31.12.13

Isn't Music Supposed To Express What People Are Feeling?: Dreamgirls (2006)

While I had a different film scheduled for viewing for the last blog post of the musical marathon, and by extension, the last post of the year, I think it is fitting that I finished off with a rather contemporary work in 2006's Dreamgirls.  While I started the marathon with an early Astaire classic Top Hat, whose structure is decidedly in the classic setting, Dreamgirls made nearly seventy five years later and a century after the medium of film came into its fullest form, represents a return to the classic filmic structure, one with a linear narrative and poised look at a period in music that was heavily competitive and troublesome when one was oppressed by layers of intersectionality.  Dreamgirls is a new consideration of the Busby Berkeley style backstage musical, reconsidered for a modern audience, one that is further extended by it being an adaptation of a Broadway musical, helping to navigate some of the more showy elements at play in the film.  I worked my way through Dreamgirls wondering as to whether or not it was actually an exceptional film, or a reworking of the Oscar-bait Hollywood fare that manages to pique critics interest for subject matter alone.  Dreamgirls would be slightly more impressive were it to have committed to a stylistic cohesion of some sort, relying on musical numbers in a singular style, instead of using them both as a point of narrative advancement, as well as dialogue construction.  Furthermore, while it should be very much embraced for possessing  cast that is almost predominantly composed of African-American actors, it seems hesitant to navigate some of the more challenging and troublesome racial spaces that would have existed in the era to save face and make a universally palatable film.  I would much rather have revisited 2005's Hustle and Flow, a film that challenges 'safe' depictions of race in cinema, while also technically falling within the definition of the musical, although it is in a decidedly modern context.  The sum of all the parts of Dreamgirls are nice, but it suffers from a few too many missteps to make for a worthwhile and praiseworthy filmic experience.  Indeed, if this is one of the premier examples of the musical in the past decade, it truly is at a low point.


Dreamgirls focuses on the musical aspirations of a group of young African-American woman hoping to make it big as singers.  The three women Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles),  Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are young small town girls who hope that by appearing at a local tryout for a musical competition that they could win a recording contract and subsequently make it big in the industry.  While they lose out to a blues guitarist they do catch they eye of manager and eye for musical talent Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) who hopes to use them as back up singers for the aging star James 'Thunder' Early (Eddie Murphy).  While the group is hesitant, particularly Effie, to serve as backup singers, when they are promised money and a chance to make it big they jump on the opportunity, taking with them Effie's brother and performance choreographer C.C. (Keith Robinson).  While the initial stardom proves ideal for the group things quickly come to a halt when the advances of James and at various points Curtis lead to a fracturing within the group, made all the more complicated when Curtis decides to push the three women as a group act detached from James.  It is the idea of Curtis to have Deena sing lead, although both she and Effie realize that Effie is clearly the better performer.  This choice to market the group called The Dreams leads to confrontation amongst the members of the group and eventually Effie leaves in frustration.  While on sabbatical from singing, Deena makes a name for herself, although her and Curtis' relationship suffers considerably.  When James Early's old manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover) approaches Effie about returning to singing, she is initially quite hesitant, only working in small lounge fair, until the return of C.C. affords her a chance to make it big.  When this realization is discovered, Curtis takes to unethical tactics to stifle her career advancement, but after a legal battle aided by the help of Deena, the returning star finds success and eventually The Dreams make one final goodbye performance, going out on the top, much less the case for James who has by this time passed away and certainly for Curtis whose respect in the industry is all but squandered.


I want to make it rather clear that Dreamgirls is not an unwatchable film.  Indeed, many of the musical numbers are quite evocative and the performances are, for the most part, tempered by the various actors.  Eddie Murphy, much to my surprise, was probably the most well-executed acting in the film.  My concerns, come, instead from how music is used to add emotive elements to scenes that could have just as easily gained equal intensity from normal acting.  This is most glaringly troublesome during the middle section of the film when Effie decides to leave The Dreams.  While it does have a musical number proper, it is bookended by unnecessary sing-talking between the various characters that causes their dialogue to take on a nauseatingly unlistenable quality.  As a pseudo-backstage musical, the film could simply have relied on the musical performances proper as an expression of the problems at play by the characters.  Certainly, this occurs in two of the most famous backstage musicals 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 wherein the characters' emotions are affirmed by their diagetic musical numbers.  Considering that the narrative is afforded a rather large temporal space and uses the spatial breadth of radio and television to extend its narrative, the choice to use these central singing moments is somewhat baffling.  Indeed, it is in this insistence that the film require some sort of singing dialogue that Dreamgirls traipses as a rather contentious line between well-intended narrative on the black experience in music and something that is exploitative in its veiled use of grandstanding through musical dialogue.  I am not saying that this is an impossibility in the musical genre, in fact, many of the films I have encountered this month involve sung dialogue, but this is also the main means with which narrative is delivered in the film, probably the most realized in Oklahoma, wherein it is rather clear that more of the film is sung than actually spoken and from the onset it is clearly established as a film with a reality where people sing their feelings.  For Dreamgirls it has no context and its execution becomes glaringly in its poor delivery.

Key Scene:  The initial on the road sequence, when the girls join James' show is a perfect joining of cinematic tricks and performance, it is a shame the film does not attain this level of intensity throughout.

Dreamgirls is a film worth watching, but only if renting is an option.  With that being said Hustle and Flow from a year earlier is far more worthwhile.

30.12.13

Ban The Bomb And Do The Fuck All For A Living: Quadrophenia (1979)

The musical this month has proven to be rather traditional, even when considering the various post-genre films I tackled, the music component was set aside and separated as part of the narrative.  Indeed, the only other examples where defining the work as a musical might have proven to be a bit of a stretch would be Saturday Night Fever, but since it is so integral to the space of the film the labeling of it as such is necessary.  In contrast, but no less pertinent to the inclusion this month is the The Who inspired, mod-fashion donning Quadrophenia which is about as cool a youth in revolt film as a person could ever hope to encounter.   I decided to include it this month on the marathon of musicals primarily, because I wanted to find and excuse to finally view the film, but also because I wanted to look at work whose musical component played equal parts to the narrative, wherein each choice musically is an extension of the ideas and emotions of the characters on screen.  While this is not a common occurrence in cinema--excluding melodramatic elements--it has happened before, most notably with the films The Harder They Come and Amadeus.  I will say though, in the previously mentioned works, the music is clearly distinguished from the narrative, even in the sense that it is integral to its working, nothing exists quite like Quadrophenia, wherein the music is as much the heartbeat and thriving of the film, as are the wide-eyed but decidedly world weary faces of the characters in the film.  If the punk movement was already meeting its demise in Britain at the time and the working class came to grips with a lost socialist utopian ideal, Quadrophenia might well be the single most evocative and focused work on the various aftermath of such social decay.  Nobody in the film appears to have any sense of direction or guidance, wandering aimlessly through the film as the wailing of Roger Daltrey attempts to bring guidance like a prophet who is simply too ahead of his time.  To any other film, music would be a component that helps make the film work or fail, however, in Quadrophenia it is the film.


Quadrophenia focuses on the trials and tribulations of Jimmy (Phil Daniels) a young mod rocker, whose attachment to his working class identity, is in contrast with his hope to make it as a big name in the magazine industry, although he currently fails to rise above the role of mail clerk, instead seeking his escape through the use of pills, notably blues, which he attains from other members of his motorcycle riding crew.  Hoping to make some sense of his life, Jimmy navigates the world of London in a pill-induced fever dream, attempting to make passes at the girls he sees in clubs, while continually passing along his drugs to those around him, each escaping from their own communities, whether it be the drug dealing Jamaican immigrant Spider (Gary Shail) or the equally disillusioned love interest to Jimmy, Steph (Phil Daniels).  The constant late night boozing and partying on the part of Jimmy leads to constant condemnation by his suspicious parents, only finding minimal solace when he and his Father (Michael Elphick) share a joking--albeit telling--conversation about the nature of his musical tastes and particular adoration for the work of The Who.  When, Jimmy and his bike gang come to odds with the members of another rival group, led by the popular and notably attractive Ace Face (Sting) a heavy amount of rioting breaks out that involves destructing some of downtown London and leads to Jimmy becoming a troublesome figure to the police, which is only exacerbated by his recent breaking into a pharmacy to attain money and a large amount of pills, which he uses like candy.  When Jimmy eventually loses his job, he too loses any sense of his identity and when he can no longer keep the affections of Steph, who has now begun a relationship with another of Jimmy's friends, the lone young man takes to his motorbike and traverses the white cliffs of dover, yelling and screaming in frustration as he constantly looks over the cliff.  In the closing moments of the film, Jimmy careens his bike towards the cliff, in apparent suicide, however the last shot is solely of a destroyed bike and nothing more, the whereabouts of Jimmy remaining unknown.


I mentioned the way in which music works within this film, while it almost entirely exists within a space of the non-diegetic, there is one instance where Jimmy and a rival youth are enjoying a bath at a local bathhouse.  The two in separate rooms begin singing respective rock ballads of the time, constantly raising their voice and rhthym to overpower the other, despite the contestation of the other persons at the establishment.  While the singing starts off as a childish game of singing, it eventually takes on a violent degree as the two climb over the dividers and begin a fist fight.  It is the confrontational element that speaks to what is occurring within Quadrophenia and its use of music.  Either by juxtaposition or pure adrenaline, the music in the film serves as a means to extend the idea of youth as frustrated and confused, manifested most evidently by The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" which is used in three sections of the film, all with different outcomes contingent on the point in Jimmy's evolution of the character.  In the first shots of the film, a line of it is used in a sort of medley with the other songs of the film, establishing the figure in relation to the youth.  The second sequence the song is used in a more ironic context, as Jimmy and his pals are cruising about London, attaching a sort of unknowing quest for the homosocial bond, while also accepting that such pursuing of desire meets with violent results in this young culture bent on revolt and some bizarre form of conformist anarchy.  Finally, when Jimmy has all but lost his entire social status and by extension his self-identity, the song plays a far more evocative and decidedly synchronous relation to the film, while images of Jimmy staring through a glass window with a reflection of a pier occur with the swelling of the intro music to the film, his driving on the cliffs juxtapose the ultimate lines of love and desire refreshment and healing through the cool rain.  Here the music is almost a requirement and demands that the viewer understand youth culture in a layered and intersecting dialogue at once part of many things, but always personal to the individual in the moment.

Key Scene: We are. We are. We are the mods.

The Criterion bluray for the film is crisp and vibrant and the audio of The Who songs makes it all the more wonderful.

29.12.13

Could You Turn That Racket Down? I Am Trying To Iron Here: Hairspray (1988)

It was fun, fun, fun until daddy took the Tbird away, or daddy dressed as your mother, while Jerry Stiller plays your loony father figure.  This is the type of world that is set up in John Waters' vibrant and satirical dance musical that has since been remade, though with far less a sense of the scope and scale of the material in regards to social commentary.  As much as the film could be seen as a parody of a time gone by, played up to the most campy of proportions, I would contest that Hairspray is as much a love letter to an era as can possibly exist, incorporating sock hops and sixties era Motown B-sides in a way that is both earnest and forward looking.  It is no surprise that Jon Waters as a filmmaker is often lumped in with David Lynch as both seem highly concerned with looking at the space of America that is neither completely abject, or wholly advanced in their privilege.  Indeed, Hairspray while far from a 'normal' film does manage to inquire as to what happens when the intersection between a cinematic identity and the viewers of the film is far less distant and perhaps more similar than initially acknowledged.  John Waters is a rare breed of filmmaker, a provocateur of sorts, who also seems to want not to condemn those around him, but to make them reflect--often through humor--the absurd barriers they have put up around themselves and their families, showing through bodily performance that issues such as weight, gender, race and even class can become traversable when a dialogue is ignited, one that calls attention to the absurdity of such restrictions and dismissals in favor of inclusion.  Dancing to John Waters is one of a variety of expressive means to challenge a status quo, one that is dealt with in focused and layered ways, unlike more contemporary youth musicals, most notably the remake of this film, but more incoherently and problematically in works like High School Musical.  While it is quite possible that John Waters will find this work to be swept under the rug in relationship to some of his more divisive and cringe inducing films, one cannot help but find the love and passion put into this work outright endearing and more than engaging.


Hairspray focuses on the daily life of teenage girl Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) a girl who aspires to dance with Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) on his self-titled show.  While Tracy is considered larger than the average performer on the show, her noted skills on the dance floor and unbridled sense of passion lead her to attempt to break onto the show by attending various dance hall competitions and tryouts.  While Tracy's parents are supportive of her decisions, particularly her mother Edna (Divine) they have trouble supporting her endeavors as she is constantly tied to domestic labor, while her father Wilbur (Jerry Stiller) puts in long hours at the joke shop they run from the first floor of their two story house.  Needless to say, Tracy must rely on her own drive and the help of her friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) to make her name known, a task that proves successful when her dance skills are finally noticed.  Were it not enough for Tracy to break the mold of the traditional dancing teenage girl on The Corny Collins Show by her body image alone, her own outspoken opinions in regards to desegregation come to a point of conflict with one of the shows most popular dancers Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her equally stubborn parents Franklin (Sonny Bono) and Velma (Deborah Harry).  When Tracy's large hair becomes a distraction in school, a vindictive teacher places her into the special education class at the school, where she meets up with the son of the local African-American DJ Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) thus setting into motion a plan to undermine the entire act of segregation on The Corny Collins Show while also seeking out a method to show Amber as the fraud she truly proves to be.  This involves a series of protests and even the temporary jailing of Tracy, but with the help of the entire community and the cheering on of her friends, Tracy is able to not only win the local competition for best female dancer on the show, but she too proves to help the onset of desegregation on the show, even finding herself a boyfriend in the process, her original desire for joining the show in the first place.


 Many films that center around desegregation become incredibly problematic in their desire to assert the presence and aid of white people in the move towards desegregation.  While there were certainly a considerable amount of people who were not of color, helping to push forward the Civil Rights movement, films like The Long Walk Home, Mississippi Burning and more recently the wildly offensive The Help all seem comfortable suggesting that such endeavors were solely the result of white help.  Hairspray almost mockingly tackles such a narrative, by purposefully making the while characters irrelevant to the shifting social change around them, merely figures in a larger narrative, even when they claim to be in favor of such engagements.  The language used by the characters in these respective and idyllic films is often lifted from a  contemporary rhetoric, one that rarely reflects the era, even for a person well intended at the time.  Waters makes such that his film, without being terribly insensitive still manages to locate the dialogue of the sixties as it would have reflected a town traversing the large barrier of emerging desegregation.  I would argue that much of this is afforded by the choice of a somewhat seemingly simple space like a dance show to consider issues of racism.  Since it was a medium of popular culture, one that was also already heavily influenced by the music of the African-American culture it resulted in a rather intriguing cultural milieu that was open to the removal of racial boundaries, because it already existed musically.  The film does allow the white characters who are in favor of desegregation a few moments of confusion, as is evidenced when Tracy and Penny contest a police officer who is refusing to allow an African-American into the The Corny Collins recording, however, where another film would have followed this with an absurd bit of grandstanding on the part of the white character, it moves onto the next sequence while the African-American characters engage in their own initial protest.  Waters film makes sure that viewers know that even if white individuals helped end desegregation, it is purely a relational endeavor and no sense of them as the savior or individual who should be solely praised emerges.

Key Scene:  The line dancing number is some rather minimalist choreography that is executed to great zeal.

This is a delightful little film that is well worth renting.

28.12.13

Barnaby, You Don't Know Anything About Women: Hello, Dolly! (1969)

I have watched a lot of musicals this month and still have a few more to look into, but I am rather certain that Hello, Dolly! will prove to be the example of all of the possible elements of a good musical layered into one brilliant epic number, all helmed by the poised and focused delivery of entertainer extraordinaire Barbra Streisand.  This, however, is only one of the contributing factors to this film as it possesses comedy, drama and enough toe-tapping musical numbers to make even the most anti-musical of viewers want to get out of their seat and dance around, hell I even found myself swaying to the music occasionally.  If any of these elements cannot manage to get the cold hearted cinephile to leap with joy, the inclusion of a singing Walter Matthau is certainly the swelling and inspiring factor of cinematic perfection.  While I might come away from this month with an understanding of Busby Berkeley still being the premier director of movie musicals, followed in a very close second by the eccentric works of Bob Fosse, then I would consider Hello, Dolly!, directed by noted performer Gene Kelly who has made multiple appearances this month on the blog, the actor turned director of the genre.  While wholly different films in theme, tone and appearance, one could suggest that Kelly's transition from actor to director that occurs here in Hello, Dolly! takes on a level of intensity tantamount to that of Charles Laughton going from actor to director of The Night of the Hunter, although the latter does have the notable one and done nature that gives it a mythic sense of scale.  Regardless, Hello, Dolly! is nothing short of a musical at its most ambitious and realized, moving in a sweeping manner through its lengthy runtime, but still leaving a sense of wonderment throughout and a wish that the tim could hold on for just a bit longer, because between the comedic timing of the various actors, a few music interludes that include at least one delightful cameo by Louis Armstrong and what has to be the highlight of Streisand's career, Hello, Dolly! from its opening frames melts into exuberant existence for all to enjoy.


Set in 1890's New York, Hello, Dolly! focuses on a group of upper middle class individuals navigating the spaces of socialite dinners and engagements of marriage and prosperity, most notably with the endeavors of one Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) a tailor and textile aficionado who has long overlooked the necessity of settling down and getting married, admitting the need for a "dainty" woman in his life for composures sake.  While he has his eye on a milliner named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew) it is a woman from his past named Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) who seems more interested in accruing his affections after the passing of her late husband.  Using her charm and guile, Dolly convinces Horace to take his time in approaching Irene for her hand, while she simultaneously introduces Irene and her coworker Minnie Fay (E.J. Peaker) to Horace's young apprentices Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) and Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) hoping that their wide-eyed charm will prove just the trick in getting the group to move their affections away from Horace onto their own goals, ones that allow for Dolly to plant the seed of desire in the stoic, but often misguided Horace.  Of course, the narrative plays this entire endeavor out in grand form, involving a variety of parades and dinners with which Dolly must come to odds with her lavish past, one that includes the adoration of Rudolph Reisenweber (David Hurst) and a vast array of other well-to-do individuals, all evidence when she arrives to much spectacle at the man's home and is in an honored guest during dinner.  Furthermore, Barnaby and Cornelius are not exactly forthright in their affections and need prodding and poking to become intimate with Irene and Minnie, eventually needing the women to make the advances, much in the same vein as Dolly is proving to be the instigator in her impending relationship with Horace.  While Horace flails to keep his dignity in tact as it becomes apparent his ways are becoming antiquated, fully evidenced by his nephew Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune) outright refusing to listen to his advice and the opening of a new tailor shop by his former employees, he has no choice but to concede to marrying Dolly.  The brilliance being that Dolly never once suggested the reality, instead hinting at it subliminally or allowing for misdirection to work in a layered form.


This movie is grand in scope and no musical number is short or half realized.  Indeed the film has a rather lengthy ten minute opening song and dance bit before viewers are even given a title card.  This is in line with the genre, but even in this context the breadth and length of such performances are exceptionally long.  While it is arguably the case for every musical, I would suggest that the length of time devoted to performance within Hello, Dolly! is intended to extend the metaphor of performing social responsibilities, here referring to ones involving dating and advancing an agenda of marriage.  Take for example, the initial performance of "I Need A Dainty Woman" by Walter Matthau's Horace. The stoic man whose refusal to speak at any length in the non-singing portions of the narrative, is juxtaposed with his marching and tonal shifting--albeit comedically--while singing this song.  Pairing this with a rather extensive use of the tropes of musical genre, allow for the entire song to speak length to what Horace knows he must do socially to accrue such a woman, yet his reluctance to do so is reflected by his musical numbers existing in the space of marching with other, affirming his own retreating back into masculine singularity as an ideal.  It is not until the closing moments when the song is reappropriated to refer to his newly formed relationship with Dolly that it is moved into a space of a large outdoor dancehall.  The performance is newly situated.  Even other songs like the title song, take on this performative layered level as Dolly must navigate a social space where she is both adored and must learn to navigate her adoration with care and poise.  However, it is wholly the fifteen plus minute dinner service seen that uses narrative performance through the musical to its most extensive and realized.  Cleverly juxtaposed with the ideals of social etiquette, Horace's own suspicions about Dolly's motivations and the attempts by Barnaby and Cornelius to escape the judgement of lower class status, the spectacle of flipping and leaping waiters and demanding patrons is evidence of a director whose own work in front of the camera is of decided note to his ability to impose grand visions onto film.

Key Scene:  Did I mention flipping waiters and flying chicken dinners yet?

This movie is worth your time and is certainly easily accessible via Netflix and other sources.

27.12.13

It Only Feels So Bad In The Morning, Because It Feels So Good The Night Before: Pal Joey (1957)

It is quite apparent at this point in my month of musicals that George Sidney will be the most problematic of directors, in that his films possess notable issues of misogyny and in earlier films appropriate racism.  At least when it came to Show Boat era could forgive some of the missteps, as problematic as they be and in the later film Viva Las Vegas, the element of teachability for the male gaze makes it considerably more engaging.  Unfortunately, Pal Joey is somewhere between these to and in no way is this a good thing.  It is an absurdly misogynist film that promotes male promiscuity in a manner that is not even remotely ironic or satirical.  It is clear that the film intends to fully embrace the transitional figure of Frank Sinatra as the lead, here a far cry from his wide-eyed second man roll in something like On The Town and while his performance is certainly worthwhile, given the context of his debonair and libertine ways within the film it leads one towards more points of frustration than feelings of positive execution.  Musically, the film is rather exceptional, but that is hardly to Sidney's benefit, as both the earlier mentioned films also possessed great music, one by a popular musical powerhouse and the other by the duo who is perhaps most synonymous with musical theater and film.  Under the veneer of all these problems could very well lay a great film, but without a context of knowing irony that emerges in works like Funny Face or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the attempts at humor and endearing misogyny fall flat and manage to affirm patriarchal principles in a musical space that is already suffering from heteronormativity in a wild and inconceivable way.  I think the greatest tragedy of the films is that it could have been the musical equivalent of a Hitchcock film, particularly with some of the more surrealistic bends the film takes in the back half and only doubly so with the inclusion of Kim Novak in the cast, but wherein the psychosexual tension at play often obscures clear gender norms in the great auteur's work, here it is yet another device that does not hit its mark with any sense of intent or clear message.  Pal Joey suffers from being far too narrow in its ideology and focus.


Pal Joey begins with the title character Joey Evans (Frank Sinatra) being tossed onto a train out of town after a revelation that he was caught in a room with a woman, who just happened to be underage and the daughter of an influential politician, thus setting into motion his own relationship with a narrative wherein his philandering ways, as incredibly troublesome as they may be, become  point of narrative connection between viewer and subject.  Joey, returning to his old stomping grounds attempts to gain a job as a lounge singer, immediately meeting up with not only some of his former lovers, but various big shots in the entertainment industry, some of whom he has less than stellar relations.  The former fling Vera (Rita Hayworth) is particularly interesting to Joey's past as he recalls her from his time as a a singer in a burlesque club, wherein Rita would perform various stripteases, a revelation, Joey manages to make real during a high end charity dinner, using the power of money and philanthropy to get the hesitant Vera to recreate her former self.  This act, while initially frustrating to Vera, does cause the two to begin a rekindling of their relationship, but when another young artist named Linda (Kim Novak) enters the picture, Joey migrates towards her ingenue stylings and general impressionability.  This movement of affections on the part of Joey, leads to Vera throwing herself at Joey in figurative ways, both agreeing to sell her club and even marry Joey if he will agree to stay with her, however, Joey chooses to pursue a life with Linda, one that involves them opening their own night club together, although in its initial inception, Linda is less than pleased with the idea and allows for the overly optimistic Joey to travel to Sacramento alone.  Eventually, realizing her own equal feelings for the singer, Linda follows Joey.  Joey the constant trickster attempts to ignore the advances of Linda, pretending to be over desiring her affections, but he eventually gives into her and the two are shown walking hand-in-hand in the closing moments of the film.


This film is decidedly frustrating because it places the burden of the failed relationships not on the philandering Joey but on the respective women of the film, even going so far as to visually suggest that it is understandable for Joey to want to navigate between a use of both bodies, because they are both things to be looked at and objectified.  For Vera it is in the classical fixed camera sense, where her burlesque is done in a more theatrical styling, whereas Linda's involves constant and frenetic zooming of the camera to add a haptic feeling to the relationship between looking and desire that is to be appropriated both to the viewer and to Joey.  Essentially, the film is positing, through these various gazes that Joey is being masculine and is privileged to choose between either, or both if he pleases and it is wholly the responsibility of the respective women to deny or deter such possibilities. If either of them fail to do so, at least as Sidney's film suggests, it is not to be the fault of Joey, indeed, the film almost laughs at his mishaps, even when the appear to be nothing short of statutory rape.  I knew from the opening moment of the film that it would be a bit of a bumpy ride, when after being tossed on the train for his near sexual encounter with an underaged girl, the film throws in a knowing comedic look by Sinatra and enough slapstick musical cues to make Billy Wilder roll over in his grave.  George Sidney, is clearly going for comedy, but it is comedy that is entirely constructed from a place of privileged pretense, one that affords indifference to the possibility that rejecting the love or misusing any love that is accrued by Joey could have very dire results for the respective women, particularly when they are asked to become vicious towards one another over a man who, in all likelihood, will continue his philandering only moments after settling into his new relationship.  While, Joey's mock refusals are to be taken lightly in the closing moments of the film, they too show that he could step away from such a relationship with equal levity, moving away and towards the things he desires in a way equally frenetic as the camera work of the film.

Key Scene:  Rita Hayworth's musical number is quite provocative, rather humorous and one of the only real saving graces of this film, but this can be chalked up entirely to the performance and not the work of the filmmaker.

26.12.13

Now Don't Bullshit A Bullshitter: All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse is nothing short of a visionary, this is not intended to be specific to his skills a choreographer or to limit the consideration to only his work as a filmmaker.  His musicals in all their wildly revisionist nature prove to be an entirely different fare from the conventional work, particularly as it contrasts the spectacular, but often nausea-inducing showy works of the forties and fifties.  Using whispers, snaps and pulling heavily from the sounds of the natural world, Fosse creates a type of musical that works from the ground up making the diegetic and non-diegetic necessitate one another for a fully functioning film.  This is not, however, to say that his works are somehow entirely situated within reality.  As was certainly shown in my earlier review of Cabaret, but almost exclusively a product of All That Jazz, the otherworldly, or the afterlife, is always at play within the experiences of an individual, particularly one who is fracturing and falling apart at the seams.  Furthermore, where another director would play up the loving and earnest look at a person falling into their final days and hours, Fosse chooses to go with the real, looking at the plight of a man dying and his success and failures at reconciliation.  While I have encountered other attempts at the independent filmmaking approach to the musical All That Jazz is, undoubtedly, the crowning achievement, managing to use the metacinematic in a simple, but appropriate manner and never allowing for the lavish sets necessary for certain numbers to overpower the narrative.  While it is a far cry from the composition and symmetry of the illustrious Busby Berkeley musical numbers, it is certainly no less startling or awe-inspiring.  All That Jazz works not in spite of the traditional musical film, but because of its very limitless nature in the filmic language.  Indeed, Fosse reminds viewers that perhaps next to the expansive possibilities of animated films that the non-linear and extra-diegetic structure of the musical allow for exploration of the human existence well beyond the corporeal, the final result of such an exploration is absolutely riveting in this film.


All That Jazz focuses on the experiences of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) a theatre director, choreographer and filmmaker.  While Joe has managed to establish himself as a legitimate figure in both communities, the stress of such high demands, doubled with his life of philandering have led him to become reliant on a wicked blend of smoking and anxiety reduction pills to keep awake and productive.  On the coattails o f a newly anticipated theatrical show with a tinge for the erotic, Joe proves incapable of delivering to his expectations and when negative feedback emerges both in regards to his play and his newly edited film, he collapses at work.  When in the hospital it is revealed that he has been suffering seriously from angina pectoris, a particularly troublesome heart dysfunction that is a result of his high stress job.  The doctors at the hospital insist that if Joe hopes to survive he must severely limit the amount of stress inducing endeavors he engages in, specifically anything that involves a lot of movement.  Joe is completely flippant to such requests and continues to choreograph from his bedroom, while also taking in the various criticisms of his new film.  Furthermore, the seemingly unfazed Joe keeps up with his philandering ways, both sleeping with his dancers and attempting to make advances on his day nurse.  When it becomes more clear, however, that Joe is going to die from his angina, he begins to move through the various stages of approaching death, which is narratively overlaid by his recent comedic film's narrative, as the actor in the film states the various occurrences, such as bargaining and acceptance as Joe engages in each issue.  These challenges include Joe coming to assure his love for his young daughter and aspiring dancer Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), as well as a sort of truce with his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer).  In the closing moments of the film, Joe is having trouble navigating between the reality of his hospital bed and his own execution of a musical about his death, the two seem to coalesce into a feverish nightmare, one that has him singing lead, while he caries about intravenous injections, images of his pumping heart serving as the backdrop for the scene.  Although it is a grand bit of spectacle, the film ends in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, asserting that in death finality comes to even the act of dreaming.


Temporal and spatial contrast are huge in the musical, as I have mentioned earlier, the escapist nature of the genre and the necessity of advancing time considerably result in musical numbers serving as transitory spaces between one event and another.  In All That Jazz, the various performances should also serve a similar factor, but it is almost as though in this situation the music and Joe's own relationship to the songs is stuck in some sort of liminal space.  These moments are liminal in that they reflect Joe as he is lost amidst two opposing forces, that which causes him to identify as one embodiment of the self or other.  This is done most innocently, although it might not be apparent, when Joe creates the Air Erotica musical number, wherein he must learn to navigate between his own creations as an artist and his own lustful and passionate desires, the backers for his show being confused by the graphic sexual nature of the various moments, completely overlooking the ways in which such a number might suggest a sexual politics that is far more complex than they could begin to imagine.  It is perhaps least innocent at a time when it would seem so, which occurs when Joe's daughter Michelle and his girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking) jointly perform a song and dance number in his apartment.  At this point, Joe must decide whether he wants to fully commit to being a father figure in the traditional sense, or a paternal figure in a sexual sense, both girls seeking a degree of affection that is eerily and problematically similar.  These two sequences are somewhat similar in composition, it the final sequence, which features Joe as the lead in "Bye Bye Life" that absolutely traipses the lines of liminality, especially considering that it is performed, assumedly, in Joe's mind, wherein all that he witnesses and learns is wholly an internal struggle, completely detached from the corporeal space.  However, because it is about the death of Joe it has a inherent tie to corporeality, the stage thus becoming an embodied thing, something that Joe must navigate one last time free from the reigns of temporal and spatial control.  The liminal here is expansive, because in death all the spaces and boundaries appear to become definitively destroyed.

Key Scene: The "Bye Bye Life" number is the final portion of the film and it certainly builds to it in a perfected manner.

Get this film.  It is perfect.

25.12.13

Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Et Cetera: The King And I (1956)

Appropriation has been a rather significant point of conversation as I have navigated through this month of musicals, most notably as it relates to the American South and the pictorial depictions both post-War African-American communities, or more commonly the lack of depictions in favor of things like blackface and hyper-performative elements by the few black actors and performers who were able to make a name for themselves in a white entertainment business.  Not known for their particularly subversive depictions of gender, race and by extension class, I knew that the engagement with the Rodgers and Hammerstein fare that was to be The King and I would not be the most ideal of situations.  While Yul Brynner does an exceptional job in the film, met with an equally paced performance on the part of Deborah Kerr, the film does suffer a bit from a dated insight into how to properly depict a country that is less than familiar to the Western world.  There is a high sense of absurdism at play in the film, where joking passes and barbarism on the part of the Siam persons on display takes on a rather blatant and unfortunate level of Orientalism.  I say unfortunate because much like the blackface performances of eras earlier, The King and I is a visually perfected film that happens to incorporate rhetoric and performance that would, and should, be considered racist and sexist in a contemporary setting.  Like The Jazz Singer though, the film represents a considerable shift in the language of cinema, here not so much as a matter of technological advancement, but is instead in direct relationship to shifting understandings of narrative construction and what place a musical interlude can play into a narrative.  I would place this in a similar space as Black Narcissus although that Powell and Pressburger film exists in a world all its own, the only real significant connections being the lead actress and a considerable layer of Western encounters the East through institutionalized colonial movement.  Watching The King and I with a critical eye can prove a rewarding experience, one that is accepting of its ethical problems, while also enamored with its visual audacity.


The King and I centers on the life of Siam dignitary and decided egomaniac King Mongkut (Yul Brynner) whose recent dirge of children, 106 altogether, paired with an expanding world of Western influence, cause him to agree to hire on a teacher for his various children and wives.  The woman hired is Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) who along with her son Louis (Rex Thompson) take to Siam only to discover a world far apart from their demure British life.  Mongkut is a highly assertive figure, demanding complete humility by all those involved, including the equally confrontational Anna, seeing her status as a woman as a thing to serve his male privilege. Furthermore, considering the rather solitary space of Siam, Mongkut has a very limited understanding of the Western world, pulling much of his knowledge from The Bible, whose words are confounding and particularly confusing, when Anna begins to teach his children and wives about the world of science, contradicting the religious text blatantly.  Mongkut is further frustrated by Anna's use of Uncle Tom's Cabin in her curriculum, both in its message about slavery, as well as in the realization that it was written by a woman.  Nonetheless, through some sacrificing of dignity, Anna is able to convince Mongkut of the benefit of her education, while also preparing the somewhat brutish king for a visit by other British dignitaries, one that requires considerable posture training on his part amongst other points of etiquette.  Indeed, it is during their visit that both Anna and Mongkut come to realize that they want similar things, both for themselves and their children to be respected, leading to a unified effort to impress the British by what Siam offers.  Mongkut's various wives and children then put on an ballet adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin that is complete with replacing the figure of God with that of Buddha, although the entire performance nearly derails when one of Mongkut's more outspoken wives calls attention to her own status as servant.  While this is corrected, the remainder of the even goes off successfully and Mongkut comes aware to his own aggression and oppressive behavior, which is fortunate as he is very close to dying.  It is indeed in this moment of death that Anna agrees to stay on as an educator, while the previously male-minded king appoints one of his daughters as the new leader of Siam, her first act to remove any act that would create a stander of lesser than another.


While much of the narrative is about issues of appropriation, it is equally so about bargaining with powerful forces, or more specifically patriarchy in a Western context.  Both Anna and Mongkut represent figures who are oppressed in various ways.  As a widowed mother, Anna is allowed very little mobility, particularly in 1860's England, where her economic privilege is inherently tied to a male figure and little was placed on the issue of divorce, death or any situation that might remove that access.  As such the seemingly absurd act of seeking out employment in Siam is met with necessity.  While Mongkut might also seem like a figure of power, it only extends to the space of his incredibly small kingdom, one that is sheltered from the Western world and subject to the eyes of greedy colonizing bodies who see he and his barbaric land as a thing in need of reform to reflect the Christian, Western ideal.  Anna realizes that her financial safety is contingent on Mongkut continuing to keep her employed, therefore she plays into his demands for keeping her head at a lower place than his, while also knowing it is nothing more than a bargaining chip to remain employed, while also subversively teaching the various women in the kingdom of their ability to rebel.  Mongkut is not ignorant to all this by any means and does seem quite hesitant to embrace such a set of teaching, however, he is also bargaining with his own status as a body that is threatened by colonization.  He knows that to teach according to what he believes would make his family look foolish, but he also seems quite aware that he is working with a woman who will be capable of teaching he and his family to fend for themselves in the corrupt world of colonization and imperialist movement.  This all coalesces in the bargaining of the Uncle Tom's Cabin narrative to reconsider the element of servant in a colonial context, by reappropriating the image of the African-American slave to represent Siam, one that further extends to allegorically consider one of Mongkut's wives.  While he is initially frustrated by such a confrontation, he is able to come to a realization of his own problematic oppression in the process.  Here the bargaining is provided with a positive outcome, tragically such maneuvers do not always play out as successfully.

Key Scene:  The entire Uncle Tom's Cabin sequence is quite stunning and aside from its problematic elements, one of the more intriguing rewordings of a narrative I have seen to date.

This is an easy thing to obtain on DVD, but is probably worth renting before owning.

24.12.13

Getting Involved Is So, So Involving: On The Town (1949)

I have already watched High Society as part of this month of musical, wherein a variety of stars coalesced together to make an enjoyable, but somewhat less than realized musical.  In contrast, is On the Town, a film that included a considerable amount of people working both in front of and behind the camera who were still establishing themselves in the entertainment business.  This establishment, however, does not equate to underwhelming delivery on any of their parts, indeed, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra put on career defining work, all the the swell of Leonard Bernstein compositions.  This alone would make for a noted and wholly engaging piece of film, but add Stanley Donen to the mix and it becomes a thing of sheer beauty.  The version of this film that I was able to catch up with was a digitized version of the VHS copy, which meant a bit of blurriness and weird fading in and out throughout, but like my copy of Pather Panchali which suffers from the same issues, this still worked beautifully.  The swagger that is seemingly inherent within Frank Sinatra's music pushes some of the numbers to new heights and an extended ballet sequence affords Gene Kelly a chance to shine, moving madly through the space as though it were foolish to even confine his dynamism.  It would be one thing to just sing the praises of the visual elements of the film, which are extensive and noted, but it also manages to also be an incredibly funny film, one that plays into the absurdity of heteronormative ideals in the musical, while also knowingly ascribing to them to avoid any confusion.  It is perfectly post-World War II in its composition using the narrative of a few Navy guys on leave to push for a stranger in a strange place narrative that also refers back to the down on their luck girl in the big city that made for a narrative in nearly every Busby Berkeley musical of a decade earlier.  I could sit here and pick apart every single thing that works about On the Town, but it would ruin some of the surprise, or worse would contradict the perfect simplicity of the film, using basic cinematic language to lovingly move through a stylized and sensational version of New York City.


On the Town works in a cyclical narrative focusing on the arrival of a group of Navy men on leave.  The Navy guys include the somewhat brutish but well-meaning Ozzie (Jules Munshin), the curly haired and dashing Chip (Frank Sinatra) who wants nothing more than to explore the city his father has spoken so fondly about.  Finally, there is Gabey (Gene Kelley) the everyman sailor who is simply along for the ride.  When it is Gabey who encounters Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen) a local model and ballerina who Gabey assumes to be famous as a result of her being on the billboards of Subway trains.  Gabey is smitten with Ivy, but she flees the scene to return to her rather desolate life as a student/exploited worker for the maniacal Madame Dilyovska (Florence Bates).  Recruiting his pals, Gabey, Chip and Ozzie take it upon themselves to search all of New York City for the model.  Along the way the each member meets their romantic parter, Ozzie coming to be a point of desire and fascination for museum curator Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) who compares him to a primitive male on display in the museum.  While, Ozzie is initially confused by such an assertion, he also enjoys the advances of the attractive Claire.  Chip meets up with the local cab driver Brunhilde "Hildy" Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) whose wild-mouth and assertive nature lead him to enjoy her company in a roundabout way, only spurred further by her near textbook memory of all the spaces in New York, thus making his tourism more well-executed and updated.  Yet, Gabey is still struggling to find Ivy a quest that is greatly shortened by a happenstance encounter.  Ivy explains that she is also quite attracted to Gabey, but her point of employment proves rather problematic since it involves burlesque dancing for the Madame Dilyovska who uses the cost of her ballet lessons over the young Ivy.  Agreeing to meet on the top of the Empire State Building things become complicated when Ivy must return to her work, the determined Gabey seeks her out, nonetheless, all the while the group must run around the city police force that have taken a stand against their various accidents and inducing of trouble.  The groups concerted effort does allow for the two to unite, in the process discovering that they might have been far closer together than they ever imagined.


This film, as I noted borrows from the Busby Berkeley narrative of woman in the big city, who is struggling in her place of employment, while also hoping that they can snag a man for their point of escape.  Furthermore, given that it involves a group of Navy men navigating New York City it also takes on a layer of the homosocial bond, their own engagement with the girls becoming a point of this shared desire.  What becomes fascinating though is that both group are played at odds to one another in a very heteronormative manner, the girls looking at the men as a bit ruff and tumble, particularly since they are Navy men, although in non-diegetic sense both Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly exert more feminine identities at this point in their careers.  In contrast the men see the woman as things "to be saved" although it is rather clear that both Hildy and Claire possess jobs that are financially independent and of which they are quite proud.  Indeed, Hildy even makes a note of her distinct difference to the other male cabbies in New York.  It is a film that carefully crafts the two gendered and genre spaces together, at times making a clear distinction between the two.  There is a particular dance and musical number with the men praising the life of the Navy that allows them to constantly philander about never needing to settle down.  In yet another knowing moment the choreography has the women look at the camera asserting their own knowledge of this reality, while also seeming to suggest that they can end these wily ways by a mere flashing of their eyes.  The narrative pushes to have these unions be somewhat unconventional, pairing the oafish Ozzie with the intellectual Claire and the travelled Hildy with the somewhat sheltered Chip.  It would seem like it is a suggestion that all women are capable of finding a man, without expecting them to be a fabrication of themselves, again terribly heteronormative, but understandably so for the era.  I would seem this is the case, but it would negate the unfortunate experiences of Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce) a comedic point of contrast to the "beauty" of the other women.  None of the men even acknowledge her as a sexually attractive individual.  Even though Gabey asserts that she will eventually find her partner, his conviction seems particularly uninspired.

Key Scene:  Frank Sinatra singing "You're Awful" is just about the most delightful song I have heard in quite awhile.

The DVD for this is cheap enough to suggest buying, but renting might not be a bad approach as it is admittedly not the lavish musical some might initially apply to a Stanley Donen work.

23.12.13

He Found Some Dice And Think The Devil Got Ahold Of Him: Cabin In The Sky (1943)

The black experience in America is one that is troubled by many factors and opening a history book more than denotes these various issues.  Yet, even with the heavy awareness of a history of slavery, Jim Crow oppression and a hard earned Civil Rights movement that resulted in the deaths of many a prolific figure.  A consensus that the black experience somehow did not extend to issues within popular entertainment is outright foolish and generally ill-conceived.  Indeed, jazz and poetry were part in parcel to the popular culture of the time, but became a thing to be appropriated within white culture, much in the same way that primitivism would inject new life into the modernist art movement without really providing any justification to its origins and certainly not the equal point of access to the very artists with which the work was drawn.  Now, when it came to Hollywood productions the black representation was far more troubling, certainly denoted this month with the various musicals I have watched, a variety of which use blackface in a very unapologetic manner, but this was far from the only genre to appropriate such imagery.  I say all this to note the exceptional nature of something like Cabin in the Sky in its complete use of an entirely black cast, which included musical powerhouses of the time, particularly a dynamic and inspired turn by Ethel Waters who is moving as a troubled wife that simply wants the best for her husband.  As the Warner Brother DVD notes at its beginning, the imagery present within Cabin in the Sky is not always the most ideal or positive when it comes to a representation of black culture during the time, however, there is something very aware in the filmmaking of Vincente Minnelli, who shoots the film in a very loving manner, allowing the performances to take on an heir of the natural, as opposed to some of the more hyper-performative things that happened in early all-black films, most notably Green Pastures.  Sure it is far from a perfect film in terms of racial depictions, but it is void of blackface and aside from a few unfortunate instances this really is a testament to the magnificent performance art coming out of the African-American community in the thirties and forties.


Cabin in the Sky focuses on the life of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) a dice gambler who is down on his luck and owes considerable money to various gamblers in his community.  However, Joe realizing the error of his ways has taken to a life of improvement, inspired by his loyal and devout wife Petunia (Ethel Waters).  Unfortunately, since his gambling is a considerable addiction, the rediscovery of a set of calamity cubes in his drawer followed by the prodding of local loan sharks, leads to Joe foolishly returning to the local gambling saloon, only to become caught up in a fight, in which he is stabbed in the process.  This near fatal would leads to the religiously confused Joe to be a point of confrontation between hell and heaven, each believing that they have the right to his soul.  Hell is represented by Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) who posits that Joe must necessarily spend his eternity in hell because while on Earth he was suspectible to gambling, boozing and the provocations of the local temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne).  Yet, The General (Kenneth Spencer) represents the side of Heaven and asserts that considering the heavy amount of praying being undertaken on the part of Petunia that he should be given a chance for heaven.  In a religious bargaining, both sides agree to give the morally ambiguous soul of Joe six months to correct his ways, although his earthly spirit will have no recollection of the events prior, instead; having only his world and conscious to make his decisions.  At this point the battle for Joe's sole does take on spiritual proportions as both Lucifer Jr. and The General exact their sway on the individuals in the world, as well as the natural world around them in order to save Joe.  Lucifer Jr. attempts to play into Joe's weakness for gambling, using trickery to make him win a large amount of money in a lottery, one that causes individuals like Georgia Brown and his former loan sharks to come hunting for his money.  In contrast, The General uses the spirituality of Petunia to push Joe towards salvation.  All of these events lead to a climactic, jazz-infused confrontation with both sides that layers into a larger narrative in regards to where salvation truly occurs.


Cabin in the Sky is perhaps one of the great considerations of religious navigation and how one attains salvation and seeks forgiveness.  While I will not be able to review it anytime soon, I was able to catch up with Philomena and it is an equally ambiguous, but, nonetheless astute observation on how one navigates the world of salvation.  I would place Cabin in the Sky second only to Secret Sunshine in its look at how factors beyond simple faith or penance play into a person's ability to find religious understanding.  Joe is a troubled character who clearly wants to correct the wrongs in his life, looking initially to do so through financial means, as it is a world he understands as a result of his crippling gambling addiction.  This is clear in his choice to buy Petunia a electric washer for their house, despite having no electricity with which to run the appliance.  He assumes that what Petunia wants is a means to make her physical labors lessened, although she constantly asserts that she wants Joe only to be appreciative and around for her to love, as Joe's own salvation becomes more clear and define, to do his actions towards Petunia, bringing her gifts that he had to labor to accrue, most notably the simple, yet sweet, gesture of picking wild flowers.  It is this understanding that his own actions have come from the natural world that inspires Petunia to note the brilliance of God in the natural world.  Indeed, much of Joe's frustration and trouble comes from the mechanized and industrialized world, his connection to the damnation in the saloon or Georgia Brown's arriving via train.  This film, while somewhat troublesome in its context, seems to suggest that happiness is tied to understanding that not all joy and affection can be produced, indeed, when money is placed into the narrative, even Petunia becomes jealous, asserting that her frustration comes from Joe offering money to Georgia Brown, when it is somewhat clear that it is more a result of catching the two together, without understanding that Joe was doing his best to deter her advances.  The narrative does posit the absolute power of the natural to shift the order of things as a certain tornado comes to solidify Joe's final push towards salvation through a cataclysmic cleansing.

Key Scene:  The "consequences" song between Anderson and Horne is a moment of natural, simplistic aural contrast in an otherwise wholly visual film and it sticks out in an emotionally stirring way.

This is available via the Warner Archive and the DVD looks like near HD quality.  It is worth your time if you are fascinated by race in American cinema or musicals at their most realized.

22.12.13

Always Get Moving Again. OK!: The Happiness Of The Katakuris (2001)

The idea of post-genre cinema is one of the things that has come to truly fascinate me in the past year or so as I begin to truly unpack my research interests and begin to focus on graduate school endeavors.  When I refer to post-genre, at least in my mind, it is taking a particularly key genre, such as horror or the western and using tropes and themes from it in an incredibly post-modern way, usually in a satirical or absurdist manner.  Of course, there are post-genre exceptions that manages to take their execution very seriously without be comedic or absurdist, John Hillcoat's The Proposition being a perfect example of such an occurrence.  Indeed, some filmmakers simply exist in a state of post-genre, always mashing together what they find to be cinematic language extended to its furthers points, Quentin Tarantino being an example of this, although much of what he does is purely copying and pasting.  Other directors, like one of Tarantino's favorites, Takashi Miike manages to be post-genre in every cinematic endeavor he undertakes.  For example, both Audition and his more recent 13 Assassins manage to be post-genre purely by prefabricating the horror and samurai films to fit within a post-digital and post-modern viewer palette, resulting in incredibly engaging works of film that also happen to be deeply unsettling for their frank depictions of violence and oppression.  In a world all its own, however, is Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris, which sets itself up primarily as a musical, but also functions as a tradtional family drama, not to mention making heavy use of claymation throughout.  In setting up a film with such a series of idyllic and traditionally positive genre elements, Miike's choice to make the film a horror thriller within this context proves to create as perplexing and enigmatic a film as one might ever encounter, taking second only to House in terms of otherworldly Japanese cinema.  Assumedly a work like this is part of the Japanese Weird Wave, but simply describing it as such does nothing to help establish how truly unusual and anti-normative this particular work manages to be.  It has no limitations, nor does it expect its viewers to look for such boundaries.


As the title suggests the film centers on the experiences of a family known as the Katakuris, who have been living under the guise of failure from their various generations for well over four decades, beginning with the father Jinpei (Tesuro Tamba) and running all the way down to the Katakuri son and former criminal Masayuki (Shinji Takeda).  While failure seems to simply be part of the family dynamic, they are nonetheless capable of running a moderately successful bed and breakfast in a rural area of Japan, even picking up considerable business when they arrive at a new location.  Things at the establishment seem to be particularly successful until a weird occurrence begins to unfold wherein the various guests at their home begin dying, either by suicide or other inexplicable causes of death.  Alongside the other members of the family divorced daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida) manages to navigate her own severe anxieties and depressions at being left by a Japanese man purporting to be part of the British Royal Family named Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano).  Aside from struggling at his return, Shizue also attempts to shelterer daughter Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki) who also narrates the film, from the various violence and sadness occurring around their residence.  However, this attempt at sheltering proves all but futile when it is revealed that not only have the buried bodies begun to stack up considerably, but many of them are coming back to live with avegence, one that is surprisingly quelled by the seemingly indifferent Yurie.  Between this bizarre occurrence and the unforeseen return of Richard to the family space, the various failures of the members of the family are pushed to the forefront and each is able to deal with their individual issues, while also understanding that they are within a family structure simultaneously, one that should prosper both within and detached from the individual.  Although the family clearly moves to a place of forgiveness, the rumbling and eventual explosion of a nearby volcano proves to be the last bit of push needed for a new direction in their lives, even if violently so.


I want so desperately to unpack every bit of minutia in this film, but I am aware that it is a lot going on and it is only exacerbated by not being completely versed on the various genres at play both in their Western context and their appropriation within a Japanese setting.  Furthermore, I am far too lacking in knowledge of the familial space in Japan to offer a further consideration.  I make all these claims, because I am still hoping that I can draw some conclusions based on post-colonial bodies and having scene not only other Miike films, but quite a lot of Japanese cinema as well (although I could always stand to view more).  I want first to consider Miike's use of claymation within the film, while things like Alice and The Fantastic Mr. Fox have managed to push the consideration of the childlike association to such an advertising style, it is decidedly entrenched within the cinema of young children and Miike is clearly using it in this context.  The humorous, slapstick nature of the situations occurring in this setting lead one to assume a situation in which it is wholly funny, if not a bit on the grotesque side, but I would argue that it is using this very non-threatening medium to call attention to very real issues of violence, based in oppression within the context of modern Japan.  This could emerge in two distinct ways, the first being a fear of the colonized past, wherein the performative Richard, donning his literal costume, represents an idea of the colonial figure as idea, even though he himself is indeed a colonized body in the context, his rejection is affecting his body, whereas the claymation serves as a means to directly address the violent bodily harm at play within post-colonial and later gendered oppression, by making light of it.  Brechtian as it may be, it is calling attention to the viewers own concerns, by placing it under the guise of humor and childlike comedy.  This same critique could be extended to consider masculinity within the musical numbers as well, whether it be the action movie inspired musical number about male sacrifice, or the entire scenes surrounding the deeply disturbing engagement between a young girl and the sumo wrestler guest.  It is all a veneer of hyper-idealism that plays into the reality which is far from ideal.  Indeed, this is on a level of anti-escapism equal to Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark.

Key Scene:  The karaoke style sing-a-long portion had me laughing uncontrollably the entire time.

The DVD is a bit pricey and not the best quality.  While I can hold out for a bluray upgrade in the future that is probably not very likely.  As such, renting is the most appropriate course of action.

21.12.13

Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair: South Pacific (1958)

I know I have been dropping words like sumptuous, lush and lavish in my descriptions of the musicals I have been watching over the past month and in most of the instances it has been more than a deserved attribute within the larger film, often serving as one of many factors in the escapist cinema and its varied mise-en-scenes.  However, now having seen the absolutely stunning South Pacific I am rather certain that this is the singular example of use of Technicolor within cinema, as not only does it manage to use it to draw attention to the vivid landscape on which the narrative is set, but it also uses the various dyes individually to set a mood for the space of the island in a vibrant and wholly different way.  South Pacific, itself, is not the most moving or stirring of musicals by a long shot, indeed, proving a bit on the dated side throughout and as heteronormative as things come in terms of musicals, yet this factor of visual aesthetics proves to be the most rewarding element carrying the viewer throughout its admittedly exhaustive runtime, looking and feeling more like a western than a musical per se.  Yet, one must remember that this is a Rodgers and Hammerstein production so runtime is a bit more in line, pulling from grand musical numbers and reprises of these numbers as a means to create narrative flow and an evocation of sentiment.  Complete with a overture and intermission theme, this is about as dedicated to a musical recreating its staged look as one can find and while it does not always translate to enjoyable cinema, South Pacific must be acknowledged for its integral approach in moving between the language of film musical and theatrical musical, taking risks that do occasionally pay of in magnificent ways, whether it be the absolutely perfected use of lighting throughout the film to give it a saturated almost humid feeling that is in line with the island or the fact that the performances often break the fourth wall as if to draw attention to the performative elements at play in the genre.


South Pacific is a rather expansive plot considering its lengthy runtime, although much of the narrative is centered on the space of a Word War II military base in a nondescript location in the South Pacific.  The film focuses primarily on the going-ons of Army nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) an idealistic young woman who takes great pride in her serving her country, but has also come under questioning for her relationship with a French exile named Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi) who is under the watchful eye of the American government for his having killed a man prior to his coming to the South Pacific.  Meanwhile, other members of the military located on the island are doing their best to convince locale native and trading pro Bloody Mary (Jaunita Hill) to allow them access to the island of Bali Ha'i a place that is off limits as sanctioned by the American government.  The understanding that Bali Ha'i is such a lush and untampered place drives many of the men into a blind ambition to navigate the space, most notably Lieutenant Joseph Cable (John Kerr) who is eventually able to make it to the island and meet with a young woman named Liat (France Nuyen) who he becomes romantically involved with, immediately discovering that she is the daughter of Bloody Mary thus leading to their being confirmed as man and wife.  As the narrative unwinds the relationship between Nellie and Emile is complicated by a variety of factors, whether it be Nellie's hesitation to embrace a relationship with the ex-patriate due to his mysterious past, or Emile's own concerns about the lasting possibilities he could possess for a young up-and-coming woman while he is a lowly farmer that also happens to have children from a previous marriage.  After failing to "spy" on Emile for the government, Nellie asserts that he is not as terrible as her higher ups assume and he is recruited to help with a campaign in the area.  After a notedly troublesome engagement with the Axis, Nellie assumes Emile to be lost, thus taking it upon herself to raise his children.  In the final moments of the musical, much to her surprise Emile returns and the two set down to dinner in a new tropical family scape.


Post-colonialism.  Perhaps the most complex and theoretically dense of all the post-modern theories.  However, it is deservedly so, because the mass subjugation of person's based on skin color and economic variants from their mostly western counterparts is problematic and frankly outright absurd. While South Pacific is not the most clear-eyed and well-intentioned consideration of issues of colonization, it becomes bluntly apparent within the opening moments of the film that this is its primary concern.  The setting is perhaps the most obvious element of this, both in the fact that much of it is a recreation of the American space through the GI's using an island as their own personal rec center, complete with a bar and various leisures.  The notion that the American military could move into a space and essentially set up shop is wildy problematic, but a reality in terms of what overseas stations have become, particularly in non-Western countries.  The addition of Emile to the mixture ply makes the narrative that much more complex and decidedly on the side of problematic.  Of course, individuals like Bloody Mary and some of the other locals represent a knowing opposition to this colonizer, particularly in their methodologies for exploiting the various lieutenants and higher ups for money and goods, in exchange for trinkets and non-value items.  This is a literal reverse for what many were doing to Native Americans during westward expansion.  The film does become troubling when all of this is set up in the kaleidoscopic lens of the the Technicolor adding a degree of magical realism to what were, undoubtedly, real issues during American occupation of the South Pacific.  If one needs examples they can certainly consider the occupation of spaces like The Philippines or Tonga, where this film allegedly takes place.  This hyper stylizing is most evident in Cable's sexual encounter with Liat, one that is so stylized and predicated by a heavy filtering of the camera, as to make the entire event seem impressionistic.  Yet immediately following the consummation of their relationship the image of islanders working, moves into a bizarre blue green contrast that suggests an uncertainty, something that helps to ground the inherent problems in such an act as colonization.

Key Scene:  When Nellie sings directly into camera it is paired with the noted Technicolor fade framing and it seems as though the very film itself has fixated on a singular voice.  It is truly fascinating.

Unless you are a person fascinated by the historical evolution of color in cinema, South Pacific is a rental type of film.

20.12.13

The Knack To See White When It Is Black: The Tales Of Hoffman (1951)

I am constantly amazed by certain directors when each time I unpack a work of theirs for the first time I find myself captivated and moved in new ways, showing that their cinematic abilities transcend singular feats or ideas, able to appropriate various genres, stylistic choices and ideas into deeply moving and wholly encompassing films.  When I think of directors that this statement holds true for, although they are not given equal credit to Kubrick or the Welles, my mind immediately wanders to the work of Agnes Varda and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Each time I find one of their films anew, or sit down and earnestly revisit their works it is as engaging, if not more moving than the first time, and, fortunately, for the both of them there are still films in their respective oeuvres that have yet to be viewed.  I am adding the directing team of Powell and Pressburger to this list, because they could very well prove the dynamic duo that are in possession of two films in my top ten film discoveries of the last year when I compose such a list on Letterboxd in the upcoming months.  While quite familiar with them years ago, I have only started to chip away at much of their collective works in the past year, one being the absolutely perfect The Red Shoes.  However, it is not this film that moved me in a new cinematic way, but was instead A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) which helped me to understand new cinematic conventions and exactly how powerful a shift one can evoke simply by moving between color and black and white.  As such, stepping into their 1951 film The Tales of Hoffman was initially more of a checklist activity that happened to coincide with my month of musicals than an actual desire, thinking that it would not even come close to A Matter of Life and Death.  While this is true, because the former is traipsing around in top ten films of all time territory for me, The Tales of Hoffman is still an absolutely exception and realized work of art.  I found myself yelling expletives at the screen not out of disdain, but out of earnest confusion as to how such magic could be achieved and how even two directors could deliver such consistency for a two hour film.  This is the magic of the moviegoing experience so many speak of and wax poetic about in interviews and text.  This film was ahead of its time and frankly is still quite ahead of its time.  Nothing works on the visceral viewer quite like the lavish, lush landscapes of a Powell and Pressburger musical.  Nothing.


The Tales of Hoffman is a pseudo-omnibus film in that it is a collection of short narratives all centering around the literary figure of Hoffman (Robert Rounseville).  This man, a poet of sorts navigates the spaces of various tales as a poet and observer to some rather curious occurrences, the first taking place in the laboratory of scientist and engineer of sorts.  In this laboratory the scientist is noted for his ability to create automatons that replicate human movement and behavior, having particular success with the Olympia (Moira Sheerer) whose lifelike movements become a thing of longing for various persons.  Indeed, when donning a special pair of glasses the person looking at the various automatons, including Olympia come to realize that they replicate human behavior on far more than a marionette level.  The second story centers on the travels of Hoffman through Venice where he meats a sultry courtesan named Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina).  The bejeweled woman while incredibly attractive and clearly curious about Hoffman, becomes indifferent to his ways when she comes to understand him as nothing more than a trickster, emphasized by his attempts to fabricate various jewels out of colored candle wax.  The final and perhaps most evocative of the three stories centers on the relationship between Antonia Crespel (Ann Ayars) a sickly opera singer who simply wants to be with her partner who is once again Hoffman.  However, the love is made to be stifled by Antonia's father and stickler for formalities and class separation Spalanzi (Léonide Massine) thus making their relationship an impossibility.  These stories are, of course, all woven together by the narration of Hoffman who explains to those listening to, or rather attending, the ballet that the stories are all intended to represent aspects of a ballet dancer named Stella (Moira Sheerer) who is decidedly his muse.  Yet when, one of Hoffman's advisors and confidants explains that this is problematic, doubled by Stella's own refusal of his advances, Hoffman is left with nothing more to do than to sulk at a bar that fills with young patrons.


Meta.  It is a thing that I will admit to throwing around rather hap hazardously, if not outwardly ironically here on the blog, suggesting that films often take on a meta level that is, if anything, purely incidental.  In regards to The Tales of Hoffman, however, this is meta-narrative, meta-cinema and probably other forms of meta that I could not even begin to unpack.  Tales of Hoffman, is already setting itself up as an adaptation, borrowing form Jacques Offenbach's opera of the same name, however, it becomes fascinating when one considers that the story is about a group of people attending an opera, wherein Hoffman is the focus of the story, yet within the very focus of the story, it is Hoffman telling a further series of stories.  The viewer of this film is asked to watch a film about a group of people watching a play about a man telling stories.  That might be as deep a layer of metafiction as I have encountered and one would assume that such structures would be stacked in such a way as to cause the narrative to implode within itself.  Not in the world of Powell and Pressburger, however, this sort of narrative richness is their expertise and one becomes so aware of the sense of scale both in its grandness, emphasized during the Antonia sequence, when the two lovers are attempting to unite and an image of theatre seating is layered to appear as though it is celestial in composition, only to be double by a kaleidoscopic image of the scowling Spalanzi.  Yet the sense of grandiosity is not the real fascination here, as it is a thing that is often achieved to great ends within cinema.  The real curiosity her comes in the way of Powell and Pressburger devoting an equal level of attention to the most minor of spaces. Indeed, the already expansive narrative delves into the microscopic by allowing the etchings on the side of beer steins to take on their own dance number, moving into the space of art in such a simple way as to show and interconnectedness that New Age thinkers could only hope to express in their faux-intellecutal sermons.  Few films move through space in such a moving way, but even fewer do so with such exuberance.

Key Scene:  For all the real ballet going on in this film, the marionette sequence is absolutely stunning.

This film is sadly OOP and while I have been lucky enough to attain a Criterion disc copy, I would suggest finding a means with which to rent it as its price tag is steadily rising.

19.12.13

I Got, Rhythm!: An American In Paris (1951)

Often times when I am encountering films it proves to be a singular scene of misguidance and ill-conceived execution that cause me to dismiss a work entirely.  This is often frustrating as it proves to come in the closing moments of a film and make everything that has occurred previously moot and irrelevant.  My most notable case of this problem occurs in Ben Affleck's The Town, an exceptionally well made film up to the point of its awful ending.  In contrast there are the occasions when the execution of a film is less than stellar, particularly in comparison to the actors and directors involved leading to a certain degree of tuning out on the part of the viewer, who is hoping for equal excitement as to their other works.  All but turned off to the film, the closing segments of the film take such a dramatic switch as to become wholly engaging and captivating in a way that only occurs with the most focused and concerted efforts.  An American In Paris absolutely falls within the latter, proving to be a work that is lesser than Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis, as well as not possessing the captive qualities from Gene Kelly that make Singin' In The Rain a masterpiece in cinema.  Indeed, I was quite upset with An American In Paris, not because it was bad by any stretch of the imagination, but because it had moments that pulled from the previously mentioned films, as well as attaining a few moments of choreography on par with The Red Shoes and never seemed to push to coalesce them together.  I was upset, that is, until they did move together rather brilliantly in the final section of the film an extended and thrilling dance number whose sense of scope necessitates not only an enormous soundstage, but also a movement through filmic temporal space with clever cuts and edits that make the magic of Paris come to live both in a historical understanding of the city, as well as a loving eye of the filmmaker.  In terms of Americans abroad in film, this work is quite prolific, cowering only to the likes of The Third Man and a few other significant films.  It is no Singin' In The Rain, but, to be fair, most films pale in comparison anyway.


An American In Paris centers on three artists in Paris, the first is the World War II veteran Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) who has taken to the tenement lifestyle as he struggles to make it as a painter of various Parisian landmarks.   Jerry's friends include the concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) who has been living in the space of Paris on various artist grants for nearly half a decade, only managing to stay financially above water with the help of his friend and night club singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary).  After hearing from Henri about an attractive young woman, Jerry takes to the streets to attempt to sell his work, scoffing at the various American college girls abroad and their misguided attempts to overanalyze the various artwork on display, including his own.  Yet, when Jerry is approached by a wealthy woman named Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) who buys his work on the spot he becomes somewhat suspicious of her intentions.  This hesitation is verified later, when Milo admits to wanting to use the guise of helping Jerry as an artist to attain his affection, also admitting to finding him incredibly attractive.  Jerry is despondent, thinking this is far from where he wanted to be as an established artist and travels to an art show at a Parisian nightclub to sulk.  It is at this point that Jerry notices the beguiling Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) who he takes an instant liking to, finding her absolutely stunning and attempts to pull her away from her various gentlemen.  While Lise is initially confused and a bit taken aback, she eventually falls to Jerry's charm and agrees to go on a date with him.  Jerry is given a gallery open by the still infatuated Milo, although upon her realization that he has taken a new romantic interest in Lise, she begins to recoil, only furthered by the insistence on the part of Jerry that he be afforded an opportunity to establish himself as an artist on his own.  Jerry's world is made all the more frustrating when it is revealed that he is pursuing the very same girl that Henri had spoken of at the beginning of the film.  After a series of seemingly misguided daydreams, Jerry and Lise are able to reunite, all to the perfect swell of a Gershwin composition.


I rarely approach things from a formalist standpoint, because it is a slippery slope I do not care to become heavily involved with.  Indeed, understanding how things are executed within films while incredibly important, does tend to take the magic out of the enjoyment, as is the case for Days of Heaven a film which possesses an absolutely captivating scene that has been deconstructed multiple times, leading me to hesitate actually viewing the film as I know it will invariably lack in the magic that occurs.  In the same vein, I actively avoid researching the special effects execution at play in 2001: A Space Odyssey because to do so would almost certainly assure that it loses some of its inconceivable execution, or perhaps not, because that film still manages to exist in an impossible film world regardless.  As such, I want to merely touch on some of the elements that make that final scene in An American in Paris so exception.  Primarily, it occurs as a result of the mixture between the fabricated and the real, there is a seen where Kelly and Caron flutter from one set to another, the space starting as clearly impressionist sets, to somewhat more realist sets and ultimately resting in the space of a stage where actual dancers and actors occupy the table.  The actors remain frozen though as to allow for a remaining temporal space that seems surreal, but still exists within a rather simply executed cinematic trick.  This holds true for the use of space during this sixteen minute ballet sequence, wherein it seems to extend and evolve continually never resting on a single fixed area.  Much of this is afforded through a crane that is panning and moving without cutting, therefore, moving sets and shifting dancers can be done in a small space, but still without being noticed in the diegetic space.  Of course, this is still a feat of precision and some editing does allow it to work smoothly.  Even then, there are still inconceivable scenes of cinematic magic, the most notable one being the closing of the sequence when Gene Kelly moves from being a superimposed image over a backdrop to fading into frame while the background dissolves.  It is absolutely stunning.

Key Scene:  Refer to the paragraph above.

Bluray should be an obvious choice in this regard.