Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: film

A Fan Reacts to Sex and the City 3

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In one of the final episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ red-haired Miranda Hobbes, played by blonde-haired Cynthia Nixon, has proposed to her on-again-off-again boyfriend Steve “over three dollar beers.” She hates everything to do with romance and phoniness but, after she tells her friends of the engagement, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha get misty-eyed verklempt. Getting up from the table because they’re “freaking her out,” Miranda says, “Samantha, I expected more from you.”

The line works because, of the four lead characters, Carrie and Charlotte were the optimist/idealists, while Miranda and Samantha the cynical/realists, although their personal philosophies came from opposite directions. Miranda was the show’s feminist voice while Samantha was a de-political hedonist—a male sexual ego trapped in a woman’s body. Just how inescapable that female body was becomes clear later in the same episode when Samantha discovers she has breast cancer, a risky and brave story line for the writers to insert in the final episodes. When she accidently lets slip her condition at the end of Miranda’s wedding, she reminds her: “No tears. Miranda, I expected more from you.”

While ‘Sex and the City’ will always be associated with Carrie and her musings (but look, I wrote two paragraphs and didn’t even mention Big!) the trajectory of the show more resembled the development of Miranda and Samantha, who both had to let go of some cynicism and independence to accept that love was possible. It’s why, after Steve cheats on her in the first movie, Miranda’s line “I changed who I was for you,” cuts so deep.

Although Carrie had to get over her sarcastic reaction to Petrovsky’s romantic gestures, that didn’t work out too well for her. She ended up with Big, the man who had constantly let her down but she loved regardless. The series started as a tribute to chain-smoking, mid-thirties negativity (“Welcome to the age of Uninnocence,” Carrie voice overs in the first episode) but eventually became one of the most unabashedly romantic shows on TV.

Funnily enough, I think personally I’ve gone in the other direction. I started out with Carrie’s idealism, tested Samantha’s joie de vivre (the polite way to say it), and have settled somewhat on Miranda’s snarky skepticism. It’s maybe what happens in your twenties. But as both a first and second generational fan (I watched it when it first aired, sneaking downstairs late at night to watch it on the family TV as a teenager, and then shared every episode on DVD with my university friends) I will always stand by the show, even as the cultural cacophony has moved against it. After the economy crashed, Carrie’s shopping and trendy restaurant name-dropping instantly looked dated. Entire series have been created as rebukes to the fictional world of dating in New York that ‘SATC’ espoused. But it will continue to irritate me that in an era of philandering, drug-dealing, serial killing, male ‘anti-heroes’ Carrie Bradshaw is the one routinely described as a ‘bad person’.

The movies didn’t help. And I say this as a fan who watched both in the theatre and owns both on DVD. (Even the second one, yes.) There are scenes from both films I enjoy and, if I had any digital editing skills I would put them together into a passable thirty minute long episode, as I heard someone did with ‘Star Wars’. But the final three episodes, in which Carrie gives up her column and moves to Paris, were so perfectly conclusive there was no reason for a first film, let alone a sequel. I will say this for the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’: I appreciated the theme, which was something about it being okay for women to speak their minds, much more than that of the first one, which was ‘forgive the one who love no matter what they do to you’.

I believe screenwriter Michael Patrick King deserves a lot of the blame. From what I’ve learned, the writers’ room for the series was a chattering place where the writers’ bad dates and misadventures in love were worked into episodes. Those different experiences and perspectives became the different voices of the characters and were essential to the chatty spirit of the show. The movies, in contrast, are subdued and quiet, the silence becoming all the more obvious with feature length runtime. He also deserves the blame for completely misreading the zeitgeist and sending the girls on a frothy vacation to Abu Dhabi, a sojourn that pleased no one.

What I’m saying is I can’t handle another movie. Which is why I was glad to see Miranda’s alter ego, Cynthia Nixon, holding out on signing up for a third film. Nixon, New York City’s most famous activist lesbian mom, has always come across as the most down to earth of the actors, and her non-involvement would make it impossible for the show to go on. (For the record, Chris Noth was also as noncommittal as Mr. Big.)

Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor I admire and will always have a deep affection for, seems unable or unwilling now let the character of Carrie go. When she came up to Toronto to open a Target store she wore a big season 3-style flower pin. She’s a professional Carrie now. It was only a matter of time before she started a show company.

Meanwhile, Nixon appears happy with doing the odd bit of theatre, the odd bit of TV. She told the press it would be okay if they let the series end. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Nixon told the ‘Today Show’ she’d “absolutely” be on board for a third movie. (My question: who got to her? Was it Kim Cattrall?) I understand that working actors need money and movie studio pay cheques allow them to continue to pursue the life style they’ve become accustomed to, but there are bigger issues at stake. ‘Sex and the City’ is what the four lead actors will be remembered for, unless ‘Failure to Launch’, ‘Rampart’, ‘Cross Roads’ or ‘The Shaggy Dog’ become cult favourites. (Actually, ‘Cross Roads’ might be already.) They should let the beautiful series finale speak for itself. They should hang up their Manolos and call it a day. Lastly, they should consider how I feel, the lifelong fan who defend ‘SATC’ till his dying day, but wants to talk about Paris and Petrovsky and not camel toe sight gags. I hope one of the actors comes to her senses.

Miranda, I expected more from you.

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It’s Time to Play the Music…

After years of mounting expectation, overanalyzing every rumour and leaked tidbit of info on the web, die-hard fans finally got their chance to relive their childhoods. Some waited for hours outside the theatre in costumes or clutching beloved retro toys. The excitement was mixed with fear Would this new movie rekindle the magic of the original 1970’s-1980’s triad of films? Or would it be so disappointing that their love would turn to bitter hatred, forcing them back to the message boards to tear the new annoying characters to shreds.

We all know how it turned out for Star Wars fans in 1999 when the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ “ruined their childhoods”, making George Lucas, once their idol, more despised than a Sith lord.

Jason Segel, the lovably goofy actor and screenwriter who took on the task of reviving the Muppet franchise, had reason to be nervous. Muppet fans, like their Star Wars equivalents, are paradoxically desperate for new films, yet stubbornly protective of the characters and their fictional world. Which Segel understands, as he’s one of the biggest Muppet fans of all.

The new Muppets movie (simply titled ‘The Muppets’) would not have happened without Segel’s nerdy persistence. After the success of his film ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, Segel met with Disney, which owns the rights to the Muppets, and expressed interest in bringing Kermit, Miss Piggy and the whole gang back to the big screen.

As Segel tells it, Disney wasn’t overly enthused but left the door open, so, to goad them along, Segel hyped the film in interviews as though it was already in production.  Classic three- minute clips from ‘The Muppet Show’, random before ‘random’ was a thing, were tailor-made for Youtube. Disney decided to give it a shot.

The Muppets have been leaderless since Jim Henson, their creator and the source of their soul, died of an extremely rare bacterial infection in 1990. The Muppets were in three later feature films and several TV specials and appearances, but they lacked the zany spark that had made them household names in the late 1970’s. The characters worked best as underdogs; their Vaudevillian theatre on TV was always falling to pieces, and in the early movies they were often a ragtag group of performers who wanted to make it to Hollywood or Broadway to “make millions of people happy,” as Kermit put it.

But in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the characters were already a band of celebrities, inserted into Dickensian or pirate costumes for ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island,’ just like Mickey, Minnie and company. Fans knew the Muppets were drifting, directionless.

By handing over the Muppets to Segel, Disney gave the keys to the kingdom to a fan. What results is a film not just for and about Muppet fans, but one which symbolically recognizes and atones for the Muppets losing their way.

Muppet fandom is introduced early in ‘The Muppets’. We meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, an adorable yellow Muppet with a face more expressive than most of the famous Muppets we’ll see later. (Perhaps this is why Kermit the Frog was destined to be the most famous Muppet. His flexible felt face shows far more emotional range than the more-structured heads of Miss Piggy and Gonzo.)

No explanation is given or needed for how a human could have a Muppet brother, but that doesn’t stop Walter from being bullied by kids and feeling left out. As they grow up, the brothers bond over late-night viewings of ‘The Muppet Show’. Seeing his own kind on TV makes Walter feel a little less out of place.

Gary and Walter live in a place called Smallville USA which, judging from the candy-coloured costumes and Norman Rockwell street scenes, appears to exist in the mythologized 1950’s. The classic Muppet movies borrowed nostalgic troupes from Old Hollywood (Miss Piggy tap dancing in an Art Deco restaurant worthy of Fred and Ginger in ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ comes to mind) but Smallville’s naiveté seems too deliberate and ironic to be appealing.

No matter. Walter, Gary and his fiancé Mary (Amy Adams) quickly catch the Greyhound to Los Angeles. Walter wants to see the “Muppet studios”, the supposed location of the original Muppet theatre. They find it derelict and vacant, the psychedelic-painted bus from ‘The Muppet Movie’ rusting on the lot. The empty lot becomes a metaphor for the characters and fans alike. The viewer is left to wonder if we abandoned the Muppets, or they abandoned us.

Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office, which is treated with the awesome reverence of King Tut’s tomb. On the wall hang photographs of the frog with various celebrities, a prominent spot given to one of Kermit with a smiling Jim Henson. The implication is clear: without this soft-voiced, bearded man, the Muppets have been as forgotten as this cobwebbed old room.

While in the office, Walter overhears the plan of evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who is notified by Statler and Waldorf that in a week’s time he can buy the theatre and tear it down to pump for oil. (Maybe Cooper’s character should have been a Wall Street banker, but that might have been a bit too political for Disney.)

The plot lays itself out as simply as any Mickey and Judy ‘backyard musical’. The whole gang reunites for one more show to save the theatre. Located in a Norma Desmond-type mansion, the frog leader is reluctant to get involved.

“I guess everybody kind of forgot about us,” Kermit says, and if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, his following song to paintings of Fozzie, The Swedish Chef and the Electric Mayhem Band definitely will.

It’s clear Segel is pandering to Muppet fans, but so what? Unlike fans of sulky teenage vampires and dreadlocked pirates, we never get pandered to.

Kermit comes on board, of course, and gets the old gang together, which leads to the movie’s funniest strings of jokes. The humour is obviously indebted to ‘The Simpsons’ and even ‘Family Guy’, with the sort of meta-movie jokes that peppered the original films. “May I suggest,” asks Kermit’s robot assistant, named Eighties Robot, “that to cut down on time, we resort to using a montage?”

Once reunited, our gang of furries faces another challenge. “I’m going to level with you,” Rashida Jones, as a TV producer tells them. “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” A “hard cynical time” needs “hard cynical entertainment,” she says, and shows a clip of the #1 show at the moment, ‘Hit My Teacher’. The Muppets are underdogs again, Kermit forced to give inspirational speeches about believing in oneself and “making people happy”.

Here an interesting split happens. While Walter, Gary and Mary are from idyllic Smallville and still sincerely love the Muppets, LA is apparently in the modern world, where people compulsively text message, Selena Gomez is a star and “hard, cynical entertainment” beats sentimentality to a pulp. Perhaps the Jason Segel sections of the movie would be more relatable if, rather than living in a camp ‘Leave it to Beaver’ fantasy, he and Walter resided in the real world and needed the fuzzy comfort of the Muppets to cheer them up.

As they repair and clean up the Muppet Theatre (“You guys are the Muppets,” Gary says, “You do stuff like this to music!”) we get reacquainted with a bunch of characters not seen since the end of the Muppet Show. Muppet nerds like myself will be pleased to spot crooners Wayne and Wanda, the Beautiful Day Monster and the gigantic blue Thog. You can picture Segel stamping his foot and telling  the Henson company, “No, no, no! I don’t want any new ones! I want all the old, weird monsters that used to be on the show!”

Turns out that the “standard Rich and Famous contract” Kermit signed in The Muppet Movie (for Orson Welles no less) releases ownership not just of the Muppet Theatre, but of the Muppet name itself, which Tex Richman intends to sell to the Muppet tribute band ‘The Moopets’. How hilarious that, in a film produced by Disney, the greedy villain wants to acquire the Muppet name and use it for his own purposes.

Miss Piggy, who at first holds out from the reunion (she’s a big time fashion editor in Paris), eventually returns, complete with Zac Posen outfits and a different hairstyle for every scene. She and Kermit, all their differences resolved, reunite on stage for the finale.

The songs, written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret Mackenzie, are serviceable, but how can they compete with ‘Moving Right Along’, ‘Together Again’ and ‘The Rainbow Connection’.

The highlight of the new show is Camilla the Chicken singing, or rather clucking, Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’ in showgirls’ feathered headdresses. Catchy, unaccountably funny and with the right level of “WTF?!” randomness, it’s just the kind of number that made the original Muppet Show popular.

For a movie tasked with paying tribute to the original TV series and movies, acknowledging the gap in years and popularity, and reviving the brand with spunky humour and a fresh take, it’s impressive the film doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Rather, it’s as light as a marionette. The audience I was part of was thrilled.

Having captured the viewers and paid tribute to the Muppet fans and creators alike, Segel could move in new directions with a sequel. ‘The Muppets’ could be the start of a new era for Kermit and company. But the film also works as a coda, a fitting farewell to cherished characters who, like Henson, have a “gentle soul and a wicked sense of humour.”

Hey McFly!

Read my post about Marty McFly’s awesome shoes in ‘Back to the Future II’ on the WORN blog. Great Scot!

Happy, Happy Turkey Day

The film makers of the Addams Family movies had a difficult task; how to keep the spirit of the original 1960’s sitcom, which was inspired by Charles Addams’ macabre cartoons for The New Yorker, while moving past the one-joke premise (“They’re creepy and they’re kooky…” the cartoony theme chimed.)

Their solution was brilliant. They simply rotated the perspective. So while the 1990’s versions of Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester and the rest of the clan were still “creepy and kooky”, they were the ones we related to. They were a foil for mocking the superficiality and latent racism of conformist, suburban, Republican America.

Even the title of the sequel, ‘Addams Family Values’, subverts a conservative catch phrase, while acknowledging that the family, despite their ghoulishness, does actually have values; Gomez and Morticia are lustily devoted to each other; the Addamses promote family pride and tradition; Wednesday and Pugsley enjoy playing together, albeit at killing one other.

The Addams Family as stand-ins for society’s outcasts is never made more clear than in the Thanksgiving scene in the sequel. Wednesday and Pugsley are sent to the conformist Camp Chippewa, where the Fascistically cheerful counselors force them to play sports, watch ‘The Sound of Music’ and take part in the end of session play, which commemorates the first Thanksgiving despite it being late summer. All of the rich, blonde, rhinoplastied kids get to be the pilgrims. All of the Jewish, black, middle-eastern, overweight, bespectacled and children with disabilities are cast as the Indians, with Wednesday as their leader, Pochahontas.

When Christina Ricci commits her sweet revenge (the likes of which hadn’t been seen on film since Carrie was crowned Prom Queen) she is acting for everyone who ever felt like the underdog. For this reason, the Addams Family can be seen as ‘queer’ while featuring no homosexuality, although I have my suspicions about Wednesday.

‘A Lady Is A Lady, After All’

At the WORN office the other day we were talking movies, like we do, and the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’ came up.

“It is literally the worst movie ever made,” one of the Wornettes claimed.

“No,” I sighed. “It is not literally the worst movie ever made.”

My objection came less from loyalty to Carrie and company and more from my problem with the continued watering down of the word ‘literally’. It does not mean ‘really’. ‘Literally’ literally means literally. That’s all.

Sure, you may balk at ‘Sex and the City 2’s materialism, it’s stiletto-heel-thin plot line and its treatment of an Arab country as an exotic backdrop for frothy fun, but are the shadows of the camera men visible? Does the story, unbelievable as it may be, at least make logical sense? You may not be laughing at the jokes, but at least you’re not laughing at the serious dialogue.

There are hundreds of films worse than ‘Sex and the City 2’.

Literally.

Two movies, both alike in indignity, in Fair Hollywood where we lay our scene: ‘Glen or Glenda’ (1953) or ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970).

On the surface, the pair would seem to have little in common: one was a low-budget exploitation flick to titillate drive-in audiences in the conservative fifties; the other, a would-be blockbuster from a major studio, based on a best-selling book, staring a sex symbol and a couple of fossilized Hollywood legends.

But the two films, which both deal with cross-dressing and gender confusion (albeit, making opposite points), have more in common than just their inanity. ‘Glen or Glenda’ and ‘Myra Breckinridge’ redefine what it means to be bad. And the stories of how they were made are as interesting as what ended up on screen.

In the early 1950’s, inspired by the public’s interest in Christine Jorgensen, the first person to make news for having sex reassignment surgery, B-movie producers rushed to get sex change movies into the theatres while the story was still hot. Ed Wood, the unknown scriptwriter with no previous film directing experience, pushed his way in to direct what was then called ‘I Changed My Sex’. Along with wanting to be a legitimate director, Wood had a secret motivation: he was a secret cross-dresser and wanted to show the world that that was no great sin.

The resulting film, which is one part preachy public service announcement and one part coked-out nightmare of devils, vampires and sadomasochistic porno, must be seen to be believed. Wood stars as a regular, all-American guy named Glen (the narration makes a big deal that his character is heterosexual) who happens to feel comfortable in women’s clothing. Playing his oblivious fiancé was Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend who, in an incredible bit of art imitating life, didn’t know about Wood’s cross dressing while making the film.

In Tim Burton’s loving tribute movie ‘Ed Wood’ (1994) she is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a reminder that she once had a successful film career.

Hovering above the action is Bella Lugosi, the original Dracula, who by this point was a drug addict and un-hirable. Wood befriended him and gave him the part of ‘The Scientist’, a would-be narrator who doesn’t narrate so much as sit in an armchair and yell, through his Hungarian accent, insane things like “Pull the strings!” and “Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big, fat snails.”

At the end of the movie, Glen confesses to his fiancé that he enjoys wearing women’s clothing and she, after a pregnant pause, (spoiler alert!) hands over her angora sweater. One can only imagine all the thoughts which went through the producers’ heads when Wood dropped off the film roll, but we know at least two complaints: the film was too short and featured no sex change operation. They had ordered a movie to cash in on people’s interested in (what was then considered) a freakish operation. Wood had given them the opposite: a movie about a normal guy who just happens to like angora sweaters.

“Glen is not a homosexual,” the narrator intones. “Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” This line is delivered as the viewer is shown shady men, presumably gays, lighting cigarettes for each other under street lights. One of the greatest ironies of ‘Glen or Glenda’ is that, fifty years later, homosexuals are winning the PR war, while straight men who cross-dress (not transgendered people) are as little talked about and understood as they were in the 1950’s.

To fill up the rest of the movie, they tacked on a second plot (‘Alan or Anne’) which featured a sex change operation, and an extended fantasy sequence with women writhing around on sofas in their underwear. By the time Bella Lugosi’s is cross-cut, supposedly reacting to the sexy ladies with arched upside-down ‘V’ eyebrows and pursed lips, my friend Jeremy and I were laughing so much we had pause the DVD.

Which leads to an interesting conundrum: the movie is undoubtedly horrible, but if you get so much pleasure from it that you are practically crying with laughter, should it really be considered bad?

‘Glen or Glenda’, though bizarre, is watchable. ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is not.

Based on the slim but engrossing novel by Gore Vidal, ‘Myra’ was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to tape into the Swinging Sixties youth market. But by 1970, when the film came out, the killings at Altamont and the Charles Manson murders had cost the flower children some of their bloom. But that was only the beginning of problems for this cursed production.

The book told the story of Myra, a knock-out beauty who is obsessed with old movies (she alleges that the entire range of human emotions was filmed by Hollywood between 1935 and 1945) and who is on a mission to exterminate the traditional male. She claims to be the widow of an effeminate man named Myron and blackmails his uncle, a former cowboy film star, into hiring her as a teacher at his mediocre acting school. Myra takes an interest in a hunky student named Rusty, graphically penetrating him in the climax scene. By the end (spoiler alert!) we discover the beautiful Myra is actually Myron after a sex change.

It seemed to everyone that the plot was unfilmable, but one of the most frustrating things about the making of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is the movie that could have been. Gore Vidal wrote the first toned-down screen treatment, which was promptly rejected by the studio for being too conservative. Vidal disassociated himself from the production and has said bitchy things about it ever since.

There was also talk of getting legendary director George Cukor (who, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, made the type of movies the character Myra cherishes). Instead, Fox hired Michael Sarne, a novelty song-writer and occasional actor from England with one film credit to his name. Fox wanted a director who wouldn’t follow established rules; Sarne wouldn’t even follow the elementary rules of movie making.

Until you submit yourself to ‘Myra’, in which entire scenes are incomprehensible and seemingly pointless, you don’t know bad movies.

Although he auditioned drag queens and transgendered actors for the lead, Sarne eventually approached sex symbol Raquel Welch, who was eager to be taken seriously as an actor. Although I admire her chutzpah, why Welch ever thought playing a former-man who rattles on about Tarzan films and rapes people would make her a legitimate actor God only knows.

Wearing brightly-coloured, 1940’s inspired outfits with matching hats (looking like some whacked-out drag version of Joan Crawford), Welch digs into the role with energetic gusto. You can sense her desperation for this to be a good picture just below the surface, and hers is the only performance which matches the cartoony camp-ness of the film.

In a smaller part, Sarne coaxed Mae West, queen of the suggestive double entrendre, out of retirement. West, of famous lines like “Is that a rifle in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, was the original Samantha Jones. In her seventies and blanketed in black and white Edith Head gowns and a high-piled blonde wig, West delivers her dirty jokes in the exact way she did in her twenties (in the ‘20s!). She was fanatically jealous of Welch, and legends abound of her stealing her costumes and refusing to share a scene with her.

Everybody on set was on edge. Nobody trusted anyone. They began shooting before the script was finished and Welch ran to her dressing room in tears, perhaps sensing the train wreck she had attached her career too. Sarne would spend hours tinkering with the props for unimportant scenes, or would disappear to “think” about his next step. A heavy haze of marijuana smoke engulfed the lot.

Sarne became convinced that the studio was going to take the film away from him. Remarkably, they didn’t, even though they probably should have.

Fox even allowed the director full access to their archives, so to punctuate certain scenes Sarne inserted old clips of Laurel and Hardy, Mareline Dietrich and Judy Garland. At the climax of a scene featuring a blow job, he placed a clip of little Shirely Temple milking a cow and getting sprayed in the face. This clip got an especially warm reception from the test screening in San Francisco, but a letter was sent from the White House on behalf of Ms. Temple (who was an ambassador) and the scene was pulled.

One wonders what the character of Myra would have thought of Sarne sullying classic movie clips and Old Hollywood actors by using them to make dirty visual puns.

Obliviously buoyed by the good reception in San Francisco (studio execs had not yet realized that the taste of gay men wasn’t always the same as the taste of the mainstream), the film makers began to think that, despite all the drama that had gone into its making, they might remarkably have a hit on their hands.

“About as funny as a child molester,” cried the most famous review. Although curiosity spurred some early attendees, ticket sales plummeted soon after ‘Myra’ opened, and took purchases of the book down with them. Everyone involved allowed Sarne to take the blame and, having become a leper in Hollywood, he went back to England.

I’m most sympathetic towards Welch, who wanted so much from this movie and got so little. Her career survived (although she never became the acclaimed actor she wanted to be), but she did get to do a duet with Miss Piggy. Interviewed for the DVD release, looking remarkably similar to have she did in the 1970’s, Welch is candid and self-effacing about the disaster which was ‘Myra’.

Interestingly, ‘Glen or Glenda’, made during the red-baiting early 1950’s, is the film which argues that people who cross dress are just like everyone else. Although a satire, the cross-dressing character in ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is as large a threat to tradition, normalcy and the manhood of everyday blokes as conservatives would fear. Glen may wear angora because he likes the feel, but Myra pulls on pumps to start revolution.

You could claim that certain aspects of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ were ahead of its time, like the recycling of old movie clips and the movie’s proto-post-modern editing. Its mixture of the elevation of the frivolous (Myra’s love of old movies and retro fashions) with its questioning of the traditional male foretold the creation of Queer Studies, which would combine these disparate ideas. ‘Myra’, of course, has garnered a cult following. For a movie as bizarre as this one, it would be surprising if it didn’t.

But ‘Myra’ is bad. It’s a bad film. While ‘Glen or Glenda’ is unintentionally hilarious and ‘Myra’ is a terrible movie.

Remember it next time you’re ready to judge Kim Cattrall purring “Lawrence of my labia” in the desert.

Material Girls

I feel for Madonna, I really do. Not exactly young and spritely, it isn’t easy jockeying for attention with theatrical pop princesses like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It can’t be good when even the gays have stopped talking about you. So, to the perennial question ‘Can she act?’ (short answer: no) Madge is about to add ‘Can she direct?’ when her first feature film is released early next year.

Awkwardly titled ‘W.E’, the movie tells the story of Edward VIII, who was King of England for a few months in the mid-thirties before giving it up for the woman he loved, a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson.

Abandoning the throne to his stuttering younger brother Albert (father of the current Queen), Edward and Wallis were free to marry. Wallis became a Duchess by default, but was denied the title Her Royal Highness and would never be officially accepted by the family. To make up for this, her husband gave her a lot of jewelry.

It will be a tad too easy for critics to draw a connection between the would-be Queen and the Queen of Pop: Madonna, another ambitious American divorcee who’s had her morals questioned on more than one occasion, knows a thing or two about gate-crashing Buckingham Palace. Indeed, in the last decade she has pilfered from the moribund world of the British aristocracy in the way she used to from inner city black drag queens, trading black lace for tweed and Vogue-ing for curtsies.

Somewhat embarrassingly, in some interviews she has gone so far as to adopt the clipped English sounds of the tongue of Rupert Everett.

“It was easy to get swept up in the historical relevance and epic romance of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII,” Madonna told Vanity Fair. “The fact that they were also the fashion icons of their day added to their allure for me.”   The film’s costume designer turned to Dior, Cartier and Dunhill for Wallis’s 60 outfit changes, and remarks that “Wallis and the Duke both made a lifestyle out of presentation.”

But the glamorous couple comprise only half the film, as the plot also concerns a young woman called Wally Winthrop (a contemporary New Yorker, despite the Dickensian name) who becomes obsessed with the Duchess after a Sotheby’s auction of her belongings (presumably, a lot of jewelry). A little ‘Julie & Julia’, yes, and also very meta: Madonna being inspired by Wallis for a movie about a young woman who is inspired by Wallis.

And while I won’t scoff at the idea of identifying with cultural figures and relating them to your own life (that is one of the themes of this very blog) I can’t help but think there’s a better story to tell about Edward and Mrs. Simpson.

For instance, they were probably Nazis.

Not long after their wedding in 1937, (Wallis wore a cinched-waist Mainboucher dress in light blue, to match her eyes) the lovebirds went on a trip to Obersalzberg, Germany, to meet Adolf Hitler at his mountain retreat. During the visit the Duke, who earlier had been in favour of an alliance between Great Britain and the Third Reich, gave the full Nazi salute.

No less of an insider than Albert Speer, the designer of Hitler’s monumental, imposing architecture, a very good metaphor for Fascism’s rejection of the individual human life, said of Edward, “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” Decades after the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, the Duke reportedly remarked to a friend, “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”

Two years later, war was declared and the British government, worried that they could be used as spies, sent the couple down to the Bahamas, where Edward was installed as Governor. He won some praise for attempting to fight poverty, while still making patronizing, racist remarks about the country’s people. In 1945, the war ended, the Duke resigned and never held another official position.

To supplement his stipend from Buckingham Palace, he wrote articles and a few books, mostly about his sense of style and his family’s history. (Wallis’s bejeweled brooches didn’t grow on trees, after all.) The couple, who bounced between Paris and New York, were regulars on the dinner party circuit, although Gore Vidal once described the “vacuity” of their conversation.

Just as the recent allegation that Coco Chanel was a Fascist spy during Paris’s occupation undermines the heroic romance of the French resistance, remembering the Duke and Duchess’s unsavory ties is a useful reminder that, for all the Churchillian resolve of some British leaders, others were not convinced Hitler was altogether such a bad chap.

Madonna’s largest filmic contribution up to this point was ‘Evita’ (1996), playing yet another glamorous and controversial official’s wife, one who also has been accused of being Nazi-sympathetic (probably unfairly).

One hopes that this time around the Material Girl has done her research and recognizes that the most truthful retelling is, in this case, also the most interesting. But with her preoccupation with tweeds and jewelry, I suspect her film will be a vacuous as the couple’s conversation.

The Philadelphia Story

“The time to make your mind up about people is never.”

— ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Up until this week, I only knew three things about Ava Gardner: she was married to both Mickery Rooney and Frank Sinatra; at the height of her career she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world; and that thin-faced Brit Kate Beckinsale was a ridiculous choice to play her in ‘The Aviator’ (2004). My pick would have been Catherine Zeta-Jones, who shares with the late star facial features, as well as a certain earthy flirtatiousness.

I rented ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ (1951) knowing nothing about it, which is always a fun way to go into an old movie. The film, set in a Spanish fishing village in the 1930’s, is like a feverish dream of a Technicolour MGM drama. The insane plot is based on the old Dutch story about a sailor, doomed to travel the seas forever, who must make a woman love in love with him so his spirit can be released. Hold on, it gets weirder: the ghost sailor is cursed because he killed his original 17th century wife (wrongly suspecting her of infidelity) and the only thing that will lift the spell is for Ava Gardner to kill herself. Because, you know, she loves him so much.

Also, the sailor is played by James Mason.

The wealthy characters, all sumptuously costumed in outfits not-completely-inaccurate for the 1930’s, wander around beaches festooned with crumbling statues, spouting dialogue which is either vague and mysterious or laughingly direct. Many of the scenes appear to take place against the pale blue skies of twilight or dawn. In one scene, at the spur of the moment, Ava slips off her gown to swim out to the phantom boat. Once onboard, naked and dripping, she wraps herself in a rain cover.

The painting the sailor is shown working on near the beginning looks like the work of Giorgio de Chirico, and you begin to notice that the art direction for the entire film has a capital-S Surrealist quality. It comes as little surprise that photographer Man Ray did the painting, as well as designing some of the still photography and the abstract chess set briefly spotted in one scene.

As for La Gardner herself, I don’t know if the gal could really act, but she has a bold forecfulness even when her lines are offensively submissive. And her beauty was not overrated: a classic face made more interesting by a clefted chin.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those romance movies which forgets to show the central characters actually falling in love. One wishes that director Albert Lewin had pushed the melodramatic plot and dream-like atmosphere farther. If the film had been made in the late 1950’s or 1960’s (when movies like ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ combined histrionic plots with nightmarish imagery) it may have become a camp classic. As it stands, it’s like a nap dream from the late afternoon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a hazy vision of a style yet to come.

Carmen Miranda and Mickey Rooney, sometime before filming this, presumably.

The Love Story Which Dare Not Speak Its Name

Shhhhh! Two of the biggest crowd-pleasers this summer are romantic comedies. But don’t tell anyone. It’s kind of a secret, even to the movies themselves.

First there was the anti-chick-flick ad campaign for ‘Bridesmaids’ (posters which declared “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!”) blatantly throwing Bridget Jones under the bus in order to attract a coveted male audience. ‘Friends with Benefits’ goes one step further, mocking the conventions of romantic comedies while adhering to many of their biggest clichés.

Not that I didn’t like it. I enjoyed the movie, and not just because of my Justin Timberlake crush, which is ten years old now and not going anywhere. I like romantic comedies, I acknowledge and appreciate their conventions, and I’m not going to apologize for it.

Despite the inclusion of some hip techno-gadget gags (much to do with iPhone aps and touch screens) there’s nothing revolutionary about ‘Friends with Benefits’. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot and also probably the ending. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play two overactive New York professionals who, despite being gorgeous and charming, are too damaged to properly date (he has commitment issues, she’s been jerked around by men) so they make the rational (drunken) decision to have a casual sexual relationship.

It all seems eerily familiar, not just like the Ashton Kutcher-Natalie Portman movie of a little while ago, but, especially as the two leads discuss whether sex was a mistake the morning after, like ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989), the uber-romantic comedy which set the template for the genre for at least the following decade.

Mila Kunis’s character is a guy’s girl, of course, who drinks beer from the bottle, swears, convinces herself she’s comfortable with casual sex, and lazes around on the couch with JT, mocking a fake romantic comedy with cameos by Jason Segal and Rashida Jones. (The presence of Segal makes the movie within a movie look like the cheesy romantic comedy the new Muppet movie was pretending to be in teaser trailers.) In addition to the running gag of the faux-film, the characters of ‘Friends with Benefits’ routinely contrast their lives to movies. All of their disparaging of romantic comedies apparently blinds them to the fact that they’re in one as they hit all the major plot points (meeting the parents, mid-movie fight, climatic reconciliation, in Grand Central Station, no less!).

It’s either very unaware of its self or incredibly post-modern, but either way where do we go after romantic comedies feel they must ridicule and reject all the genre’s conventions, only to rely on them in the schmaltzy final act? And even if they do succeed at getting 19-year old boys into the cinema, the largest audience for romantic comedies continues to be people who actually like romantic comedies, and why should the film-makers mock them for that?

In contrast, films like ‘Transformers 3’, a three-hour epic of CGI explosions but who’s best special effect was actress Rosie Huntington-Whitely (who’s clearly too hot to be real), don’t have to apologize for being action movies. They are unabashedly clichéd techno-porn, the geeky hero grasping the hand of the blonde chick as they jump away from a background filled with orange fire. Having seen my fair share, I can tell you guy movies are no less stupid or predictable than chick flicks.

Recent romantic comedies are like the commitment-phobic lead, treating us fans like the clingy girlfriend. They sure like having us audience around but they’re not ready to put a label on it, too afraid to admit (to themselves, let alone their fans) the type of movie we know deep down in our hearts they are.