would do us well to heed, for in it, Taylor reminds us that the throes and struggles are hardly proof of genius, or even workaday competence, but part and parcel of the writing process, whether the end result is Hamlet (Angel considers those who mock her "those who would sneer at Shakespeare because they could not write Hamlet themselves") or utter junk. Depictions of great writers and artists, whether in literature or film, often forgive monstrous behavior, fruitless self-destruction, neglect and cruelty of all sorts, as the worthwhile price for the works of genius bequeathed to posterity. That's bunkum as those miseries are the stuff of human life, not genius, the stuff of life, rather than creation. The same behavior can as easily yield trash as treasure, more easily trash, if we're going to be honest. Taylor, in depicting Angel barbed with foibles, follies, caprices, and freakishness, but with wildly different results, reveals the hubris and absurdity of our notions of literary genius. Angel's eccentricity - and her monstrousness is more aesthetic, nowhere on a par with the evil antics of, say, Rimbaud or the titillating scandals of George Sand - is considered absurd because her books are dreadful; if she were churning out the likes of The Age of Innocence or Howards End, the same eccentricity would be imitated and coddled. 

Thus Angel becomes an exercise in humility, not merely on a metatextual level, as one of the great English novels of the twentieth century, but also because it patiently and almost tenderly extracts the canker from the flower of genius. It is not how much one suffers, not how hard one works, not even how much money one makes or how many celebrities want to meet one, but a complex alchemical process that might produce a literary philosopher's stone... or else, nothing but dross and singed, foul-smelling dregs. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Why Do We Laugh at Melodrama?

In these dark times we live in, some give vent to rage, some bewail misfortune - and some have discovered what an extraordinary weapon of resistance laughter can be. Certainly, we knew this before. After all, who isn't familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's wise child, who noticed the absurd emperor's nakedness? Through laughter, pretensions of grandeur, founded on vanity and lies, can be toppled with the greatest of ease. Laughter is a means of fighting violence with nonviolence, physical aggression with a counterattack of wit.

Laughter, however, can also be a weapon of ignorance, or simply cruelty. Laughter is not a purely singular force that punctures abusers of power; it works equally well as a means of denying a powerless person's worth, especially a marginalized person. Think of the scene in Carrie when a bevy of girls throw tampons at her, yelling at her to 'plug it up,' while she quite literally thinks that she is dying. The joke is horrendously cruel and acts as a catalyst for an outbreak of violence, is itself an act of violence. Laughter, it's true, is an exceptionally powerful weapon against tyrants, but its power isn't diminished when it's wielded against those without power.

These days, few audiences have much patience for melodrama. I use the term without any pejorative connotation, since the melodrama is a genre, just like horror, science fiction, or any other more popular type of narrative. Once a mainstay of novels, cinema, opera, and theater, the melodrama has been relegated to the comedy section through laughter - but is it laughter of the first or second type? It's hard to see in what way laughing at tragedies, created by social strictures, providential coincidences, and fated circumstances, could be interpreted as an act of resistance. There is nothing to resist against, except perhaps an emotional response.

I recently attended a screening of A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Clarence Brown. The film's racy adult themes - including very broad hints at a homosexual relationship between men, drug use, syphilis, and lots and lots of sex - tend to be interpreted as the rum in this Dirty Shirley, the sugar in the otherwise gag-worthy medicine, though this attitude misapprehends melodrama as a genre. Such themes were, and would be still if it weren't moribund, hallmarks of melodrama. After all, their heroines are often courtesans and ruined women. Though it was a treat to see the film on the big screen (it is currently streaming on Filmstruck, as part of their spotlight on Garbo), it was not a treat to watch it with an audience that found every acknowledgment of unhappiness screamingly funny. Garbo's brother wallows in a stupor of drug use after his dearest friend, and presumably lover, committed suicide on his honeymoon with Garbo - people were slapping their knees. Garbo protects the man's reputation, by letting authorities believe her own promiscuity drove him to suicide, instead of blackmail over embezzling, and presumably his gay relationship - hear them roar. Garbo, having just suffered a miscarriage, agonizingly clutches a bouquet of flowers as though it were an infant - the snickers became howls.

To be generous, I realize that most people are unfamiliar with the conventions of silent films and I assume that at least part of this reaction can be ascribed to ignorance, to failing to understand the implications. No title card announces that Garbo's character has just had a miscarriage for instance, but an astute adult viewer shouldn't have too much trouble understanding this.

But, this laughter has an insidious and disgusting meaning. I can only imagine that the same person who thinks it's funny that a heartbroken, closeted man in the final throes of drug addiction is crying, or that a woman could die of heartbreak after a life-threatening miscarriage, abandoned in the hospital and rejected by society, could hardly be especially empathetic. The person who laughs at melodrama - and this is supremely well-acted melodrama - prefers to assert a snide self-superiority, far more mannered than the gestures of agony on the screen. That person insists that any strong feeling that hasn't been diagnosed by a psychiatrist is tosh, bollocks, balderdash, baloney, rubbish, drivel. That person thinks that any love, hate, fury, desire, or passion that leads to tragedy is hilariously avoidable.

Moderns may say, how absurd - the courtesan should just marry the aristocrat and screw the consequences, or why doesn't she just go to the doctor and cure her tuberculosis before it's too late? Why don't these people just buck social convention, why don't they just take care of their health, why don't they ignore any feelings that don't let them, as the social media mavens would have it, follow their bliss?

Those questions, accompanied by snickers and hoots, not only ignore historical reality - there are no antibiotics in the middle of the nineteenth century and just look at Lord Byron's conquests alone to see how happy people who bucked conventions turned out to be - but they also refuse emotional engagement, which is exactly and primarily what melodrama asks of its viewers, readers, and listeners. People who laugh at melodrama give themselves permission to laugh at the emotions they don't dare confront themselves, in a socially sanctioned lifting of the taboo of, say, giggling at the misery of a woman who has lost her mind after having a stillborn child. The exercise of empathy is part and parcel of the experience of the melodrama, and so the melodrama cannot have an audience in a cultural world that divides feelings into positive or pathological. That is why moderns laugh at melodrama: because misery, anguish, agony, and adoration have been compartmentalized and shoved into a box marked 'sick.' Today, we feel a passion for a brand of gelato with a cute logo, which would be fine, except... people still die of heartbreak. People still commit suicide. People still get incurable illnesses, have miscarriages, see their children reject them, have affairs and destroy their marriages, drive their cars into ditches. Some people are miserable. And a few are even still capable of sacrificing themselves for others. Those realities that melodrama dramatizes with full emotional engagement have not been overcome. And as long as that is the case, laughing at melodrama should embarrass us far more than melodrama itself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

4 Books for the Hermione Grangers of This World

Let's be real: the Harry Potters and Ron Weasleys of this world aren't great readers, but the Hermione Grangers sure are! Here are four fantastic books for bookish types that unite a love for study and knowledge with gorgeous language, a sharp intellectual facility, and, you know, magic. All of them are written by women who might very well have considered joining the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is an alternate history that pulls off the genuinely magical trick of seeming to have been composed when it is set, in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Pedantic, fussy Mr. Norrell believes himself to be the only practical magician in the English realm and he gets the shock of his life when flighty, but charismatic Jonathan Strange pops up, casting far showier and more dramatic spells. Labyrinthine in plot, elegant in language, devilishly complex in its construction of character, and both unique and historically erudite in terms of its explanation of magic and prophecy, this novel is above all a book for readers who go into raptures in libraries and hysterics at the sight of an e-reader. Few fictional tomes are as tantalizing as those in this book. Hermione Granger wouldn't be able to put it down.

Wise Child - Monica Furlong
This darkly enchanting novel is about the apprenticeship of its young protagonist to a white witch named Juniper in Medieval Scotland, whose powers, both magic and moral, are tested when her mother Maeve, a black witch, reappears in her life. Though in some respects reminiscent of T.H. White's Arthurian novels, The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, Furlong had a rare gift for refocalizing both the Middle Ages and our contemporary ideas about witchcraft, morality, mysticism, and women's roles in society through a profoundly gynocentric lens. The lines between witch and woman, good and evil, Christian and pagan, are redrawn from that new perspective, making this young adult novel far wiser than one would expect. A novel of education that Hogwarts' best student would eat up.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Though it has begun to gain a reputation as a long-lost feminist classic, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1926 novel, her debut, remains perhaps too odd a beastie to be entirely absorbed into the canon. Predating A Room of One's Own by three years, Lolly Willowes recounts the biography of a spinster who, enchanted by a bouquet of chrysanthemums, decides to pick up and move to the country village where the flowers were grown. At first contentedly installed in Great Mop, Lolly's idyll is interrupted by the unwanted intrusion of a nephew, but a certain mild-mannered gamekeeper, sometimes known as Satan, drops by to lend a hand... As much, if not more so, an elegantly comic novel about the foibles of the upper crust and the oddities of English rural types than it is a fantasy about a witch, Lolly Willowes has a light touch, managing to be both the perfect cozy teatime read and a biting, yet empathetic satire of spinsterhood. Hermione might save this one for retirement!

Orlando - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's most experimental project in biography, Orlando follows the adventures of a seemingly immortal Elizabethan swain, whose androgynous beauty suddenly and without explanation becomes a woman's over night some decades later. This metamorphosis thrusts the former ambassador to Constantinople into the bondage suffered by women for centuries. Woolf's cool, gentle, and precise sense of irony is the guiding spirit over this novel that is at once a work of English history and a dissection of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman through the development of feminism. Though it is almost never considered as a fantasy novel, the book viscerally tastes and smells of magic, of an alternative to all the rational, reasonable, 'enlightened' ideas of the patriarchal world, fashioning a new logic out of all that is usually excised from history. Though Hermione generally prefers scholarly works, this one would surely appeal to her intellectual appetites.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

6 Movies for Fans of "Hocus Pocus"

There are inevitably some movies that a person simply can't judge according to anything approaching critical standards. I don't mean liking movies that are bad (or so bad they're good - my favorite in this category is the extremely silly The Magic Sword), but rather movies that are so deeply embedded in one's life that, well... their flaws are as much virtues as flaws, if flaws can even be found. For those of us of the home video generation, certain movies have become cult favorites not only because of their kookiness, kitschy-ness, or quirkiness, but because we've seen them so many times that we can quote them from opening to closing credits.

Hocus Pocus was savaged by critics upon theatrical release, but as a staple on the Disney Channel, it became an adored Halloween classic for 90's kids. Its combination of witchcraft, snark, and celebration of the sibling bond squared the circle of family entertainment, throwing Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of featherbrained witches into the midst of a heartwarming story of a brother looking out for his younger sister. Though slightly more kid-friendly than, say, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, the fun of Hocus Pocus lies, at least in part, in growing into the buried adult humor, especially in Midler's performance. The stakes in Hocus Pocus are significantly higher than in your average kids' Halloween film. Whereas in the far tamer Halloweentown, the kids are threatened by being frozen in time (though the movie never succeeds in making that threat especially menacing), in Hocus Pocus, a child has died within the first five minutes of the film. The witches are funny, but they are also genuinely evil and genuinely dangerous. Max, Dani, and Allison are not saving a cartoonish fantasy world; they are trying to keep each other alive. The witch sisters aren't smart, but they are powerful. This counterbalance to the absurd humor rescues the movie from wallowing in silliness and places it squarely in the horror-comedy genre. 

Doth I protest too much? Perhaps, but it seems likely that Hocus Pocus could end up as the kiddie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! At least part of its cult status is due to the difficulty of finding films that are similarly creepy, yet ludicrous, wacky, yet scary: here are six recommendations for Hocus Pocus fans, each with a quote to match!

"I smell children."
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Though often dismissed as the lesser Mary Poppins, given its combination of animation and live action, its no-nonsense, magical protagonist, songs by the Sherman Brothers, and the presence of David Tomlinson, it would be better to call Bedknobs and Broomsticks the darker Mary Poppins. Instead of the specter of workaholism menacing the nuclear family in an otherwise sunny and secure world, in this film, the Blitzkrieg and Nazi raiders are the dangers posed to three refugee orphans, the witch - played with a deliciously schoolmarmish stiff upper lip by Angela Lansbury - forced to take them in, and the charlatan who just happened to stumble on a genuine book of spells (Tomlinson). There is a scrappier quality to the storytelling, but the effects are top-notch, culminating in an incredible scene of an army of animated - as in moving, not drawn - suits of armor going toe-to-toe with Nazi gunners.

"I put a spell on you and now you're mine."
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
This Hollywood oddity is usually remembered today as the inspiration for Bewitched. A frigidly feline Kim Novak stars as a bored, barefoot witch in Manhattan, who sets her spells on her clean-cut publisher neighbor, played by Jimmie Stewart in his final leading man role, with the help of her cat and familiar, Pyewacket (played by Novak's actual pet!). The romance is enjoyable enough, but the witchy shenanigans of the supporting cast are far more fun: Jack Lemmon plays a bongo-playing, mischief-making warlock with a creepily glazed smile, Elsa Lanchester is a daffy, gossiping witch with a gypsy sense of style, and Hermione Gingold is the grand-dame of the magical set. With weirdly diaphanous costumes by Jean Louis and set design by Cary Odell and Louis Diage that draws inspiration from the avant-garde Greenwich Village club scene of the time, the movie is an eccentric charmer, dipping only a toe into transgressive politics, but unafraid of combining wackiness and tragedy.

"Go to hell!" "Oh, I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely."
I Married a Witch (1942)
French auteur RenĂ© Clair directs this Hollywood comedy starring Veronica Lake as a witch who, after being torched in Puritan Salem, comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on the descendant of her accuser, a twitchy politician on the eve of both his wedding and gubernatorial elections, played by Fredric March, only to accidentally drink her own love potion. Again, the supporting cast is fabulous, with Cecil Kellaway as Lake's demonic father, Robert Benchley as March's friend, always ready to take a stiff drink in his place, and Susan Hayward as March's shrewish fiancee, a thankless role that she enlivens with a double dose of venom. Fast-paced and frothy, this film would fit snugly in the oeuvre of either Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges (who was an uncredited producer). Like so many mainstream films about witches and the men they love, the ending frustrates, but this film is otherwise delicious.

"Hang him on a hook and let me play with him!"
The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch, written, directed, produced, scored, costumed, designed, and edited by Anna Biller, is one of the most singularly weird witch movies ever made, drawing as deeply on Italian thrillers and gialli of the '70s as it does on swoony romance paperbacks, tarot cards, and Renaissance Faire culture. Samantha Robinson, in a star-making performance, plays Elaine, a witch so bent on amorous fulfillment that she overdoes it every time, leaving a trail of dead would-be Romeos in her wake. A psychedelic color swirl of reds, pinks, purples, greens, and yellows, nonchalant nudity, and a poker-faced sense of humor elevate the occasionally clunky dialogue, though that clunkiness may very well be part of the point. Elaine is so deeply ensorceled by millennia's worth of misogynistic notions of love and romance that the magic she performs on men to force them into a performance of that love turns in on itself and is reborn as the same kind of violence patriarchy enacts on women; if she speaks in women's magazine platitudes, it's no wonder. You will be singing "Love Is a Magickal Thing" for weeks afterwards.

"Max likes your yabbos. In fact, he loves them."
Miranda (1948)
This sweet, subtly sexually transgressive British comedy follows the adventures of a mermaid, played by the exquisite Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins, The Court Jester), who persuades a vacationing, and decidedly married, doctor (Griffith Jones) to take her to London with him to see the sights. She's always wanted to attend the opera at Covent Garden, you see. Johns's mermaid is irresistible to men - including a very young David Tomlinson sans moustache - and soon has a string of straying beaux, happy to overlook her diet of raw fish and her total lack of commitment, but the lovely thing is that, for once, the mermaid isn't a siren luring men to their doom. She just likes everybody and likes to have a good time. She treats all her conquests with the same cool and generous lust - and the ending is not one you're going to see in a Hollywood film! The inimitable and brilliant Margaret Rutherford plays an eccentric registered nurse.

"You know I always wanted a child. And now I think I'll have one. On toast!"
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy's folk-song-laden horror film has acquired a carapace of spoofs and spoofs of spoofs, but it remains a stubbornly unique contribution to the genre, remake be damned. A sternly religious policeman (Edward Woodward) flies out to a remote Hebridean island where a child has been reported missing and finds himself in a hotbed of pagan ritual, led by Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in a no-holds-barred, go-for-broke performance. A collection of kooks, from Diane Cilento to Lindsay Kemp, round out the cast, but despite the hijinks, a mixture of Summer of Love sex, nude Waldorf School-style games, and Hieronymous Boschesque processions, The Wicker Man ceases to be a fish-out-of-water comedy blended with an Ealing Studios satire in the final scene, all the more haunting for being such a hairpin turn in tone.

"Booooooooooooooooooooooooooook!"

Saturday, June 16, 2018

5 Essential Italian and Italian-American Documentaries

For the 250th (!!!) Unbearable Bookishness of Blogging post, I recommend five fantastic Italian and Italian-American documentaries, uniting two of my great passions in my life, my ethnic heritage and a film genre that rarely gets the support it deserves.

Frank Serpico (2017)
Italian-Americans are dogged by the stereotype of the mafioso, but few in our community offer as resounding a refutation of that stereotype as Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed corruption in the NYPD and became a cultural icon even before the hit 1973 film about his life starring Al Pacino. Directed by Antonino D'Ambrosio, this film does a superb job of narrating Serpico's undercover work, his fight against corruption, and the shooting that nearly killed him, but it's the story of the aftermath that makes this film so compelling. Was the shooting an accident or was it a frame-up? Was the delay in getting help to a wounded cop the result of a mistake or a closing-up of the ranks? Without sugarcoating Serpico's rather prickly personality, the masterful editing by Karim Lopez makes a cogent case for his ongoing sense of paranoia and persecution, delicately peeling away the calcified layers of conspiracy theories, lies, and self-serving glorifications that have obscured the truth.

Italianamerican (1974)
Martin Scorsese is a towering figure in the international cinema world, but in this film he's a young guy with a camera spending a Sunday at home with his parents. Produced after the breakout success of his Mean Streets, this documentary could almost be an average Italian-American son's home movies, if it weren't so beautifully constructed. Catherine and Charles Scorsese, already accustomed to playing small roles in their son's fictional films, talk about their experiences as Italian immigrants, the wine-making and religious processions and meatball recipes they brought to America, and the hardships, prejudice, and strange name changes that America gave them in return. This film has become increasingly precious as the Italian diaspora in America has assimilated or transformed into the 'brain drain' of today. It's a testament to the vibrant, rich - and delicious! - nature of Italian-American culture. Catherine Scorsese's meatball recipe is included in the credits!

Love Meetings - Comizi d'amore (1964)
Although Pier Paolo Pasolini is far better known for his Marxist-Catholic film, The Gospel According to Matthew, or his brutal post-neorealist film, Mamma Roma, my very favorite of all of his films is this documentary. In it, Pasolini travels around Italy and asks the people on the street what they think about sex, love, homosexuality, divorce, reproduction, and prostitution. Occasionally he checks in with novelist Alberto Moravia, psychologist Cesare Musatti and (ex-fascist) poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, representing the intellectuals of the time; though at first these interviews seem bizarrely condescending, Pasolini subtly undermines notions of cultural and social authority by contrasting these two sober, articulate men with the anarchic, irreverent variety of the ordinary people on camera. Pasolini is not interested in neutrality, but he resists the polemicism that must have been so tempting when dealing with interviewees who believe that the stork brings babies, that divorce is evil and will cause the destruction of the state, or that brothels are necessary for men to remain healthy enough to work. Neither cruel nor patronizing, the film combines a bracing political realism and a lyrical quality rare in contemporary documentary filmmaking. 

Tosca's Kiss - Il bacio di Tosca (1985)
One would be forgiven for assuming that Daniel Schmid's lovely homage to opera was nothing more than a heartwarming little tour for grannies and aging music critics, but instead this visit to the nursing home Giuseppe Verdi founded in 1896 for retired opera singers is a treat that is both a love letter to the art form, but also a dry-eyed examination of what it means to devote one's life to music when it means sacrificing everything else. The star of the film is undoubtedly Sara Scuderi, a diva who sang Tosca with Beniamino Gigli at La Scala, but the denizens of the nursing home are a colorful bunch, throwing open old costume trunks to model their favorite roles and playing out scenes from Rigoletto in the hallway. Ultimately quite bittersweet, Tosca's Kiss is essential for opera fans, but has much to say to someone quite ignorant of its appeal: Scuderi and her compatriots are facing death with dignity and joy mixed with sadness through the medium that devoured their lives. There is stunningly little sentimentality in their outlook on what's left of their lives and the film declines to make up the deficit.

Women of the Resistance - La donna nella Resistenza (1965)
Available as a special feature with the Criterion release of The Night Porter, this film was one of the documentaries that the young Liliana Cavani directed at RAI for television broadcast. It is a precious document, for it collects the testimony of Italian women who participated in the resistance movement against the Italian fascist and Nazi occupational forces. Their contributions were rarely publicly acknowledged, although, as we discover through this film, they were not only helpmates, but protagonists in the struggle, fighting alongside the celebrated heroes, being tortured alongside them, sent to concentration camps with them, and in some cases, dying with them. Cavani's direction is scrupulously hands-off. The camera lets the women entrust their testimonies to the camera, with little ornamentation or emotional manipulation. Simple narration explains some of the shocking footage of atrocities, but otherwise acts merely as an echoing, less important voice in the chorus. Though not at all easy to watch, this obscure little film refuses to reify heroism: these women pay for every act of compassion, courage, and struggle, and pay dearly, for the rest of their lives.