Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/

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Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock fantasia with sexy, charismatic performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, and Christian Bale, a film that has gained a loyal and substantial cult following despite the poor reception it received upon its initial release. Boldly structured in the mold of Citizen Kane, it follows the attempts of a journalist to piece together the decade-old mystery surrounding a glam-rock superstar who unsuccessfully faked his own assassination before fading into obscurity. Interweaving scenes of the writer’s quest with flashbacks depicting the rise and fall of his enigmatic subject, Haynes’ film plays fast-and-loose (deliberately) with facts and fictionalizes significant real-life figures as it pays tribute to- and laments the fading of- the musical and cultural mini-era on which its focus lies. To this purpose, the film’s designers have crafted a dazzlingly surreal and authentic recreation of the English rock-and-roll scene in the early seventies, reconstructing the peculiar mix of tinsel, trash, and haute couture that defined the look of the period, as well as the darker, grittier eighties of the film’s parallel narrative. In particular, Sandy Powell’s superb costume designs succeed in capturing both the outrageous fashion of the rock-and-roll glitterati and the more subdued flavors worn by their less-glamorous followers and fans. The sparkling package is wrapped in the vivid cinematography of Maryse Alberti, which evokes the authentic photography of the day so completely there are times you swear you are looking at archival footage.

Inhabiting this time capsule world are several superb performers, each in the early stages of their highly successful respective careers. In the key role of Brian Slade is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively embodies the ultimate glam rocker, channeling the spirit of David Bowie (on whom the character is heavily based, along with, to a smaller degree, Marc Bolan) and yet investing the performance with his own energy as well- cheeky yet vulnerable, jaded yet naïve, sexually charged yet romantic, he manifests the image of the androgynous bad boy while letting us see into the complex personality beneath it. He is matched by Ewan McGregor (as Slade’s collaborator and lover, Curt Wild- inspired in equal measure by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), who likewise presents a convincing portrait of an archetypal glam figure- but a distinctly different one, rougher-edged yet ultimately, perhaps, deeper. The two performances complement each other like a dovetail joint, and both men are at their most impressive- and mesmerizing- when they are called upon to perform in the numerous musical sequences, pulling off the full rock star act with exuberant bravado and absolute confidence. In a less showy role- but no less superb- is Christian Bale, playing the journalist and former fan who is haunted by memories of his youthful involvement in the glam culture and of his personal connections to both the iconic stars in the history he is tracing; always a deeply compelling actor, Bale is effective throughout, but he is at his best as the rosy-cheeked youth of the flashbacks, riding the extremes of his adolescent emotions as he tentatively explores his own developing sexual and ideological identity and comes of age in a heady time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Toni Collette is both deliciously tawdry and surprisingly grounded as Slade’s wife Mandy, impressively evolving with the character in an arc that takes her from hippie muse to jaded has-been; and Eddie Izzard is appropriately loathsome as the oily manager who shepherds Slade into the world of rock-and-roll excess.

Despite the considerable strengths described above, however, Velvet Goldmine is not an unqualified success. Haynes is a gifted director, justly acclaimed for his ability to translate complex and esoteric themes into a compelling screen experience, but often criticized for failing to create a cohesive whole; his films often seem more interested in conjuring elemental forces than in using them to work toward a specific purpose. Of course, such a technique allows the audience to form their own personal conclusions; it’s an impressionistic style of filmmaking, and like other impressionistic art forms, it’s not to everyone’s taste. With this effort, his passion for the period and the attitudes it represented is very clear, and he succeeds admirably in approximating the glam milieu and bringing it to the screen. However, the formula he chooses to do so creates some problematic issues: the investigative drama which drives the plot seems a brilliant device for exploring this seminal period in contemporary pop culture, allowing him to explore the what made it such an appealing time for those who embraced its spirit and why its memory and influence linger today; however, the brooding, mournful tone of the mystery- as well as the deeply personal importance placed on discovering the answers by the film’s protagonist- suggest a weighty significance at the core of the nostalgic proceedings that somehow feels misplaced. To be sure, Haynes is presenting a document of a time in which a generation overflowed with the excitement of changing attitudes and the promise of freer personal expression, a time which was to morph all too soon into a glitzy, self-centered era in which shallow, self-destructive excess would take a heavy toll; the collective loss of innocence resulting from this social odyssey certainly spawned the kind of emotional wounds reflected by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, and the healing power of reconnecting with these cultural roots, of rediscovering the spirit that generated the whole process in the first place, is clearly a major part of the film’s intended effect. In these terms, Brian Slade provides the perfect metaphor: hungry for the freedom to be himself, whoever that may turn out to be, he soars into a fantasy world made real- only to eventually succumb to the lure of nihilistic hedonism, transforming his existence into an unsustainable nightmare from which he must eventually choose to escape or die. However, Slade is not an Everyman, not even a glorified one like Charles Foster Kane, and his experiences, though they may resemble a magnified version of those shared by many who participated in the glam sub-culture and the disco era which followed, ultimately seem more the consequence of individual character makeup than a reflection of some greater social phenomenon. More germane to the group experience, perhaps, is Bale’s journalist, burned by the broken promise of his youth and seeking a way to come to terms with the deep longings left unfulfilled; but the plot on which his redemption hinges, the conceit of uncovering the secrets of a former pop icon’s decline and fall, ultimately feels forced. After all, there is no mystery to be solved- the story to be told is so common as to be predictable- and in the end, there are no real answers to be found there, only an implausible plot twist and a phantom wound that will never stop itching. To make a resolution even less palpable, Haynes’ screenplay (from a story written by himself and James Lyons) wraps the plot about a man exploring an enigma in another, larger enigma: invoking the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, he introduces a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial gem which secretly links the characters and their histories to a long procession of pop superstars, suggesting that the cycle of fame is some sort of mystical cosmic reflex which affects our social evolution, and even hinting at the deliberate manipulation of our pop culture by an unseen and arcane outside force. Another apt metaphor, and an interesting proposition- one which seems borrowed from the handbook of glam-era theatricality as represented by such flights of fancy as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, a source of much inspiration to the events portrayed in the film- but in this case, perhaps, a needless complication in an already over-complicated mix.

Speaking of Ziggy Stardust, it seems necessary to also remark that the heavy fictionalization of the figures represented- which amounts to the creation of a sort of alternate glam universe- has been a point of considerable controversy surrounding Velvet Goldmine. Taking well-known real-life icons and re-inventing them for dramatic purposes is an acceptable tactic that goes back, no doubt, to the very beginning of story-telling; however, Haynes has here blended real events so completely into the soup that the result could be very confusing to those unfamiliar with the true history of those involved. Though Brian Slade is not David Bowie, he certainly feels like it; indeed, Bowie himself, initially involved in the project, pulled his support and the rights to use his songs after discovering that the script incorporated elements from unauthorized biographies by his former wife and others. To make matters even more confusing, mixed in with the original musical selections composed for the film are older songs by such glam-era artists as Roxy Music, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, among others, performed by the fictional singers as if they were themselves the originators. Though I’m not one to quibble about adherence to historical accuracy- after all, my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, and my love for Shakespeare is in no way affected by his fondness for rewriting history to suit his needs- in this case it seems appropriate to suggest that, before making any assumptions based on the recognizability of the figures on display in Velvet Goldmine, it would be wise to do some research and decipher who these characters really are (or, rather, really aren’t).

Nevertheless, Haynes’ film provides many pleasures: the aforementioned musical sequences, mounted with a gaudy theatrical flair that captures the glitter-rock essence to a tee, are the film’s best scenes, nostalgic yet freshly minted; and there are moments throughout that reach through the layers of conceit to grab at your heart-strings, electrifying touchstones that instantly transport you to the memory of some shared, universal experience- the yearning, impossible ache of a teen-aged Bale staring at homoerotic photos of his idols; the sharp humiliation of Collette’s Mandy Slade as she confronts her husband in the midst of his dehumanized, drugs-and-sex-saturated oblivion; the explosive, adrenaline-fueled vitality of McGregor’s first stage performance as Wild (in which, incidentally, he strips naked for his adoring audience). All in all, the exponential popularity of Velvet Goldmine is not surprising, nor is it undeserved: though it may leave us unsatisfied on some nameless level, and though it sometimes feels as though it takes itself far too seriously, its youthful exuberance and its visual perfection go a long way towards making up for its shortcomings; and even if it ultimately leads us to prefer and embrace the real-world history which it distorts for its desired effect, it seems fitting and desirable to find satisfaction in that which is real rather than in a glittery fantasy- and that, come to think of it, is perhaps the true message of Velvet Goldmine.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120879/