Saturday, July 31, 2010

Crazy movies are nothing without someone you love to share them with

Oh, come on. Would life even be worth living?

For all that I gripe about Facebook, I have to give it credit: a comment there by friend and one-time Secret Santa Irene Nexica reminded me that I'd never actually seen Mahogany (1975), although I loooved its moody theme song ("Do you know where you're going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you?") when I was a little girl.

It all starts with the kind of insanity on the catwalk that I haven't seen since Rekha's turn as a high-fashion model out for vengeance in Khoon Bhari Maang.

They're throwing this at us before we even know who the characters are, and it's like a fashion show from the Star Wars prequels. Naboo is the only place I can think of where these clothes would make any kind of sense. But the craziest thing about these outfits is that they're only the beginning!

After this "Kabuki" debacle, the word "success" is uttered to Tracy (Diana Ross), the fashion designer responsible, throwing her into confusion and a film-length flashback about the struggles of a girl from inner city Chicago to find success. She works for a department store by day, and takes design classes by night, where she's scolded for her outre work.

At several points, Tracy's reminded that she shouldn't set her sights too high in Chicago -- partly because of racism, but mainly because this isn't where you "make it," it's where you "end up." I couldn't help thinking, hmmm, what does that make North Dakota? Best not to speculate.

Eventually, though, she meets two important men: suave and sexy Billy Dee Williams, who's a political organizer fighting against greedy landlords in the 'hood, and (actually kinda sexy too) Tony Perkins as the jaded photographer who's going to turn her into a famous model, rechristening her "Mahogany." He's first impressed when he sees her in a dress she designed, and chats her up about the sophistication of Rome. Because of this?

Well, eventually the film will take us to Rome, and we'll learn that their parties in the '70s were as full of bad disco as everybody else's, so I'll take their fashion sense with a grain of salt.

The film clearly prefers Williams, with his talk about social conscience, and his selfless working for the little people versus the frivolous world of fashion, but what plays out on screen is largely a man putting his dreams and ambitions over his woman's, which makes him kind of a dick. When Ross helps him with a campaign, she uncovers one of her drawings on the refrigerator, and symbolically covers it up with Billy Dee's handsome face. The symbolism is complicated, for me at least, because it's a drawing of that same rainbow dress.

Maybe some dreams really are better left unlived!

Eventually, however, Tony Perkins tempts her to Rome. For a while they work in a good creative collaboration, but it's at the cost of turning her into an object of fantasy. Then there's the sad fact that when a guy wants to sleep with you to prove he's not gay, but then he can't go through with it, it always puts a strain on a relationship. (One has to wonder if this role hit close to home for Perkins, who's generally acknowledged to have been gay, and also sincerely happy in his marriage to model Berry Berenson). Of course, Tracy's standard pillowside speech about how it doesn't matter, and there's more to life than sex, has all the more conviction because she didn't really want to do it anyway.

Before all the angst starts kicking in, though, we get this:

and this:

and this:

Which are all from the very same montage! Okay, to be fair, Ross isn't always ridiculous-looking in the film, but is also quite beautiful:

Also in its favor, the movie has a nice retroactively period-piece quality, with its glamorous, photogenic stars walking through rubble-strewn Chicago streets. (Amusing, since at one point, Williams' activist gets angry about the exploitative nature of a fashion shoot in a ghetto neighborhood). Plus, at one point we hear a radio broadcasting from "WVON, the Mighty 1390, Chicagoland's Black Giant," which is awesome.

Reviews on the IMDB range from "this movie is awful!!" to "THIS MOVIE WAS BRILLIANT," and that actually gives you a pretty fair summary. There's also a great "favorite outfit" thread -- the sort of thing one finds on the Internet that makes one think, thank Rishi, I'm not alone! It's probably obvious to everyone where I'd fall on this question. The song asks "Did you get what you're hoping for?" and the answer is yes, yes, yes!

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Giant Crab Comes Forth

"What a beautiful night," Pat remarked as they passed along the barbed-wire fence which enclosed War Department property. "If only we didn't have to worry about giant crabs!"

--from Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith.

Which the back book jacket describes as "a seafood cocktail for the strongest stomachs." Ha ha ha! While there are plenty of giant monsters on film, and the Sci Fi Channel, there aren't nearly enough of them in, umm, "literature."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Kamikaze Girls and the Frog

Odd, disjointed bunch of film-watching lately. The usual, in other words.

Chi Bi, a.k.a. Red Cliff (China, 2008)
The cute young cops of Chungking Express (Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro) have grown up to be the handsome warriors of Chi Bi. Nice! Especially on the Takeshi Kaneshiro front. The movie's so epic and awesome, I immediately ordered the box set containing the 2,340 pages of novel it's based on (Three Kingdoms, also called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong). I'm still cliff-hung, though, since I haven't had time to watch Chi Bi II yet.
The Princess and the Frog (U.S., 2009)
Against all odds, Disney has finally made a movie for me. Yes, I could have spent a lot more time with the old hoodoo lady in the swamp, who was much more interesting than the schmaltzy musical romance and the cute anthropomorphic critters. But it was great to see the 1920s New Orleans setting. Even better, Dr. Facilier (great name!) joins the villains of Live and Let Die and Sugar Hill (which I saw advertised as Sugar Hill and Her Zombie Hit Men) in the select list of Baron Samedi-looking bad guys. Plus, he's voiced by Keith David, formerly an important member of the John Carpenter Players. Yup, that's the sound of a They Live fanatic squealing over a Disney picture. It sounds just as strange as you'd expect.
Shimotsuma Monogatari, a.k.a. Kamikaze Girls (Japan, 2004)
Motorcyles, fight scenes, and frilly dresses -- together at last! I don't know if I've ever seen a movie where the plot was driven so openly by clothes, and that's just one of the reasons for my wild enthusiasm. Oddly detached teenage Momoko spends her time fantasizing about her ideal life in 18th-century Versailles, and all her money on elaborate "Lolita" style fashions from her favorite Tokyo shop. Needing cash, she advertises some old bootleg "Versach" clothes her father once tried to sell, and meets tough-talking, long-coated Ichigo, who belongs to an all-girl biker gang.
The film is full of stylized humor and strange asides, even breaking into anime for flashbacks. It kind of reminds me of Muriel's Wedding, even though it's completely different in every way. Momoko ignores Ichigo and Ichigo bullies Momoko, but eventually a friendship develops. As the characters use fashion to give their lives meaning, the film depicts the paradox of expressing individuality by embracing what could seem like stereotypical identities, and it ends up being crazily inspirational. In addition to just plain crazy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl Who Reviewed the Film

Truth in advertising: the girl does, in fact, have a dragon tattoo, but even more so, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is full of Men Who Hate Women (a more literal translation of the actual Swedish title). 

Random thoughts:

Swedish is a very strange and alien-sounding language to me, and it's odd to think that my great-grandparents would have spoken it. (Another set spoke the closely related Norwegian). I have no twinge of connection at all. A couple of generations, and it has nothing more to do with me than any randomly selected language in the world.

While they were at it, the characters seamlessly dropped the occasional English word and phrase into their Swedish, making me wonder if people call that "Swenglish."

There were also the subtitle oddities, like when the guy says he thinks his niece was murdered, and the protagonist says "Murdered?" The vowel sound was slightly different, but the word was clearly "murder." It's not like this is an unusual phraseology: it's a perfectly rational conversation. But someone typing up those subtitles said to themselves, "Hmmm, I don't like the word 'murdered.' Let's say 'killed' instead." I mean, it's not inaccurate. The words are basically synonymous. But I still wonder what they're thinking when they clearly say one thing and the subtitles say another.

But about the actual movie (and I doubt I need to tell anyone that there'll be spoilers): I had some of the same reaction as I did when flipping through the book. There's a pretty horrible level of violence against women -- probably the closest I want to get to a Hostel film -- and that's particularly off-putting in something that gets talked about for its "feminist" slant. Although it was interesting to see so many respectable grandmotherly types packing the theater for a film full of brutal rape and murder. But they must have known what they were getting into, since every respectable grandmotherly type in my Obscure Midwestern Town has read the book.

Anyway -- the thing about the level of violence, and the fact that the film almost seems to revel in the abuse heaped on poor Lisbeth Salander (who I find myself wanting to call Lisander), albeit so it can revel in her turning the tables on her abusers: it occurred to me that this a story about violence against women, as explored by men, for men. I think it annoyed me that Lisbeth, despite being the Girl of the title, was more of an object in the narrative, acted upon, than the subject or point of view character I'd have preferred.

But that may be part of the strategy. There's a lot of material about rape and misogyny that's already directed at female audiences. Here, Mikael is the identification character for the audience, and he comes to understand how bad the situation is for some women via the literal mystery (in mystery novel terms) of what happened to Harriet, and the mystery (in more psychological terms) of what happened to Lisbeth.

I was reminded of those days in the '80s-'90s when there was a lot of academic furor over misogyny, with women reading Andrea Dworkin, and arguing that all men are rapists. Well, all men aren't rapists; all sex isn't rape. But rape and violence do exist, and in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the protagonists are decent men who aren't rapists or killers themselves, but are forced to confront the evil committed by other men. The two prominent women in the story have faced it directly (and it's probably on purpose that those women are so different, one being a social outcast, the other growing up rich and privileged). The two men (the sympathetic friend/lover Lisbeth finds, and the kind, nurturing relative who couldn't imagine the abuse suffered by his beloved niece) have to learn about it, and align themselves with the women against evil.

If misogyny and violence against women are part of a society, it's because the society tolerates it in some ways, to some extent. There's almost certainly some symbolic value in the fact that here, the killer didn't flounder into this out of alienation or general psychological traumas. He was literally taught that women were his to abuse and kill. So the metaphors are about the responsibility of men within the society.

Also, sadly, most people aren't motivated so much by abstractions. They almost always care more about things that affect them directly, or could. Which is why women are generally more aware of violence against women, and for men, a good motivational starting point for their concern is the fact that it could happen to women they care about.

Obviously, with this kind of discourse, this wasn't a feel-good film that I'll be re-watching for entertainment value. If you're up for a grim, well-crafted movie with Swedish subtitles, then go for it. I'll add that star Noomi Rapace was really great in the title role, and none of the American actresses whose names are being thrown around for an American remake seem in any way up to her level. We'll see...