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Tuesday, Jan 15, 2008

by Matt Mazur

Jessica Lange in Bonneville

Jessica Lange in Bonneville

“She’s like a delicate fawn crossed with a Buick”
—Jack Nicholson on Jessica Lange

Spending the night with Jessica Lange is a rare and lovely thing. She is an enigmatic icon who guards her privacy with the same fierceness with which she approached her most famous acting roles. We can safely say Lange has been given the shaft by Hollywood, like most actresses of her age. Lange has been relegated, essentially, to cameos in films by directors like Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders.

And now, the actress is about to come back in a big way with a role she calls “huge”, nicely balanced by subtle, nuanced work in an indie feature. But where exactly did she go?

On the final night of the 92nd Street Y’s excellent 2007-08 film/lecture series, Reel Pieces in New York City (which has, of late, included whip-smart guests like Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day Lewis, and Laura Linney), Lange roared back about the state of women in film, her body of work, and her next project, an adaptation of the Maysles’ brothers’ elegiac documentary Grey Gardens.

Striking and commanding at age 58, the dramatic powder keg who gave us, among other expert creations, Frances Farmer (in Frances), Tamora Queen of the Goths (Titus), and the sex-a-holic Carly Marshall (in 94’s Blue Sky, which won her the Best Actress Oscar), is poised for a special kind of return with several promising projects in development and/or in the can, this despite the fact that she never really went too far away in the first place.

After she won her second Oscar in early 1995 (her first was for Supporting Actress in 1982’s Tootsie), Lange, like many actresses in her age group, began appearing less and less on the big screen. According to the actress and activist, she was just not being offered the kinds of roles that would inspire her to leave her home and her family. She wasn’t being offered anything of substance at all, really. In a sharp contrast to say, France, where legends like Catherine Deneuve are working consistently (with success) into their golden years, the landscape of American film seems to be devoid of interesting women over 50.

To combat this, Lange is gearing up for battle by putting on layers of prosthetic putty and theatrical make-up as armor for her next film, and challenging the stereotypes of how audiences expect a woman of nearly 60 to act and look in both Grey Gardens, and to a lesser degree her newest offering, the female buddy picture Bonneville, in which she appears onscreen as a new brand of woman over 50—sensual, at ease, and soft.

The normally reclusive and shy star appeared onstage following the American premiere of her newest film Bonneville (co-starring Joan Allen and Kathy Bates), relaxed and engaging, opposite moderator Dr. Annette Insdorf (Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University) for an open, honest chat about her technique, the power of rehearsal, and her inspirations. Insdorf cannily captured a side of the performer that is normally closed to the public, eschewing the discussion of almost perfunctory Lange myths, instead drawing out delicious anecdotes about the actresses’ craft that had remained hitherto hidden.

Insdorf, following the screening of Bonneville, asked Lange about working with first time writers and directors, something the performer isn’t afraid of. “I had a safety net”, said Lange, referring to co-stars Allen and Bates. “There was a genuine affection that kind of rises to the top in the story”. She acknowledged being shocked at seeing a script that included three plum roles for women over 50. “Wow! That was beyond our reality in a way, and it was worth investigating.” Lange pointed to 2007’s most acclaimed films—Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men, and stated the obvious - “There aren’t a lot of big Hollywood films that come my way, there never were. That well has dried up pretty much,” she chuckled. “There are a few, small, decent roles for women.”

Influenced by Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, the music of The Band, and studying Buddhism, the Lange on display in Bonneville is not like the damaged, overtly sensual sirens audiences have come to expect from the actress. In the film she plays Arvilla, an Idaho native whose older husband has suddenly died. She enlists the help of her two girlfriends to drive his ashes back to his daughter in California. It’s the first time in a while that the actress has turned her fury inward producing some of her most introspective work. Bonneville is very much an indie-spirited road movie (Lange said that her favorites of the genre include Five Easy Pieces and Badlands), but its nature is light, and it is buoyed by three veteran women’s chemistry.

As unusual as it actually is to see three women over 50 carrying a film, it has become even more unusual to find Lange in a leading role. “You don’t say one day that you’re just going to start playing mothers,” she said, indicating that she had been pigeonholed into a certain niche. Between 1999 and 2006, Lange appeared primarily in supporting roles, and according to her, this was all she was getting offered because of her commitment to her most treasured role as a family woman. She said that when her kids were younger, they would gamely go on location like “gypsies” with their dogs and their stuff and have fun. As her family grew older, and the children started to have lives of their own, Lange found it more interesting to not take work. ““Its amazing being an actor,” Lange cooed. “[But] I didn’t want to leave my house.”

Instead, she headed, like many astute women her age, for television, and the stage, two safe havens in the American pop culture landscape that offer women over 50 a respite.

“I must have been crazy or delusional or something,” Lange said. “To go from Blanche (Dubois, in the New York and London productions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), to Mary (Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), to Amanda (Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie). I’ve been really lucky to play those parts. Mary Tyrone is bar none the greatest female character in the English language. She’s bottomless. She’s a joy to play. I want to get back to play her again.”

Lange has not ever been afraid to criticize her own work. When Insdorf brought up one of her little-seen roles, in 2001’s Prozac Nation as a recent highlight, Lange seemed shocked. “Really?! I’ve never seen it.”

Jessica Lange in Normal

Jessica Lange in Normal

Her role in the underrated Normal, in which she plays Irma, the small town wife of a transsexual, almost didn’t happen in the first place—she initially didn’t want to take the part because she was hesitant that the film’s subject matter wouldn’t be translated with the proper dignity. She said that when she learned her co-star would be Tom Wilkinson, she was willing to give it a shot.

Lange felt like the character’s face should begin as very “tight” and slowly become softer and softer, until she was “radiant” and filled with light by the end, as she gave her husband, who has just undergone gender reassignment surgery, a strand of pearls as a gesture of love and acceptance. This was the point in her life where she began studying Buddhism, and the principles of unconditional love, and said this immeasurably helped her in this difficult performance.

Despite being one of her most singular characters, this perfectionist still feels that the finished product could have been even better. “It feels like the ball was dropped”. She credited HBO (producers of Normal and Grey Gardens) with being the premiere place for women over 50 to find these kinds of interesting, multi-dimensional roles—the kind that she prefers to watch on her own time.

My stock question, to let you all in on one of my little secrets, lately, has been “what are your favorite female performances?” When I have asked this question in the past to film fans, directors, and other actors, almost instinctually, many automatically respond: “Jessica Lange in Frances”. When I was offered this potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend this event, I became determined to ask Lange, too, this very question during Reel Pieces.

The format of the lecture that followed the Bonneville screening allowed only for questions written on index cards and fielded by the moderator—no mere mortal would address Lange directly. Somehow, my question was one of three audience questions Lange responded to. And I immediately was afraid she wouldn’t answer the question at all after the incident earlier in the evening, when someone asked “who are your heroes?” (for one of the three questions). This provoked her response: “I hate those questions! I should be prepared for these kinds of questions!” She then buried her face in exasperation until she came up with the Dalai Lama.

Almost immediately, caught off guard, she cited Vivien Leigh’s work in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire as one of her all-time favorites. “She was really out of this world. What she did was brilliant.” She went on to cite both Katharine Hepburn’s later work (notably in On Golden Pond—she loved the realistic details of the relationship between Hepburn and co-star Henry Fonda), and Myrna Loy. “She was always perfect. I’ve been watching a lot of movies from the ‘30s, preparing for Grey Gardens. Those babes, they were great. They were all great.”

What we have in Bonneville is Lange at a crossroads emotionally and physically, joining the pantheon of women she admires, much like Hepburn and Loy did. Women of their generation enjoyed working well into their older years, in a variety of roles, light and heavy. She plays her age, and her experience shows through. As Arvilla, she comes across as more warm, vulnerable, and vibrantly sexy than ever (but more on that later…). It’s a vanity-free, relaxed portrayal that finds her in a place where the tastes of a fickle ticket-buying public are changing as quickly as the technology of filmmaking.

“There is a disconnect between the actor and the director,” she offered, citing her work with directors Costa-Gavras (Music Box, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Karel Reisz (Sweet Dreams, and Tony Richardson (of Blue Sky, whom she called “a great, exotic bird”). “You could really feel his energy. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is a separation. Nothing went past him. That, to me, is an actor’s director. There is an art to film directing and directing an actor that, in a lot of cases, falls by the wayside. Not one of these directors ever sat behind a monitor, nothing went past them.”

Stay tuned for Part Two on Thursday.

Tagged as: jessica lange
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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

Life. Death. Love. Hate. Family. Friends. Art. Artifice. These are the stalwarts of human existence.  They are the boundaries by which we analyze and legitimize our lives. They are the personality benchmarks, the tactile reflections of our existential image. We embrace most. We avoid others - either purposefully or indirectly - and yet when it comes right down to it, the basis of every individual is figuring out how to deal with these facets and their inate eternal struggle. Media has always played a part in this dissection, from epic poems and the days of Greek theater to novels, television, and motion pictures. But no one has really captured the essence of these competing elements - until now.

Avant-godhead Giuseppe Andrews has created a near 200 minutes masterwork of pain, passion, and perversion. Labeled The Americano Trilogy, it stands as one of cinema’s greatest accounts of that humble state known as humanity. Actually, Andrews has made three amazing movies, linked thematically by their desire to delve deep into the heart of what makes us tick. Consisting of the wedding farce Golden Embers, the relationship lunacy of Holiday Weekend, and the demented death meditation Everlasting Pine, we see the same actors essaying different characters, acting out frequently incongruent plots. But taken together, these films become a perfect satiric amalgamation of everything our society sits on.

When we first meet the characters from Golden Embers, they are people in transition. One is a bride to be, hoping her ex-addict brother can stay sober long enough to walk her down the aisle. The sibling is a sexually obsessed dope fiend, desperate for any kind of psychosexual release - and lots of wacky white powder. Locked up in a hotel room, freebasing his sordid memories and many erotic needs, he slowly comes unglued. Soon, we are witnessing rampant mood swings, murderous hallucinations, and the world’s most misguided nuptials, complete with dancing.

As Giuseppe Andrews movies go, Golden Embers is almost a one man show. Miles Dougal gives an amazing, tour de force performance as a man awkwardly coming to grips with losing his baby sister. Riddled with guilt over something from his past, and replacing the loss with unspeakable acts of self-indulgence, this is a David Lynch drama on badly cut cocaine. During the course of his motor lodge madness, Dougal speaks to angels, a defiant version of himself, and various real (and imaginary) drug dealers. We see snippets of a dream, a non-nightmare of sorts where our harried hero believes his is trying to slay his sibling. Of course, this all leads back to abandonment issues, and Dougal’s desire to crawl back into the carnal comforts of the womb - any womb.

This is the first indication that Andrews can draw beyond the trailer park for his squalid slices of life. We barely visit the tornado magnets of previous epics as beach settings, backyards and other real world locales get the savant surreality treatment. As usual, the director finds freakish faces to realize his most vivid fever day dreams, and along with long time collaborators Vietnam Ron and Walt Dongo, we are introduced to Tommy Salami, Ed, and the amazing Elaine Bongos. All these new people provide a window into the fresh way Andrews is working. Even the standard scatology that comes with the territory is metered out in a far more humorous and heart-wrenching fashion. 

Because it is a middle act, the narrative driving Holiday Weekend is centered on people and how they relate to each other. A young couple quibbles over an impulsive decision to steal a coffee machine, while the victimized pair sans Sanka plays an unusual game of affection and abuse. A young man with werewolf-ism moves in with a fledgling songwriter, while elsewhere, an injured individual with Tourettes seeks council from a high priced lawyer. All the while, some elderly homosexual lovers reunite, dancing to celebrate the rekindling of their long dormant love.

Referencing Mr. Eraserhead once again, and giving us his spin on spirituality and the afterlife, Holiday Weekend is like several smart sketches that add up to one indelible portrait. We are definitely dealing with the standard relationship conceits - anger and codependency, trust and its violation, acceptance and forgiveness, and realizing that love has no prejudice, no pride, and no presumptions. In between trips to a hotel bathroom (which acts as a way station of sorts for God’s judgmental wrath) and another Dougal rant as the victim of some loose cobblestones, Andrews offers up insights into a world we all know, but dare not acknowledge. Even the more fanciful element - a man who suffers from a paranormal problem, a killer automaton - can be boiled down to issues of personal space and its disturbing violation.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story is the coffee maker-less couple. She’s a clean freak, locked in cycles of endless scrubbing and scouring. He’s an ox like ogre, a bully bent on getting his way with his fists and a facile sense of sensitivity. Of the three amazing films, this is the best written. Andrews’ dialogue jumps off the screen, offering memorable bits like the scene where an old man declares his lust for his 80-plus year old paramour, web tech dissections, and more grade-A porn poetry. Clearly, Andrews is exploring the theme of outside manipulation - either by a so-called Supreme Being, or a deranged mad scientist who builds a remote controlled robot bent on killing. We are supposed to see that all life is driven by unseen forces, things we can’t anticipate or expect.

In makes a perfect tie-in to the final film. In Everlasting Pine, a famed composer is having problems with his wife. She’s still vital and alive, seeking occasional sexual congress from a new age Yoga guru. He, on the other hand, is moody and temperamental, lost in a world of ritualistic habits and dark obsessions. When he is commissioned by a friend to write a requiem for his dead father, the same old feelings flare up. When the cuckold learns of the price his problems have wrought, he sees only one violent way out.

Focusing on a single person once again (Vietnam Ron is spectacular as the screwed up musician) and using his plight as a frame of reference for all the other issues in the story, Andrews brings his triptych to a close in brilliant fashion. Contentment, and its lack of curative properties propel this story, as we see one man (Dongo’s yoga master) requiring sex to fill in the gaps missing in his spiritual quest, while Ron’s composer can’t abide by much except coffee and the occasional roll in the sack. Both men are viewed as masters of their domain, capable of great and glorious things. But when you remove the pretense of fame, when you take away what they’ve done in the past for what they’re responsible for now, it seems like charlatanism meshed with good old fashioned flim flam.

Andrews again fleshes out his supporting roles by including newcomer Ed (a guitar virtuoso who has collaborated with the writer/director on several of his amazing CDs) and the plain speaking Salami. It’s important to note that the filmmakers personal flame, the intriguing Marybeth Spychalski handles the main female roles in each story, and her voice of reason vibrancy matched with her uncanny ability to blend with her clearly amateur costars turn her into an instant source of audience access. Indeed, what many may wonder about the work of Giuseppe Andrews is, given its source, its structure, its star power, and its frequent bouts of strangeness, how accessible can it really be? Thanks to Spychalski, and her beau’s ability behind the typewriter, lens, and portable recording studio, the answer is self-evident. You’ll have to work a little - these are interactive films by inherent definition - but your efforts will be rewarded over and over again.

Indeed, like all his work, Andrews’ Americano Trilogy is a mesmerizing triumph. It’s not car wreck compelling or freak show undeniable. Instead, these films easily transcend their oddball obviousness to become canvases in a gallery of mankind’s many individual incarnations. We see ourselves here, even if the conversation is centering around various references to female genitalia and not how this month’s budget will get balanced. For every whiff of authenticity, Andrews tosses in awkward moments of undeniable art. It’s there when an over the hill whore strips naked and lets her sags show. It’s present in an acting performance that damns the standard torpedoes and piles on the scenery chewing splendor. It’s buried inside the insular references, and it’s lost amid incomplete line readings and on camera nerves.

Currently only available on Andrews’ personal website ( Americano masks the horrors of everyday living by turning the twisted into the tame, the grotesque into the gorgeous. There will be some small minded movie fans that look at what is accomplished here as nothing more than hackneyed home movies made by a supposedly talented Hollywood himbo and a group of his marginalized Sterno-fueled friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. In an era where ability is finally being met by machinery, Golden Embers, Holiday Weekend, and Everlasting Pine are the films the New Wave would have made had they not had state sponsored studios staring over their shoulder. They’re the true post-modern efforts the ‘70s just couldn’t touch. All revolution is part freedom, part fear. Get rid of the dread and you’ll discover the jaundiced joys awaiting you in this terrific trio.

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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While I’m grateful to PopMatters for publishing my list of Best Music Scribing, I wanna note another place that’s toasting writers and publications now.  Music Press Report just gave out their own set of awards.  As editor CJ Chilvers told me, “Many participated in the nominations, but only a few hundred actual went to the ballots - which is how I wanted it. I didn’t want anyone to spam the voting, so I really limited who could vote and how.”  Nice to see more writers/pubs getting toasted as they get so much bad news otherwise nowadays and most of the general journalism awards rarely note music criticism, which is a shame. 

And though I’m weary/leery of polls, I also want to note another music one that doesn’t have the same winners you’ll necessarily see in Pazz/Jop and Idolator.  Blues Critic ran its own readers poll with J. Blackfoot, Latimore and William Bell getting their due, which you won’t find in many other polls nowadays.

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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

Last year, Slate business columnist Daniel Gross wrote a book called Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy. Needless to say, this doesn’t seem such a great title given our current economic climate and the growing sense even among people who aren’t business-news junkies that the burst real estate bubble will cause a lot of economic misery for all of us. You don’t have to read WSJ to notice the alarming depreciation of your retirement savings, as stocks have lost a huge chunk of their value in recent weeks. And you don’t have to be on a Bloomberg terminal to notice how expensive food and gas are becoming, or to notice how certain neighbors are failing to keep up on their home maintenance, or are even around anymore. No wonder consumer confidence is battered. Though Gross is a bit tongue-in-cheek in celebrating bubbles (as if this was a job he had taken on assignment) his assessment of the impact of the then-not-fully-popped housing bubble seems a touch short-sighted: “So far its salutary effects include the creation of a huge number of jobs and the inflow of investment into long-neglected urban areas.” That was true at the time, but now those jobs are vanishing, and blight is returning to those areas in the form of foreclosures.

Obviously, bubbles cause inflated asset prices, which eventually come back to earth, painfully, leaving a giant crater that causes all sorts of collateral damage. But some of Gross’s points about the origin of bubbles (government subsidies and favorable legislation) and their upside can’t be dismissed: Some of the paper assets created during the frenzy do spur real infrastructure investment, as with the build out of fiber-optic networks that are only now paying dividends with the advent of “cloud computing.” And past bubbles promoted widespread shifts in the way ordinary people work, travel, or communicate. In short, bubbles built the railroad and the information superhighway. Gross also argues bubbles build a “mental infrastructure” for comprehending new technological possibilities, new ways of doing business. The “creative destruction” enacted by the inflation and subsequent undoing of bubbles is presumably a small price to pay for progress. Indeed, by highlighting alternative energy as the next big investment boom, Gross suggests that bubbles will save us all from global warming.

In the most recent Harper’s former VC honcho Eric Janszen puts an apocalyptic spin on this thesis, claiming that the American economy has replaced the business cycle, the bugaboo of economies past, with a hyperaccelerated bubble cycle. Along with this shift, what are sometimes called the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) have supplanted traditional manufacturing as America’s economic base. Now that the housing bubble has popped, these industries are in grave trouble, and the usual remedies—rate cutting, currency deflation, tax cuts, an influx of foreign investment (think, sovereign wealth funds buying into U.S. banks)—are not so easily implemented when interest and tax rates are already low and inflation is rising and foreigners are filled to the brim with dollar-denominated assets. Hence we need a new bubble to bail us out, and Janszen too points to alternative energy. But rather than highlight the infrastructure and paradigm-shifting legacy such a bubble would supply, he directs our attention to the “$20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver ‘energy security.’ When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. FIRE, meanwhile, will already be engineering its next opportunity.” In other words, the middlemen create fictitious value while extracting real profits for themselves, and then let government step in and clean up the mess when the fictions are revealed.

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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While Katherine Heigl and Nikki Blonksy moan that no Golden Globes party means no excuse for a girly dress-up day, I remain annoyed that we’ve never seen a glitzy, televised event celebrating books and their authors. Who wouldn’t want to see Walter Kirn negotiating the red carpet? Or Susan Faludi gabbing about jewels with Joan Rivers? Alas, the loss the stars suffered on Sunday, forced to stay at home, is something we book lovers are well used to. It was weird, actually, searching the ‘net for Golden Globe winners like a scavenger trying to find out who won the Giller Prize. (It was Elizabeth Hay and she won for Late Nights on Air.)

If book awards need glitz, then the National Book Critics Awards has some to share—I believe winners get a gold sticker on their dust jackets. Nominees were announced this week. Winners will be announced March 6.

Joyce Carol Oates for The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Vikram Chandra for Sacred Games
Junot Diaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hisham Matar for In the Country of Men
Marianne Wiggins for The Shadow Catcher

Philip Gura for American Transcendentalism
Daniel Walker Howe for What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848
Harriet Washington for Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present
Tim Weiner for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
Alan Weisman for The World Without Us

Tim Jeal for Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Hermione Lee for Edith Wharton
Arnold Rampersad for Ralph Ellison
John Richardson for A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
Claire Tomalin for Thomas Hardy

Joshua Clark for Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone
Edwidge Danticat for Brother, I’m Dying
Sara Paretsky for Writing in an Age of Silence
Anna Politkovskaya for Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia
Joyce Carol Oates for The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982

Mary Jo Bang for Elegy
Matthea Harvey for Modern Life
Michael O’Brien for Sleeping and Waking
Tom Pickard for The Ballad of Jamie Allan
Tadeusz Rozewicz for New Poems

Joan Acocella for Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints
(Re:Print favourite) Julia Alvarez for Once Upon a Quinceanera
Susan Faludi for The Terror Dream
Ben Ratliff for Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Alex Ross for The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Brooke Allen
Ron Charles
Walter Kirn
Adam Kirsch

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Emilie Buchwald, writer, editor and publisher of Milkweed Editions.

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