Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 classic by director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as a pair of misfits who become entangled with each other in a complicated adventure involving (among other things) a tame leopard, a rambunctious terrier, a priceless dinosaur bone, several cases of mistaken identity, and a million dollars.  Despite good reviews and popularity with audiences in more sophisticated urban markets, it was a major box office flop upon its first release, leading to both its director and its female star being released from their contracts with RKO Pictures, the studio that produced it- indeed, Hepburn, who had headlined a string of financially disappointing movies, was labeled “box office poison” following this failure, and had to return to the Broadway stage in order to restore her reputation and her clout.  Nevertheless, a generation later, the film was rediscovered through the new medium of television, and has subsequently taken its place as one of the greats, a definitive example of the “screwball comedy” sub-genre, one of the finest vehicles to feature either of its iconic stars, and an influential piece of filmmaking that has inspired countless imitations and homages over the years.

The plot, based on a short story by Hagar Wilde (who also co-authored the screenplay with Dudley Nichols), focuses on one David Huxley, a paleontologist who, on the eve of his wedding to no-nonsense colleague, Miss Swallow, is sent to secure a million dollar donation to the Manhattan museum for which they both work.   It seems an open-and-shut deal- all that is required is a meeting with the donor’s attorney, upon whose approval the money will be bestowed; but David’s appointments with the lawyer are repeatedly interrupted by Susan Vance, a dizzy young society woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes- and whose precocious antics involve him in enough confusion and mishap to blow his chances at obtaining the money.  As it happens, though, Susan turns out to be the niece of the museum’s would-be benefactor- a wealthy widow named Mrs. Random- and she promises David (with whom she has become smitten) she will persuade her aunt to donate to the museum anyway.  She enlists his help, against his will and his better judgment, to accompany him to her aunt’s country estate in order to deliver a pet leopard (named Baby) that has been sent as a gift from her big-game-hunter-brother; once they arrive, more confusion erupts, starting with Susan’s false introduction of David as a mentally unstable friend of her brother’s, and complications continue to arise- including the theft of David’s precious brontosaurus clavicle by Mrs. Random’s dog, a mix-up between Baby and an escaped (and mean-tempered) leopard from a traveling circus, and the interference of a crotchety local constable.  Through it all, David struggles to resolve the situation and make it back to the city in time for his wedding, but it becomes clear that Susan is doing everything she can to delay him and keep him by her side.

A description of the plot, in print, seems ridiculously far-fetched and convoluted; that, however, is what gives Bringing Up Baby its zany appeal on film.  The entire movie is a whirlwind of unlikely circumstances and coincidental relationships, bound together by a premise that is as flimsy as one of the diaphanous costumes that Hepburn sports onscreen.  This is the nature of the screwball comedy; we take for granted that the scenario will be ridiculous, and as long as it yields the kind of laughs we expect, we don’t mind suspending our disbelief in the absurdity of its situations.  As scenarios go, that of Bringing Up Baby is more ridiculous than most- in fact it borders on the surreal, but we accept it without batting an eye, because it also delivers more laughs than almost any other film of its era- or any other, for that matter.  It certainly helps that director Hawks drives the proceedings at a breakneck pace, scarcely giving us time to think about the credibility gaps or even to register the fast-and-furious jokes until they have already passed us by.

Much of the hilarity, however, arises from the chemistry of the two stars, perfectly matched and clearly relishing their roles; their comic banter arises so effortlessly as to belie the artificiality of the dialogue- indeed, the two performers ad-libbed some of the film’s best jokes- and they so completely inhabit their roles as to make us easily forget the many other personas they adopted on the screen over their long individual careers.  Grant in particular made a breakthrough here; his previous career had been mostly comprised of more-or-less dramatic (and none-too-weighty) leading man roles, and though he had previously appeared in The Awful Truth– another screwball classic in which he demonstrated his particular flair for comedy- nothing had prepared audiences for his work here.  Playing gleefully against type, the impossibly handsome Grant pulls off the role of the timid, nervous and befuddled bookworm without ever letting us doubt his awkward ineptitude; at the same time, he rattles off his barbed dialogue with the timing and wit of a master, making it clear that he is up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the formidable Hepburn.

As for The Great Kate, it’s hard to see her performance here and understand why she should be deemed a liability by studio executives; her sharp, patrician bearing is brilliantly undercut with a little-girlish softness that makes her instantly lovable no matter how maddeningly daffy she gets.  Careening from haughty and indignant to doe-eyed and tender and back again through all stops in between, her portrayal of Susan drives the film and gives it a heart; and even when her behavior is at its most inane, her glittering intelligence always shines through, giving this upper-crust oddball an edge that leaves no doubt of her absolute control over the entire madcap situation.  She never overwhelms her co-star, however; the two make a magnificent team, one that is immediately recognizable as perfect for each other (a conceit on which, of course, the entire movie depends), and the obvious real-life affection between them translates into an onscreen chemistry that has rarely been matched and makes this pairing one of the most iconic co-starring turns in cinematic memory.

Perfect as they may seem in their roles, both of the stars initially had trouble with the project.  Grant feared being unable to project the necessary intellectual quality of a career scientist, and was only able to relax into the the character when director Hawks told him to base his performance on the persona of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd; Hepburn was stymied by the over-the-top zaniness of Susan, and struggled with finding the right approach until Hawks asked veteran character actor Walter Catlett, who was playing a minor role, to coach her in the art of playing outrageous comedy- he taught her the effectiveness of underplaying and naturalistic delivery (as opposed to the more deliberately comedic style she was attempting), and she was so grateful for the help that she insisted his part- the town constable with whom she tangles in the film’s climactic scene- be expanded to give her a chance to work with him more extensively.  Their initial reticence allayed, both the film’s stars settled into the rhythm of their characters and created the sparkling joint accomplishment that makes Bringing Up Baby so delightful to this day.  Their enjoyment of each other is clear to see, and infectious; they had so much fun working together on this film that shooting went over schedule (and over budget) due to their difficulty in completing their scenes without laughing.  Though doubtless this was a thorn in the side of RKO executives who were already anxious over the project, the fun translates to the screen.

Apart from the obvious joys of Hepburn and Grant’s interplay and their attractiveness both individually and as a couple, there is a more subtle aspect to their dynamic that lends a unique flavor to the goofball romance at the center of Bringing Up Baby.  Grant, though decidedly masculine in his energy and personality, plays the passive, pursued role in this relationship, while Hepburn is clearly the active aggressor.  It seems a minor twist, but by reversing the traditional gender roles of courtship in such a way, Baby sets itself apart from most of the romantic comedies that came before it.  It would be wrong to credit the film for being the first work of fiction to do this- after all, Shakespeare wrote several plays in which this inversion was explored- but Hollywood has always been known for reinforcing stereotypes, and by swapping these accepted standards of masculine and feminine behavior Bringing Up Baby became a milestone in the depiction of gender identity on the big screen.

This in itself is enough to have given the movie a special significance for GLBT audiences; but there is another point of interest here for cinema historians which also gives the movie its “gay appeal.”  In one memorable scene, Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly and feminine house robe (having had his clothes stolen by Hepburn whilst showering), is forced to meet the returning aunt- a formidable dowager- at her own front door.  The understandably flustered woman, confused by the presence of a strange man in her house, presses him impatiently with questions, and most adamantly (for some reason, though it seems the least alarming aspect of the situation) she wants to know why he is wearing those clothes; the badgered Grant, already pushed to the limit of his patience by Hepburn’s continued hijacking of his formerly sedate life, leaps in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!”  This line, ad-libbed by Grant on the set, may be the very first instance in mainstream fiction that the word “gay” was used to denote homosexuality, though within the underground gay community it had been used as a code word since at least the 1920s.  It may not have been intentional (though frankly, it’s unlikely that a group of Hollywood sophisticates such as these would be unaware of the double meaning- particularly Grant, whose famous long-term relationship with “roommate” Randolph Scott is still the subject of much debate among his many fans), but whether it was or it wasn’t, this bold double-entendre provides one of the biggest laughs in the film, and is yet another reason why Bringing Up Baby has been accorded landmark status.

Historical footnotes aside, there are plenty of reasons to watch this little gem of late-Depression escapism today.  Not only are Hepburn and Grant a rare treat to watch, they are supported by a fine cast of character players that bring to life the assortment of other lunatics surrounding the film’s dotty protagonists.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Catlett, whose comically cagey turn as the rural lawman provides Hepburn with a magnificent foil late in the film, there’s Charlie Ruggles (as a mild-mannered and easily flustered hunter who turns up as a guest to Mrs. Random’s estate), Barry Fitzgerald (as a heavy-drinking Irish gardener, a bit of now-inappropriate ethnic profiling that nevertheless seems innocent of malice and manages to still be funny today), perennial screen waiter Fritz Feld (here cast as a smugly pompous psychiatrist whose path keeps crossing with Hepburn’s, adding to the already-convoluted tangle of misunderstandings), and the redoubtable May Robson (as the somewhat battle-axish Mrs. Random).

More vital than any of these notables, however, are the non-human members of the supporting cast, and they too deserve mention.  Nissa, the leopard, a veteran of numerous B-movie jungle adventures, plays the dual role of both Baby and the dangerous circus escapee; the other four-legged star, in the role of the mischievous bone-thief, George, was Skippy, a terrier whose fame as “Asta” in the popular Thin Man movies made him nearly as big a draw as the human headliners, and his appearance here is highly memorable, exhibiting the exuberant canine personality that made him a natural and ensured his place as one of the immortal screen animals.

On top of the performances, Bringing Up Baby offers a fine look at late-thirties fashion and design through its sets (a sumptuous blend of Art Deco and neo-classical influences alongside the elegantly rustic charms of the Random estate, overseen by the legendary Art Director, Van Nest Polglase) and its costumes (most particularly the various range of outfits worn by Hepburn, with which designer Howard Greer manages to add some sly satirical commentary on the frivolity of fashion into the movie’s comedic recipe).  In addition, tech aficionados may find some interest in the early special effects- quite sophisticated for the time- with which the actors are sometimes made to appear with the leopard in close proximity (especially Grant, who wouldn’t go near the creature- though the fearless Hepburn directly interacted with it and can even be seen petting it in a few scenes); in several of the split screen sequences, a moving center line was required, creating a complex challenge for the technicians of the day.  They rose to it admirably; the seams are virtually invisible to all but the most attentive observers.

Bringing Up Baby, it may be clear by now, is a seminal movie for me; I have fond memories of watching it on TV with my parents, all of us laughing out loud together, and through the years I have seen it countless times- I can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, and yet a viewing will still have me giggling uncontrollably throughout, as well as discovering nuances and subtleties that I had never noticed before.  No doubt there are many others out there with a similar relationship to this film; it was, after all, one of the first movies selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and it has been consistently named on lists of the 100 best or funniest movies of all time.  For most, it is the movie that comes immediately to mind when the term “screwball comedy” is mentioned, and for good reason- it’s about as screwball a comedy as you can get without veering into the realm of the Looney Tunes.  For those who have yet to discover its sublime wackiness, I will give away no more than I already have; and for those who feel their modern tastes are too sophisticated for a 75-year-old comedy to provide much amusement, I can only challenge anyone to sit through Bringing Up Baby without cracking at least a smile.  After all, it has been called more than once a movie ahead of its time- which may, better than anything, explain why a film that temporarily sank the careers of both its director and its leading lady (though not, tellingly, that of the resilient Cary Grant) went on to become one of their most enduring and beloved creations.

Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

Bronson (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bronson, the 2008 biopic about England’s most notorious prison inmate, Michael Peterson (who changed his name to Charles Bronson during his brief career as a boxer), whose reputation for violence and trouble-making has led to his having spent the majority of his adult life behind bars- and most of that in solitary confinement.  Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy in the title role, the film takes Peterson’s real-life story and presents it in a highly stylized, theatrical manner, focusing on fictionalized vignettes and incorporating some real-life footage to depict some of the most infamous incidents from his long history.  Rather than a straightforward biography, the movie is more a meditation on the enigmatic nature that causes such antisocial behavior, ultimately leaving its subject’s motivations a mystery and offering no concrete explanation for the impulse towards violence.

Bronson frames its story with a narrative conceit in which Peterson presents his own story, to an unseen but appreciative audience, on a bare stage; in various stages of theatrical make-up, and with a considerable amount of flourish, he gleefully relates his life story, beginning with his childhood as the son of typical middle-class parents in the London suburb of Luton.  Intercutting portrayals of real events with his “performance” in the theater, the film proceeds to relate the general outline of his life.  We see his early marriage to a co-worker who witnesses his first crime (the theft of money from a cash drawer in their shop), his subsequent arrest and incarceration for the armed robbery of a post office, and the continual extension of his 7-year sentence due to his repeated assaults on his guards and fellow inmates.  When frequent transfers to different facilities throughout the penal system fail to curb his violent tendencies, he is declared insane and moved to a mental institution, where despite heavy sedation he nevertheless attempts to murder another patient.  Further transfers lead to further incidents, so he is declared sane and set free.  His return to the outside world is short-lived, however.  After a short career as a fighter in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing (for which, at the suggestion of his promoter, he adopts his new name), a jewelry store robbery lands him back in prison after only 69 days, where he promptly resumes his  escalating cycle of violence, despite showing an interest- and some talent- in art, leading to an ongoing campaign of riots, beatings, and  hostage-taking that continues not only up to the making of the film, but to this day.

The challenge for a filmmaker trying to tell this story is to find a way to avoid making it seem repetitive; Peterson’s life is one brutal fight after another, almost all of which happen in prison cells.  In the screenplay for Bronson, co-written by director Refn with Brock Norman Brock, an elegant solution is found with the bold and decidedly stylized narrative device in which the film’s subject presents his own vision of his life in the “theater of the mind.”  Besides providing a unique means of breaking up the action and offering pithy commentary, this technique creates an almost Brechtian detachment in which, constantly alienated from the story by the obvious artificiality of this conceit, we are encouraged to examine Peterson’s tale with our intellect instead of our emotions; yet, at the same time, by allowing the darkly charismatic criminal to speak for himself, Refn and Brock also make it possible for us to make a connection with him that would be impossible in a more standard approach to his tale.  He is permitted to be polished and eloquent in the spotlight of his fantasy, a stark contrast to the brutish, inarticulate beast we see in the scenes of his real life, and the self-satisfied irony of his performance persona confronts us with a defiantly mocking challenge to our attempts to find reason or logic behind his ferocious nature.  In short, the interstitial theatrics convert the proceedings from a straightforward- if stylish- biographical drama to a somewhat surreal cinematic exploration of the violent mind and its disquieting opposition to the standards of civilized normalcy we take for granted.

Despite this artistic spin, Bronson still struggles with the issue of redundancy; the film’s more concrete depiction of events returns, by necessity, to scenes of its anti-hero beating his handlers to a pulp, making it feel like something of a one-note symphony.  Director Refn, however, a Danish-born wunderkind whose later film, Drive, has firmly established him as an auteur on the rise, manages to find a number of creative stylistic tweaks which prevents the movie from seeming like it is stuck in a loop.  Even when we are not within the clearly marked boundaries of the theatrical framing device, Refn maintains a dreamlike sensibility that keeps us unsure of where we stand in the continuum of reality and illusion; he creates a visually arresting and mentally stimulating atmosphere through his use of bold primary colors, odd lenses and camera angles, and an absurdist perspective in his approach to the mundane aspects of the institutionalized settings.  He varies the environment as much as possible, choosing a number of distinctively different backdrops for Peterson’s myriad brawls and acts of terror (particularly memorable is the re-purposed ballroom that serves as a Fellini-esque purgatory for the scenes in the mental institution) and utilizing a surprisingly diverse assortment of jail cells and common rooms- which has the added effect of underscoring just how many times responsibility for “England’s most violent prisoner” is passed from one facility to another.  Most importantly- and more to Refn’s purpose- the ever-changing backdrops and the hallucinatory sense of heightened reality yield a disorientation that keeps us from anchoring ourselves as we experience Peterson’s journey and, ultimately, reminds us that everything we see here is filtered through the skewed perspective of his mind.

In the center, standing in for the larger-than-life figure himself, is Tom Hardy, making a substantial breakthrough in a career which has since led him to participation in blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.  Given his powerful, commanding performance, it’s no surprise that he has become one of the industry’s most promising stars; his vision of Peterson- with whom he met in person before filming began- is an impressive creation, full of raw, animalistic power (his massive, rock-solid physique contributes greatly in this department) and yet with the spark of considerable native intelligence that makes it impossible to explain away his brutal tendencies as the product of ignorance.  This is a man who knows exactly what he is doing- his violence is a conscious choice, even a calling, and Hardy makes it clear how much pride he takes in it.  What makes his portrayal most effective, perhaps, and in precise tune with Refn’s approach, is the humor he brings to it; ironic, dark and unsettling humor, but effective in helping us into the mind of this flamboyant character.  We may not understand what we find there, but in Hardy’s performance at least, we are captivated by it.  The rest of the performances- small roles, for the most part, reflecting the peripheral nature of others in Peterson’s personal universe- are effective as well, though no one gets much opportunity to shine, save for Matt King as the convict’s fey and seedy former-prison-acquaintance-turned-boxing-promoter and Juliet Oldfield as the young call girl with whom he has a dalliance during his brief taste of freedom.  It’s not meant to be an ensemble piece, however; Bronson is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show for Hardy, who certainly proves himself up to the challenge.

With such a strong performance to recommend it, showcased in a stylish and visually exciting vehicle by its exceptionally talented director, Bronson succeeds in providing an engaging look at its notorious subject, albeit a highly fictionalized one- numerous facts are significantly altered and others are omitted or made up entirely to suit the purpose of Refn’s vision, which is more along the lines of an expressionist horror film.  The director casts his real-life subject as a sort of monster, though the story is seen from his point of view; Peterson is depicted as a force of chaos, a willful representative of the uncontrollable nature that lurks behind our civilized veneer, and much in the way that Godzilla represented the nuclear demons that lurked in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, so does this destructive beast stem from our own uneasiness about the wild, untamed impulses surging beneath the surface of our blandly dehumanized society.  Though we struggle to understand the deeper motivations for Peterson’s deranged behavior, he himself offers the simple explanation that he wants to be famous; and in a world where fame and celebrity are the only way to rise above the dull existence of the common throng, it is discomfortingly reasonable to assume that this may, in fact, be the truth.  If he is a monster, he is a monster we have created, and the irony which permeates Hardy’s performance and the film itself aptly underlines this.

Thought-provoking and compelling though this thematic perspective may be, Bronson never really shakes us up in the way other films with a similar take on society have done.  Refn crafts his movie carefully, giving it a distinctive flavor of its own while evoking the memory of such iconic works as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but despite- or perhaps because of- the clear calculation of his vision, in the end the film feels more like an exercise in style than an expression of truth.  Still, that style has considerable appeal, and Bronson, while it may not be gripping, is never boring to watch.  This in itself would earn the film a recommendation, but when Hardy’s deeply committed tour-de-force performance is added into the mix, it’s an irresistible combination.  It may not be a great film, but it offers an exciting early glimpse at the prodigious talent of its two driving forces; both Refn and Hardy are still relatively new in the game, but they seem poised on the brink of long and significant careers, and based on the potential they reveal here, it’s easy to see why.

It should be mentioned that Bronson features a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity, all of it provided by Tom Hardy, thanks to the title character’s penchant for stripping down and covering his body with “war paint” before a brawl.  Depending on your viewpoint regarding such content- and your feelings about Mr. Hardy- this could provide further incentive to schedule a viewing, ASAP.

Women in Revolt (1971)

Today’s cinema adventure: Women in Revolt, the 1971 Andy Warhol-produced film satirizing the Women’s Liberation Movement and starring a trio of transgendered “superstars.” Notably, it was the last film to be produced by Warhol on which he actually stood behind the camera, though it was directed by longtime associate Paul Morrissey; it enjoyed more attention and mainstream notoriety than many of the infamous artist’s earlier films, largely on the basis of its controversial approach to the subject matter, drawing the wrath of feminists who felt it was a slap in the face to have their cause savagely lampooned and to be represented onscreen by “female impersonators” instead of biological women.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three women who become involved in the Women’s Lib movement for their own reasons: Jackie is a militant intellectual schoolteacher who believes men are inferior to women and should be relegated to their naturally subservient place in society; her friend Holly is a model who hates being treated as a sex object, although she herself has a ravenous libido; and Candy is a society heiress who longs to break free of the stiflingly traditional role she is expected by her family to play, wishing instead to build a career for herself as a glamorous movie star. When Jackie and Holly decide to form their own protest group- called Politically Involved Girls, or “P.I.G.” for short- they hit upon the idea of enlisting Candy, hoping to capitalize on her high-profile society position to generate publicity for their cause, and more importantly, to gain access to the financial support of her family and the wealthy circle in which they move. A series of misadventures follows in which each of the three activists are revealed to be more motivated by self-interest than by real passion for their cause. Jackie, despite being a self-proclaimed lesbian, spends the organization’s money on a bodybuilding male hustler and becomes the unwed mother of his baby; Holly succumbs to her penchant for drinking and sex, becoming a derelict living in the street; and Candy abandons her friends, her family, and the movement to realize her dream of stardom.

The scenario for Women in Revolt– it would be inaccurate to call it a script- is not so much a storyline as it is an excuse for extended on-camera improvisation and trashy bad behavior. This, of course, is the real purpose here, far more than any deliberate social or political commentary. Still, it’s easy to see why genuine feminists would find Morrissey’s movie insulting and offensive; their arguments are put into the mouths of enfants terribles whose grotesquely exaggerated behavior and plainly self-absorbed motives render them meaningless and laughable. Given Morrissey’s right-wing political bent, it’s possible, if not probable, that this was at least part of his intention here; but in truth, the whole affair is so patently ridiculous that it is impossible to take seriously. The political satire is merely a vehicle in which the film’s three stars can indulge in their individual excesses, gleefully breaking taboos and acting out with histrionic abandon. Much of the dialogue is devoted to the kind of verbal bitch-slapping that has fueled drag shows for decades, and for the most part, whoever shares the screen with each of the three central characters is merely there to provide a foil- and the occasional straight line- for their onslaught of caustic camp.

Though this formula, admittedly, provides numerous amusing moments throughout the film, it is also the main downfall of Women in Revolt. The pervading atmosphere of uncontrolled, undisciplined expression hardly makes for concise, coherent filmmaking; the improvisational approach works for fleeting moments, but those are islands in a sea of self-indulgent chatter- often spoken simultaneously, in a seeming battle for dominance, rendering much of its content incomprehensible and more than a little grating. This, of course, is inherent in improv, which is why it is most effective when used as a basis for developing more polished material or edited into a cohesive form by a savvy director; it also helps when the performers have been given clear guidance and, ideally, have received some formal training. In the absence of these elements, the end result usually ends up looking and feeling like a free-for-all, reminiscent of rambunctious children play-acting in a schoolyard game of make believe- which can be effective in short doses, but is perhaps not the best way to sustain the length of an entire feature film. It creates, in fact, the sense that we are watching a movie made by amateurs, and such is the case here; the low budget production values, the clumsy lighting, the choppy editing, and the generally insipid nature of most of the dramatic conceits all contribute to this feeling. As a result, instead of being provocative or outrageous, the proceedings quickly become simply tiresome, with a juvenile sensibility that makes the archness of the film’s tone come off more like shallow snarkiness. In addition, despite a considerable amount of gratuitous nudity- mostly male- and sexual content, the handling of these scenes strips them of eroticism; indeed, sex as portrayed here is a repugnant, degrading act, devoid of charm or subtlety, and thoroughly shocking for reasons that have nothing to do with morality or social acceptability. Like everything else in the world as seen by Warhol, Morrissey and company, it’s just another boring convention to be disdained and ridiculed.

These criticisms, valid though they may be, might be immaterial if one considers that film for Warhol- originally, anyway- was just another decorative medium, a way to produce ever-changing pop art images to be projected on a wall at a party, perhaps- a means to provide atmosphere in the background of a real-life “happening.” The rules of good cinema do not apply when a film is more of a statement in itself than a legitimate exploration of the art form. However, by the time of Women in Revolt, the enigmatic Warhol had stepped away from participation in his film productions, handing over the reigns to Morrissey, who had taken things in a more (or, arguably, less) ambitious direction, focusing on a narrative-driven, mainstream approach. It would be a mistake to classify these later Warhol movies as art for art’s sake, as they clearly aspire towards providing a more medium-specific experience; therefore, it seems fair to say that by any reasonable cinematic standards, Women in Revolt is a terrible film. One might argue that the film eschews traditionally accepted style and polish as a rejection of conventional cultural values, but pretensions of artistic purpose are no excuse for sloppy movie-making, and even if one generously classifies Morrissey’s style as cinema verité, it’s hard to think of a less professional, more careless example of cinematic hack-work. What makes this film so appallingly bad is not its nasty attitude or its banality, but the fact that it is, in the end, a poorly executed, badly assembled mess- and despite the fact that Warhol himself operated the camera for several botched scenes (at the insistence of star Jackie Curtis, who refused to perform without his participation), the fault for this lies solely at the feet of its director. Morrissey’s apparent lack of skill in the creation of his product may have been intentional, a deliberate effort to make a statement about the subjectivity of artistic values or to prove the point that arbitrary notions of bad or good are irrelevant to an audience simply seeking to be distracted; but his work here smacks of fraud, the attempts of a would-be artist to discount the importance of techniques he hasn’t the patience or understanding to master. Whereas Warhol’s genius was in simply setting up the camera and letting it capture what it would, the same approach is Morrissey’s crutch. In other words, Women in Revolt seems the work of a lazy director who wants glory without having to work too hard.

Despite this harsh assessment of Morrissey and his work, Women in Revolt is not devoid of value. For better or for worse, in fact, it is probably a more significant film today than it was when it was originally released, due largely to the window it provides into the miliieu of the Warhol factory and- more importantly- the all-too-rare opportunity it gives us to see the work of its three leading players: Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them were members of Warhol’s famous coterie at the “Factory,” known for their work in previous of his films, and as such were popular- and notorious- fixtures of New York’s avant-garde arts scene. Curtis, unlike his two co-stars, was a female impersonator, who appeared both as a man and a woman in his work, and was successful independently of his projects with Warhol; he was an actor and playwright whose edgy, campy plays were a fixture of New York’s experimental theatre scene, as well as a singer and poet whose work garnered considerable praise and attention from critics of the era. His screen persona- abrasive, outspoken, sarcastic, and sporting a frizzy red wig with glittery make-up- provides many of the best one-liners in Women in Revolt, and whenever he is on the screen he is in absolute command. This is not always to the benefit of the film; many of the shrillest and most confused scenes are the result of Curtis’ aggressive improvisation, in which other performers are drowned out and cut off at every turn in favor of his unscripted outbursts. Nevertheless, it’s a smart performance, giving a glimpse at the potential for brilliance which might have been more fully realized with a little rehearsal and direction. Likewise, Candy Darling, a true transgendered performer, who had worked extensively with Curtis in his plays as well as in previous Warhol outings, reveals the ethereal, double-edged sincerity that allows her, somehow, to rise relatively unscathed above the messy chaos of Women in Revolt; she contrasts Curtis’ brash bullying with her own form of dominance, the cool superiority of a sophisticated and intelligent woman with nothing to prove. She is elegant and truly beautiful, and Women in Revolt is at its best- and most watchable- when she is onscreen, working her magic with the curious blend of earnestness and irony that made her one of the most charismatic of the “superstars.” Rounding out the trio is Woodlawn, also a true transgender, whose fiery Puerto Rican energy bursts from the screen, representing the raw energy of the body (as opposed to that of the mind and spirit, personified by Curtis and Darling, respectively) as she gropes and gyrates her way through the film. Truly sinking her teeth into her role as a nymphomaniac who hates men, she gives a manic, conflicted performance which displays a remarkable gift for comedy and hints- as does the work of her co-stars- at a considerable talent, making us wish all the more for a surer hand behind the camera. The fact that all three of these stars are so obviously gifted is yet another indictment against Morrissey’s infuriating mediocrity as a director; their work continually gives us glimmers of what Women in Revolt might have been. Still, they provide plenty of reasons to sit through the movie- though it requires considerable patience and might be best accomplished in short installments- and even manage to create several moments which could be called classic. Besides these three heavyweights, the film offers brief appearances by other counter-cultural icons of the era, including Penny Arcade and Betty Blue, and Brigid Berlin in a wordless cameo as a decidedly butch bar owner.

The fact that Women in Revolt is an atrocious movie, oddly enough, does not alter the fact that it is a classic, of sorts. Clearly, there are many stalwart supporters of Warhol and his crew that would defend the film staunchly and embrace its many flaws proudly, claiming them as victories in a cultural war and viewing them as medals of honor. There is certainly a weird power to this curiosity of its time, and despite its lack of real ambition it manages to offer up some interesting observations about the power struggle between the sexes- particularly through its reversal of roles in which liberated women treat their men with the same disrespect and contempt they deplore when they are the recipients, and the use of sex as both a bargaining tool and a means of gaining power. It can be argued that the movie was a success in terms of what it set out to accomplish. Warhol neither knew nor cared about the aesthetics of film; he wanted only to present his branded material for the sake of building his cult-of-personality-based empire, and notions of good or bad were of little interest to him. With this in mind, Women in Revolt is exactly what he wanted it to be- a source of controversy and buzz, and another brick in the continually growing monument to his so-called genius. Indeed, given his particular, nose-thumbing stance at conventional society, it is probably preferable that it should be bad; the exaltation of the banal was a major part of what he was all about, after all. Therefore, I find myself in the curious position (which Warhol would have loved) of recommending a movie that I found to be abysmal. I would stress, however, that my endorsement is based not on any sort of respect for the artists behind the scenes, but on my admiration for the ones on the screen. It is beyond tragic that these three were given the treatment they were- exploited by Warhol for their “freak” appeal, they were given just enough cultivation to reveal the brilliance of their underlying talent, then abandoned because the impresario had lost interest. Perhaps the real reason for his fickleness can be surmised by viewing Women in Revolt; it is the talent of Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn that redeems the experience, and without them it would truly be unwatchable.  Could it be that Warhol feared they might outshine him on their own merits, and take away some of the credit for their own success? It’s a question, sadly, that must be asked, but can never be answered. Darling would pass away of cancer within two years of the film’s release, and Curtis would die of a heroin overdose a decade later; Woodlawn returned to her native Puerto Rico and worked as a busboy until, years later, a resurgence of interest in her former persona allowed her to return to the limelight. Women in Revolt, wretched as it is, is a snapshot of a moment in time, when all three were poised on the brink of success, and maybe, just maybe, could have broken through the barriers of social prejudice to achieve mainstream success. It was not to be, but they paved the way for future generations who continue the struggle for transgender acceptance. That in itself makes this movie worthy of respect- not for the posers behind the camera, but for the real people in front of it.

BearCity (2010)

Today’s cinema adventure: BearCity, a 2010 romantic comedy about a young man whose secret attraction for big, hairy, masculine men leads him into the insular gay subculture of “bears.” Directed by Douglas Langway, and co-written by Langway and Lawrence Ferber, it attempts to graft the familiar Hollywood-style romance formula onto an exploration of the tight-knit bear community, exposing and poking fun at stereotypes along the way, in order to both appeal to a largely underrepresented sector of the population and to present a sort of primer for those unfamiliar with this rarified scene. Though it has met with a somewhat mixed response from critics and some members of the gay community, it has been sufficiently popular and successful to warrant a sequel, BearCity 2: The Proposal, which is currently being screened at GLBT film festivals across the U.S. and Canada.

Taking its inspiration from the popular TV and movie series, Sex and the City, Langway’s fluffy tale of love and lust in New York centers on Tyler, a 21-year-old “twink” (for those unfamiliar with the term, look it up on Urban Dictionary or ask a gay friend) and aspiring actor who is open and comfortable about his sexuality- but less so about his preferred taste in men. Drawn to older, bigger, hairier guys who don’t fit the “typical” gay mold of attractiveness, he keeps his proclivities a secret from his roommate and his friends; when a potential online hookup lures him to a nightclub for bears, he falls in with a group of hirsute friends who welcome him with open arms, and he begins the process of “coming out of the second closet.” He finds new roommates, gets a job at a bear-friendly coffee bar, and develops a new crush- on Roger, a handsome older “daddy” type who is one of the best-known and popular members of the bear community. The attraction seems to be mutual, but Roger’s sensitivity to the customs and expectations of the micro-culture that surrounds the pair repeatedly thwarts Tyler’s attempts to make a connection. Meanwhile, Tyler’s other new comrades face a variety of issues in their own love lives: his new roommates, Fred and Brent, struggle with the question of remaining monogamous or opening up their relationship to add some spice; and another couple, Michael and Carlos, are pushed apart by Michael’s decision to have weight-reduction surgery. In the midst of all the complications, romantic and otherwise, the whole gang gears up for “BearCity,” a big weekend party which brings the whole community together to celebrate in their own bearish way.

Like most ensemble “rom-coms,” BearCity has a plot tailor-made for the inclusion of one episodic misadventure after another, with which to gently spoof- and reinforce- the familiar foibles and pitfalls inherent in the quest for love. Normally, such a film’s agenda is limited to pleasing its audience with a lot of laughter, a few tears, and, usually, a couple of big “awww” moments leading up to a satisfying conclusion in which love conquers all; this would also be true of BearCity, except clearly, given the community on which it focuses, there is an additional goal. By setting the action amidst gay culture- and a subdivision of gay culture, at that- the film hopes to bridge social gaps and reveal the basic truth that the affairs of the heart, though they may take different forms on the outside, are the same for everyone, regardless of race, creed, culture, or sexuality. It’s not the first film to carry this message, not even the first to deal with that curious subspecies known as “bears;” but what is refreshing about it is that it eschews pretensions of a political or moral agenda and simply concentrates on telling its characters’ stories, devoid of higher messages. Equality is assumed, not defended, and sexual tastes- while they may be subject to lampooning- are accepted without moral judgment. As a result, the movie gets to turn its full attention to the universal concerns which its characters, like everyone else, must address in their various attempts to find- and keep- love.

Even so, BearCity also seems to be very aware that it serves as a sort of travelogue to the uninitiated viewer for whom the world of gay bears is completely unfamiliar; as a result, it takes pains to include a broad view of the community’s peculiarities- including its sexual adventurousness and promiscuity, heavy focus on alcohol and drugs, and a pervading shallowness that seems, more and more, to characterize the popular image of gay life in general. This tapestry of cultural detail provides more than just a backdrop for the proceedings, as the guys’ stories hinge on some of these issues- particularly the ones surrounding sexual mores- and their outcomes are dependent on a coming-to-terms with the particular obstacles they present. In addition, the behavioral observations to be found here have the unfortunate potential for perpetuating stereotypes- though not necessarily the old-fashioned, limp-wristed kind- which continue to create social prejudice against the gay community; despite the fact that the characters, for the most part, are explored to a much deeper level, the surface characteristics they display- however honestly- could be seen as clichéd variations on the familiar theme of “wacky gay neighbor” mannerism. Once again, however, the film is ultimately unconcerned with such factors- the opinions of outsiders are of little consequence to these bears, and in fact one of the film’s most significant themes- one which could even be called an underlying tenet of “bear philosophy,” perhaps- is the importance of being comfortable in who and what you are, without regard to the expectations and standards of others. In BearCity, the only way to find happiness is to be yourself, not who you think you are supposed to be; if that’s not a universal message, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, though BearCity succeeds in presenting an authentic portrait of the social atmosphere and lifestyle that characterizes its subjects, it is somewhat less successful in its attempt to craft a smart and compelling romantic comedy. The central love story between Tyler and Roger is sweet enough, if that’s the right word, on the surface; but the pair seem mismatched in a way that goes beyond the obvious differences in age, bearing, and outlook. We want to see them united by the end, but that has more to do with the conditioned response of wishing for a happy ending than it does with any sense that these two are made for each other; their attraction seems little more than just that, an impulse based on surface qualities rather than an instinctive bond between kindred spirits. As for the comedy element, much of the overt humor comes in the form of dialogue which seems far too calculated, as if Langway and Ferber were determined to insert all the standard jokes related to each subject matter they touch upon; the “clever” banter is laced with variations on standard one-liners known universally throughout the gay community, and even if they are less familiar to a straight audience, they still feel forced and deliberate, and as a result, much of the comedy falls flat. Perhaps the intention was to cultivate a further sense of universality, by showing a group of gay guys making the same jokes every other group of gay guys makes, but it has the effect of undermining the freshness which otherwise permeates the film.

BearCity works far better when it leaves behind the larger social scene and brings us into the intimate reality of its characters. In the one-on-one scenes we are given a much more honest and engaging look at the real lives of gay men, and this is where the movie’s more substantial charm becomes apparent. In the subplots surrounding Tyler and Roger’s tentative courtship, we find people who are actively dealing with the real, down-to-earth complications of building a lasting relationship, not the airy fantasy of a first crush. Fred and Brent’s grappling over the question of staying monogamous rings much truer than the moon-eyed wooing of the central couple in an empty bowling alley, and the emotional rift that threatens to rip apart the tender love between Michael and Carlos seems far more important than concerns over what Tyler should wear to BearCity in order to get Roger’s attention. Furthermore, because it grows honestly from the characters and their situations, the comedy that comes in these scenes is much more believable- and therefore funnier- than the predictable humor in the rest of the film. In particular, the comedy of errors that arises when Fred and Brent attempt a three-way play session in the shower is a comic highlight, underscoring the fact that BearCity is at its best when it embraces the opportunity to be different than the mainstream formula comedies it tries to emulate.

The actors, for the most part, are likable and believable enough, although at times the stilted quality of some of their dialogue trips up each and every one of them. Joe Conti is sincere and competent as Tyler, making him a suitable protagonist, albeit less interesting than some of his co-stars. Likewise Gerald McCullouch, as Roger, manages to convey an underlying integrity that keeps him sympathetic and allows us to see his appeal, despite the less savory aspects of his character. Both players are attractive, particularly McCullouch- who, it should be said possesses only marginal qualities that could be described as “bearish,” prompting suspicions that the film’s creators were hedging their bets in trying to appeal to a broader audience. In keeping with the fact that the supporting roles are by far more interesting than the star-crossed lovers in the spotlight, Brian Keane and Stephen Guarino (Fred and Brent) and Gregory Gunter and James Martino (Michael and Carlos) provide much more solid performances, investing their characters with a wider range and deeper authenticity, and generally making us wish they all had more screen time. Alex Di Dio is infectiously charming as Simon, Tyler’s spritely former roommate who later becomes involved as a confidante and advisor in the efforts to win Roger’s affections, and Sebastian LaCause has a nice turn as a Spanish party-bear who threatens to come between the film’s would-be lovers.

As for Langway’s efforts as a director, his work can be described as serviceable, at best. For the most part, he adheres to the familiar conventions of lightweight formula comedy, with little in the way of showy camerawork or flashy editing and not much stylization beyond the occasional obligatory montage. Not that anything more is required here, and truthfully a more self-consciously arty approach would most likely make BearCity insufferably pretentious. Nevertheless, at times the movie has a vaguely amateurish feel, as if Langway (both as director and screenwriter) were trying too hard to fit every ingredient into the soup pot. In addition, the elements which border on stereotypical would perhaps have seemed less so with a more delicate, thoughtful approach behind the camera, though it’s hard to level a criticism over something that might have been. In the same vein, it’s difficult to criticize his soundtrack choices, although one might have wished for a bit more imagination and variety in the selection than what we are given- a bland collection of disco-lite club music which may capture the feel of the community but seems disconnected from the action on the screen.  Nevertheless, insofar as he gives us a genuine and clearly affectionate depiction of the world he showcases in his film, Langway’s work is, more-or-less, successful.

BearCity is a movie that carries a social importance heavier than its actual content; by showcasing the life of a culture rarely represented on screen (unless as a source of humor, as in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame), it represents a bold effort to cross the boundaries of social convention and promote true understanding and equality, even though such an issue is outside the scope of its plot. Perhaps even more significant is its revelation of prejudices and social gaps that exist within the gay community itself; the bear movement has largely developed as a reaction against the ostracization of men who fall outside the accepted standards of male beauty celebrated by the “mainstream” of gay society, and the movie makes it clear that there is still a lack of understanding and acceptance between these two factions of the culture. This factor, too, is beyond BearCity’s intentional purpose, except at an observational level, though it does play a role in the plot insofar as it provides the inner conflict that initially catapults its protagonist into a strange new world and provides the motivation for Roger’s reluctance to become involved with someone from outside the community. With so much riding on its shoulders, it is admirable that BearCity does not fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously and playing into its own importance; it would be even more admirable if it were a better film. Still, in its best moments it offers surprising depth and disarming honesty, and acquaints us with memorable characters who remain with us after the credits roll; and even in its worst moments, it is harmless and likable, a charming bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy that satisfies the universal need to believe in the power of true love, no matter what your preferences are with regard to gender- or body hair.

The Fall (2006)


Today’s cinema adventure: The Fall, a 2006 film, directed by Tarsem Singh, about a suicidal young man who unfolds an elaborate adventure tale for a little immigrant girl as they recover from injuries in a 1920s-era Los Angeles hospital.  Filmed over the course of four years at locations throughout the world, it was a deeply personal labor of love for its director, largely financed at his own expense.  It was initially released only on the film festival circuit, but, championed by filmmakers Spike Jonez and David Fincher, it was given widespread distribution in 2008, receiving widely mixed reviews; some critics found it a visually interesting bore while others placed it on their best-of-the-year lists, but the consensus was, by and large, mostly favorable, and the film was a moderate box office success.

Based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled Yo Ho Ho, The Fall interweaves its main narrative with epic scenes of sweeping fantasy described in the story told by its broken adult protagonist, Roy, a novice movie stunt man whose spine has been damaged in a fall during his first film shoot.  Deeply depressed, he has lost the will to live, but his morose state of mind has less to do with his injury than with the loss of the woman he loves to the movie star for whom he was doubling.  Recovering in the same hospital is Alexandria, a precocious Romanian child whose arm was broken in a fall while picking oranges with her immigrant family; curious and imaginative; she has taken to wandering the corridors and grounds, becoming a favorite among the other patients and the staff, who treat her as something of a mascot.  When she befriends Roy, he begins to entertain her with a fabulous tale of adventure and revenge, in which a masked bandit and his heroic comrades seek revenge against an evil prince for the wrongs he has done them; it becomes clear that his story is shaped as he goes by his own real-life situation, and that his ulterior motive is to use the continuing saga as a means to coerce his young companion into stealing morphine from the hospital’s dispensary in order to facilitate his intended suicide.  As the events of both stories unfold, little Alexandria exerts her own influence, inserting herself into the fantasy and affecting its outcome even as she begins to work her way into Roy’s broken heart.  Eventually, the imaginary epic becomes a vehicle for her desperate efforts to keep Roy’s hope alive- as well as her own.

Tarsem’s screenplay, co-authored with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, is geared towards revealing the triangulated relationship between reality, imagination, and the unconscious mind; but it is the relationship between its two protagonists that dominates the film, despite the resplendent spectacle of the fantasy sequences in which their shared psychodrama plays out.  This is not a negative criticism; on the contrary, the surreal, stream-of-consciousness yarn woven by the convalescent pair is meant to serve as illumination for the real-life process of their psychic healing, not the other way around, and it is a testament of the director’s dedication to his vision that The Fall does not make the fatal error of overwhelming its humanity by emphasizing the adventure plot over the drama which is the true center of the film.  That said, one can’t help wishing at times that a bit more effort had been made to forge a stronger coherence into the fantastical subplot, which is as all-over-the-map in its storyline as it is in its pan-geographical setting; but part of the film’s conceit is that the story morphs to suit the changing emotional needs of Roy and Alexandria, replicating the spontaneity and whimsy of a game of make believe, and though it may cause some frustration in viewers attuned to logical, linear storytelling, its structural malleability is in keeping with the larger purpose at hand.

The changing dynamics of this fantasy narrative yield numerous interesting subtleties.  We see, for example, that its visual manifestation is shaped by little Alexandria through the discrepancies between what Roy describes and what we see, reflecting her different cultural understanding- the bandits and Indians with which he fills his tale are depicted through the lens of her Eastern European, Ottoman-influenced imagination rather than the Hollywood-Western milieu he clearly intends; and the characters populating the adventure are portrayed by those surrounding the little girl in her real life (nurses, orderlies, visitors to the hospital), reflecting her associations and assumptions about them and what they represent for her.  Such clever and thoughtful touches do much to establish the elaborate meta-drama as a stage for the interaction of the two characters’ unconscious minds, as well as providing the source for a considerable amount of humor and even some subtle social commentary.

On a more obvious level, of course, it is these remarkable fantasy sequences that give The Fall its most distinctive quality- the breathtaking visual opulence that is made all the more astonishing by the knowledge that no special effects or computer enhancements were used.  Exotic, spectacular locations across the globe were used to create a surreal world of wonder; we are transported to Moorish palaces, ancient ruins, sparkling reefs, lush forests, otherworldly desertscapes, and monumental structures both well-known and unfamiliar, all beautifully photographed and magnificently showcased by Tarsem and cinematographer Colin Watkinson.  The characters are bedecked in the lavish costumes of Eiko Ishioka, which conjure a timelessly mythic quality made somehow more magical by their authenticity and their exquisite detail; and the larger-than-life majesty of these segments is undercut throughout with a playful spirit that keeps them fun and relieves the comparatively somber mood of the hospital environment in which the rest of the film is set.

Despite its inherent goofiness and its rambling inconsistency, the tale of the Blue Bandit manages to build an emotional weight as it reaches its climax; and though its characters’ fates are rendered irrelevant by the knowledge that they are wholly imaginary, they are nevertheless granted significance because we have come to care about the pair of storytellers who have created them.  It is in those less-rousing hospital scenes that the movie makes the emotional connection necessary to fuel both plots.  It succeeds in doing so largely because of the remarkable chemistry between its two leading players, Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru.  Tarsem cleverly sculpted this crucial element by shooting their segments in sequence, allowing the relationship between the two actors to develop naturally and taking care to keep the intrusiveness of his camera at a minimum- several scenes were filmed through a hole in the curtain surrounding the bed in which Pace’s character is confined, in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy- as well as allowing young Untaru (along with most of the crew) to continue in her initial belief that Pace was actually paraplegic.  In addition, much of their dialogue was unscripted, permitting the girl to use her natural expression; this not only results in a truly genuine performance from the little star, capturing her infectious real-life personality onscreen, but actually bore influence on the film’s scenario, with the director adapting certain elements of the story in response to spontaneous developments that took place in front of the camera.  This organic, delicate approach certainly paid off: the result is one of the most endearing, believable child performances ever put on film, and a magical, touching onscreen relationship that informs everything else that happens in The Fall.  Due credit goes to Pace, as well, who gives us a heart-rending portrayal of a young man crippled by morbid despair even as he manages to hold up his end of the connection with his juvenile co-star, not to mention the considerable task of embodying the fanciful hero of his fabricated saga.

Though the two central performers play an enormous part in making The Fall appealing, the real star is director Tarsem.  Having established himself as a talented film craftsman in the field of commercials and music videos (including the multi-award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion”), he made his feature debut with the stylish 2000 thriller, The Cell, which was sufficiently successful to gain him the clout- and the finances- to make this highly personal film.  Choosing to pay for the bulk of it himself in order to forgo the necessity for compromising his vision to meet the demands of backers, the end result of his dedication is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, laden with magnificent scenery, brilliantly composed frames, a dazzling array of color and light, and threaded through with an obvious reverence for the cinematic medium itself; continually incorporating elements of optical illusion and perceptual trickery (with numerous clear nods to the art of Salvador Dalì), he reminds us of the illusory nature of existence and celebrates the simple magic with which our lives can be enriched- not just on the big screen, but within our own imaginations.  He also proves that his ability is more than merely technical with his savvy handling of the actors and his wise approach of allowing their own artistry to make its contribution to his film, infusing it with an vibrant honesty that makes it much more than so many of the hollow, soulless spectacles foisted upon us in our neighborhood multiplexes today.

The most pertinent question, of course, is the same with The Fall as it is with any other move: is it sufficiently engaging to sustain interest for its two-hour running time?  Many critics- and other viewers- did not think so; doubtless those who were bored were expecting a comfortably predictable adventure fantasy, along the lines of The Princess Bride, with enough artsy quirkiness thrown in to appeal to the highbrow set.  If so, it is no wonder they were disappointed.  Tarsem’s film defies expectation, choosing instead to tell its own, bittersweet little story in a highly unorthodox style; it is a movie about the heart, the mind, and the imagination, and its characters are not the catch-phrase-spouting adventurers that populate standard blockbuster fare, nor is its action the main focus of attention.  Indeed, the movie’s formula is almost an inversion of the norm, with the action and adventure sublimated to serving the needs of the characters’ psychological journeys rather than vice-versa.  Such a switch doesn’t make for heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping excitement, and any viewer looking for such thrills is better off looking elsewhere; but if you’re looking for a rare and unique, highly affecting, thought-provoking experience that shines with the sheer joy of filmmaking as an art- as opposed to a cash cow- then you can’t ask for better than The Fall.