The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)

maupin_sxsw

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.

 

 

 

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated return to the works of celebrated fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose three-part saga, The Lord of the Rings, provided the basis for the director’s phenomenally successful and critically-acclaimed trilogy of the same name.  Adapted- and expanded- from Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, it constitutes the first part of a second trilogy which serves as a sort of prequel to The Lord of the Rings, telling of the young Bilbo Baggins’ adventures when he joins the quest of a band of Dwarves to reclaim their homeland from an ancient dragon who has taken it as his own- an expedition which sets into motion several events that will have great consequence in the later story.  Sure to be a major success on the basis of fan interest alone, it has met so far with somewhat mixed response- mostly due to Jackson’s decision to supplement the relatively short novel with additional material that connects it to the later events portrayed in The Lord of the Rings– and facilitates the splitting of its narrative into three separate films.  Reaction has also been divided about his choice to shoot the film at 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the standard rate), resulting in an ultra-high resolution image which gives his movie an almost hyper-real look, particularly when coupled with the 3D and IMAX formats in which it has been widely released.  Nevertheless, the majority of critics and audiences have been enthusiastic in their welcome for this adaptation of the much-beloved tale, and it undoubtedly marks the beginning of another triumphant achievement for Jackson and his creative collaborators.

The Hobbit, published over a decade earlier than The Lord of the Rings, was written by Tolkien as a stand-alone book, though its narrative was part of the much longer and intricately detailed story of Middle-earth that he had been developing since his youth.  The book was a success- so much so that it achieved classic status, eventually allowing Tolkien to publish the iconic trilogy of novels which turned him- and the mythical world he created, along with its inhabitants- into a cultural icon.  In an appendix at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the author provides a detailed timeline of the entire history of Middle-earth, with particular emphasis on the events leading up to the War of the Rings, which is specifically chronicled within the trilogy.  The beginnings of this great conflict coincide with the timeline of The Hobbit, through which Tolkien provided glimpses of his larger saga within the peripheral details of the central plot.  An Unexpected Journey, as mentioned, incorporates this material into its adaptation of The Hobbit proper, placing the story into the larger context of the complete epic tale.  The film begins in precisely the same time and place as the previous trilogy, at the home of Bilbo Baggins, an aged hobbit (or “halfling”) who has begun to write the history of his personal adventures, many years before, in the far-flung corners of Middle-earth.  We are transported back, as he remembers his youth, to a day 60 years prior, when Gandalf, a wandering wizard once acquainted with his family, arrives at his door to invite him on an adventure.  Bilbo, accustomed (as most of his people are) to the predictable comfort and security of his home in the Shire, declines; Gandalf, however, is not dissuaded so easily, and later that night the young hobbit is surprised to be playing host to a company of Dwarves who arrive unexpectedly, claiming to have been summoned to his home- by the wizard, who explains that he has offered Bilbo’s services as a “burglar” to assist the Dwarves in a quest to regain their ancient home under the distant Lonely Mountain, where a powerful dragon named Smaug, many years before, laid waste to their kingdom, Erebor, and claimed their vast wealth as his own private treasure trove.  Bilbo, horrified, again declines to join the expedition, protesting that he not only has no experience as a burglar but that he would, in fact, be useless on any such quest- an assessment with which the Dwarves are inclined to agree, particularly their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the throne of the kingdom under the mountain and a proven and powerful warrior.  Nevertheless, the shrewd wizard eventually persuades Bilbo, who has long suppressed a childhood yearning for adventure, to accept the job, and the hobbit joins his new comrades as they begin their long journey.  As they make their way, they encounter obstacles and enemies the likes of which the fledgling adventurer has never seen, including hungry trolls, greedy goblins, and bloodthirsty orcs- foul, mutated creatures who seem bent on pursuing them, and whose ferocious chieftain seeks a personal vendetta against Thorin.  Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Gandalf has a larger agenda as he accompanies the fellowship; in his secret role as one of the White Council, an alliance of wizards and elves that serve as protectors of Middle-earth, he has begun to sense the growing influence of a dark and ancient presence returning to the land- a fear which he shares with his fellow guardians when the company arrives for a brief respite at the Elven capitol of Rivendell.  However, the answers he seeks remain yet hidden in the shadows, and the fate of the Dwarvish quest demands his more immediate attention.  Eventually, the band’s travels bring them within sight of their destination- but not before Bilbo manages his first successful “burglary” by stealing away the most “precious” possession of a treacherous subterranean creature named Gollum, beginning a greater adventure that will eventually decide the fate of Middle-earth itself.

The Hobbit, as written by Tolkien, was aimed at younger readers; though not exactly a children’s book, it is considerably lighter in tone than the epic trilogy which followed, with a less austere literary style and a higher level of whimsy to soften the heaviness of the story’s darker elements.  Even so, the heart of its story lies in the fabric of this remarkable writer’s meticulously plotted history of Middle-earth, a complex and lifelong undertaking inspired by his desire to create a definitively English mythology and informed by his passion for philology.  This imaginary chronicle, produced over the course of decades, provided a depth of background for his writings that lends an unprecedented level of authenticity to the fantasy world in which they are set, complete with vivid geographical detail, cultural and linguistic traditions for all of the various races which populate it, and a fully developed cosmology.  This fullness is one of the qualities which helped to make both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into cultural phenomena, and legions of fans have hungrily devoured every scrap of the copious background material from which it arises, through its later publication in books like The Silmarillion, by Tolkien himself, and the collected volumes of history assembled by his son.  It is with these kinds of fans in mind that Peter Jackson- along with his partner, Fran Walsh, and their longtime collaborator, Philippa Boyens- decided to expand the narrative of The Hobbit with the inclusion of story elements that provide background and foundation for the later events depicted in The Lord of the Rings.  Operating from the conceit that Bilbo’s adventures, as related in the novel itself, are only a part of the whole story, the screenplay, by the three aforementioned collaborators (along with Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct), weaves the story of the Dwarves’ quest into the larger story arc that links The Hobbit to its more ambitious successor; the introduction of the great ring of power, pilfered by Bilbo in the subterranean lair of the pathetic Gollum (the only episode in the novel that bears significant continuity into the later books), is here seen within the context of other circumstances revealed by Tolkien only in his extraneous writings.  Thus, An Unexpected Journey is not simply an adaptation of The Hobbit, but an ambitious effort to create a more complete vision of Tolkien’s mythic realm, fleshing out the depiction of “behind the scenes” activity- such as the meeting of the White Council and the discoveries of Radagast the Brown- in order to tell more of the complete saga as the author composed it in his own imagination.

Of course, it goes without saying the Jackson and his co-writers are themselves the kind of fans at which they have aimed their own movie; it’s clear from the outset that An Unexpected Journey is as much a labor of love as The Lord of the Rings, and even more of a dream project in the sense that the creators have the opportunity for bringing to light many of the things that have, until now, remained tantalizingly hidden between the lines.   The inclusion of these “extra” scenes, of course, begs the question of how faithful Jackson et al‘s vision can be to Tolkien’s intent when the author himself chose not to include them in the book.  The answer is, I think, very faithful indeed.  An Unexpected Journey contains very little that doesn’t come directly from Tolkien, except for the kind of embellishment of detail that is necessary when realizing a written work into cinematic form; the author wrote descriptions of all the so-called “extra” scenes, and though they were omitted from The Hobbit because they were irrelevant to the book’s self-contained purpose, they were nevertheless part of his complete vision.  Jackson and crew have given us a chance to see that vision come to life, and they have done it with relish.

There is actually very little I can say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at least in terms of standard critical commentary.  There are those who have a passion for this kind of fantasy adventure story, and there are others who have an equally passionate dislike.  No argument is likely to persuade one side or the other to change their view, and those two camps are going to either love this movie, or hate it, regardless of what anyone says; but for those many viewers in between, some guidance may be offered.  Casual fans of Tolkien’s books, who may not be well-versed in the surrounding lore, may find themselves confused by the inclusion of characters and concerns from the later trilogy, and might also feel that these elements muddle the focus of the main narrative, which centers wholly on Bilbo and his transformation from humble homebody to seasoned adventurer.  Likewise, those who have only come to the world of Middle-earth through exposure to Jackson’s earlier films might find themselves feeling a sense of all-too-familiarity over things we’ve seen before, or may not get the point of spending time on a plot line for which we have already seen the eventual outcome; this, of course, is always the pitfall of  “prequels,” and it is one which many viewers might feel is particularly needless here, when the source material does not itself contain these elements.  It is important to remember, however, that An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of a trilogy, and much of its content is meant as a set-up to the events which are to follow; though one may quibble about the necessity for padding out an already rich and complex storyline, or question the motivation for turning a single novel (which is, incidentally, shorter in itself than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings) into multiple sure-fire hit movies, Jackson’s vision is an ambitious one.  He is bent on building as complete an embodiment of Tolkien’s mythos as possible, one which draws not only on the content of the novels as published but on the supplementary material with which the author infused them.  To put it another way, he is thinking “outside the box” in order to capture the total experience of the author’s epic saga in a cinematic form that both elaborates on its details and remains true in spirit to his ultimate intent and purpose.  As with any artistic translation of a pre-existing work- particularly when the original artist is no longer around to consult- there is a necessity for personal interpretation; but Jackson and his team, who are die-hard fans of the first degree, are certainly as qualified to interpret with as much validity as anyone, and with their proven mastery of the kind of breathtaking visual storytelling required, they are obviously more than up to the task.

The level of perfection and coherence to which Jackson aspires is evidenced by the painstaking efforts he has made to connect his new trilogy to the previous one with as much unity as possible.  Settings which are shared by both are duplicated in detail, and returning characters are portrayed by the same actors (with the semi-exception of Bilbo, whose younger incarnation is now represented by Martin Freeman- though original actor Ian Holm reprises his appearance as the older version of the title character).  In addition, the visual style of the original film series is maintained through the richly detailed design work, inspired by the decades of illustrative art connected to Tolkien’s books- in particular those of Alan Lee and John Howe, who served as visual consultants on this film (and its future follow-ups) as they did on the original Jackson trilogy; needless to say, the high-tech magic used to bring life to the various denizens of Middle-earth and their exploits is once again a marvel of imagination merged with state-of-the-art wizardry, and the creation of props, costumes and make-up which convincingly capture the cultural character of the land and its population is once again executed with astute perfectionism.  An Unexpected Journey is cut so distinctly from the same cloth as its spectacular predecessors that it is clear the filmmaker intends, when all is said and done, for this new trilogy to be seamlessly bound to The Lord of the Rings as a single, unified whole.

Further enhancing this continuity is the welcome return of Howard Shore’s magisterial musical scoring, an indispensable element of The Lord of the Rings, which manages the remarkable feat of incorporating here the themes and motifs created for the previous trilogy while weaving them into the new material composed specifically for The Hobbit.  It’s the same technique which gave each of the three original films their own distinctive sound yet tied them all together, as well as adding a valuable aural component to the storytelling, and once again it serves its purpose well; the soundtrack has that rare quality of seeming instantly familiar, like music you have somehow known all your life without ever having heard it before, much in the same way that the story feels like an ancient memory of some long-forgotten dream.  Tolkien’s books touch the realm of archetypes, and, like Jackson, Shore has the skill to enhance this deep unconscious connection in a powerful and irresistible way.

In the same vein are the performances; though this kind of acting is rarely acknowledged when awards are handed out every year, the ability to convey humanity and make emotional connection while playing in a necessarily heightened style is a delicate gift, and Jackson has once more populated his epic with performers who are up to the job.  Returnees Ian McKellen (whose magnificent Gandalf has been one of the highlights of the series from the beginning, and is a particular delight this time around), Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and the venerable Christopher Lee (whose personal expertise on the Tolkien canon has been of vital importance to Jackson’s project offscreen, as well)- as well as the aforementioned Holm and Elijah Wood (in a brief cameo)- are all seasoned purveyors of this craft, by now, and have become the quintessential embodiment of their characters; it is a pleasure to see them, however brief their involvement.  The new cast members, however, are every bit their equal in terms of capturing the necessary flavor; Jackson’s month-long pre-filming regime of combat and horseback training, designed with the dual purpose of establishing a tight-knit camaraderie among the players, no doubt contributed to the chemistry that is evident onscreen, and his ensemble provides a superbly symbiotic assortment of performances which are each destined to become as iconic as those from The Lord of the Rings.  Of particular note are Richard Armitage- whose brooding intensity gives Thorin Oakenshield a powerful charisma which complements his role as the destined ruler of the Dwarves- and Sylvester McCoy- whose memorable turn fleshes out Radagast the Brown, a peripheral character that has always been a subject of fan curiosity through importance of his role in the saga and the brief-but-vivid descriptions he received in Tolkien’s work.  Mention must be made as well of Andy Serkis, whose mesmerizing performance as Gollum- achieved through motion capture technology but executed live on set with his co-stars and derived entirely from his real expressions and physicality- was one of the most acclaimed elements of The Lord of the Rings and comes close to stealing the entire movie in his single scene here.  Finally, Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo Baggins; down-to-earth, likable, comical, and yet endowed with a great and generous spirit that shines through from early on, it is no wonder that he was Jackson’s first and only real choice for the role- the production schedule was completely rearranged to fit the actor’s availability- and his understated, everyman charm (rightly, since it’s Bilbo’s story) provides the heart and soul to the film.

There are so many wonders on display in An Unexpected Journey, and to list them all would be pointless; far better to let you discover them for yourself.  On that subject, the issue of presentation becomes an important factor.  Jackson’s audacious decision to shoot his film in the double-rate format of 48 fps. has generated much debate- and quite a few complaints from viewers who find the resulting depth and clarity to be disorienting and distracting- particularly when combined with the seemingly obligatory 3D and IMAX formats, as well as a tendency to make the various and extensive special effects trickery appear, well, obviously fake.  In answer to this, I can only say it’s entirely a matter of personal taste; I myself have seen the film twice now, once in the full-blown mega-tech format and once in the plain old 2D standard version.  I was mesmerized both times, and I had no complaints- though I will say that my second viewing, free from the “ooh-aah” factor which accompanied my first time through, allowed me to focus more attention on the content of the story itself without the bedazzlement of total sensory experience.  The content is, of course, what ultimately matters more than the gimmickry of its presentation, and it must be noted that eventually, when the film is viewed as it will later be, without the trappings of big screen showmanship on millions of smaller home screens around the world, it will be that content upon which viewers will base their judgment of the film.  In the meantime, those with a low threshold for technical bells and whistles might do well to skip the deluxe experience and visit your humble neighborhood theater; the tickets will be cheaper, and you will be able to focus on the essence of the film without the distraction of feeling more completely immersed in an imaginary world than you want to be.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, ultimately, a film for fans.  That doesn’t make for a limited appeal, in this case; Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most popular and acclaimed film franchises of all time, and the devotion that it engenders in its fans rivals that of such other cultural phenomena as Star Wars and Harry Potter.  There will be many, of course, who will adopt a dilettante attitude towards the new trilogy, perhaps for no other reason than to separate themselves from the crowd, just as there have been critics who seemingly were poised and ready to attack the film before it was even released.  There are probably audiences who will feel that this new film is really just “more of the same,” and admittedly there are a few elements that seem like repetition of things we’ve already seen- though of course these moments are faithful to the source material, and to change or excise them would be untrue to Tolkien’s story.  No doubt the majority of fans, however, will be thrilled at the chance to return to Jackson’s rendition of Middle-earth, and will eagerly anticipate the remaining entries over the course of the next two years.  I must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit than I am definitely in this last category; it would be hard for me to have found fault with An Unexpected Journey, short of a total botch job by its director, which was never very likely- though not it’s certainly not unheard of for a trusted filmmaker to drop the ball when remounting a beloved franchise (dare I mention George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace?).  The truth is that expectation has so much to do with the enjoyment of a cinematic experience that it is sometimes impossible to have an objective reaction, particularly with a highly anticipated film such as this one.  To be sure, what it delivers might not match the expectations of many- but in reading some of the harsher reviews that have so far been published of An Unexpected Journey, I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same film I saw.  Perhaps it comes down to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” attitude that seems to pervade popular culture today, which results in a loss of interest for that which was once popular and a snarky skepticism about any attempt to revive a former glory.  Whatever the reason, there are many who would disparage Jackson for returning to familiar territory instead of taking a new direction; but exciting filmmaking does not always have to break new ground, nor does the desire to revisit a successful formula indicate a lack of creativity.  It is obvious that this New Zealander considers the definitive transfer of Tolkien’s work to the screen to be his life’s work, at least for now, and I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903624/

 

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/

Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 screen adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel parodying the English literary tradition of melodramatic rural fiction.  Directed by Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and produced by BBC television for broadcast in the UK, it was later released theatrically in America, adding the prestige of modest box office success to the critical acclaim it had already received.  The novel from which it was derived poked fun at the conventions used by such authors as D.H. Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, in which life in the English countryside was depicted as a grim and gothic affair, with characters in the grip of long-festering guilt or otherwise self-defeating psychological dysfunctions, usually in connection with some shameful or dishonorable act committed generations before.  The plot of Cold Comfort Farm turns this formula on its ear, as a cheerfully modern young woman comes to live on her relatives’ country estate and sets about applying common sense and psychology to the long-standing status quo that keeps them mired in old-fashioned and unnecessary gloom.

Kate Beckinsale stars as Flora, the heroine, bringing a smart, no-nonsense charm to the character and making us easily believe in her ability to brush aside decades-old stagnation as if it were the cobwebs in a doorway.  Surrounding her as the eccentric Doom-Starkadder clan are a host of veteran British thespians, all clearly relishing the chance to sink their teeth into these deliciously ludicrous roles.  Eileen Atkins is hilariously dour as Aunt Judith, fatalistic, terminally depressed and possessed of a somewhat unhealthy obsession for her libidinous son, Seth; and as the latter, Rufus Sewell strikes the perfect satirical balance to make his vainglorious, womanizing character likable instead of insufferable.  Ian McKellen enjoys an uncharacteristically rough-edged turn as Uncle Amos, an amateur preacher, sporting a ridiculous mash-up of a rural accent as he gleefully spews his fire-and-brimstone sermon from the pulpit.  Sheila Burrell is delightfully domineering as Aunt Ada Doom, the reclusive and tight-fisted matriarch of Cold Comfort Farm, ruling her family with brittle authority as the continually reminds them that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”  Rounding out the household are fine performances from Freddie Jones, Miriam Margolyes, and Ivan Kaye, among others; and in non-family roles, there is standout work from Stephen Fry as a pretentiously progressive writer enamored of Flora, and the always-magnificent Joanna Lumley as an impeccable London widow who serves as her friend and mentor.

The screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury captures the goofy sense of fun intended by author Gibbons, sending up the melodramatic conceits of this popular sub-genre of British literature with a smart, optimistic viewpoint and a healthy dose of subtly hilarious wordplay; there are some truly memorable lines (my favorite comes from Amos as he preaches before his quivering congregation: “There’ll be no butter in Hell!”) and the plotting, though ultimately just as unconvincingly tidy as the overwrought romances  being parodied, weaves cleverly enough through its pleasant course that we don’t really mind its unbelievability.  There is also plenty of authentic English scenery- idyllic woodlands and meadows, rustic villages and farmlands, elegantly-appointed estates and salons- to provide eye candy along the way, and director Schlesinger keeps things visually stimulating by keeping his camera moving and using a wide variety of angles and perspectives- as well, of course, as keeping us continually focused on the real meat of the matter, superb actors portraying delightful characters.

Cold Comfort Farm is not a deep movie, nor does it yield a lot of stimulating conversation regarding its themes or its technique, at least not in most circles.  It does, however, yield a lot of fun; it’s smart and literate enough to satisfy those seeking intellectual diversion, yet completely accessible for the viewer with no connection to the English Lit crowd, and it provides plenty of hearty laughs for both kinds of audiences (as well as the rest of us who probably fall somewhere in between).  After all, outrageous behavior is outrageous behavior, whether or not you have read any of Thomas Hardy’s books, and in Cold Comfort Farm, there is no shortage of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112701/