THE SHEPCAT CHRONICLES

It takes a nation of millions not to read them.

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Rewind: Magnolia

leave a comment »

I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
 
 
 
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

 
 
 
 
 
1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.

Advertisements

Written by Shepcat

March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Los Angeles, Movies

Tagged with

Rewind: Boogie Nights

leave a comment »

In the wake of my incredibly positive encounter with Phantom Thread (and with Inherent Vice before it), I’ve been circling back to the earlier works of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson toward either reassessing or confirming my long-held opinions about them.

My second encounter with Punch-Drunk Love, for example, reaffirmed my opinion that Emily Watson was the film’s only redeemable quality and cemented my resolve never to waste another minute of my life on Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, while I didn’t love The Master (my first viewing) — it suffers from Anderson’s tendency to create unlikable, rather than merely flawed, protagonists; in this case, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell — my wistful affection for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman buoyed my interest in and overall impression of the film.

I can’t believe I’ve been shit-talking Boogie Nights for over 20 years now — when Netflix told me it was released in 1997, I literally went to IMDb for corroboration — but there you have it. Where does the time go?

Friday night marked the first time I’ve screened it since its theatrical release, and while it’s pretty much the film I’ve been remembering in snapshots over those two decades, I’d like to delineate some of those thoughts here.

  • If nothing else stands out in this folly of his youth, I greatly admire Anderson’s visual ambition here — particularly in the first half of the film. For me, the real stars of Boogie Nights are cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, who execute that vision with a lot of style and invention that I wish the film’s other elements could live up to. There are marvelous, swirling tracking shots, both at the Hot Traxx nightclub and at Jack’s pool party, as well as a shot in the latter sequence in which a character dives into the pool and the camera dives in after him and follows as he swims to the other side.
     
    As the characters become more manic and unhinged in the second half, though, the visual style seems to follow suit, and — personal preference here — I wish it had maintained its consistency while allowing the narrative to speak for itself.
     
  • With rare exception, everyone in the movie is a caricature of sorts, lacking emotional intelligence, real intelligence, or both. This might be fine if the film were a straight-up satire of the porn industry (I’m imagining just now what Armando Iannucci might do in that milieu), but it’s foremost a period piece with some dark, dramatic storylines at play, and I’d like to see some actual adults in the room. Even the veterans, the titans of the industry — Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, Robert Ridgely’s Colonel James, and Philip Baker Hall’s Floyd Gondolli — speak in the stunted, juvenile language of titillated schoolboys instead of the more clinical language of people who’ve been at the party awhile.
     
    The film’s protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk, meanwhile, is a developmentally arrested naïf, and his best friend and co-star, John C. Reilly’s Reed, is just a straight-up imbecile. Their ambitions seem to have peaked at age 13 and carried over into adulthood. I don’t expect these guys to discuss Hegelian dialectics and weigh in on the economic policies of the Carter administration, but I nearly cheered out loud when Heather Graham’s Rollergirl announces that she’s thinking about going back to earn her G.E.D.
     
  • My memory of Don Cheadle’s cowboy-outfitted Buck Swope1 being the only character for whom I feel a rooting interest holds firm. When he and Melora Walters’ Jessie St. Vincent fall for each other, it’s the first time the film gives its audience a hopeful outlook for anyone’s future. There is such sweetness between the two of them that I care for them instantly in ways I feel for no one else on the screen.
     
    The scene of them together applying for a bank loan to back Buck’s dream of owning a stereo store is particularly marvelous in that he is being discriminated against not because he is black or because they are presenting themselves as a biracial couple — it’s about 1982 at this point in the film — but because the loan officer sees Buck as a pornographer while he sees himself merely as a working actor.
     
  • That said, I found myself this time feeling a great deal more sympathy and affection for Julianne Moore’s Amber. She’s the film’s true emotional center, and I feel I wrote her off a little unjustly and callously on my first viewing. More so than the authority figures onscreen, she’s the one who holds the filmmaking family together, mothering them even as she is denied the right to be a mother to her own child.
     
    And a special shout-out to Moore for doing a voice here that seems to be a tribute to Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Blow Out.
     
  • I can’t completely hate a film that finds a place on its soundtrack for Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel.” Ditto the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Oddly enough, though, there were no licensing dollars left over for the actual song “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave.

Onward to 1999’s Magnolia.
 
 
 
 
 
1 I have long had a particular affinity for Cheadle as a fellow Kansas Citian, and only as I was typing this just now did I make the connection that there is a Swope Park in our hometown. It’s merely a remarkable coincidence, though, as the character’s name is a reference to the film Putney Swope by Robert Downey Sr., who also appears in a cameo.

Written by Shepcat

March 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Movies

Tagged with

Behind Every Great Man: Phantom Thread

leave a comment »

Phantom Thread is a tale told by a craftsman with technical precision and keen artistry about a craftsman who approaches his own work — indeed his whole life — with the same technical precision and keen artistry. It is in many ways the film that Paul Thomas Anderson has been working toward his entire career — perfectly contained, carefully observed, not an ounce of fat on it — anchored by a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that makes Thread a worthy swan song, if indeed this is the last we are to see of Day-Lewis. (If he retreats to the artisanal life of a cobbler, we needn’t worry that Thread will be regarded as his Welcome to Mooseport.)

Despite their having garnered wider acclaim, I have found past PTA efforts such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to be ungainly affairs in need of tighter editorial control, populated by characters for whom I feel little affinity or sympathy. It’s not that I couldn’t see a great artist in the making; it’s that, with all that talent evident on the screen, I couldn’t fathom how he hadn’t already arrived at that place. It’s not that I have to like every character in a story; it’s that I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find even one to cheer for. (Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not that I held a grudge against Anderson — on the contrary, once I heard him talk about his influences and his own work in interviews, I was smitten — but that I wanted to like his films as much as I like him. I have been cheering for him all this time, even as I have hated his films, until Inherent Vice.1 I can’t think of any other filmmaker on whom I’ve waited so patiently.

And by rights, I shouldn’t like fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock as much as I do. But Anderson allows such subtle glimpses of his humanity to emerge that one is won over to him by both empathy and sympathy. We are allowed to see him as much the captive prisoner of his own genius as he is the warden who supervises its execution, as it were.

Not all men demand as much or hold themselves and others to such exacting standards in all aspects as Reynolds does — and his specificity and hypersensitivity are at times played to great comic effect — but we are all set in our ways, particularly after a certain age or a certain length of time spent alone or apart. In which case the great central conflict of a burgeoning relationship may not be that a significant other wants to change us so much as that they want to change anything at all.

But Reynolds is nothing if not defined by the women in his life — his late mother, who inspired him; his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has never married and has made facilitating Reynolds’ genius and furthering his reputation her life’s work; and his new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is sweetly submissive and a fast learner — but to crack his veneer they must control him in small ways and be useful to him in big ways in order to fuel his ego and keep his delicate genius from pushing him over the edge. It is a balancing act that Reynolds believes he is performing when in fact it is Cyril and Alma manning the levers all along.

Reynolds cares more about his dresses than he does about the women for whom he designs them — hilariously so — and because Alma understands this and genuinely, unbelievably loves him, she finds her opening to be seen by him as more than just his ideal mannequin. Alma aims to be useful in the ways Reynolds needs her to be but also in the ways she wants to be useful to him, in order to be loved by him. The latter she must impose upon him (first by small degrees, then more insistently), just as he imposes the former on her.

More critical perhaps than the campaign she wages for Reynolds’ heart is Alma’s impressing upon Cyril that she is not the shrinking violet or disposable paper doll that serial monogamist Reynolds is accustomed to having in his life. Cyril is at first every bit as dismissive of Alma as she was of Alma’s predecessor (whom she literally dismissed) … until she isn’t. And that moment of recognition — when Cyril realizes that the admirably duplicitous Alma is an ally in her mission to protect Reynolds and preserve the House of Woodcock instead of a distraction and an enemy within — is rather marvelous.

At work behind all of this, though, is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail. He depicts this world in all its simple elegance, distilling these characters to their essence, and trims away all the excess to create a perfectly tailored, exquisitely bespoke film that presents him at the peak of his prowess. Others may argue that There Will Be Blood is his and Day-Lewis’ showy, sprawling masterpiece, but Phantom Thread, with its quiet grace, its unnerving tension, its spareness and its splendor, is as close to a perfect creation as he has yet produced. And at last Anderson takes his place among the ranks of filmmakers whose upcoming projects I eagerly anticipate instead of await with trepidation.
 
 
 
 
 
1 This may be in part because of PTA’s de facto christening as “the Altman of his generation” and his own stated admiration for Altman’s oeuvre. I, on the other hand, fucking loathe Robert Altman.
 
It’s noteworthy, though, that
Phantom Thread shares a certain period aesthetic and thematic spirit with Gosford Park, one of the few Altman films I like. The scenes of the seamstresses climbing the stairs of the Woodcock manse to begin their work day in service of Reynolds’ vision are evocative of the upstairs/downstairs world of Gosford Park.

Written by Shepcat

January 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Movies

Tagged with

The Insignificant Detail #10

leave a comment »

A WALKING ATM

One of the joys of my trip home this past Christmas was watching North by Northwest with my dad, who kept up a running commentary of the make and model year of virtually every car that appeared on-screen (with the exception of “Laura’s Mercedes”). He was positively Rain Man–like.

Then a couple of days later we were out shopping, and I happened to mention that, though I make a lot of daily purchases with my credit card, I still feel a sense of security having some cash on hand at all times. “Like Cary Grant in the movie the other night?” Dad said. “How he never ran out of cash?”

I’ve seen all or part of North by Northwest at least 70 times (conservative estimate), but until just then I’d never really considered how Roger O. Thornhill’s inexhaustible cash on hand qualifies as an Insignificant Detail, not unlike bullets in a John Woo gunfight.

Remember: Thornhill is abducted in the first four minutes of the film1 and spends the next four days either in the custody of or on the run from or toward his captors. So in 1959, decades before the advent of the automated teller machine, when would he have the time to stand in line at a bank (during regular daytime business hours, no less, while also being widely publicized as a fugitive from justice) to make a withdrawal?

With that in mind, here is a running account of every time Thornhill greases a palm — on camera and off — over the course of the film’s 136-minute running time:

DAY 1

  • 0:02:32 Thornhill buys a newspaper in the lobby of his office building with change he removes from the side pocket of his suit jacket.
     
  • 0:04:16 He pays the cab driver to return his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang), to the office.
     

DAY 2

  • 0:26:11 Thornhill presumably pays the Glen Cove police the $2 drunk-and-disorderly fine.
     
  • 0:26:49 He and Mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrive at the Plaza Hotel in a cab.
     
  • 0:28:06 He bribes Mother, first with $10, then with $50, to get George Kaplan’s room key at the Plaza. After berating him, she takes the $50.
     
  • 0:30:59 He tips the hotel valet for the return of George Kaplan’s dry-cleaned suit.
     
  • 0:34:17 Abandoning Mother, he escapes the Plaza in a cab, which he takes to the United Nations.
     
  • 0:38:24 He escapes the U.N. in another cab, which we see him sprinting toward in the overhead matte-painting shot. He presumably takes this cab to Grand Central Station.
     
    However, quite a bit of time must elapse in the interlude because the next scene shows the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his staff discussing the matter in Washington, D.C., where the fugitive Thornhill’s picture appears in the afternoon paper. This scene takes place the same day, because the newspaper article references his appearance in Glen Cove police court “earlier today.”
     
  • 0:41:43 At Grand Central Station, we first see Thornhill on a pay phone, talking to Mother. He references having called the Plaza Hotel and learned that Kaplan checked out en route to the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago. So that’s two phone calls, apparently made with pocket change.
     
  • 0:51:59 Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, he hastily tosses some bills on the table as he and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) exit the dining car when the train makes an unscheduled stop.
     

DAY 3

  • 1:02:31 The red cap Thornhill “assaulted” at Chicago’s Union Station appears to count out at least four bills that he was paid in exchange for his uniform.
     
  • 1:06:11 Thornhill presumably pays cash for his Greyhound bus ticket to Prairie Stop, Highway 41.
     
  • 1:24:21 He would pay and tip the valet at the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago after he sends his pesticide-dusted suit down to be sponged and pressed.
     
  • 1:25:23 He takes a cab from the Ambassador to the auction house at 1212 North Michigan Avenue.
     

DAY 4

  • 1:40:40 Thornhill views Mount Rushmore through a coin-operated viewfinder. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:42:37 Just before the sitdown with Vandamm (James Mason), he buys a cup of coffee in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:55:13 Finally, Thornhill takes a cab from the hospital in Rapid City to Vandamm’s house behind Mount Rushmore, a trip of at least 20 miles.
     

By my count, that’s 17 times in four days that Thornhill dips into the pocket at the end of the rainbow and pulls out cash. Not for nothing is his gray suit widely regarded as the greatest suit in film history.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Excluding credit sequence. All subsequent timestamps refer to the full DVD runtime.

Written by Shepcat

January 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

My Favorite Things — #3 in a Series

leave a comment »

PLEASANTVILLE

Writer-director Gary Ross’ Pleasantville is a practically perfect movie. God, I love every frame of it. I had almost forgotten how much.

Before these latest viewings, it had been several years since I last watched it. Which is astonishing even to me, given the title of this continuing series. (I had begun and abandoned another version of this piece some years ago.) But now, some 19 years and change since the film’s release, it is arguably more relevant than ever. We find ourselves at a juncture in history during which a nostalgia not unlike that which the film both celebrates and satirizes is being wielded against us for more insidious aims.

In the abstract, in its most charitably innocuous interpretation, the phrase “Make America Great Again” might conjure up in our collective imagination that same midcentury, postwar America that gave us such gentle domestic comedies as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — the amalgamation of which forms the basis of Pleasantville’s TV series–within–the movie conceit — as the cultural yardsticks against which American families measured their happiness and prosperity.

But there was a dark side to that happiness and prosperity, because midcentury, postwar America was also Cold War America. And Jim Crow America. And it was “postwar” for only about five years before we became embroiled in the Korean conflict, with Vietnam faintly visible on the horizon. Our innocence, illusory though it was, was soon to be trampled amid the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s.

To geeky, good-natured ’90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire), though, the Parkers of TV’s Pleasantville — father George, mother Betty, siblings Bud and Mary Sue — represent a more personal form of escapism, the perfect nuclear family as counterpoint to the broken home he shares with his divorced mother (Jane Kaczmarek), vulnerable and looking for love, and his cooler-than-thou sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), rapacious and primed for sex.

The film is sometimes criticized for being too on-the-nose, but the milieu lends itself so readily to metaphor that Ross would just as likely be criticized for any low-hanging fruit he left unpicked. (In this regard, Ross’ script is every bit as watertight as, if not somewhat inspired by, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future screenplay.) Yes, the opening is a little slow and the contrivance that sets the plot in motion is a little clunky, but these criticisms are abated by the perfect casting of Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman whose timely intervention results in David and Jennifer’s being transported through time, space and cathode-ray tubes into the bodies of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

The time-travel trope of doing one small thing that totally alters the course of history is turned on its ear here when sex-positive Jennifer introduces original sin to this monochromatic Eden and that life-changing, mind-altering knowledge literally inflames the town and pinballs through its once-innocent population like dopamine run amok, opening their eyes to rapturous art, racy literature, jazz and rock and roll, their own unrealized potential, and the thrilling, dangerous, unknown world just beyond the horizon. Had circumstance dropped David alone into this perfect world, one imagines that he would employ his encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show as would an omniscient god, enforcing predestination to ensure that all the actors hit their marks and the daily life of Pleasantville proceeded according to its intelligent design, as originally televised and repeated ad infinitum in syndication. But Jennifer fell with him, and in the guise of Mary Sue brought free will to the citizens of Pleasantville.

As Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, the late J.T. Walsh exudes glad-handing menace from the moment he first appears in the doorway of the barber shop, in the first of many low-angle shots in which Ross frames him. While his introduction comes after Pleasantville has experienced its first post-Jennifer aftershocks, there is an uneasy reverence toward Bob among the ordinarily cheerful townsfolk that implies he has always been a looming presence, a disingenuous strongman, a benevolent despot who gives but also takes away, who might turn on them at any moment.

Of course, through the lens of 2017 it’s all too easy to view Big Bob as a Trumpian reactionary who throws his weight around, stirring up outrage among “all true citizens,” then claiming to restore order by enacting restrictive ordinances aimed at those whose otherness has suddenly upset the normal life of the town, “to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” Never mind that they’re the same people he’s lived and worked alongside all his life, friends and neighbors who likely elected him in the first place; he is enraged by their departure from the norm and their perceived rebellion against his magnanimity and authority.

Of all the film’s various relationships, my favorite is the one between Maguire’s Bud and Joan Allen’s Betty, at once maternal and conspiratorial. Because while Jennifer’s intercession unmoors all of Pleasantville from its axis, it is Betty, of all the characters in the film, whom David was sent to set free. It takes the complete undoing of his ideal world to show David that he also has the power to change it for the better, and his empathy for Betty’s circumstance ultimately leads him to facilitate the unraveling of the nuclear family he idolizes, which in turn gives him a deeper, more compassionate understanding of his own mother back home in the untelevised present.

In all the family sitcoms of the 1950s, the father goes to work, the kids go to school, and the mother stays at home to keep the whole operation running smoothly and looking picture perfect. So the father has co-workers, and the kids have classmates — mirrors they can hold themselves up to — but Ross cannily observes that the mother, left alone for hours at a time, is the one most likely to have an interior life, to while away the days contemplating her needs and desires and what her life might have been but for the one defining choice she made. So while George Parker (William H. Macy) is steadfast and true, if a bit daft and guileless, cut from the same gray flannel as Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson, one can easily imagine Betty Parker (or Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson) as a melancholy Douglas Sirk heroine, presenting a cheerful façade, resigned to her rote, routine roles as wife and mother even as she imagines a different, vibrant, more complex and intoxicating life.

We feel this undercurrent the first time Betty locks eyes with Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), Bud’s artistically inclined boss at the soda shop. There is a history in their shared gaze. We understand instantly that Bill is Betty’s road not taken. And her inevitability.

Nostalgia, whether wistful or moralistic, might have us believe that these couplings and uncouplings, these little disobediences and larger acts of rebellion, this submission to and eventual embrace of chaos represent a tipping point at which our shared values began to erode and the fallout became irreversible.

But Ross reminds us that the world was never really that black-and-white, or even gray, to begin with. It has always been vivid and chaotic. The volume and variety of our values didn’t end at the few we shared in common and presented to the world. And a challenge to the status quo by one was an invitation to any of us to challenge the status quo, to turn the world upside down and remake it in our own image, painting with all the colors in our palette.

Pleasantville does fill me with nostalgia, but for Pleasantville itself. It is so many things at once — a time-travel story, a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, a “woman’s picture,” a social satire, a race allegory, a broad comedy — that it should by rights be a tonal train wreck. But Ross somehow balances all these elements and blends them seamlessly into a thoughtful, funny, warm-hearted picture that, like Pleasantville itself, is almost too good to be true.
 
 
 
Honorable Mentions:

  • The unintended supernatural effect of Joan Allen pleasuring herself in the bathtub for the first time.
  • Macy’s various readings of the line “Where’s my dinner?” each one funnier than the one before it.
  • The remarkable Walsh, who left us entirely too soon, uttering the line “Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley,” then having his Patton moment in front of the overhead projection of the scorecards.
  • The destruction of Bill Johnson’s soda shop, in its own way as startling and upsetting to watch as the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
  • The courtroom scene and its echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” sitting in the balcony.
  • The look on Witherspoon’s face when she hears that, under the town’s new Code of Conduct, “no bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.”
  • The incredible Don Knotts: While he once, in the pages of Esquire, referred to Deputy Barney Fife as his greatest achievement, his performance here as the ubiquitous TV repairman is the perfect culmination of his career, never more so than when he’s losing his shit over the havoc David and Jennifer have wrought on a world that he, Knotts, helped build.

Written by Shepcat

December 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm

How Would Lubitsch Do It?: A Parable

leave a comment »

During Hollywood’s golden age, between 1930 and 1968, filmmakers were governed by the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred to as the Hays code, which set out strict moral guidelines dictating what was acceptable and unacceptable content for American audiences, with a particular emphasis on sex.

The best filmmakers, not the least of whom was my idol Billy Wilder, were masters at subverting the code. By working within the restrictions imposed upon them, working around what they were not able to show or tell, they became better, more entertaining storytellers, in part because they made their audiences put 2 and 2 together, gave them credit for their own intelligence, and made them complicit in the telling of the story. Throughout his career, Mr. Wilder credited his own mentor, director Ernst Lubitsch, as the master of this technique, and challenged himself with a sign hung in his office that asked, simply, “How would Lubitsch do it?”

To illustrate “the Lubitsch touch,” Mr. Wilder pointed to the opening sequence in Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): There’s a king, a queen and a lieutenant, and you must dramatize, without being explicit, a situation in which the queen has an affair with the lieutenant, and the king finds out.

Open on the bedroom of the king and queen. They are dressing in the morning, and it’s a scene of affectionate domestic bliss.

Now the king leaves the bedroom. As he exits, we see the lieutenant standing guard outside the door in full dress uniform with his belt and sword. He clicks his heels in salute and watches as the king slowly descends the long staircase and eventually disappears into the palace.

We cut back to the lieutenant, who, assured that the king is now gone, enters the royal bedroom.

We cut back to the king as he descends the staircase, and halfway down he realizes he isn’t wearing his own belt and sword. He turns and ascends the staircase, returning to the bedroom. “Now we have a situation,” Mr. Wilder says.

The king enters. The door closes. We are never inside the room. The door opens. The king exits with the belt and sword. Happily he descends the staircase again, but as he tries to put on the belt, it doesn’t fit. It’s too small. It’s not his belt.

The king returns again to the royal bedroom, where he finds the lieutenant under the bed.

And scene.

Faced with a codified list of restrictions, Lubitsch has told us everything we need to know without explicitly showing us the lieutenant screwing the queen.
 


 
Early Saturday morning, like thieves in the dead of night, the Senate GOP pushed through their version of a tax code that will cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, explode the national debt by $1 trillion, and benefit the wealthiest citizens in this country while ultimately raising taxes on the middle class it purports to bolster.

Since the Reagan administration, we’ve been fed the lie that, if we decrease regulation, cut the corporate tax rate, and approve a tax code that further benefits the wealthiest Americans, in effect making them all wealthier, they will then reinvest that wealth in job creation and production that will bolster the U.S. economy and trickle that wealth down to the American people at large.

And yet, since the 1980s, all that policy has achieved is to widen the inequality gap among Americans, with CEO pay growing exponentially as American wages have remained stagnant, fewer American families controlling and enjoying the majority of wealth, and corporations increasing their bottom lines by hiding profits offshore and outsourcing jobs overseas, where they can pay foreign employees considerably less than they would pay American workers to do the same work.

The obvious benefit of paying American workers is that we would turn around and put that money back into the American economy, creating more growth, but the gun to the American electorate’s head is the notion that, unless we give the corporations and the wealthy what they want — more wealth up front — they can’t (read: won’t) give us the jobs and income we need to contribute to the American economy.

In point of fact, American corporations are more beholden to the shareholders they already have than to any notion that they might create new shareholders, who are by now so far behind the richest shareholders in this country that they could never catch up. So corporations will continue to outsource jobs to bolster the bottom line for those shareholders, in much the same way as the GOP will continue to court their political donations by creating for them the conditions most favorable to their continued growth and increasingly obscene wealth, which — as the last four decades of American life has shown us — is never going to trickle down to the American public at large.

In the middle of the last century, the average tax rate for the wealthiest 1 percent of American households hovered between 40 and 44 percent while corporations were taxed at a rate between 52 and 54 percent, which not only benefited all Americans and allowed us to rebuild the country after the Great Depression but also allowed us to help rebuild Europe after the Second World War under the Marshall Plan.

And while those rates were a restriction of sorts on the wealthiest Americans and American corporations, it didn’t prevent them from investing in American workers and spearheading a quarter century of growth and innovation during which American homeownership rose significantly as the rise of suburbs corresponded to the growth of American cities; we funded public education and the arts; college enrollment and graduation rates rose steadily as tuition remained affordable; we developed safer, more efficient automobiles; we built an interstate highway system that stitched the entire country together; we advocated for cleaner, safer food, air and water; we made life-saving advances in medicine and medical technologies; we developed faster, more efficient computers that increased production and reinvented the American workplace; and we put satellites into orbit and man on the moon.

Despite those restrictions on the wealthiest among us, somehow we accomplished all this without explicitly screwing American citizens.

And scene.

Written by Shepcat

December 3, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Life, Movies, Politics, The Nation

Tagged with

The Long and Short of It

leave a comment »

On the April 7 episode of her podcast With Friends Like These, journalist Ana Marie Cox and her guest, author and political commentator Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?), briefly digressed in their conversation to talk about Donald Trump’s sartorial habit of wearing his ties so long that he has to Scotch-tape the narrow end that isn’t long enough to go through the loop in back.1

That’s the how of the Scotch tape, but it doesn’t address the why of Trump wearing his ties so long.

Naturally, I point to writer-director David Mamet’s 2000 comedy State and Main, in which drunken town doctor and bow-tie aficionado Doc Wilson (Michael Higgins) promotes the following thesis to dissuade someone from taking his advice:

It’s the truth that you should never trust anybody wears a bow tie. Cravat’s s’posed to point down to accentuate the genitals. Why’d you wanna trust somebody’s tie points out to accentuate his ears?

 
I mean, think about it: This is a man who attempts to dominate everyone he meets with a weird, jerky alpha-male handshake that puts his counterpart off balance and yanks him toward Trump, in whose mind this practice — what? makes him appear stronger than the other guy? This flabby asshole who eats KFC on his private jet and doesn’t get any exercise aside from walking to and from his golf cart after hitting a 7-iron shot on the fairway? He’s precisely the kind of asshole who would want your eyes drawn toward his junk.

So yeah: Good luck keeping that thought out of your head next time you look at Trump’s necktie. Go with God.
 
 
 
 
 
1 It’s also notable that the ties Trump wears in all likelihood come from his own eponymous menswear line. I mean, they’re certainly not bespoke, but it’s his name on the back of each one. So why does this couturier, this clothes horse, this man of fashion not have his own personal neckties customized with the loop stitched a few inches higher to accommodate his preference for unwieldy length?

Written by Shepcat

April 12, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Movies, Politics

Tagged with