Thursday, September 30, 2010

RIP Tony Curtis

There are few, if any, movies I've seen more times than Some Like It Hot. Honestly, I feel as if I had the whole thing pretty much by heart by the time I was 10. I wrote at least one paper on it when I was at NYU. It's just the best.

From the Chicago gangland beginning, the reveal of the liquor bottles in the coffin, the raid on the speakeasy, George Raft doing his schtick, the fantastic score, our first view of Jack Lemmon's hapless Daphne and Tony Curtis's prissy Josephine as they sashay down the train platform, our first view of Marilyn's Sugar Kane (neé Kowalczyk), the massacre in the garage ("Gooodbye, Charlie"), the madcap party in the Pullman berth, Curtis's hilarious Cary Grant impression ("Nobody talks that way!"), Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown's tango with the band blindfolded ("Zowie!"), the Italian American Opera Lovers Association, the slapstick chase through the lobby of the Miami Seminole-Ritz, all of Marilyn's musical numbers, and possibly the greatest last line in comedy movie history.

For my money (let's all have a hearty laugh here), it's one of the world's perfect movies. Billy Wilder was a stone cold genius and this is his best (controversy!). Tony Curtis was great as both Joe and Josephine. His career was checkered, to say the least. But his is the sort off career I like best, he never stopped working and would play in anything. From prestige pictures like The Defiant Ones to the Agatha Christie camp-fest The Mirror Crack'd (Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor and Ann-Margaret) to his hosting of my favorite terrible TV show, Hollywood Babylon. It was based on the Kenneth Anger book and features Curtis intoning portentously about past Show Biz scandals. Then, oh joy, there are bargain basement re-enactments by terrible actors.

Tony Curtis was a tough Jew from New York who grew up in the Bronx and went to high school on the Lower East Side and made it to movie stardom and a 60+ year career. He will be missed.

Below is the only clip from Hollywood Babylon I could find on YouTube. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Disfunctional Family Pryce

The other night while watching Mad Men, a strange feeling of familiarity crept over me. It had nothing to do with my identifying with Joan or Peggy as I so often do. I looked at Lane and went: "Huh."

Lane is an Englishman working in America who came to these shores as a functionary for a large British concern. He was clearly not particularly valued by his former employers, and really only found some sort of happiness working with a smaller, American company. It is often his job to make difficult decisions for the company, and is sometimes viewed with resentment or dislike, something he is clearly used to. But he's finally starting to make some friends and it's kind of sweet how happy he seems to be included and liked. Lane's happy new life is horribly disrupted however, by the appearance of his disapproving and abusive (and bearded) father.

The entire paragraph above could have been written about Wesley Wyndom-Pryce of Buffy/Angel fame. What is it with the fictional Pryce family of Britain? The only essential difference is that I seriously doubt that Lane Pryce's father will turn out to be a robot. For those who are less familiar with the Whedonverse, having characters turn out to be cyborgs is what the writers do when they want to explore patricidal guilt, without making their lead characters actual murderers (see also: Ted). Unfortunately, Mad Men doesn't have this option in its arsenal, so poor Lane will have to deal with his Pryce family problems the old fashioned way: with seething resentment and custodial arrangements.

Now, I'm hardly the first person to note the Whedonification of Mad Men. With Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Danny Strong and Marti Noxon on board, it's a little hard to miss. I looked at the credits of the actors playing both fathers Pryce, and though Roy Dotrice's (Wesley's Dad) resume is slightly more impressive (having had previous experience playing a terrible father as the elder Mozart in Amadeus), their film and TV resumes bear other similarities. They are both classically trained British stage actors, W. Morgan Sheppard (Lane's Dad) is a former RSC member and Dotrice has a Tony award. They have both worked consistently in television over the past 40 years or so. They have both voiced an impressive array of cartoon villains. But for both, a significant percentage of their incomes has been from appearances in various sci fi and fantasy franchises.

Okay. I know the similarities between the fictional families Pryce are (likely) coincidental. But looking at the long and varied careers of two character actors, neither of which most people would have heard of, is always a worthwhile venture. Both Mr. Dotrice and Mr. Sheppard have well over a hundred credits each on IMDB. Mr. Sheppard is almost 80 and Mr. Dotrice is almost 90 and both are still consistently working in TV, films and voice acting.

(Speaking of fathers and sons, I just realized that Jared Harris who plays Lane Pryce on Mad Men is Richard Harris's son!)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lady of Burlesque

On Sunday, my charming inamorato and I had a complete day of sloth, watching a stack of Universal horror movies and the adaptation of Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders, Lady of Burlesque which stars the greatest of all movie stars, Barbara Stanwyck. The adaptation differs from the source in that the story is pretty truncated, and the burlesque performers keep all their clothes on (but the audiences in the film seem okay about it). The film is in the public domain, so I've embedded the whole thing below!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Prada Says: Ook Ook Ook

I don't do much in the way of fashion coverage for the same reason I don't write much about food: so many other people do it much better than I ever could.

That said, I fully consider monkeys and cephalopods to be firmly on my beat - which brings me to the Prada 2011 s/s collection that debuted the other day in Milan. Now, as fashion is far from my usual subject around these parts, I understand that many of my readers will likely need maybe a tiny bit of background. The Prada family has owned a leather goods company in Italy since early in the 20th century. In 1978, current owner and family scion, Miuccia Prada inherited the family business. In one of those happy accidents, Ms. Prada turned out to be something of a visionary, turning her small, family run luggage business, into a fashion empire. Much like Coco Chanel in the 1920s, Christian Dior in the post-war years, and Yves Saint Laurent in the 60s and 70s, she managed to essentially change how women looked and dressed. Her clothing is relentlessly creative and interesting, ludicrously expensive and she is one of the very, very few designers currently working who pretty consistently comes up with stuff that can be called "new". Like anyone who is willing to take risks, she occasionally comes up with designs that seem, well, inexplicable. See the current 2011 spring/summer collection in which she references Baroque art and Josephine Baker. Sometimes printed on what look like hospital scrubs. See below:

And then my favorite - a sundress with a stylized illustration of Josephine Baker printed on it, but instead of bananas around her waist, there is an octopus.

Miuccia Prada has always been interesting to me because her designs seem to take the male gaze into pretty much zero consideration. Her clothes are often referred to as "intellectual", by which people mean "not sexy". And by and large, they aren't. It is often said about her designs that women love them and men don't get them, which is a vast over-simplification, but not entirely off base. Her house is very new, debuting its first ready-to-wear line in 1989. And she had a slide installed in her office which she uses to access to floor below.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The World Could Use More Humorless Bitches

How much digital ink, I wonder, has been spilled in praise of Christina Hendricks and Joan Holloway, the fascinating character she plays? Gallons of pixels I warrant, and the bulk of them talk about her body. Which is glorious:

<span class=Photobucket" border="0">

Look. I'm not going to go off on a rant about sample sizes, or about various body types or parts being in or out of style (short arms are in for Fall!) or any of that, mostly because I want to write about Joan in 1965, not Christina in 2010 (though I do have a post about the fashion of female beauty aesthetics in the works, and may talk more about her there).

What I wanted to talk about was office politics or, more specifically, Joan and Peggy's respective places within Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Don Draper is a partner and the head of creative. From what I've gathered, Peggy is his second in command, hiring mostly freelancers (both copywriters and illustrators). Jonathan was hired a few episodes ago, but we haven’t really seen him since. So, all the young creatives sit around a typical writers’ room, throwing ideas around, bullshitting, the usual. It’s 1965 and the vibe is far more relaxed and laid back and, well, modern than it was at the old firm in the pre-Beatles years.

Joan is the office manager, inhabiting a space I know all too well. Upper management knows she’s invaluable: smart, ultra-competent, a born fixer. But the (mostly male) rank and file behave as if she’s just some fucking secretary who has the gall to think she’s more important than, say, some freelancer out of Harvard who could be replaced in an instant. She’s not management, not staff, not creative, but is instead in some kind of twilight zone in which she is utterly unreplacable, but ill-defined in terms of office hierarchy.

Back to the writer’s room. All of the creative team are men except for Peggy. Their room is separated from Joan’s office by a glass wall. Lots of silliness happens when they are all trying to work through problems and come up with ideas, which is inevitable and good for any creative process. The mid-sixties are far looser and more permissive in style than the 50s and most of us think of that as being a good thing, but inevitably, when certain social strictures are loosened, what comes spilling out isn’t limited to wacky brilliance, ugliness is unleashed as well. One of the freelancers in particular is a total creep. This is a dynamic most women have encountered. You are the only women in the group. Most of the men are pretty reasonable, and than one total asshole starts making all kinds of ugly, hateful sexist jokes and all the previously reasonable men join in. It’s maddening and puts you in an impossible situation. If you let it go, you die a little inside. If you complain, you are a humorless scold. You cannot win. I have personally solved this problem by not giving the tiniest damn if people thing I am a humorless scold. But, I’m almost fifteen years older than Peggy, living in very different times.

Peggy is in a quandary. Then, the creepy, creepy jerk decides he has a particular problem with Joan after she yells at the little boys in creative for screwing with the snack machine, turning their workspace into a pig sty, using her office as a through way, etc. This guy has admitted Mommy problems and goes fairly psycho. Peggy yells at him for being a jerk to Joan, and he (of course) responds by belittling her. Joan takes him aside to have a word, and he says “What exactly do you do around here besides walking around looking like you want to get raped?” This guy is a total jerk, but the thing that struck me most is that within the hierarchy of SCDP he is subordinate to both Peggy and Joan. We have a word for this and it’s called privilege. This is a person whose privilege runs so deep, he is sexually harassing his superiors, and oh my friends, this is a situation I have been in and it’s simply mind boggling.

Finally, the insufferable freelancer goes too far. He draws a cartoon of Joan giving someone a blowjob and tapes it to the window of her office. It’s always struck me how men like that are so adept at zeroing in on someone’s insecurities. Joan is the most competent person imaginable, but her former sexual relationship with Roger Sterling puts her in s slightly unfortunate position in terms of power dynamics. Both Joan and Peggy absolutely lose it, understandably. Joan storms in and tells all the boys that when they get drafted and go to Vietnam and get killed she, for one, will be happy about it. Not nice, no, but her husband is being deployed that week and she’s been pushed pretty far.

Peggy goes to Don. This is where it gets really interesting. He clearly doesn’t think it’s that big a deal and really doesn’t want to deal with it. But in deflecting the situation away from him, gives Peggy some excellent advice. He says: ”Fire him.” When she looks taken aback he says (okay, I’m paraphrasing), “If I fire him, you’ll look like a tattletale. Is that what you want?” Peggy calls the asshole freelancer aside and tells him that he’s behaving inappropriately and that he needs to apologize to both her and Joan. He refuses and makes yet another smart remark, clearly not understanding that he is, in fact, talking to his boss. So Peggy fires him. It’s awesome. He clearly doesn’t believe she has the authority to do so as she’s sporting a vagina and all. So he says, we’ll see what Don has to say about that. She responds, “Don doesn’t even know who you are.” And at that moment her eyes are shooting off magical feminist laser beams of power and it’s just thrilling.

The final grace note of the episode is what really makes it. Peggy is clearly buzzing from the excellent firing and gets on the elevator with the still clearly upset Joan. Peggy obviously wants to share a happy “ding dong the manwitch is dead” moment with her, but Joan is having none of it. She tells Peggy she could have handled it herself by having one dinner with the client and having a private word with him and Peggy, by doing what she did has only proved that Joan is “just some powerless secretary and that she [Peggy] is a humorless bitch”. Poor Joan. She’s basically espousing that age old anti-feminist rhetoric that women can get whatever they want through their feminine wiles and getting men to act for him. And this is a perfect example why I have exactly zero problem with being a humorless bitch. As I discussed in a previous blog post about calling a woman a stupid slut, there are the same three reasons to call a woman a humorless bitch:
  1. To shut her up.
  2. To discredit what she's saying or doing
  3. To humiliate her.

What Peggy really needs to do, is to hire more women. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pasties, G-Strings and Death, Oh My!

Once, I almost performed an actual burlesque routine in front of actual people, but I totally chickened out. Mainly, because I was Not In A Good Place and felt way too hideous and self-conscious to perform my Coney Island themed flapper act on stage at Dixon Place. Which I actually kind of regret. I mean, when did I become so self-conscious? Twenty-five years in life drawing classes as both artist and model have made me more than blasé about disrobing in public, but I guess here's the thing: As I once told a singing teacher in acting school, I would be perfectly happy standing naked in front of an audience but the thought of singing fully clothed in front of one made me want to die. Which brings me to the crux of the matter, i.e. performing and dying, which are delightfully written about in two murder mysteries penned almost 70 years apart.

Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders appeared in 1942 amidst assumptions that she did not write it. I don't buy it. The book is so deeply insider-y about the world of burlesque and is so clearly written from a woman's point of view, I can't really see it having been written by some editor from Harper's. In a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece (sorry, subscription required) from 1940 when she was in the middle of writing the book, she admits that her grammar and spelling are wretched and had an editor friend helping her out. What of it? So does everybody, and everyone concerned is dead now, and wouldn't you rather she wrote it? So, that's the story we're going with.

I loved this book. Chorus girls, burlesque dancers and aspiring starlets appear in all kinds of hard boiled crime fiction, vintage and modern, from S.S. Van Dine to Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy to Megan Abbott. They appear as shady dames, victims and comic relief, but only in The G-String Murders are they both author and heroine. I actually found it kind of thrilling. She very effectively creates a backstage world that simply no longer exists. The nuts and bolts explanations of how a burlesque house was run in the 1930s are fascinating, her dialogue is funny and gritty. It's a plot point that she makes her own costumes (oh, the story is told in first person by a burlesque star named "Gypsy Rose Lee"), and in the 1940 New Yorker piece she shows off her thrift store finds that she will be using to make new outfits - something many a modern burlesque performer has done. It's gritty and bawdy and charming.

The mystery itself is a little simple and wraps up far too quickly, but honestly, that can be said for nearly all first time mystery writers, and unless we're in the realm of the hard core mystery pros - Christie, Sayers, Grimes, Hill, Chandler et al, the plotting rarely impresses me. What is the most important thing in most mysteries, something Lee really gets, is the setting and the characters. She said in an interview that "I think there is no sense having people killed before the reader is acquainted with them" and she is as good as her word. The first murder happens about 100 pages in, but the lead up is a doozy, full of busts by the vice squad and backstage jealousies and intrigue and clues.

A little under seventy years after Gypsy Rose Lee wrote her first book, the second burlesque themed mystery to be penned by an actual burlesque performer was published by Hard Case Crime. The Corpse Wore Pasties, is by Jonny Porkpie, the self-styled Burlesque Mayor of NYC. Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, I became acquainted with Mr. Porkpie under another name, when he was wearing a hat other than Porkpie (that of Tiny Ninja producer). I found his book to be a very enjoyable read, and much like with Miss Lee's offering, its pleasures come more from the world in which it was set than from the mystery aspect. That said, the murder itself is fantastic, as it happens on stage in front of a cheering (and hooting) audience. It's both a burlesque of a death by poisoning and an actual poisoning.

There's a delightful economy in the telling of his murderous tale, which methinks betrays another hat Mr. Porkpie has worn, that of playwright. His exposition is breezy and organic. Most impressively, he uses an interrogation scene in the 9th Precinct (the story is told in first person by a burlesque presenter and performer named "Jonny Porkpie") to explain to both the cops and his readers what burlesque is. No, it's not stripping. Yes, they take off their clothes. But it's art, I tell you, art! He explains it very well, I promise you. And because I'm all about shameless plugs, a certain former burlesque presenter has lots to say on the subject - I mean of course my always dashing inamorato, the man most often known as Trav S.D.. Click on the babes & burlesque tag on his blog, or search up The New Yorker article on the New Burlesque in which he was featured.

The differences between the old burlesque and the new are massive. New burlesque is more of a sexually charged performance art. There's a long sequence where Mr. Porkpie visits his various suspects, burlesque dancers all, at their various day jobs which is quite telling - and very funny. In Miss Lee's book, burlesque was their day job. Porkpie's novel is funny and over the top, as much a burlesque of the mystery genre as it is a tour through the downtown performance world of burlesque. If you take my meaning. I looked at the Amazon reviews before writing this, and there were a few negative ones which I think missed the point of his book entirely, i.e. that it's a comedy, not an actual hard boiled detective novel. It reminded me a little of the very funny Robin Hudson mysteries by Sparkle Hayter (which are really, really worth reading and, I'm horrified to discover, are out of print) in that they riff on the hard boiled while set in a modern (mostly downtown) New York in a very specific milieu (in Hayter's case, cable news) which the writer knows top to bottom. Porkpie's book is sexy, silly fun and it's nice to know that 70 years from now, whatever version of burlesque is making its third or fourth or fifth comeback in the year 2080 will have a delightful mystery novel to show them what it was like back in the (no doubt) misunderstood aughts.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dame Agatha at 120

Dame Agatha Christie was born 120 years ago yesterday, and I just wanted to remind everyone about the blog tour that has been arranged to commemorate this event. My entries (if you missed them!) were posted on September 7th.

In general, Dame Agatha was pretty poorly served by the movie adaptations of her books. The great exception was, of course, the Sidney Lumet directed Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. I've never been able to stand any of the Peter Ustinov or Margaret Rutherford adaptations, though, admittedly Death on the Nile has it's charms. One of my favorite recent(ish) Agatha Christie homages was a David Greenwalt/Joss Whedon penned Season 2 episode of Angel. There is a long, classic, drawing room denouement delivered by Wesley Wyndham-Price (the excellent Alexis Denisof) full of suspects, misleading clues and startling revelations. Please note that nothing else is shown of this particular Angel Investigations case except for the long, complicated reveal of the killer. It's very funny. Sadly, the intellectual property gods have ensured I cannot show it to you.

But have a Whedon fest and watch away. And read some mysteries. And raise a glass to mystery writers everywhere.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Brandywine Distillery Fire

This, once again, won't be anything resembling a proper review as the company of Brandywine Distillery Fire is full of old friends and collaborators and is therefore going to be biased. Bias or no bias, I do think my friends are more talented and interesting than other people, which may have something to do with them being my friends in the first place. But I think I'm right about this, so we'll all just go along and agree for the purposes of this particular blog post that my friends tend to be more talented than other people. Sadly, I realize this (possibly unfortunate) paragraph might invalidate any opinions I hold vis a vis Brandywine Distillery Fire. That is something we all will just have to live with.

When I was in playwrighting school, one of my instructors had us tape our family's conversations at Thanksgiving dinner and then transcribe them as accurately as possible. This turned out to be very interesting as everyone's transcriptions were complete gibberish. No one makes any sense or listens to anyone else, not really, and they tiresomely repeat themselves, and it all goes on and on with nothing resembling any sort of structure and then people just go to bed or go home or watch TV. The end. Brandywine Distillery Fire isn't anything like that (although the actors are all dressed up, which some people do on Thanksgiving, so there may be some similarities there) because whatever might be said in Brandywine Distillery Fire is in actual sentences, the kind of sentences you are glad to pay good money to hear, which is (believe me) not the case with anybody's actual Thanksgiving dinners which are incomprehensible in a bad, boring way (artistically speaking). Even if you think it would be an interesting experiment to use the actual transcriptions of actual Thanksgivings, and maybe present them, you would be wrong. It might be interesting to present them, but it would be pure hell to listen to or to watch. This is why art exists. To make sense of stuff that would make no sense or be impossible to listen to. I mean, among other things of course. But some people are interested in presenting things that are purposefully pure hell to watch and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, in theory, but I'm still not sure that audiences really want that. Though there are people that happily pay for all sorts of mistreatment, so what do I know. Again, Brandywine Distillery Fire is nothing like that, so please don't get the wrong idea.

When you really stop and think about it, language is such a strange thing. Let's think about leopards, and I chose leopards because I wrote a play once in which leopards are characters, but that really doesn't have anything to do with what I'm talking about here. Leopards make all kinds of sounds all the time. They growl and roar and pant and make strange harsh almost purring but not really kind of sounds and these sounds indicate what is going on inside of the leopard's head. But then Humans came along and took whatever animal sounds humans make and formed them into complicated sounds that represent other things making the leap into abstraction and confusion and lying and specificity that we are all still trying to make sense of eons later. But we're all still animals and so much of what we communicate has to do with our intonation and what our faces look like and the positions of our bodies which is why we get confused and distraught so often by what people say in emails. Not emails like, "Let's meet at 6:30 instead of 6.", but emails where more important and less literal things are talked about and then feelings are hurt and rumors begin and then staring at our computer screens we begin to think that maybe inarticulate grunting might, in fact, be the way to go. I would also like to be very clear that there is no inarticulate grunting in Brandywine Distillery Fire. There is, however, a really lovely three piece living room set in a kind of white satin upholstery that would just beg me to spill coffee all over it if it were in my own living room. White satin upholstery is surprisingly articulate in it's ability to cause spilling just by its presence in a room.

To move on, nothing is spilled on the upholstery in Brandywine Distillery Fire. But all the pieces of furniture are moved around, by the cast, some of whom are wearing heels, and sometimes up into the audience or places that set pieces aren't commonly moved to. I always find watching people doing actual things on stage, I mean, accomplishing actual tasks to be strangely riveting. And sometimes quite moving. Actors on stage aren't cartoons, after all, they are actual people (sometimes called "actors") who are doing things right in front of you and sometimes walk closer to where you are sitting and sometimes move farther away (when this happens in movies they pay lots of money to achieve this effect and call it "3-D") and have all kinds of things in their heads, some of which have nothing to do with the lines they are saying or the play they are performing in at all. But all the audience knows is what's going on in front of them which isn't so different from when you see people on the subway or walking down the street or in restaurants. You don't know what's really going on inside their heads as humans have mostly abandoned inarticulate grunting and mostly do things on the subway like sitting quietly or reading the newspaper. The big difference is that when you go to a theater to see actual people walking around and doing things it's usually far more interesting and focused than the people walking around going about their lives. There's some kind of intent at play. And lots of times the people walking around talking and doing stuff (the "actors") are what we have started referring to as "talented". Which is such a strange concept if you stop to think about it in terms of what we call acting. I mean, most of what actors do involves walking around and talking and stuff, I mean stuff that everybody does. We don't look at someone ordering coffee in a cofee shop from someone behind the counter and it's convincing and then they get their coffee and someone makes a little joke and they laugh, we don't say, "oh, how talented. Very convincing." We don't think about it at all. But if the exact same thing happened on stage in front of us, we might.

Brandywine Distillery Fire

Written by Matthew Freeman
Directed by Michael Gardner
September 9 - September 18 at 8:00pm
performed at the Incubator Arts Project, located in the St. Mark's Church
131 E. 10th Street
Starring Kina Bermudez, Steve Burns, Maggie Cino, Ivanna Cullinan*, Sarah Malinda Engelke*, Alexis Sottile and Moira Stone*

Nine Years Later

Saturday, the smartest man I know, posted a blog post in which he wondered if any living, American dramatic artists possess the scope and seriousness to really take on 9-11. I don't have anything resembling an answer, but I can dredge up a pretty solid maybe. Angels in America. Cabaret. So many truly great pieces of art that cover war and tragedy with the humanity and depth and humor and seriousness that is required. Is the problem with theater and movies about 9-11 a problem with the event itself? Does it not effectively lend itself to theater or film? I don't know, I don't know anything. It happened in an instant. From NYC's point of view there were no villains on stage. No one to fight, nothing to do. The world stage seemed blank and empty. In movies the President comes on TV to reassure a frightened nation, played by some deep voiced second rate actor. In real life there was no President on TV. He was hiding in some bunker somewhere. Everything was like this, and then it was another way. And then things went back to normal. But not really. We were a city of Flitcrafts.

I didn't see the play the man known as Trav S.D. saw, but I saw the film and thought it seemed as if it had been written by a 12 year old (okay. I said chimps. But that's incredibly mean.). I also reviewed a Fringe show a couple of weeks ago, The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival, written by a New Orleans native, that did a simply beautiful job of showing what that experience was like for five residents of that great and blighted city. Maybe we need a something done documentary style, maybe someone like Spike Lee. Maybe something by someone like Art Spiegelman. Maybe the problem is the artists working in the subject are so resoundingly second rate. We need something better.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Man Who Laughs

When I really stop to think about it, I may divide all movies and theater into one of two categories: Boring and Not Boring. Sadly, to modern audiences, many silent melodramas fall squarely in the realm of the Boring. Not so with The Man Who Laughs! The whole thing is just a non-stop delight. If you've been looking for a horror-melodrama with a swashbuckling clown: this is pretty much your only option.

The film is based on the rarely read Victor Hugo novel of the same name. In it, Gwynplaine, a small boy is sold to child mutilating gypsies called The Comprachicos by agents of King James II because of his noble father's disloyalty to the crown. Little Gwynplain's face is carved into a gruesome and permanent smile, while his father is tortured to death in an iron maiden. Gwynplaine is abandoned by the Comprachicos when they are forced to leave England and don't want any mutilated children with them, as the mutilation of children is usually frowned upon. So, the poor child wanders a frozen, barren landscape with a scarf covering his grotesque smile. This scene is completely extraordinary. It's German Expressionism at it's creepy best, wearing it's surrealistic influences on its sleeve. Gwynplaine walks through a field of gibbets hung with half rotted corpses.

He sees a young woman frozen to death on the road, but the baby in her arms is still alive and Gwynplaine saves her life by taking her along with him. He soon comes to the cabin of a hermit/mountebank/philosopher who kindly takes the children into his home, which he shares with his (really, really unfortunately named) wolf, Homo. The part of the wolf is played by an exceptionally sweet faced German Shepard named Zimbo. The baby turns out to be blind.

A couple of decades past and Gwynplaine and his ad hoc family make a living by performing a clown show/freak show in carnivals where he is billed as "The Man Who Laughs". The blind infant has grown up into a beautiful, sweet young woman. The carnival scenes are just the best. They are filled with life and movement, and the kind of hysterical enjoyment achieved only by people whose lives are unremittingly dark, hard working and grim. The extras are just incredible. They are present and lively and it appears they were cast via time machine. Wanted: Hordes of Syphilitic Rabble! There is some fun contrast between the chaotic fun of the fair grounds, and what passes for entertainment in the court of Queen Anne, who sits toad-like and frowning on her throne (the actress looks just like John Tenniel's Queen of Hearts). A decadent duchess becomes entranced with Gwynplaine, and we subsequently find out she is living on his father's estate and if Gwynplaine is reinstated as a peer of the realm she will lose all unless she marries the grotesque carnival player.

Court intrigue proceeds, more roiling crowds of rabble, some swashes are buckled, Homo saves the day and the lovers are eventually reunited. It's exciting and well acted in a hammy way, the girl is pretty, everyone else is a glorious grotesque, so the film has a great deal to offer. But, the design is the thing that is just mind blowing. Every frame is so rich and well thought out and manages to be both slightly off and expressionistic, but still brimming with interest and life. And a clown swashbuckles.

It's kind of amazing to me that a novel by Victor Hugo that essentially nobody's read has wielded so much cultural influence over the past 75 years or so. Of course, lots of this influence is cast by the wonderful film adaptation. A silent from 1928. That few living people have seen, considering the numbers who have seen and enjoyed its progeny.

The clearest and most acknowledged child is of course Batman's arch-enemy, The Joker (I mean, hello. Look at the poster at left). Bob Kane freely admits that he more or less stole the imagery from Conrad Viedt's distorted face. The similarities are emphasized in 2008's Dark Knight where Heath Ledger's joker speaks of his father cutting a permanent smile into his face. The largest difference, of course is that Hugo's hero is an admirable character, someone to be pitied, and The Joker is a psychopath. J.D. Salinger's Laughing Man owes more than a little to The Man Who Laughs, too. But I first came to the story through James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia, based on the notorious unsolved murder of b-girl, Elizabeth Short. Imagery from Hugo's novel plays a major part in the operatically over the top ending.

It's just such a strange anomalous work. The story is so strange, yet clearly so resonant, it has turned into fairy tale or myth.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Roger's Crispie Treats

This is a shameless plug.

Last weekend my dashing inamorato and I attended a barbecue where we drank perhaps a tiny bit too much wine and I ate my first steak since falling (more like leaping) off the veggie wagon. And it was awesome. I also ate about 300 of my friend Roger's bourbon flavored Crispie Treats.

You may think: Rice Crispy Treats? A child of six can make Rice Crispy Treats.

But a child of six is less likely to add bourbon. And he has lots of other flavors. America has brought some wonderful things to the world: jazz, pop art, breakfast cereal. And we, as a nation, have invented some seriously disturbing recipes involving packaged food. But Crispie Treats are pretty much universally beloved. As they should be. And Roger's are yummy. And he has a fan page on facebook.

Back in the Bloggy Saddle; or Television Can Break Your Heart

While watching the last regular season episode of Top Chef (i.e. the last one before the two part final) I had a major epiphany. When my beloved Tiffany was sent home, I was appalled. I was furious and sad. I may have even yelled at the television.

Thought no. 1: I think I may be just a tiny bit too invested in this.

Thought no. 2: Hey. Wait. Is this any sillier than all the fuss about the people throwing and running and catching and stuff? I think not.

Maybe I finally get what sports fans feel like, which I've always found baffling. I guess I like people who make stuff and have pretty much zero interest in the big exclusionary business of running, catching and throwing. And I like tennis and the Olympics, but team sports leave me cold. And they don't let girls play so screw them.

Back to Top Chef. Last week's episode had so much going for it. Astronauts. The return of Anthony Bourdain. How could it possibly disappoint? Let me explain. First, there's something so weirdly personal about food. We all have to eat it after all, and to restate a cliché, you are what you eat. Tom Colicchio,Top Chef judge and proprietor of all things Craft, has said when asked why they get so upset when the food the competitors make seems thoughtless and inedible (which considering the caliber of their cheftestants (I know, I know) doesn't happen too often) he said that that the judges have to eat it. And if you were forced to try what turns out to be underdone poultry, you would take it personally, too. None of this was a problem last week. The five remaining competitors (my beloved Tiffany, Ed, Antonio, Kelly and that jackass Kevin), had to prepair a meal for a bunch of astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin. The winner's dish would subsequently be freeze-dried and sent into space. And Bourdain was back, and he's always a good time.

So all the little cheftestants were excited to be at NASA and playing at the top of their game. Over the past few weeks, Tiffany has been winning challenge after challenge. Judges taste her food and automatically look happy. In a blog posting, Colicchio raved about her and said her Mexican dish for the international challenge was as good as any he'd ever eaten. It's always nice when the person with the loveliest personality also seems to be super talented. That's why ths week was so upsetting. Tiffany was just a tiny bit off her game. I watched the extended judging table footage, and it was fair. The judges really liked everything, but someone has to go. And Tiffany accidentally froze her mussels rendering them useless and never totally recovered. So off she went. Sigh.

On a side note, another nice thing about Top Chef is that it might be the only place in our culture where you can see attractive young women happily eating without apology. Regular judges Padma Lakshmi (the ex-Mrs. Rushdie) and Gail Simmons are extremely attractive young(ish) women. You never hear anyone worrying about calories or weight gain or other subjects endemic to our joyless age. That itself is something of a wonder, though the fact I feel the need to comment on this is depressing in the extreme.

The first part of the Top Chef DC final airs tonight on Bravo. 10PM. Tiffany-less, and much the sadder for it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dame Agatha's Harlequinade

One of the projects I mean to complete before I die is my book titled "Everything I Ever Learned, I Learned From Reading Mystery Novels". Because, mostly, I did.

As I mentioned earlier today, Agatha Christie liked her literary allusions, and when I was first reading her oeuvre, a dropped reference from her would send me scurrying to another section of the library. She loved mythology and Shakespeare and music. But she had a particular fascination with Commedia dell'Arte. It comes up again and again in her books, the apotheosis being the short story collection The Mysterious Mr Quin. The stories all feature Mr. Satterthwaite, an elderly, comfort loving dilettante. He wants nothing more than to stay in nice houses and hotels, eat good food, collect interesting people, and look at art. In each chapter, Mr. Satterthwaite encounters a mystery of some sort, and a shadowy man called Harley Quin appears and helps him solve the problem by assisting him in looking at whatever the situation is, from a different direction. There are many intimations of the supernatural in the character of Mr. Quin, but little is ever explained. In some of the stories, Mr. Satterthwaite doesn't exactly meet or speak with Mr. Quin, but his presence is felt.

The book is an odd departure for Dame Agatha, but an awfully interesting one. The stories tend to be a little darker in tone, they're full of love turned to madness and jealousy. People's identities are mutable in nearly all the stories. nearly everyone is wearing some sort of mask, not just the eponymous Mr. Quin. There's also an arc throughout the book in which we see Mr. Satterthwaite being shaken from his complacency, and instead of watching events transpire in front of him as if he was an audience member, he becomes an active participant in his life.

I had never heard of Commedia pre-Dame Agatha. But looking at the publication date of my copy of The Mysterious Mr Quin, I was only 12 or 13 when I first read it. Acting school, my brief time as Columbine and my happy associations with various red noses was still years away.

Note: this post is a participant in the Agatha Christie Blog Tour commemorating her 120th birthday.

Dame Agatha's Labours

Like nearly every other genre writer of her era, Agatha Christie wrote piles of short stories of varying quality and subject matter. Genre short stories seem to be having something of a resurgence (go internet!), for which I am really, really happy. I mean, I like Raymond Carver as much as the next person, but Alice Munroe aside, doesn't the traditional New Yorker-style short story seem kind of, like, over?

When I was young and living in my parents' house, my favorite reading spot was a decrepit arm-chair in a corner of the dining room. It was conveniently situated next to a large floor to ceiling bookcase. Coincidentally or not, the books within reaching distance of my chair were art books and mysteries. I'll surely write about art books another time, but back to mysteries. One of the earliest Agatha Christie books I remember reaching over, grabbing and devouring was the short story anthology The Labours of Hercules (which I just discovered, is out of print in the US. For shame! But you can get a digital version. Is this where we are heading? Where is my Luddite sledgehammer?). In it, Hercule Poirot decides to accept only cases that conform to the famous labors of his mythical namesake.

Agatha Christie loved literary allusions and played with them often. In this collection, her versions of Hercules' labors are particularly clever. Cerberus lives in a fashionable London nightclub called Hell (what else would they name their dog?), the Nemean Lion concerns a pekingese, The Stymphalean Birds are pure red herring (FYI - I love this story), the Arcadian Deer is about a Russian ballet dancer, The Lernean Hydra is about a vicious rumor. They are all completely enjoyable. Maybe it's Agatha Christie's consistency that I admire almost more than anything. In this collection, and in the bulk of her career, she managed to very, very rarely turn out a bad book. I think some of this is attributable to her complete understanding of the sort of writer she was and didn't feel the need to "prove she could write serious fiction". Something that has been the downfall of several splendid genre writers - frequent Christie detractor P.D. James jumps immediately to mind.

Sometimes, I believe, people think writing entertainment is somehow easy. There's a very tiresome part of my brain that will forever believe writing a well planned out, clearly written, funny mystery novel is one of the most difficult tasks one can set oneself. The short story versions aren't so easy either. The fact that Dame Agatha managed to achieve this something like 50 times is just gobsmacking.

Note: this post is a participant in the Agatha Christie Blog Tour commemorating her 120th birthday.