Looking for Me
By and large the 1970s were a sinkhole for me in terms of movies I could latch onto. Oh sure, there were the classics, but in terms of finding anything depicting the trials, tribulations, joys and aspirations of a young girl, well, let’s just say there wasn’t a whole lot offered.
1980’s Ordinary People excited me not so much because it was a very good movie and—wow!—Mary Tyler Moore could play a real bitch, but because finally, in the supporting character Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), I could see, well, me. Beyond the shared Fair Isle sweaters and kilts, there was the shy teen and bookish good girl with aspirations for college and a steady boyfriend (say, Eric Heiden) that helped define where I was at 15.
It took a few more years before Hollywood remembered that significant portions of its audiences were not just young, but female, and it was around this time that filmmaker John Hughes embarked upon a highly successful period writing and directing films now generally (and unkindly) described as Brat Pack melodramas. (It comes from the nickname for the films’ young stars). Intellectuals I knew decried the Hughes worldview of comfortable suburbia—high schools populated largely by good-looking white kids—and Hughes’ storytelling devices, like breaking the fourth wall. Mostly, they didn’t like that smart-ass characters like Ferris Bueller could and did win big, as it underscored the fact that, in life, it’s not always about who has all the right answers.
To this day, I can’t channel surf without landing on, and sticking with, a John Hughes movie from the ’80s. While I truly enjoy Bueller’s anarchic joie de vivre in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I’m more in tune to Sloan (Mia Sara), his impossibly elegant and poised girlfriend. Sloan isn’t a huge role, but as is always the case, Hughes writes her in such a way that she’s more than just a pretty face. She’s clearly smart, a good sport, and, as is made clear in her politically incorrect revelation at film’s end, a true romantic.
I was already in college when Sixteen Candles came out, but despite not buying that Molly Ringwald’s mother completely forgot about her birthday, I completely recognized her character Sam’s alienation and feeling second best in a family dominated by a glamorous, and about-to-get-married, big sister. I “got” her crush on the BMOC, and her utter embarrassment that the news might get out. In short, Hughes had written an entirely believable girl character, and, yeah, it helped too that she was played by the cute but not threatening Molly Ringwald.
Ringwald also starred in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, playing completely opposite characters. In the former, she’s a pampered but insecure princess who brings a Bento box lunch to weekend detention. In Pink, her Andie is a working-class, motherless waif. Unusual for a Hughes film, Andie actually works after school, and she does more than study or think about prom (she designs and sews clothes). Both movies again demonstrate Hughes’ genius for limning the secret lives, fears and ambitions of young women.
Watching Breakfast, I can remember being that student whose fashion sense and book smarts provided a nice defense against anybody seeing my tremendous insecurities. Similarly, when I see Pink for the 400th time, I can’t help but be reminded of working at the dry cleaners every afternoon and dreaming that the cute running back from our school’s football team would ask me to the fall dance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard guys decry Andie’s choice of preppy Blaine over her wacky best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer). They don’t get that it’s the alpha dog, age-old sex equivalent of Doris Day falling for Rock Hudson over Tony Randall. Hughes got that while we might like to have beers and shoot the shit with Duckie, we deep down want the gold ring and the security of Blaine.
One of Hughes’ last movies from this era, and of this ilk, is She’s Having a Baby, which moves the kids beyond high school and into young, married adulthood. I seem to remember that this movie didn’t do as well as its predecessors, perhaps for good reason. Who wants to see twentysomethings struggling with questions of their identity, as individuals and as a married couple, let alone take out a mortgage and try to get pregnant? Oh, wait—I did, and still do, as witnessed by my regular search for it in the TV listings. Ostensibly, it is a guy’s story, with Kevin Bacon’s character Jake freaking out about the obligations of being a responsible man, but to me, it’s also an elegy on the accepted role and expectations of women. Jake and Kristy (again, McGovern!) marry after college, not so surprising, and soon after, she wants a decent house and to start a family. The fact that Jake finds such expectations challenging, even old-fashioned, underscores the confusion many women of my era encountered in wanting that which was always understood to be “what adults do,” and reconciling it with society’s changed mores and its move away from tradition and community and toward individualism.
The shoulder pads are big, the hair even bigger, and the music . . . ah. The John Hughes’ ’80s films are time capsules, reminding us of what we used to be and how we used to look, and giving us a shudder or a chuckle when we see those Brat Packers, now older and grayer, on the cover of National Enquirer. When Hughes died suddenly in 2009, the postmortem appreciations were far kinder than I expected. Noted were the humor and the trend spotting, but nobody seemed to have discerned how his female protagonists were so much more than stock figures.
First world problem: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with civilization. Even before I developed neurotic, misanthropic tendencies, I was a bit of a hick. Growing up in rural Columbia and Greene counties left me fantasizing about what life would be like living next to more than two people. The idea, while tempting, was also a bit terrifying. That is where my movie guilty pleasure comes in: apocalypse films. It began around age 7 with my first viewing of George Pal’s H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The glimpse at a civilization about to end during nuclear warfare was terrifying; I could almost not bear to watch, but I kept my eyes open. I figured the next time jump could only lead to something much safer, but the corrupted utopia Rod Taylor visited just made my mind race. The movie continues to be a guilty pleasure to this day.
But it gets worse than that.
As a kid, the destroyed cityscapes of Jean Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg were addicting. I could care less about who was getting kicked—I just wanted to know how things would continue after the bombs dropped. (Apparently there would still be lots of flying roundhouse kicks and steroid use.) Another past-midnight treat was the early Don Johnson vehicle A Boy and His Dog, based on a short story by Harlan Ellison. Scouring the nuclear wasteland for women and canned goods (with the help of his psychic talking dog Blood) just isn’t enough for Johnson’s character Vic, so he follows a particularly smart lady down into a fancy fallout shelter. There, he finds out all the men underground are sterile. Hilarity ensues.
I dug out other treats at the video store, like the Robocop films. Sure, the world hadn’t ended yet, but it was on its way there. Just listen to the newscasts and commercials that pop up throughout the series. Products like Sunblock 5000—“They say 20 seconds in the California sunshine is too much these days . . . ever since we lost the ozone layer, but that was before Sunblock 5000,” coos the blonde European model looking like a member of the Blue Man Group. “Just apply a pint to your body and you’re good for hours!”
When I finally got my mom to drive me to the big city (Albany) to see movies, I spent my time holed up in discount theaters watching flicks like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and the pre-Matrix Keanu Reaves sci-fi “thriller” Johnny Mnemonic. And there were some decent end-of-days flicks, like Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt both try to act (with varying degrees of success), but their failures are rendered irrelevant by Gilliam’s maniacal pacing and camera work.
The Matrix? Eh, it didn’t do much for me. We’re hooked up to machines at the end of the world? Whatevs! Worse things could happen. But Equilibrium, an early Christian Bale vehicle and a blatant Matrix rip-off? That was fantastic. Bale’s character is tasked with destroying any surviving art and culture lest it stimulate human emotion; emotions are being repressed by a mandatory daily dose of mood suppressors handed out by the government in order to prevent another nuclear holocaust. I own multiple copies to this day.
Hollywood has brought me back to the end times successfully lately. Sure, I wanted a little more Boy and His Dog schlock and Robocop sci-fi detail in John Hillcoat’s The Road, but it was based on a Cormac McCarthy novel and he is paid by the word or something. The wasteland in The Road was almost as good as another McCarthy adaptation, the Coen brothers’ not-quite-but-almost-apocalypse tale No Country for Old Men. That flick captured the mood—the silence, the foreboding, the sense of impending death—that all the best apocalypse flicks do.
And what about Wall-E? No seriously! It’s Pixar’s middle finger to gluttony and apathy, a blatant shot across civilization’s bow. Though there was a little bit too much redemption for my taste, it reminded me of Spielberg’s desecration of Stanley Kubrick’s corpse, aka A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
Evan Glodell’s Bellflower gave me a good look at myself. It’s a film about two idiot friends who spend their days building death machines and wasteland cruisers in preparation for the apocalypse, while their real-life relationships fall apart.
Perhaps the latest (and greatest) apocalypse flick is Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. It wallows in the stubborn depression and nihilism that makes apocalypse flicks such a treat. The world is gonna end? Yeah, I could be up for that.
Rich and Strange
Made by professionals who were forced by new technologies to relearn their jobs, early talking pictures are among the oddest things you’ll ever see.
It’s roughly the era covered by this year’s Oscar winner, The Artist. First there were silent films with music-and-effects soundtracks, followed by “goat-gland” pictures (look it up, seriously), which were silents “improved” with talking scenes. Then followed part-talkies, where stretches of fluid silent filmmaking are punctuated with planned, if static, dialogue bits. Then, finally, the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas arrived. Those I can’t resist.
They hit all my movie-buff pleasure centers. They’re rare. Even given the generally lousy state of film preservation, the survival rate of movies made from 1928 to 1930 is astonishingly poor. They were, until recently, unloved. In the golden age of Hollywood nostalgia (the 1960s and ’70s), few were nostalgic about early musicals. They’re strange. The conventions of the genre hadn’t been settled and censorship hadn’t arrived, so you never know what to expect. And many were filmed in unusual-looking early color processes.
One of my favorites is the Fox hit of 1929, Sunny Side Up, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. They had embodied ethereal romance in the silent era, but that’s gone the minute Gaynor opens her mouth and squeaks. Early on, cagey director David Butler has Gaynor pick up a zither and sing a plaintive ballad right into the camera; she’s so damn vulnerable it’s churlish to complain about her lousy voice. Then there’s the big production number, “Turn on the Heat.” Originally in color, it features showgirls in fur-trimmed parkas dancing around igloos as Sharon Lynne sings a tasteless song about Eskimo life. The igloos melt and the chorus girls strip; soon they’re in bathing suits on a tropical island, undulating suggestively as trees rise erect and leaves unfurl. Then everything bursts into flame and the women jump into a pool. It’s the damndest thing, cinematically inventive and gloriously vulgar.
Other prime musicals of the class of ’29: It’s a Great Life, a bizarre MGM weepie starring a long-forgotten sister act and featuring a delirious color finale; Rio Rita, RKO’s combination of melodrama, vaudeville and chorus girls; and Paramount’s The Love Parade, which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and is, arguably, the first thoroughly modern musical.
For years, the only easily available early musical was the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts. The songs get in the way of the jokes, of course. Through repeat viewings I became fascinated by the dance numbers. The choreography is rooted in the original stage show; director Joseph Santley tries to find ways to make these numbers look like a real movie. Sometimes he succeeds, as in the big production number where he starts with close-in shots of the lead dancer, Mary Eaton. Mostly, though, he’s defeated by rows of chorus girls flapping their arms.
This battle between stage convention and cinematic technique is on prime display in the revue pictures. They’re like filmed vaudeville, but with each the filmmaking improves. Almost every studio made one to show off their talkie chops. MGM was first with The Hollywood Revue; it’s a chore to sit through, but does have Cliff Edwards (later the voice of Jiminy Cricket) introducing “Singin’ in the Rain.” Much better is Warner Bros.’ The Show of Shows, which actually has a great comic number in “Singing in the Bathtub,” with Winnie Lightner (think Rosie O’Donnell) and chorus boys in drag mocking “Singin’ in the Rain.” Plus, there’s Rin-Tin-Tin introducing Myrna Loy (Rinty barks) in a “Chinese Fantasy” that survives in very good two-color Technicolor. It’s tasteless fun, with impressive sets and choreography.
The best of the revue films is Universal’s King of Jazz. It’s built around Paul Whiteman and his band (including Bing Crosby), but the real star is director John Murray Anderson. In one of the best directorial one-shots in Hollywood history, Anderson’s work is ingenious and inventive. The film is often very funny, slightly kinky and consistently surprising. Alas, it came out in 1930, when the public’s yen for musicals had disappeared, and flopped.
But it exists, unlike No, No, Nanette or Fanny Brice in My Man or the dozens of other lost early talkies. The holy grail of the lost is probably Gold Diggers of Broadway. An all-color smash hit, the film elements were completely gone until two almost-complete musical numbers turned up in Australia in the ’90s. (The soundtrack survives on discs.) I was at one of the first Manhattan screenings of the restoration a decade ago, at Film Forum, in a packed audience of like-minded loonies. The image cuts out just before the end of the finale; when it did, we cried out liked we’d been gut-punched.
These films are no longer unloved.
Late in The Red Violin—a historical thriller of sorts surrounding an “acoustically perfect” violin that alters the lives of all who possess it—an expert in antique stringed instruments (Samuel L. Jackson) stares at a picture of a long-dead novelist just before taking the decisive action that fulfills the violin’s centuries-long destiny. The picture is just one of the countless ephemeral clues that surface only through repeated viewings of this unusual homage to the evocative power of violin music (I know this because I’ve probably watched Violin more times than any other movie). For what other instrument so hauntingly mimics melancholy, rapture, or terror? No wonder it’s favored by filmmakers seeking to elicit heightened states of awareness or emotion.
In The Red Violin, however, the power of a particular instrument itself amplifies the upheavals of its owners. As the violin is storm-tossed from its tragic beginning in Renaissance Italy, where it was the final masterwork of a legendary craftsman, across Europe and finally to a prestigious auction house in Canada, the film engages in a dialogue on classical European music that winds through five “stories” from the violin’s past. The auction sequence is told from different vantages and segmented by flashbacks that eventually expose the identities of the violin’s “heirs” who are at the auction to reclaim it. The complex, symphonic plot is foretold during a tarot card reading by the Italian master’s servant.
From Cremona the violin travels to 1700s Vienna, where it is the doom of a child prodigy and the ruin of his kindly patron. Migrating through generations of gypsy fiddlers to 1800s England, the violin inflames the already volatile affair between a sexy virtuoso (Jason Flemyng), and his novelist lover (Greta Scacci). In 1900s Shanghai, a Communist comrade risks her life to preserve it. The violin’s fateful travelogue touches on metaphysics, reincarnation and inherited memory. Yet the most powerful force is the score, and its varying motifs, by classical composer John Corigliano (solos performed by Joshua Bell). Corigliano won a well-deserved Oscar for best original soundtrack (and the piece has become part of the classical repertory). Co-written by director Francois Gerard and actor Don McKellar, the film is arguably a masterpiece itself.
So can a movie so gently insistent on cultural acumen, so cleverly and movingly infused with the hubris of great art be qualified as a guilty pleasure? Perhaps only in how sublime music can beguile far beyond florid characters and less-than-elegant dialogue. Girard’s next film, the equally ambitious Silk, was not about music. It was a flop. Corigliano went on to win a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize.
For Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictional version of the creation of Vermeer’s famous portrait, class and gender inequalities are the subtext in a slowly ravishing imagining of Vermeer’s artistic relation with his servant-girl model. Even ScarJo silently smoldering with a napkin on her head comes across as profound. With a score by the great Alexander Desplat (another Oscar winner), the whole of the film’s sound and imagery is greater than its parts. But even a composer as talented as Desplat can’t breathe life into a dud like Birth, an artsy mystery about reincarnation starring Nicole Kidman. It’s just an insipid pretense with an especially pretty score.
It takes a slightly crasser talent to elevate a good movie into a memorable epic, for example, Trevor Jones. His romantically jaunty score for The Last of the Mohicans (or as I like to think of it, Music for Running Through the Woods Really Fast) carries this Colonial-era love story into a state of nonstop swooning. Only for payment would I admit to getting swept up in a movie that’s a mere strait lace away from being a wilderness bodice-ripper.