#0038 - MADE OF STARS - Some of us just need our thumbs, of course, but the rest of us have to contend with a system of stars, or some kind of cute icon, usually a maximum of five, to give the quickest summation of our feelings about the subject at hand. I'm talking about movie reviewers, of course, and the ratings system that ends up at the front or back of our reviews to help readers figure out just what we really thought about a film when we use language like "delirious camerawork" and "anguished characterization".
I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what a fellow critic thought of an interminable, godawful Thai film we were watching the other day when, as I returned from a bathroom break (I was just missing another shadowy scene of some fella's sweaty rump rutting away at some wanton young thing) I came upon said critic exiting the theatre, inevitably, it seemed, as he'd been snorting at the screen for the better part of forty minutes or so. "I can't believe they're making us watch a Thai soap opera," he hissed as he passed me, on his way out for good. Good for him, I thought: after two decades in this business he knows his limits. He must hate this even more than I do.
Imagine my surprise, then, when his review came out, a short capsule take on the film, pegging it as a "hysterical, overwrought soap opera" - so far, as I expected - but concluding that "the mix, unexpectedly, works." At the bottom, a three star (or rather, three "N", in keeping with his paper's name) rating. I can only imagine that the critic had gone back to watch the rest of the film at a later date, except that I don't remember any other press screenings.
A review in his paper's competition - by a friend of mine, I should add - is offhandedly negative ("lush yet strangely inert", "rarely lives up to its potential", "little emotional resonance") and, again, serves out a three-star rating. The big local daily isn't impressed either ("how can something so pretty be so bad?") but gives it a more humbling two stars. The venerable national "quality" broadsheet is lukewarm ("overplays the melodrama to the point of tedium") and comes up with a two-and-a-half star rating.
I'm confused. Putting aside my own feelings about the film (one star, and that was only because I didn't know my paper did half-stars until a couple of days ago), why did the two alternative weeklies feel obliged to cautiously recommend a film that their reviews essentially panned, and which one reviewer didn't have the patience to sit through? I can't help but suspect a kind of "cinematic correctness" at work, where foreign films - assumed to be better, if only because we can't possibly presume to comprehend their context as wholly as we would, say, Eight Legged Freaks - get off easier, if by handicapping them with a star or two? A bad film is a bad film, with or without subtitles, so why the obligation to play nice? (posted 10:25pm EST | 07.21.02)
#0037 - EXTREME BLOODLETTING AND EXTREME TISSUE DAMAGE - Marc Weisblott has a nice reminiscence of Canadian film censor ratings in his lifetime, including these sad, yet peculiarly Torontonian memories:
"I once had to sit through Yes, Giorgio starring Luciano Pavarotti with a gang of seventh graders (ooh, weren't we tough) because it was the only flick playing at a certain intersection that was accessible to under-fourteens. I was quite thrilled to have gotten past the ticket booth and into the boobie-fest Blame It On Rio not once but twice when I was still thirteen."
Marc apparently doesn't believe in permalinks, so just scroll down the page till you see the icon below:
Just the other day, Father Dan, the priest that hitched the wife and myself, recalled that his devout mother used to put up a list of films approved and, more importantly, "banned for the faithful" by the U.S. Conference of Bishops on the inside of a kitchen cupboard, and she'd consult it whenever he wanted to head out to the movies. I said that, as far as I was concerned, that second list would basically comprise a shopping list for me when I was younger. I remember the "R" rating on films like Taxi Driver was proof that there was something good there, something that was being kept from me. (Later, when I finally saw Taxi Driver, my expectations were so high that it took me years to finally realize that I didn't like it much at all.)
Until a few years ago, our local censor board had a reputation for being eager with the scissors, and I grew up reading about the countless protests and even lawsuits that ended up driving the OSB into a defensive position, more comfortable to rate films than censor or ban them. Now known as the Ontario Film Review Board, it's not without the power to ban, as the recent controversy over Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl showed. It's all just a paper castle in the end, anyway, a remnant of the days when there were movie theatres and four or five t.v. stations and it was so much easier to police the approaches to the fortress. Today, there's the internet and video rentals and a hundred or so channels, more if you have a satellite dish, and no way that parents can trust the parent-friendly "lock-out" software at hand, since any kid usually knows how to run it better than their folks. Of course, you can always ban t.v. of any kind and become known as the Amish freaks on your street. As Marc says in his post:
"Yeah, it all comes down to parenting--yet there are sufficient resources out there for conscientious moms and dads to police their own offspring. And for those who aren't, why should it be the theater industry's job? They're just in the business of selling soda pop and popcorn--there's no age restrictions on that. I wonder how many teens on these shores have no concept of being limited access to certain screenings because they've always watched whatever they wanted on the small screen."
(posted 09:42pm EST | 07.21.02)
#0036 - TALKING TO MYSELF - Trevor Coleman's Fifteen Megabytes of Fame website kicks off with an interview with yours truly. I won't lie - it's nice to talk about yourself every now and then. And I really do mean it about the free ad, in perpetuity, in exchange for a new computer. I could use one in the worst way. I have my price, and it's more Sears catalogue than Saks Fifth Avenue. (posted 08:14pm EST | 07.21.02)
#0035 - THE SKINNY - I was haunted for days by a scene in Lovely & Amazing, where Emily Mortimer, playing a young, struggling actress, asks the vain lunkhead she's in bed with (a movie hunk played by Dermot Mulroney) to criticize her body, no hold barred. She stands there, shy and brazen, and gets what she asks for: Mulroney points out bow legs, lopsided breasts, untrimmed pubic hair (I'm not sure just when strippers' and porn stars' pubic grooming became the norm, but there it is nevertheless) and more, but manages to overlook what seemed to me the salient aspect of Mortimer's body - the poor girl is dangerously thin, thigh-less and knobby-jointed in the manner of a young girl whose appetite and metabolism hasn't caught up with her growth spurt, understandable perhaps in a twelve-year old but unhealthy-looking in a woman in her twenties or at any time afterwards.
The scene is poignant and heartbreaking, if only because, after his devastating analysis, she thanks him with a demure, almost relieved gratitude. Mortimer plays an actress on the teetering verge of her big break, constantly worried about whether she's "sexy" enough to become an ingenue and, if all goes well, a leading lady, or whether she's doomed to bit parts as "the best friend" or "the sister" or "the pretty girl who gets offed in the first reel". Like almost everything else in Nicole Holofcener's film, it's so true it's painful, so it's fair to assume that the dim hunk's inability to see a potential health hazard looming in Mortimer's skinniness is nothing more than his sharing in the prevalent popular belief that an attractive woman can never be too thin. As I turned the scene over and over in my mind (it was a hard review to write) I wondered whether any other critics would share my take.
In the NY Times, Stephen Holden roars out of the gate, stating that the film "zeroes in on contemporary narcissism and its fallout with a relentless, needling accuracy that illustrates exactly the way some people allow their personal insecurities and tics to poison their intimate relationships." In the next paragraph, he goes right to the scene, sets it up and recaps Mulroney's critique ... and that's it. There's a note of the "flabby arms" that had become an irritant in Mortimer's relationship with her ex-boyfriend. I don't know whether they're supposed to a coded reference to an implied anorexia, but to Holden they're just flabby arms.
There are weight issues all over the film, from the liposuction that Brenda Blethyn's character undergoes in an apparent bout of pre-menopausal anxiety, to the chronic overeating of Blethyn's adopted daughter, a little black girl played with admirable cutelessness by Raven Goodwin. Mortimer's character even admits to "not eating" with a touch of irony and defensiveness, on her date with Mulroney. It would seem to me that missing anything so blatant a theme - the hell with theme, let's call it an obsession - is a kind of critical myopia. Perhaps, as Stephanie Zacharek says in Salon, "the whole question of how women feel about their faces and bodies has been done to death in magazines and books to the point where women - let alone men - are sick of it."
Kenneth Turan in the LA Times is impressed: "There is no film like this film, and that's something you don't hear every day." He describes the setting of Holofcener's film as "an uncaring world of self-involvement, obtuseness and free-floating insecurity", which I don't imagine is going to send them thronging into the multiplex, but it's true enough. Still, no mention at all of Mortimer's nude scene.
James Bowman zooms in on Mortimer's character from the start of his review, and gets to the nude scene as soon as he's dispensed with setting up the plot and characters. No mention of weight - or lack of it - but Bowman faults the film for being insufficiently critical, for not taking a strong enough moral stand or allowing its characters a breakthrough out of their emotional narcissism, and so he gives a film that he admits grew on him a single star rating, which seems to me bit like damning it for doing its job too well.
Andrew Sarris in the NY Observer states that "the dominant concern of the film is not so much female cradle-snatching (he's referring to Catherine Keener's desperate, abortive little affair with Jake Gyllenhaal) as women's self-hating idealization of the fashion-model image of the female body celebrated in so-called women's magazines." On message so far, and he gets to the nude scene in the next paragraph, calling it "one of the most masochistic scenes ever filmed". He refers to "her unequally distributed body-mass generally", making it sound like Mortimer's weight has somehow shifted to her head or her ankles, instead of just evaporating altogether, and ends his recap by saying that "The bitter irony is that Ms. Mortimer, when clothed, is an attractive and talented actress with a heartbreakingly winsome smile." Sarris sounds a little bit in love, as critics sometimes are, and that seems to have blinded him to, what seems to this critic, the obvious.
I'm reminded of a little teacup-tempest a few years back, during the month or so when Titanic was almost the only subject of weekend newspapers and arts sections. Some critics commented on Kate Winslet's body, as (partially) revealed in that film, and a debate arose about it's appropriateness that resulted in letters to the editor (even!) complaining that, in essence, she was a big fat cow who had no business revealing her gauche fleshiness to the movie public. Some (male, it's necessary to point out) armchair critics even complained, incredibly, that her weight was inappropriate to the period, something that a glance at Edwardian pornography, society portrature, advertising or fashion illustrations would have revealed was utter nonsense; on the contrary, by 1912 standards, Miss Winslet might have been judged a bit too svelte.
Considering our present, unhappy preoccupation with thinness - the ultimate manifestation of society at large being sold the aesthetic standards of socialites, it seems to me - there's no faulting Emily Mortimer's body as an accurate subject for contemplation in a film, like Lovely & Amazing, set in the present day. One day, it'll be a period piece, as respectably dated as Klute or The Seven Year Itch, and I'd like to imagine that we'll look back at the spectre of the wraith-like woman with appropriate regret. (posted 12:01pm EST | 07.20.02)
#0034 - PRIMETIME FOR HITLER - Okay, I wasn't clever enough to come up with this title on my own. It's from a recent issue of Variety, heralding a CBS miniseries in planning stages based on the first volume of Ian Kershaw's two-part biography of Hitler. Yes, they're doing the "Young Hitler" story, and Maureen Dowd's story on the (inevitable and deserved) controversy (thanks to RelapsedCatholic for the link) is priceless. There are perfectly justified fears that any attempt at depicting history's most awful dictator as a young man, humanizing him and - even more obscenely - giving him sex appeal by getting one of the more broody young hunks to play him, would be the first great harbinger of historical amnesia, kickstarting the process of ameliorating his still-terrible memory. (I'm thinking Tobey Maguire - he has the appropriate, vaguely seething blankness, and a suitably lank side-parted head of hair. Jake Gyllenhaal in a pinch.)
Apparently CBS isn't alone in the race to bring Hitler to the small screen. The BBC has been talking about Hitler: The Vienna Years with Robert Downey Jr., and there's an independent production out there about the relationship between Hitler the struggling painter and a sympathetic Jewish art dealer played by John Cusack. CBS seems committed, though, and network president Leslie Moonves has called the Hitler of Kershaw's biography a "fascinating character", which seems like a new mutation of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" if I've ever heard it. Another priceless anecdote from the Dowd story:
"Moonves did not seem to have a ready answer when asked what kind of company might want to advertise or underwrite the Hitler miniseries. 'Volkswagen?' murmured one TV writer sarcastically."
(posted 10:18pm EST | 07.18.02)
#0033 - THERE'S NO BUSINESS - Kathleen Sharp's report on a memorial for the late Lew Wasserman in Salon turns into a dismal overview of Hollywood in the post-mogul era. As head of MCA, the legendary talent agency, and chairman of Universal Pictures, Wasserman survived anti-trust suits and much more, and played a major part in the election of presidents Reagan and Clinton. The guests at his memorial were a testament to his power - Nancy Reagan, Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty, Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Al Gore, Gray Davis and Dick Gephardt among others - as well as his eulogizers - Barry Diller, Sidney Sheinberg, Jack Valenti, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and ex-president Clinton. Pretty good for a guy who went to work at twelve in the mob-dominated world of Cleveland's nightclubs and gambling dens.
Sharp compares today's crop of moguls with Wasserman - many of whom saw the older man as a mentor - unfavorably, detailing how every studio is floundering under the weight of executive power struggles and the leviathan costs of "synergy" and convergence. Wasserman's own MCA/Universal empire was buffeted about from one corporate owner to another, and eventually swallowed by French water company Vivendi and its megalomaniac CEO Jean-Marie Messier, himself recently forced out by a board eager to see some kind of return on its investment. Movie profits are thinner than ever, managed mostly by raising ticket prices and the quick-fix miracle of DVD releases and reissues. Sharp sums up the state of the business with a wonderfully hyperbolic disdain:
"The days of the global entertainment kingdom are numbered. When Redstone, Eisner, Murdoch and the others pass away or retire - as they will - or when Pittman, Parson and Case move on - which, by their nature, they must - so will their companies. No ordinary man can manage these frigate-like monstrosities, let alone steer them smoothly across the seven seas, while innovating services, mediating large personalities and recording double-digit growth rates. At some point the ship tips, the sharks circle, the crew mutinies. And the captains will retreat, well compensated, no doubt, but without any lasting legacy."
It must be fun to play Savonarola to Hollywood's princes and papal court, and Sharp obviously relishes the role. Her Wasserman is a mobbed-up, hard-nosed player who never took a risk he couldn't defend, and even manages to maintain an employee pension fund that saw an MCA bookeeper retire on more money than she made while working. It's a great story, maybe even good enough for a movie. (posted 11:05pm EST | 07.17.02)