Sunday, October 28, 2012

Found in America

Aladeen explains the fine points of the Bill of Rights to a NYC policeman
You knew as you were watching Sasha Baron Cohen's film Borat that, like Daffy Duck blowing himself up, it was a one-time only performance.  The film's very popularity would make it impossible for Cohen to slip invisibly into another identity with which to trap and trick people.

It turned out to both true and not, as people have short memories and Cohen has a very adaptable face.  Still he is never going to take America by surprise quite the same way again.  So he can hardly be faulted for taking the scripted route to pursue many of Borat's themes and tropes again in The Dictator (2012)   He can be faulted for adopting the hoary old substitute-the-double-for-the-king plot that goes back at least to The Prisoner of Zenda and never seems to stop being reworked.  You'd think monarchies would have the good sense by now to seek out all the perfect doubles that seem to riddle the earth and have them done away with to avoid problems.

Three other observations.  The female lead played by Anna Faris claims to have attended Amherst College.  This is impossible because (a) she is wearing the Mt. Holyoke College uniform (basically grunge drag) and (b) she pronounces the name of her school "Am-hhurst."  Even those who attend U Mass are aware that the "h" is not pronounced.

Second, what is there about comedies about dictators which calls for a speech late in the third act?  Chaplin's Great Dictator speech is (rightly) criticized for being overlong and unfocused.  Cohen avoids such problems and goes straight for the jugular.  Yet, though this is the sharpest humor in the film, it seems to go unnoticed amid the slapstick and buffoonery.

By definition the film can't be as outrageous as Borat but it almost makes up for it by incorporating a large cohort of sketch and stand-up comics, probably the contribution of director Larry Charles, who is more likely to be plugged into American comedy circles.  Aasif Mandavi, Rizwan Manji, Horatio Sanz, Chris Parnell, Jessica St. Clair, Chris Gethard, Fred Armisen, Chris Elliot, Jon Glaser, Bobby Lee, Joey Slotnick, J.B. Smoove, Kathryn Hahn, Seth Morris, Nasim Pedrad, Ed Norton, B.J. Novak, Jim Piddock, John C. Reilly and Gary Shandling all have walk-ins and sometimes quite a bit more in this film.

It really suggests that what Cohen and Charles should be reworking instead of Zenda is an all-star comedy extravaganza along the lines of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER: Why I Will Never Think Pink

This post is by a suspiciously similarly-named author, Samantha Lockhart, 2010 graduate of the College of William and Mary, environmental activist and organizer and former member of my household.  Following are her thoughts on a childhood favorite, the Fred Astaire - Audrey Hepburn musical  Funny Face (1957).

Contrasting career choices in Funny Face

It is a special experience to rewatch a film that was a favorite as a child, but which you have rarely seen since.  It brings this feeling of comfortable familiarity – like you both know and don’t know what’s about to happen next.  Like having a recurring dream or watching a new M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Often, it means noticing things that you did not see as a child either because your innocence shielded you from it, or simply because you could not have gotten the reference without the social vocabulary that only a liberal arts education can provide.  But for me, and others like me, who grew up watching movies all the time; for those that were raised in part by film and whose life was chronicled in large part by the movies that populated each phase – rewatching these formative movies means so much more.  It’s like finding the pieces of the puzzle that make you who you are today.  Suddenly, you make sense to yourself in some small but important manner.  Like tracing your heritage and discovering your ancestral routes, it is an exercise which can help to show a clearer roadmap that has somehow helped determine fundamental things about the course of your life, your ambitions and your dreams.

Some of this has always been obvious to me, because the watching coincided so closely with my own consciousness of growing-up and self-discovery.  I always knew that The West Wing was a huge part of why I was interested in politics.  That was never a mystery that needed solving, that puzzle piece always fit for me squarely on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on NBC from ages 11 to 17.  But the stuff I watched when I was far too young to notice its impact or to remember it – rewatching those films can be incredibly revealing.  Sometimes it’s in small ways, like realizing that the reason that every time I have only one high heel on, I have the urge to say “Look! I was born on the side of a hill” has something to do with Bringing Up Baby or that every time I wish I was invisible I still shimmy goofily with my arms up because of Time of Their Lives.  But sometimes, the marks that these films leave can reveal themselves to be oddly profound.

Funny Face was one of my favorite movies as a kid, before Fred Astaire’s complete lack of sex appeal bothered to detract from the romance of it.  I remembered most vividly how stunningly beautiful the film is, filled with soft lighting contrasted with sharp, vivid colors that frame Audrey’s stunning face – the true star of the film, but somehow I had forgotten almost everything else. Yet as I watched it, somehow I found myself knowing every word.  One of the tests out there of whether a film has a feminist edge is whether two women ever have a conversation about something other than a man.  Well, Funny Face opens with a scene from a powerful, smart, sophisticated female editor of a major magazine talking to her staff of smart women. True, they’re talking about the color pink, but somehow it doesn’t matter.

And the opening number "Think Pink" ends with an hilarious and somewhat empowering moment in which someone asks the fashion editor, Maggie, why she is the only one not in pink, to which she replies “I wouldn’t be caught dead” and walks away in a chic gray suit.  What I love about this is that Maggie is admitting that she is a marketing genius who has manipulated women across the country to like whatever she tells them to like. Right off the bat, this character means more to me than I ever recognized at the time.  Her success is not tied to a man, she is decisive, smart, elegant, sophisticated, wise – and she refuses to wear pink.  I have obstinately refused to wear pink since the age of 4.  I have always associated it with profound mediocrity.  I am obsessed with black and grey. Maggie is extraordinary, and she would not be caught dead.

Jo – a boy’s shortening of what is assumed to be a longer girl’s name (Joanne? Josephine?), much like mine – Sam - is smart and never thinks of herself as being beautiful.  She finds fashion and modeling trivial and stupid.  I was a very cute kid.  I was more than cute – I was a stunning little girl.  I’m not saying that to be obnoxious, it’s just true.  I don’t think I measure up now nearly as well.  At the age of four of five, however, I could barely go anywhere without someone asking my parents if I was interested in modeling to which I replied a vehement “NO.”  My mother was confused.  She had been a dancer and actress and occasional model, had no moral objection to the venture that she could have passed onto her young daughter.  My parents were in financial straits and a little modeling money probably would not have hurt, but no one was going to make me do anything I didn’t’ want to do and I did NOT want to model. I perceived modeling as being trivial and stupid.  Of course, I believe that I was too young to appreciate the emotional transformation that Jo undergoes, feeling by the end of the film that modeling could be art, could be glamorous, could help her find the man she loves and could get her a ticket to fulfill her philosophic dreams.  HOWEVER, I do think that I picked up on some other things about Jo.

Sticking to your guns
For one thing – Jo has very strong principles that center around this concept of empathy.  She works in a bookstore in Greenwich Village and worships a philosopher in France.  Though she finds herself falling in love with drama and glamour of the fashion world through Dick, she does not lose herself to it.  Dick believes that once she has fallen in love with him, it means he “has” her.  She has entered his world and left her own.  She does not see it this way and gets angry with him, essentially ending the relationship by saying that they are “too fundamentally different” to be together.  She talks a lot about the importance of her principles which Dick seems to make fun of.  She is willing to give up on her budding relationship before she would give up on what she believes in.  I think this lesson hit home with me and has given me solid footing on the otherwise rocky terrain of love. 

Don’t Rescue Me
Dick’s condescending insistence that he knows better serves only to anger Jo.  Rather than let him fight her battles, she fights her own.  From getting the last word (or dance) in the café following Dick’s attempts to embarrass her to hitting Professor Flostre over the head with a statue – she can take care of herself. I’ve always been a fan of fighting my own battles, paying my own way, and living my own life and was known to yell at Gaston during Beauty and the Beast “When a lady says NO, she meeeaaans NO!”  And while studying abroad in India during college, threatened and shouted obscenities at the Indian men who made lude assumptions about Western Women.

Ya gotta be happy.
But the final and perhaps most important lesson from Funny Face  is “On how to be lovely, you gotta be happy.”  This marks the second time in the film in which women interact together in a burst of YaYa level female empowerment!  Maggie, the magazine editor, teaches Jo how to talk to the press about herself and provides a significant lesson.  In order to be beautiful, like Audrey Hepburn, you have to be joyful.  I have finally learned that my overwhelmingly positive and unflinchingly optimistic disposition can all be traced back to a profound and fundamental vanity. 

Of course – I see in this film what I believe I saw then at age four or five.  I am following the interpretation that seems most familiar to me, like finding your way home when lost based on sheer instinct.  Were I to watch this film with completely fresh eyes, I may also point out that Dick is incredibly condescending about Jo’s philosophy and even says of Flostre “he has as much interest in your intelligence as I have” indicating, of course, very little.  Yet Jo, this incredibly beautiful, young, brilliant, principled, woman still ends up with Dick – the condescending photographer with no interest in her intelligence.  I could note that while Maggie is a successful female figure, she also appears to be unmarried and after all, is successful in the field of “fashion” – one typically assigned to women anyway.  I could choose to highlight that Professor Flostre does turn out to be a fraud and only after Jo for romantic reasons, as if to indicate that Dick was right all along and all Jo needed was a good man to show her the way. 

So perhaps it is a chicken and egg situation – maybe I was always a strong and principled girl and the parts of this film that spoke to that in me were the ones that I chose to listen to. But whether it was me looking for a story and  female figures to help more sharply define characteristics I already had or it was me building myself from scratch from the lessons taught by these films, it hardly seems to matter.  Either way, I hate pink.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Way out there in the blue

Looks like Scar had a white daddy, or at least grandpaw...

This blog has been quiet for a while, partly because I've been preoccupied with launching a new film-oriented course, that is, Social Justice and the Media.  This week, we've just finished looking at The Searchers (1956) and I assigned my students to write a reflection on how a visual device or idea is used to support or explicate a theme in the film.  These sorts of ideas are new to my students, so I created a model, and although The Searchers is one of the most written-about films ever mind, I thought I'd share my hair-brained little ideas with you, my friends here.

The overriding theme of The Searchers is a racism which accepts without discussion that European whites and Native North Americans cannot co-exist on the same vast continent, let alone the same home and hearth. (This belief proceeds from both sides.)  The separation among them must be absolute, and any suggestion of crossing the line between those groups brings expressions of anger, contempt and disgrace.

But five characters are bound together visually by their distinctly blue eyes, which “pop” in the bright color process of the mid-1950s – the eyes of Ethan, the angry hater; of Martin Pawley, the “half-breed”; of Laurie, Martin’s probable bride, who turns out to be an unthinking racist and therefore more worthy of contempt than Ethan’s knowledgeable fear and loathing; of Debbie, Ethan’s niece, who might have been and might actually be Ethan’s daughter and the eyes of Scar, killer of Debbie’s family and possibly her husband. The suggestion is that Scar himself may have been the result of miscegenation, bringing further contempt from Ethan’s burning eyes. Their can be no question that director John Ford chose to use a non-Native actor not just because he didn't know any Native actors who were right for the part, but because he wanted those blue eyes and almost Aryan appearance. And in the final analysis, these characters form a strange family-- uncle/father – son – bride – husband, each connected to all, directly or indirectly.

Moreover, the blue of those characters' eyes are mirrored by the bright blue Western sky under which so much of the action takes place; even though the events are dark and the seasons are varied, the blue sky remains a near-constant from first shot to last. (Even the winter scenes and night scenes are played in shades of blue.) Thus, blue becomes the color that unites and embraces the universe of The Searchers, and while Ethan begins the film in a red shirt of anger, at the end,wearing a deep blue tunic, he lifts up his niece/daughter, clad in a long skirt of blue (or perhaps that is the blue blanket Marty wrapped her in); the blue of loving eyes, of the long horizon into the future, of the harmony of creation itself, sky and sea, embracing all living things.  

A bit grandiose, perhaps, but the more you watch The Searchers, the more you see the balances and resonances in it.  Time with this film is never wasted.