Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Vault: Carefree (1938)

In 1938’s Carefree, the world’s first—and likely last—dance movie about psychoanalysis, Ginger Rogers performs a trick rivaling anything she ever did while going backwards in heels: she manages to make hypnosis and anesthesia sexy.

As Amanda Cooper, she allows her fiancé (a young Ralph Bellamy) to sign her up for psychoanalysis with his friend Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), to rid her of the issues that are keeping her from getting married. Of course no one says “issues”; instead, Tony tells Amanda about her “two minds”, one of which is located somewhere in the air behind her head. Later in the movie, Tony tries hypnosis, and later still, he tries an anesthetic that allows her a surprising amount of both consciousness and mobility.

In other hands, the plot of Carefree would serve up the standard passive female. In more contemporary rom-com hands, we would see a woman’s adherence to pop stereotype masked as empowerment. But Carefree is ahead of its time—in a strange way. Granted, Amanda is taken to the psychoanalyst by her fiancé; granted, fiancé and analyst decide how to treat her—and there is no waiver or consent form in sight. Granted, she is rendered out of control by the scientific methods these men employ. But throughout the film, Rogers’ Amanda asserts her independence, in whimsical and also in more determined ways.

In one sequence, the “anesthetized” Rogers walks along a city sidewalk intrigued by a truck loaded with an inviting sheet of plate glass. Her attempts to hurl things at the glass are thwarted by a balletic sequence of random acts from passersby, but she finally uses a policeman’s baton to accomplish the deed. During this extended scene, Rogers is both gleeful and sly—to the extent that one wonders whether director Mark Sandrich is playing with the notion of the conscious and subconscious mind. Rogers’ Amanda begins the film playing a trick on Astaire’s Tony, and later, after she has fallen in love with him, she strings him along with a dream full of analysis-ready images and events. It’s not too great a leap to consider the possibility that Amanda uses her anesthesia as license for unruly behavior (including firing a skeet-shooting rifle at the men who have been trying to control her).

(Amanda is not the only woman asserting herself in Carefree. The character actress Luella Gear is in fine form here as Amanda’s Aunt Cora, always telling Judge Travers to “Sit down, Joe.”)

When it comes to the romance that we know is coming between Amanda and Tony, it is Amanda who declares her love, not Tony. (He does love her, but doesn’t come to understand it until later in the movie. Psychoanalysis, indeed.) She turns out to be a woman who knows what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to go after it. Interestingly, she makes her announcement of love while wearing a dress that puts appliqué to innovative use: as a Valentine/Rorschach combination. The dress features a large cartoon-style heart with multiple arrows piercing it from various directions. Tony misses the cue. Where did he get his degree, anyway?

Carefree was the last of five films Sandrich made with Astaire and Rogers, and he already seems to be making a transition away from song-and-dance to straight comedy or drama. Carefree features far less dancing than, say, Top Hat or Shall We Dance. But what there is is full of the grace, athleticism, and originality one expects from Astaire and Rogers. Rogers’ steps are hard to follow beneath the flowing fabric of her gowns, but what is easy to see is the high speed with which she gets whipped around Astaire’s center—without ever giving up any lightness and precision in her dancing. (For a commentary on Rogers’ dancing, see here.) And as for Astaire, Carefree draws attention to an unlikely source of his grace: his unusually large hands. Every time he reaches into the air behind his head to signify the “inner mind”, we are struck by the elegance of the gesture.

By 1938, the Hays Code had been in effect for eight years and enforced for four. It prohibited depictions of various sorts of immorality, including safe-cracking or the taking of illegal drugs. Adherence to the Code is likely the reason why we never see Rogers’ face with a mask over it as she inhales the anesthetic that gives her such freedom. The camera moves to a spot behind Rogers’ head, which is then obscured by the figures of Astaire and another doctor who hover over her as she is drugged. Surely, this is the image the Code enforcers should have found troubling. But they miss the unsettling disappearance of Rogers in this moment. That police baton that Rogers tosses at a plate of glass? That’s what the Hays people should have worried about.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Language Rant 4

Verse vs. Versus

Judging by the usage heard around the playing fields and backyards of my town, I'm guessing there are a lot of kids out there who think they've seen "Monsters Verse Aliens". There is an entire generation, it seems, that thinks that that tiny abbreviation for the Latin versus (against) is actually supposed to be pronounced like the genre that has even fewer readers than short fiction: verse. You can see how this starts. "OK, it's them versus us". "Right. Them verse us." That second "us" can seem like an extra syllable after a while--if you're seven.

I tried to fix this problem many years ago, but there's a limited amount of Latin pedantry a pack of seven- or eight-year olds wants to hear when they're watching their little sister pick up one of the goal markers and turn it into a house for her stuffed animal. They'd really rather get playing. And so I failed.

Is it too late? Or is this latest DreamWorks movie a chance for linguistic improvement at the multi-plex?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning: Sundance Marring

A film whose center is revealed to be the memories shared by two sisters, Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning gets better if its viewers forget a lot. Forget Alan Arkin’s presence as the crankily affectionate grandfather. Forget the word “sunshine” in the movie’s title. Forget these indicators of indy-film credibility—and consign to oblivion the hokey use of a CB radio in a rusty Econoline van—and you are left with a beautifully acted study of the relationship between those sisters as they struggle on the edge of financial and emotional stability.

Anyone who saw Enchanted or Junebug knows that Amy Adams can sell any role. Especially in Enchanted, where it would have been easy to play the part of the wide-eyed Giselle with a dash of insincerity and a wink to the audience, Adams brought an unassailable conviction to every scene. What else is there to be in life, she seemed to say, than a princess stuck in Manhattan eager to return to the kingdom?

Or, in the case of Sunshine Cleaning, who else is there to be in life but Rose Lorkowski, a single mother starting a crime-scene clean-up business with her irresponsible sister Norah (Emily Blunt)? Here, Adams is well paired with Emily Blunt who overcomes the difficulty of an American accent to portray Norah’s interesting mixture of vulnerability and defiance, cluelessness and shrewdness. Whenever the movie is dealing with just these two—either in the same scene or through cross cuts to paired solo scenes—it is very strong indeed.

Jeffs must have cast these roles with an eye to her actresses’ appearance. For though they look nothing like sisters, they each seem to fit their roles perfectly. Rose is all eyes, big blue ones, willing herself to see only the good that might come her way if she can manage to convince herself of it. It’s as if the wider she opens her eyes, often fighting back tears, the less of the rough world around her she will admit into existence. Blunt’s Norah, on the other hand, is all lips, eager to consume things—to take everything in, even to the point of excess—but also pouting like the abandoned child that, at heart, she is. Jeffs brings her camera in to a pore-revealing closeness throughout the film—beginning with the film’s otherwise throwaway shot—no doubt because she knows that we will watch Adams’ and Blunt’s faces with fascination.

In one scene filmed in the milky white of a restaurant bathroom, Rose and Norah move from confrontation to an exchange of memories that gestures towards the film’s core. But the scene actually offers much more than that. Not so much exchanging memories, the two sisters are creating a shared memory for each other, with each other. They begin with different perspectives on the same event: Norah remembers pain, while Rose fittingly remembers dedication. Then we watch mesmerized as they lob bits of their past back and forth, their faces revealing more and more about who they are and about what ties them together.

Later on, Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley orchestrate a moving sequence of cross cuts between the two sisters, intercut with a third element that ties them together beautifully. It’s a lovely piece of filmmaking and, if it is a bit over-sentimental, we are inclined to grant Jeffs, Holley, and their actors some leeway here.

Other aspects of the film shouldn’t, however, get such a free pass. (See Slate's Dana Stevens' review for more on this.) That business with the CB radio, and the wide-eyed child whose only imperfection is a precocious intelligence that makes him unfit for the mainstream world, and other trappings of the Sundance aesthetic weaken the film. (And was there really no one else available for an almost cameo role than Robert Redford’s daughter?) Generally restrained, even when conveying the appealing slapstick of the sisters’ clean-up efforts, Jeffs occasionally overdoes it with her camerawork—either through an extreme wide-angle shot of southwestern desolation, or through an overly lyrical sequence involving sparks from a train.

Sunshine Cleaning is a film about people trying to stop circling the drain. They go over their one important memory over and over again, or they shut another memory out completely—whatever works to keep them in this barely sustainable limbo. All around them are signs of mobility: the Porsche of one of Rose’s high school classmates; the squad cars that are never far from the clean-up jobs Rose and Norah go to. Meanwhile, Rose drives a beat-up hatchback to her pre-crime-scene job at Pretty Clean; and her father drives an old Caddy with its trunk full of whatever it is he’s desperate to deal. It’s a stark contrast, and Jeffs makes sure we notice it. From the film’s opening sequence to its final overhead shot, we know that the agents of change in these people’s lives are also what can trap them. When we see that final shot, with its straight line of movement, we are glad to know Rose and Norah have stopped circling and have found a way to go forward.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens: Kids vs. Adults

Whether in two dimensions or three, Rob Letterman’s Monsters vs. Aliens plays furiously with perspective. Numerous sequences are designed with distant vanishing points, dramatic foregrounding, and a very shallow depth of field that seems to suspend faces or objects in mid-air. Even in 2-D, the movie’s visual impact is powerful. Not only are the images beautifully and marvelously detailed (heat waves shimmering off a pavement, blades of grass, individual hairs on the belly of a gigantic mutant grub), but the thrusting forwards and backwards of blocks of color, and the film’s swooping point of view give you the strong impression of being inside the images. Even the surround sound seems to be ratcheted up a notch—almost to the point of being as clunky as a poorly set-up home speaker system—as if the visual jolts and jabs were throwing sounds into the back corners of the theater.

Playing with perspective is an important part of children’s entertainment, starting from the 1952 Borrowers books, in which a minuscule family lives among the thimbles, buttons, and teaspoons of a normal-sized house, and going on through Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square. If books tend to explore the child’s sense of smallness in an adult world (with the exception of Gulliver’s Travels, which really shouldn’t be read by children at all, anyhow), movies tend to go the other way, playing with a child’s bafflement at the threat of growing up: Big, Thirteen Going on Thirty, and the forthcoming 17 Again are just a few examples. When Letterman’s own Gulliver’s Travels film is released in 2010, it will surely express his interest in the comic and alienating potential of shifts in size and perspective.

Monsters vs. Aliens builds on this size-shifting tradition, capturing the mischief and the misery of distorted size at both ends. Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) becomes the mother of all Bridezillas by expanding to enormous size after being hit by a meteor. (Interestingly, she goes from meek bride to something out of Barbarella as she pops out of her human-sized clothes.) She is soon imprisoned along with three other monsters: Hugh Laurie’s exasperated-scientist cockroach, Will Arnett’s lizard-fish strongman, and Seth Rogen’s gurgle-voiced B.O.B. whose confused eagerness is one of the best parts of the movie. These three become Susan’s Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man as the story warps into The Wizard of Oz, complete with its demonstration that the heroine’s strengths lay within her all along. While Susan/Ginormica ingeniously uses cars as roller skates and the roof of a gas station as a sitting stool, her trio of buddies, wriggles and crawls and blobs its way through small spaces. Watching the film, we are always following the point of view of someone who is the wrong size at the wrong time.

But interestingly, adults watching Monsters vs. Aliens are always the right size. We always have the right perspective, catching all the jokes that sail over the heads of the children on booster seats in the next row. This makes sense. After all, Letterman hasn’t forgotten that children don’t drive. Someone has to bring them to the movie theater, buy their candy, and smile benignly when they address the characters on screen (e.g. the little girls at a 2007 screening of Enchantment who answered Amy Adams’ Giselle by assuring her that she looked pretty). And so, Monsters vs. Aliens has a general named W.R. Monger explain that the imprisonment of the monsters is a diversion to keep people compliant with the I.R.S. (Surely this is the first children’s movie to use the tax code as its premise.). The prison is a textbook image of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, complete with its central tower from which all the cells are visible to ever-watchful eyes. And when the President of the United States, voiced perfectly by Stephen Colbert, attempts to communicate with the alien robot, the adults will recognize the music as a pastiche of alien-encounter theme songs. The B-52s’ “It Came From Planet Claire” as background music is just icing on the cake.

The movie is so full of allusions that it risks coming across as a bit of a mess. There is no central theme here—other than, I suppose, the trite and played-out story of the stranger accepted for just who he or she is, and the band of strangers that comes together. (We’re only a small step away from “Don’t make fun of my differences,” an expression that even kids have been mocking for years.) For kids, the whole show is no doubt fun. The monsters are funny, the action is exciting, the images are surprising. For adults, the movie is a bit like a Wikipedia page, chock-full of links that take our thoughts in different directions.

Ah, but then there’s Insectosaurus, aka Insecto. A grub the size of an upended zeppelin, with stubby, comic antennae, and enormous placid eyes, Insecto has the unchanging happy face of an amusement park toy, without the creepiness. Like a giant baby, he doesn’t do much. When they need him to go somewhere, they hang a bank of stadium lights from a helicopter and use it to lure him away. He is a bit reminiscent of Totoro, the magical creature from the children’s anime films of the same name, and in a way, he performs a similar function here.

More than any other monster fighting the legion of Rainn Wilson’s aliens, Insecto saves the day and saves the movie. I won’t go into detail here, lest I ruin the well-prepared for surprise. Suffice it to say that, in a movie at least partly about one’s sudden transformation into something else, about the bewildering distortions of one’s body, Insecto, with his imperturbable eyes and his infant smile, brings the movie’s allusiveness together and organizes it around a rather sweet conclusion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Review-Reading Double Standard

Reading a review of Matthew Pearl’s new novel The Last Dickens yesterday, my eyes performed their standard leapfrog dance over the newsprint: read the first paragraph or two, scan about one third of the way down to find the tag of information about the author, then skip all the way to the last paragraph for the reviewer’s summation. (In the case of Pearl’s book, I confess that my eye was caught by a series of sentences quoted from the book—clearly fodder for some future Language Rant.)

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading book reviews. It’s that, when it comes to novels, I can’t abide knowing where the story is going to go before I have a chance to follow it there myself. Sure, I read enough reviews to be able to tell you the author and title of many of the new novels people end up talking about on the sidelines of their children’s games or over an Esperanto-named coffee drink. Like Pierre Bayard, I could probably pretend I’ve read most of these books. Aren’t there only two stories in the world, anyway? (Man goes on a journey. Stranger comes into town. And the latest: Woman discovers family secret.) But when it comes to the specifics of a particular version of those three stories, I absolutely need to be in the dark before I turn each and every page. Even in the most domestic of Quiet Books, I must have my suspense. Contrast this to my daughter whose leapfrog reading dance makes my review-reading habit seem downright demure: first paragraph, last paragraph. Then she decides if the book is worth spending time with. I shudder at this transgression of the Rules of Narrative Escape.

Then there are movie reviews, where all bets are off. I experience not a moment’s hesitation in reading right through every twist and turn of the latest thriller, or learning every detail of the romance. The very concept of a spoiler is, in a way, alien to me. No revelation about a movie’s plot can spoil my enjoyment of its story.

So the question is: why? Why my double standard? What is it about movies that makes them, for me, impervious to reviews that destroy suspense? Are books and movies so fundamentally different?

They used to be. Movies were necessarily communal where the novel was a solitary experience. Movies could only be enjoyed in a particular place, while the novel could be taken anywhere. But these distinctions were blurred years ago. And what the book club phenomenon started, the Kindle and other electronic readers have only accelerated further. Now you can watch a movie in your lap, and books are, once again, agents of a sociable life (just as they were 150 years ago when people gathered to hear someone read the latest installment in a Dickens serial).

For me, though, books and movies continue to exist in different worlds. I am still fairly solitary with my reading—partly because my selections are often driven by a problem I am working on in my own fiction (or by a desire to get entirely away from something in my own work), and partly because I read too slowly to keep up with everybody else’s consumption of new novels. (To wit: I have only now purchased Bel Canto.) Having started a book club years ago, I was the first member to flunk out.

Maybe my slow reading is the source of my movie/book double standard. When I read, I hear the words as if someone is reading them aloud to me (I must have a vestigial Victorian brain, eager for an evening’s recitation). I abhor interruption, and tend to treat the words on the page as if they are streaming by me once and once only; if I stop to answer the phone or the husband, the narrative train will leave me at the station. Thus, knowing ahead of time what is going to happen ruins that sensation of being carried along by the writer’s words. Reading the review is like traveling the distance beforehand with a foggy window and someone’s iPod playing too loudly in the next seat. Then when I do settle in for my actual journey, the trip’s familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then disappointment.

Reading a book will take me anywhere from one week—if the planets align, if the book is more Breakfast at Tiffany’s than War and Peace, and if I am more caffeinated in the evenings than usual—to a month. If I’m going to live with a novel for that long (and what better pleasure is there than an extended sojourn in someone’s imagined world?), then I want to be able to invest myself in it. And that means not knowing more than the vaguest outlines about the book. The production of that story in my own imagination, through reading, depends on my being in suspense.

But if suspense elicits from us a sense of heightened anticipation or even anxiety, even a racing heart, then movies have an advantage over books. For watching a movie is a brief and intense affair during which we are hit through almost all channels of our limbic systems. Our physiological responses to suspense will appear anyway, whether we know the story ahead of time or not. The music, the dark, the camerawork, the acting: faced with all of this, surrounded by it, we can’t help but get carried away by the story whose elements we may have already read about in the paper or on a blog. Consider the situation on a quieter, more finely etched scale. A written account of, say, Emma Thompson’s lovely moment at the end of Last Chance Harvey can’t diminish the experience of watching Thompson produce that emotion—in herself and in us.

In fact, I hadn’t planned to go see Last Chance Harvey at all until I read Ty Burr’s review in the Boston Globe. The movie seemed “small” enough for a DVD viewing later on. Burr writes:
"the scene toward the end, by the banks of the Thames, where Thompson takes her character from certainty to tears in the space of a sentence, and you sigh in gratitude at the emotional whiplash."
Rather than spoil the movie for me by giving away an aspect of the film’s conclusion, Burr’s observation compelled me to go and see for myself. If anything, the review generated more suspense in me than I might have felt had I not read it. I don’t recall ever turning the pages of a book to reach a paragraph I’ve seen quoted in a review. But I knew the moment was coming in Last Chance Harvey, and I was waiting for it.