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Friday, Jul 20, 2007


It’s intriguing how certain topics remain elusive cinematic subject matter. The Civil War, for example, has yet to be translated into the epic struggle for national identity that the conflict highlighted. Instead, it’s a well loved Ken Burns documentary, with lots of minor motion picture pick-ups along the way. Similarly, the end of the world – Bible style – has a stifled creative history. Unless you’re a televangelist looking to craft more direct to DVD donation fodder, most filmmakers won’t touch the idea with a set of seven seals. And then there is Andy Warhol’s Factory. A veritable hotbed of pop culture karma in the 1960s, this workspace wonderland was the famed contemporary artist’s haven. It was also a hang out for such iconic entities as the Velvet Underground, Paul Morrissey, and multiple underground ‘superstars’. Yet all attempts to capture the man and his mythos have been borderline caricatures, turning the complicated craftsman into a shill in a shabby wig.


Factory Girl hopes to change all that. Focusing on Warhol’s most infamous ‘discovery’, the poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, and her rapid rise and even more dramatic fall, director George Hickenlooper wisely avoids sensation to grab a glimpse behind the pair’s infamous façade. Hobbled by issues both premade and unexpected (Bob Dylan threatened a lawsuit to have his name and music removed from the film), what started out as some manner of period fantasy was reduced to a better than average biopic – one that happily avoids many of the genre’s more formulaic facets. On the new Unrated DVD offered by the Weinstein Company, Hickenlooper gets one last chance at commercial and critical redemption. Presenting what he considers as close to the “director’s cut” as audiences are liable to see, there’s also a commentary that completes the overview of a production both mired in controversy and bubbling over with amazing personal talent.


When we first meet Edie, played perfectly by Sienna Miller, we sense something is wrong. Perhaps the least practical gal ever to dream in dimensions, the brown haired beauty believed herself destined to be part of the burgeoning New York post-modern art scene. Running away to the Big Apple, she’s spotted by new craze on the block (the chameleon like Guy Pearce is dead on as Warhol) and soon, the two are collaborating on several of the artist’s notorious underground films. As her profile increases, so do her problems. Cut off financially by her snobby, well to do family, Edie’s party girl persona tends to both cheer up and chafe her brittle mentor. When a famous folksinger takes a likening to the perky pixie, things start falling apart. Warhol grows petty and jealous, while the confused feelings she has leads Edie deeper into drug abuse.


At this moment, that big cinematic spoiler known as melodrama could have seeped in, giving Hickenlooper his mandatory material ending. We’d watch as Warhol’s star rises while Edie continues her self-destructive ways. In a phony final shot, the wildly successful art revolutionary would hold his throne, while our faded heroine lies dead in a gutter, needle jutting out of her arm or empty pill bottle by her side. But the filmmaker refuses to supply such well worn pretense. Instead, he lets Factory Girl fully develop its symbiotic/suicidal attachment the unusual couple possessed, and within that dynamic, gives us clear indication of who these people really were.


Warhol’s posthumous world, built as much on his reputation as his reality, fails to really explain what drove this aesthetic deconstructionist. Factory Girl suggests that, as a gay man veiled behind social norms and personal problems, Warhol was a creator incapable of properly channeling his talents. He needed an almost constant stream of stimulation to bring his ideas to life. His was an art of slapdash successes, a never-ending experimentation to see what would cause a stir. His love for Edie was partly based in such interchangeable conceits. But unlike other cogs in his manipulating machine, the sunny socialite really got to him. She touched a part inside Warhol that few women – perhaps only his mother – ever really connected to. That’s why his apparent rejection (for Dylan) turned so spiteful. It was really nothing more than the pathetic misplaced pain of a confused manchild.


Similarly, Edie is viewed as a damaged individual looking for someone to care for her. She doesn’t want to set trends as much as find someone who will simply let her be herself. The constant inference of sexual abuse from family members (her father Fuzzy) and friends suggests this core of wanting. Her inconsistent actions – never good with money, always asking for help, rejecting responsibility for her hedonistic aims – makes her the perfect target for fame’s traps. The lure of the limelight is what draws her in. The emptiness in what she finds inside is what leads her toward more extreme escapes. This is why she takes Warhol’s rejection so hard – she needs the security and hates being accountable for her indiscretions. The relationship with Dylan would never have worked. He is portrayed as wanting her to take blame as much as give it. All Edie wanted was a cocoon to crawl into. There she could manage the metamorphosis she wanted to achieve. And for a while, Warhol provided that.


To capture this subtle shift between characters on film requires actors of great skill, and in at least two of his three leads, Hickenlooper discovered some amazing talent. Guy Pearce plays Warhol in a way that seems inconsequential at first. He’s got the look, and the lost wandering gaze, but we initially feel this will be a performance geared in kabuki instead of practicality. But then our director drops the iconography and lets us see the anemic artist for who he really is. Pearce pulls off the fragile, flawed persona brilliantly, turning Warhol into a three dimensional, less opaque individual. Similarly, Sienna Miller really surprises as Edie. This kind of loopy, misplaced character would be easy to overplay. She’d be so much larger than life that we’d never once believe her hopes or her horrors. But thanks to a desire to both mimic and expand on who Edie Sedgwick was, as well as some interesting directorial choices, Miller makes us experience who this broken babe really was. It may not be the tour de force Hickenlooper believes it is, but it remains a solid piece of interpretation.


The weakest link here is Hayden Christensen as a character known only as “the Folksinger” (though we do hear Edie call him “Billy” more than once). Cast because of his obvious resemblance – when properly made-up – to Dylan circa 1965, the actor forever tied to George Lucas’ horrendous Star Wars prequels can’t find the proper balance between caricature and clarity. His put-on voice sounds like a bad imitation half the time, and he plays this important man as bursting with nervous frustration, not poetic ideals. Even when he’s waxing philosophically about following your own path, he sounds irritated not inspired. Had a way been found to keep Dylan happy and out of the courthouse over this project, it’s possible that Christensen would have more to work with here. As it is, his minor time on screen distracts us from the real relationships at hand.


Still, the draw between Warhol and Sedgwick is so strong and handled so well that Factory Girl manages to easily overcome its other minor flaws. We don’t really get to know the whole Factory scene, especially important elements like the other iconic leeches who made the warehouse space their home away from home. The Velvet Underground is lightly touched on (apparently, Lou Reed is none too happy with this movie as well) and some of the more important films to feature Sedgwick (Chelsea Girls, ****) are barely mentioned. True, the interpersonal element is the draw, and thanks to Pearce and Miller, it works incredibly well. But the backdrop is still one of the most intriguing aspects of pop culture’s past. Even on a small budget, some of the significant signposts need to be featured. Of course, Hickenlooper has an answer for why he made the creative choices he did. His DVD commentary is a snarky slam on everyone who doesn’t get his approach.


But there is also an inherent flaw in such motion picture narrow-mindedness. Warhol, like the Civil War and the End of Days is a subject so large in scope and significance that an insular ideal robs the material of its meaning.  Unless it can resonate beyond the myopic, we literally loose the big picture. Factory Girl is still an effective, well made dissection of two flawed personalities playing each other for the ultimate ends. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a good one told very well. Too bad it couldn’t broaden beyond its self-imposed horizons to show us the prominence of pop art in the overall ‘60s revolution. Maybe Hickenlooper believes that by illustrating Warhol and Sedgwick’s volatile time together he’s done that. In his defense, he’s made a fine film.  Unfortunately, there is more to the tale than this. 


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Friday, Jul 20, 2007





I’ve been traveling Korean Air for two decades on a regular basis and, for all that fealty I was made a member of their Morning Calm club years ago. My bags get marked “Elite” – bold black lettering on a glossy sky blue, bullet-shaped tag— which means they generally come out first and occasionally, if I look forlorn enough to just the right mothering type behind the check-in counter, I can luck into being bumped up into Business.


I know it’s straying into that grey area of human action, but as one grows into their lives, they learn to push their advantages, since those are so few and come so seldom (not to mention that everyone else is doing the same). Thus, if I don’t ask for that spare seat (with my forlorn, little-boy-lost-drooping-eyelid-look) you can be damned certain that someone else will.


A pause in the program while we salute the fine, lost art of rationalization (and get thqt disappointed expression off your face—certainly you didn’t think you would locate any artistic insights here!)


 


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Friday, Jul 20, 2007

Ordinarily I would have ignored this, but it seemed relevant to points I was trying to get at in the post about sprezzatura. A dubious trend piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day charted the return of the preppy look. This sort of story has a boilerplate feel to it, and you probably know without even having to click through how it reads—a list of consumer goods that have been marketed heavily recently are rattled off to establish the appearance of a trend, and then some fashion industry flacks are quoted to produce the illusion of substantiation. Let me tell you, if a retailer or an industry analyst confirms an “important” trend , then it must really be happening. This article cites John Murray, co-owner of Murray’s Toggery Shop, veteran rap-video director Julien “Little X” Lutz (who proclaims ““Hip-hop is rapping about money and power and women, which is perfect for preps”), and Susanna Salk, the author of A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.


Anyway, what caught my attention was this paradoxical statement by Salk: “Preppy fashion is so iconic now. There’s a nostalgia element to it. It’s certainly a privilege to live in a manner that doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change.” Put aside for a moment the fact that this makes no sense on the face of it—how can something that doesn’t change come in and out of fashion? And it’s very easy to adopt a wardrobe that doesn’t change; wear a uniform—put on a gray-flannel suit. This requires no particular privilege, except that which supplies the strength of mind to transcend trends, the allure of belonging to the zeitgeist—the bonuses of being alive in this particular time. Perhaps we fantasize of such transcendence while realizing we don’t really want it—we want to buy a consumer good that just evokes it for us, gives a chance to daydream about long summer months, year after year in Nantucket, without having to live out the tedium and the coruscating snobbery.


But in the sense that preppy fashion offers the opportunity to purchase the illusion of permanence without the rigor that comes with upholding a standard, it makes sense. The statement is true not merely of preppy fashion but of all fashion which often attempts to sell timelessness as a transient, thrilling experience—the exciting thrill of partcipation in the present moment and the fleeting sense that this moment is the most important moment and will last forever. Through nostalgia fashion, you get the thrill of participating in something with an ersatz tradition without actually having to do something as boring as adhere to a rigid code. Via well-marketed products—iconic nostalgia for the now—you can dupe yourself into believing you can get style without propriety—you can be like Castiglione’s courtiers without actually having talent or ethics.


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Friday, Jul 20, 2007

Well, maybe not… but I remembered this age-old complaint after seeing this Guidelive article where critics are forced to answer the most common reader complaints.  One of the most common is the idea “those who can’t X, do Y” (you know, like how gym teachers are really frustrated athletes).  The answer that Mike Daniel is not only a little too highbrow to really address what readers are saying, he’s also condescending there (about the readers, he says ‘most of whom aren’t pros and have never been “there” either’).  The best way to address the idea of writers as frustrated musicians is just to look at the experiences of scribes.


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Thursday, Jul 19, 2007


Can you see it? That little speck way off in the distance? That’s the light, baby. That’s the end of the 2007 Summer Movie Season slyly making its first true appearance on the horizon. With only six weeks left, Tinsel Town is still trying for a great big finish. Indeed, over the next few Fridays, we’ll see the big screen debut of America’s favorite cartoon family, a trequel from our man Bourne, a bland biopic about salsa ‘legend’ Hector Lavoe, and Rob Zombie’s reinvention of the Halloween franchise. Toss in a fractured fairytale, a bad idea family film, and a useless remake of an overdone sci-fi thriller and there’s plenty to keep you occupied. So where do the premium movie channels stand during this last big motion picture push? Very well, actually. Two of the four features presented on 21 July are definitely deserving of a Saturday night at home, and the outsider/alternative choices aren’t bad either. Just avoid the fishtailing cars and the well-meaning urban farce and you’ll be just fine. Of course, there’s always something playing down at the Cineplex, should you not enjoy what SE&L selected:


Premiere Pick
The Illusionist


Last year (2006), there were two highly touted movies centering on magic. One was a box office flop that didn’t generate much concerned critical buzz. The other was a clever period piece that gave away its twist ending about halfway through. The so-called ‘bomb’ went on to score many kudos come end of the year best-of voting. The moneymaker with the insufficient denouement was more or less ignored. So in the conflict over prestidigitation as big screen entertainment, it’s clear that this amiable effort featuring fine performances by Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti won the battle, but lost the war. And the reasons why are obvious. While Christopher Nolan turned The Prestige into a sensational psychological thriller, Neil Burger stayed solidly in Harlequin romance territory. The results are sumptuous yet simple, and a tad too obvious to sustain their storyline. Still, this is a fine feature, one worthy of your time and viewing leisure. It’s commercially unviable competitor on the other hand remains the timeless work of motion picture art. (21 July, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Little Miss Sunshine


It was the small independent movie that almost pulled off the upset come Oscar time – almost. Few outside the truly obsessed thought this marginal movie about a dysfunctional family dragging their precocious child to a beauty pageant was Best Picture bait. Still, the hype machine went into overdrive, convincing many that this screwball satire had a chance. Oddly enough, the small screen both enhances and erases some of the films fault, making the praise all the more perplexing. (21 July, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


Same premise, same storyline, different locale. For this third go around in the FF franchise, our pissed off pre-adult heroes head to Japan, where drifting is all the rage. Apparently, this means kids destroy their brakes and alignment by purposefully fishtailing their back tires. Peachy! As an aside, beware of those earworm masters The Teriyaki Boys. Their hideous theme song plays throughout this derivative action pic. (21 July, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Madea’s Family Reunion


Tyler Perry tweaks another of his many urban stage plays, removing all the music but keeping the calm Christian message. As a result, he walks away with another demographically precise hit. Far less melodramatic than his Diary of a Mad Black Woman, this tale of an upcoming wedding, and the various trials and tribulations surrounding it, makes for another generic yet warm family comedy. He may have flaws as a filmmaker, but his drag creation remains potent. (21 July, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll


It started out as a normal idea for a documentary – follow around Chuck Berry and modern day fan Keith Richards as the two prepare for a 60th birthday tribute concert to the early rock guitar hero. Little did filmmaker Taylor Hackford know, what started out simple would grow exponentially as egos and agendas clashed over and over. In essence, Berry didn’t appreciate the pip squeak upstart from those know nothing newbies The Rolling Stones telling him, a walking talking living myth, what to do. For his part, the gnarled Glimmer Twin was disillusioned by his idol’s lax attitude toward rehearsal and performance. He only wanted to see his mentor shine, not settle for subpar effort. The end result was a fiery behind the scenes scandal merged with a tremendous onstage spectacle, a character study studded with old school riffs. Many feel this is the ultimate combination of man and material. Berry may have been an unbearable bore and a mentally unstable cheapskate, but he also forged many of the moves that turned simple cultural heritage into the music we know today. (23 July, Sundance Channel, 4:15PM EST)

Additional Choices
Naked


To describe the ‘plot’ of this Mike Leigh movie – an antisocial Manchester man escapes to London to avoid the consequences of his actions – is to remove most of its magic. Granted, it remains a film in which the central character (played brilliantly by David Thewlis) meanders around, philosophizing out loud. Yet what he has to say, and the secrets revealed, turn a regular road movie into one of the ‘90s most meaningful films. (22 July, IFC, 9PM EST)

Dangerous Game


After the dopey disaster known as Body of Evidence, this independent hokum helmed by Abel Ferrara was meant to be Madonna’s cinematic redemption. After all, she was paired alongside actor anchor Harvey Keitel, and both he and the maverick director had a recent critical smash with their Bad Lieutenant. But just like anything celluloid the Material Girl touched, this art imitates life lameness was another first class flop.  (23 July, IFC, 10:40PM EST)

Assisted Living


Similar to a Christopher Guest mockumentary, filmmaker Elliot Greenebaum created a fictional story about a nursing home janitor, and then decided to stage and shoot the movie in an actual assisted living facility. It gives this otherwise conventional slacker comedy a real air of authenticity and realism. Of course, the history inherent in the residents is far more compelling than anything Greenebaum and his actors can generate. (26 July, Sundance Channel, 8:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
A Family Thing


Co-written by a then struggling Billy Bob Thorton and featuring the intriguing onscreen pairing of James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall, this engrossing drama deals with, of all things, an usual sibling situation. When his mother dies, Duvall’s backwoods hick Earl learns that his real mother was a black woman, and that he has a half brother living in Chicago. Deciding to get his life in order, he heads to the Windy City and winds up on the doorstep of Aunt T. A refined woman of color, she helps the confused visitor understand his circumstances. She also aids in bridging the cultural barrier between the white Southerner and his distrustful urban kin. Both Jones and Duvall are magnificent here, selling a similar sentiment of hurt and suspicion. But the real revelation is Irma P. Hall as the blind substitute matriarch. She is the life at the center of his confused situation, and uses her undeniable wisdom to explain that blood remains the same color, no matter the skin it’s in. A forgotten classic from the mid ‘90s, this movie deserved to be rediscovered. (26 July, Indieplex, 12:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


Richard Boone works in a graveyard. Whenever he inserts a pin into the cemetery map, the owner of said plot dies. Imagine what happens then when all the pins fall out. This early zombie stomp has already been featured as part of this ongoing TCM series, but it’s worth a second look. The atmosphere of dread is delightful, and the finale fulfills its premise’s promise – approximately. (20 July, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Reeker


When you read the synopsis for this film – a group of travelers, stuck in a desert oasis, are preyed upon by an unknown evil force – you think you’re in for a standard fright flick. Then you learn that the main creature is a decaying fiend with a noxious odor that’s capable of killing. Oh, and there’s a twist ending, Sixth Sense style. Still, any movie about a monster with a murderous ming has SE&L’s full support. (24 July, Showtime 2, 8PM EST)

Ride in the Whirlwind


Prior to his days as a certified Hollywood superstar, Jack Nicholson was a struggling actor. He also made a living penning genre efforts for Roger Corman (horror) and Monte Hellman (thriller). Here, he creates an existential western about three lawless men on the run from a posse. Thanks to Hellman’s crackerjack directing and its overall counterculture approach, this is one horse opera that stands on its own. (25 July, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:45PM EST)

 


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