June 30, 2009

Random Musing: Chéri

This past year at Vanderbilt, I took a year-long French history and literature class (in French, mind you) called "Textes et Contextes," which aimed to teach the two subjects by the ways in which they interact. The first semester covered the Middle Ages to 1850 (which was really more history than literature), and the second semester covered 1850 to the present (which was really more literature than history). In the latter semester, we analyzed samples from the works of de Maupassant, Camus, Duras, and others. One of the others happened to be an extract from Colette's "La Fin de Chéri." Colette's style of writing was certainly interesting, although the story was a bit nebulous for us English-speaking readers of the original French text (thanks to its focus on nuance).

Not long ago, I happened to discover that Michelle Pfeiffer would be starring in a film adaptation of "Chéri" (with Stephen Frears ("The Queen") directing!). I adore Michelle Pfeiffer, and I admire Stephen Frears' work, so I have been quite ecstatic to see its theatrical release...

...And now it's here. I have read two reviews of the film in the course of the last few hours: one, which is clearly frivolous and elementary (found in "People"), and the other, which is a stirring, thoughtful reflection (as always, coming from Roger Ebert). I cannot discuss my own thoughts on the film any further, having not seen it yet, but I think that Ebert, as usual, has summed up what I am anticipating about the film. (However, he never mentions what I am currently predicting: potential Oscar nominations.)

"Chéri" is currently in limited release nationwide. Boy, I wish I could see it now...


June 25, 2009

Random Musing: Andy Warhol (Part Two)

*WARNING: Though this blog has been written for only intellectual purposes, some of the films discussed in this blog are highly sexual in nature and might not be suitable for children under 13. Please get parental permission before reading more.*

In yesterday's "Part One" blog on artist and avant-garde filmmaker Andy Warhol, I discussed his first film, "Sleep" (1963), and introduced him as the kind of filmmaker who challenges conventions and our expectations about film as an art everytime he makes a new movie. Today, I want to explore his other more notable works...

"Kiss" is a 1963 film starring two couples, both of whom kiss in a close-up shot for three minutes each (as a retort to the Hays Code's rule that all onscreen kisses must be no longer than three seconds). And as if that were not enough, the second couple is gay.

"Mario Banana" is a 1964 film starring Mario Montez, a transgendered Factory Superstar who took his name as an homage to the camp icon and famously bad actress Maria Montez.

In the two parts of this queer film (how else would you describe a transgendered person insinuating a taboo act on a banana?), Montez seductively toys with his phallic fruit in one close-up shot. It is important to notice how Montez's erotic eyes constantly strike the viewer during his lewd fellatio. This film is obviously self-aware of its sexuality, and it shows how the relationship between actor and viewer becomes crucial for it to succeed. (It later seems that awareness of the viewer is important for almost all of Warhol's more sexual films after "Sleep" and "Kiss.")

In the same year, Warhol made the erotic, voyeuristic "Blow Job," which is comprised of one lengthy, close-up shot that studies only the pleasure on the face of DeVeren Bookwalter (who is supposedly receiving oral sex from filmmaker Willard Maas, although the camera never tilts down nor zooms out to see this).

What is so awe-inspiring about this particular film is how Warhol tests our ability to suspend disbelief. For example, when we watch any film in general, we "play along" with its artificial construction in order to make it all believable. However, "Blow Job" forces us to believe in it, even more so than usual, because if we do not, then how do we know the handsome Bookwalter is actually getting his titular "Blow Job" and not just going through the motions he would feel if he were getting one? In addition, because the film is silent, Warhol is tricking his viewers into filling the rest of the film with our own imagination: the man on his knees in the lower off-screen space, the moans and words coming from Bookwalter's mouth, and the sensations Bookwalter must be feeling. Therefore, the film has become what we make of it―a personal fantasy, never the same from person to person. Later, Warhol continues to challenge convention by allowing Bookwalter to break the fourth wall, a perception of the viewer that makes us aware of our part in the film (just like in "Mario Banana") and what we have done to fill in the gaps.

Most important of all, "Blow Job" is a watershed of queer film history. In Roy Grundmann's book, "Andy Warhol's 'Blow Job'," he argues that the film is an allegory for America's relationship with homosexuality on film at the time: hidden, practically invisible (just like the fellator in the off-screen space). Indeed, it was only in 1961 that the Hays Code permitted characters with homosexual desires in mainstream films. In 1964, "Blow Job" became a landmark film by not only implying (and accepting) a subject about which no one ever spoke, but by implying (and accepting) the depicted act as occurring between homosexuals.

Warhol would make many more films between 1964 and 1969, and all of them would challenge more conventions of filmmaking. Warhol is especially important to me for his camp and queer sensibilities, which were groundbreaking for their time. I think there is more to learn from his filmmaking, and I hope to do that soon...


June 24, 2009

Random Musing: Andy Warhol (Part One)

For those of you, my dear readers, who follow my blog regularly or at least know my favorite films, then you have an idea of the kinds of films about which I generally write: blockbuster Hollywood pictures, Oscar-nominated or -winning films from 1927 to today, and sometimes the occasional foreign film or documentary. However, for those of you who really know me, you know that I also have a deep appreciation for avant-garde cinema. Several weeks ago, I blogged about Man Ray (an American photographer and surrealist filmmaker in Paris in the early 20th century), and today I want to talk about the American artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol, some of whose work has left a big impact on the meaning of film. You may know Warhol better for his Pop Art renditions of actress/goddess Marilyn Monroe and the Campbell's Soup Can, but Warhol has also left an impressionable influence on film culture. Using his Factory Superstars and friends, Warhol made films as short as thirty minutes or as long as eight hours about his subjects. What I want to analyze today is what the questions posed by his films have done to change the way we think about film as an art...

The first film Andy Warhol ever made was in 1963; it was a film called "Sleep." The subject of the film, a young stockbroker and good friend of Warhol named John Giorno, was interviewed in 2002 by London's "The Guardian" about "Sleep," and his narrative offers to us some interesting insight as to why Warhol became a filmmaker:

We used to go to Jonas Mekas' Film-makers' Cooperative in 1962 to watch these underground films. Andy saw them and said, "Why doesn't somebody make a beautiful film?" So he did. On Memorial Day weekend in 1963 we went away for a few days and I woke up in the night to find him staring at me - he took a lot of speed in those days. That's where the idea for the movie came from - he was looking for a visual image and it just happened to be me. He said to me on the way home: "Would you like to be a movie star?" "Of course," I said, "I want to be just like Marilyn Monroe." He didn't really know what he was doing; it was his first movie. We made it with a 16mm Bolex in my apartment but had to reshoot it a month later. The film jumped every 20 seconds as Andy rewound it. The second shoot was more successful but he didn't know what to do with it for almost a year. The news that Warhol had made a movie triggered massive amounts of publicity. It was absurd - he was on the cover of Film Culture and Harper's Bazaar before the movie was finished! In the end, 99% of the footage didn't get used; he just looped together a few shots and it came out six hours long.
Frankly, Andy Warhol made a six-hour movie about a guy sleeping. Clearly, the response to the film was 99% because of people's fascination with the famous artist.

However, what does "Sleep" even mean to us as students of film? Because Warhol is filming his friend snoozing away, it might as well be a home movie. But what distinguishes his film from Dad's home movies of the family on vacation in Orlando, Florida? I think it is because it utilizes the concept of the scientific camera. Warhol was definitely not the first person to ever use the camera in this way (Theodor Dreiser's 1928 "The Passion of Joan of Arc" comes to mind), this way of essentially placing a microscope over a person and studying him or her. But Warhol's film is ambiguous in its genre: is it a narrative film or a documentary? This might be where Warhol breaks ground―after all, a film such as "Sleep" definitely challenges many conventions that make up the way we think about film (and what it means to be a film, in general). We expect most films to have a narrative, and we do not expect a film to last more than two, maybe three, hours. Instead, we are presented with six hours of a pseudo-documentary of a man doing something we do every day. (It should be noted, though, that the six-hour length of "Sleep" probably has something to do with Warhol being on speed at the time; on drugs, time means nothing anymore.) By calling into question our expectations of film, we have learned something from "Sleep."

But the question remains: What kind of film is "Sleep"? There is no wrong answer. The film could be a narrative film in which a man is sleeping, or it could be a documentary of a man who is sleeping. But does it matter that we cannot fit "Sleep" into a box with a label?

In addition, "Sleep" begs the question of if it is art or not. Some people will say "no," just as they did to Marcel Duchamp's "The Fountain" in 1917. Others will say "yes," citing how Warhol has challenged our standards for what makes a film a film (and arguing that "Sleep" is a film, too). Again, there is no wrong answer.

But his work eventually challenges more than we expect. Around the 3:50 mark of the clip I posted (which still lacks the other nearly five hours and fifty minutes of "Sleep"), we see the sexuality of Warhol come out through the camera. Warhol lingers on Giorno's handsome face for some time, and then a shot of Giorno's sensual neck and chest runs on for several minutes. At the 7:36 mark, we see an ambiguous shape... But in the film's final shot, we discover that we have been gazing on his buttocks. Guess what? "Sleep" is actually a queer film. In this way, Warhol turns another convention on its head―the male gaze in film. The male gaze generally objectifies the female, at least in classic Hollywood, when everything was "boy + girl." However, Warhol, who was an openly gay man, homoerotically objectifies another man and makes no big deal about it (while mainstream films of the time were just barely being able to do more than "imply" things under the Hays Code). Essentially, Warhol topples the idea of the heteronormative male gaze with his first film.

And so Warhol will go on to treat more subjects similarly, challenging more conventions of filmmaking.

There is more to come, dear reader, in our study of Andy Warhol, filmmaker. Stay tuned.


June 23, 2009

Random Musing: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

On March 5, 2010, director Tim Burton (whose work I have really come to admire more than ever) will release his newest fantasy feature in theaters, a remake of "Alice in Wonderland," based on the Lewis Carroll novels "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." According to Wikipedia, the film will use a technique combining live action, motion capture technology and stop motion and will be released in Disney Digital 3-D and IMAX 3-D. Only today have I come upon brand-new, just-released publicity stills for the film! ("U.S.A. Today" has them; click here to see them.) These stills feature a nearly unrecognizable Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, Mia Wasikowska as Alice, and my personal favorite (as you can tell from the photo that accompanies this blog), Helena Bonham-Carter as a spot-on Red Queen. Is this not exciting? I was hesitant at first about the idea of yet another film adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland," but I think Tim Burton will bewilder us as never before...

*No need to press "Read More." Thank you.*


June 22, 2009

Random Musing: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

In 1987, director Todd Haynes and collaborator Cynthia Schneider wrote a short film based on the life of pop singer Karen Carpenter (You know her as one-half of the 1970s soft rock duo, The Carpenters). Haynes sympathetically and reverently portrayed Karen as an abused celebrity tortured by her family, her record label, and, most importantly, society's obsession with thinness. To represent Karen's struggle for her body's perfection, Haynes ironically used Barbie dolls as characters, being that Barbies (and Kens) are the epitome of ideal bodies.

Having seen Haynes' "Far from Heaven" and enjoying it, I have decided to go back and check out some of his other work. I had heard of "Superstar" and its Barbie characters before, and I knew I had to see it. However, there are some people out there who really did not want to see it and have gone to many lengths to ensure it is not seen...

According to Wikipedia, upon its release, the film was a minor hit in art house theaters and was shown at several film festivals. However, not long afterward, Richard Carpenter (the other half of The Carpenters) viewed the film and became irate with the film's portrayal of his family, in particular because the film insinuated that he had a "private life" (i.e. gay lifestyle). Carpenter was able to get the film pulled from distribution and exhibition by way of a copyright infringement suit, as Haynes had failed to obtain proper licensing to use numerous Carpenters songs in the film. (The Museum of Modern Art still retains a copy of this film but has agreed with the Carpenter estate not to exhibit it.)

Because a copy of this nearly-impossible-to-find cult film exists on YouTube, I would like to share it with you. It is certainly notable for its style (and I am not just talking about the Barbies―I also refer to the interesting editing and symbolism). Watch this infamous film with me now.

UPDATE: While doing some research for a photo for this blog, I just discovered a blog called "Thoughts on Stuff" by Patrick. He wrote a blog about this film four years ago and came to a similar conclusion that I made for Haynes' "Far from Heaven." Patrick says, "I think Haynes' biggest issue is with showing how characters who seem to have it all may in fact be the most unhappy. All of the three main characters here are forced by society to do things they do not want to do, and it leads to unhappiness and reaction against societal norms."

It appears Haynes may have a common theme running through his films... I cannot believe I did not extrapolate the message of "Far from Heaven" to this film. It does fit, after all.


June 20, 2009

Song of the Day: Sordid Lives

*for Adam and Keith*

"Sordid Lives" is a song written by Margot Rose and Beverly Nero (who has a small part in the film) and performed by Olivia Newton-John for Del Shores' 2000 comedy of the same name. In the film, Newton-John plays Bitsy Mae Harling, an ex-convict who sings at the local bar. I love this rousing song because it is the anthem from a film that is quite dear to me. For more information, see my "One-Minute Review" of "Sordid Lives."


June 10, 2009

Random Musing: Films in Five Seconds

*for Antoine*

I was recently introduced to a series of videos on YouTube that were created as comically abridged versions of their theatrically released counterparts. While most of the videos rendered no laughs, I was very amused by two particular ones. Somehow, the creator of these videos (apparently "That Guy with the Glasses") managed to take James Cameron's epic "Titanic" from 195 minutes to 11 seconds and to whittle the 1994 Disney classic, "The Lion King," down to 20 seconds while retaining the essential elements of each film. I want to share both with you, my dear readers, because they will brighten your day and warrant repeated viewings.


"The Lion King"

*No need to press the READ MORE tab. Thank you.*


June 9, 2009

Random Musing: Saturday Night Fever

In 1977, everyone from Pearl the Weather Girl to Stan the Milkman was blasting the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" out of his or her radio, after having seen young John Travolta, his perfect hair, tight, white leisure suit, and hot strut popularize disco onscreen in "Saturday Night Fever." For many people, the film has gone on to completely iconicize the era and would probably be best left alone, a remnant of our memories. After all, there are just some films that you should not remake...

...But no. British record exec Simon Cowell—who you probably know best as that crotchety judge on "American Idol"—has decided that he wants to do a remake. ...A remake!? Can you remake a film like that?

Here's the scoop, according to Britain's "The Sun"...

He has been in negotiations for weeks with legendary film producer Robert Stigwood, who owns the rights to the screenplay [for "Saturday Night Fever"]. The idea for the original 1977 blockbuster came after Robert saw an article in a U.S. mag about teenagers going to dancing competitions. And Simon has drawn up a wishlist of top talent to prove to Robert that his version will be a match for the classic. "High School Musical" star Zac Efron is in line for the lead role. And hip-hop uber producer Timbaland is in the frame to rework one of the most famous movie soundtracks of all time - an album that topped the U.S. charts for a massive 24 weeks.
I mean, Zac Efron is beautiful enough to be Tony Manero, but he should never play the role... I do not think I would say that "Saturday Night Fever" is on the level of classics that should never be remade, such as "Casablanca" or "The Godfather," but it falls in that category of films that are so iconic that to remake it would be to do injustice to its name. "Saturday Night Fever" is basically inseparable from the '70s, so please, please leave it be.


June 5, 2009

In the News: David Carradine

Alas, the "Grasshopper" has passed. Actor David Carradine, famous for his martial arts roles in a decades-long career in film, was found dead yesterday at the Nai Lert Park Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. He was due to have dinner with the crew from his new film, "Stretch," on Wednesday night, but failed to turn up for the meal. 72-year-old Carradine had been dead for at least twelve hours before he was found. When the police found him, they initially thought he had hanged himself, but it turns out that the "Kill Bill" star's death might be accidental...

People declaring the whole incident an "accident" include his manager, Chuck Binder, and members of his own family. At first, it seemed it was a suicide, but there was no note, and everyone insists he would never consider such a thing.

Most reports are now showing that Carradine's death was the result of autoerotic asphyxiation gone too far. A maid at his Bangkok hotel found him naked yesterday morning, hanging from the door of a wardrobe with a curtain cord around his neck and his privates. What a way to go, eh?

He is survived by his fifth wife, Annie, and two daughters. His dad, John, was a famous actor in classic Hollywood ("The Grapes of Wrath," for example). His brother, Bruce, and half-brothers, Robert and Academy-Award winner Keith (1975, Best Original Song), were also actors.

I will update this post if more information comes to the limelight, but for more information, including a passing comparison to the death of former INXS lead singer, Michael Hutchence, look here.

UPDATE: "People" has confirmed all of this. For more details about his happy stay (read: not suicidal) in Bangkok, go here.