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Friday, Jun 22, 2007


When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.


The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.


Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.


Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 


In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.


Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.



But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.


There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.


Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.


*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt


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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

Sick of the bland, unimaginative playlists at most stations?  Wish that you could have more of a choice on the radio?  Then you need to support low power radio so that it will flourish throughout the land.  A bill is coming up in Congress now and you can do your part to support this cause.  See the Take Action site for more details.


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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

When I was a teenager, one of the main reasons I liked to write short stories was that I liked to invent names for the characters. I remember being fascinated by this passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp when the main character, a writer, spends afternoons reading the phone book looking for rich, evocative names. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want my adult life to be like—I didn’t realize that the passage was about anomie and the sterility of writer’s block.


Back then, I had a John Hughesian taste for names like Sloane and Chase and Ferris and Blaine; these seemed the names of privileged 1980s teendom. To my mind, if you knew people with names like that, you were running with a pretty fast set and what you were up to was almost inherently glamorous. Only later did those names seem like so much pretentious twaddle, as juvenile as the films themselves. (They seem to foreshadow the spate of suburbanized names like Travis, Cody, Kyle, Reed, etc., names that for me conjure images of bratty entitlement and Dennis-the-Menace levels of yell-talking.) But is their awfulness a matter of fashion trends changing, or is there something about the combination of syllables and sounds that make names like Claire Standish seem so implausible and absurd, so obviously made up by someone who is not a parent but a writer?


What started me thinking about this was this article from today’s WSJ about the nascent baby-naming industry. Apparently people have allowed themselves to be convinced that naming is so complicated, with so many intricate prosodical and astrological, and numerological considerations to master, that a special class of experts should be consulted to navigate them through the process.


Why anyone would pay someone to come up with appropriate names for their baby is beyond me, honestly, and the article didn’t really convince me that these people were anything other than idiotic. But the article did raise an interesting point about naming consciousness ands the rise of branding’s importance in our culture.


Growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”


I guess that explains why Sweden had forbid parents from naming their children Ikea. It would be a blatant theft of brand equity.


Names in the past signified kinship ties in social groups that were generally small enough for that data to mean something. The explosion of cities necessitates new rationales, perhaps, for naming, and the procedures of mass marketing supply one. Not to get all Burkean here, but the fact that our culture’s saturation with brands would inspire parents to turn away from tradition, reject continuity with a lost era of community and familial obligation, and embrace a synthetic individualist credo in naming seems a pretty compelling and disturbing point, proof that marketing indeed reshapes not merely our opinions toward a specific product but toward the way we comprehend the principles along which we reproduce society generally. Baby-making for the bourgeois management class begins to resemble a project-management task, with the baby being conceived and named along the same lines a company might launch a new product, only after carefully collecting the data to assure that a niche exists for it and that its name tests well with the appropriate demographic.


Marketing imperatives have so penetrated ideologically that they seem like commonsense considerations in something as time-honored and intimate as naming one’s offspring. Naming one’s baby to give it iconic selling power almost seems sensible. Hence the pathetic quandary of people like the following, and their desperate turn to a kind of consultancy that has never before in the history of human society had reason to exist:


Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn’t want their son to be “one of five Ashtons in the class,” says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a “cool” name that would help his son stand out. “An unusual name gets people’s attention when you’re searching for a job or you’re one in a field of many,” he says.


How sad is it that these parents don’t think their child will be cool inherently, that they feel it needs a snappy branding to become worthy and capable of thriving in the world? And don’t these clowns who sell lists of names feel ashamed for taking advantage of people in a moment of heightened insecurity? Actually, ignore that question. Of course they don’t. Our economy has built entire sectors on that business model.


I can’t really understand the trend toward wacky, “unique” names—it’s as if these parents believe the child’s actions won’t suffice to make them unique; that instead they need to be named Trafalgar or Wooster. Weird names seem like a curse to a child, who will forever stand out for a quality that he had nothing to do with. His parents’ self-consciousness will hang like an albatross around his neck, making sure he is always seems like he is trying to hard (like Hughes when he conjured up Sloane Peterson), always is at one remove from himself, evaluating what superficial impression he is making. Having a jazzy name means like you are selling yourself before you even have a self to be aware of. It means going through life always dogged by unearned attention. So I’m comforted by this:


Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “The Baby Name Report Card,” has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. “Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” he says.



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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

At 27, six-year reporting veteran Cindy Carcamo of the Orange County Register is already a graduate of “old school” journalism. She has interned and worked her way around a number of daily newspapers, and for most of the last three years, has manned the cops beat at the Register, a newspaper of record with close to a million readers in the suburban powerhouse of Orange County, California.


She recently got a new beat, the city of Huntington Beach, which may be best known to the world as a surfing hotspot. (The city houses a surfing museum.) But her change in assignment is only one of many transitions that Carcamo is negotiating at her newspaper.


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Thursday, Jun 21, 2007


Will this month ever end? It seems like we’ve been talking about June for at least the last four weeks, if not longer – and believe it or not, there’s another seven days left. Is the calendar purposefully creeping along or what? Let’s face it; summer is a time of entertainment overkill. The young ones are out of school and loaded down with disposable income, their parents are desperate to get them out of the house and into the marketplace, and Hollywood is working overtime to give them both as many monetary excuses as possible. The pay cable channels are no better. While Cinemax continues with its pledge of first run retreads from last blockbuster season, the rest are regurgitating fare that few should focus on. Seems they’ve given up on the audience as well, assured they will be parked in the local Cineplex waiting for Pixar or John McClane to save the cinematic day. By the looks of 23 June, they’ll be lingering there a long, long time:


Premiere Pick
The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now. (23 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (23 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Night Listener


Robin Williams needs to stop making movies pronto. His hirsute hack stench is ruining what would otherwise be fairly intriguing titles. Take this one for example, the story of a radio talk show host haunted by a phone call from a desperate young boy. Before he knows it, the child has disappeared – though it’s possible he never really existed in the first place. Promising premise, right? Williams whizs it right down his hairy leg. (23 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Last Holiday


The transformation of Queen Latifah from rap icon to marginal movie star has nothing to do with her talent (and she has some) and everything to do with Hollywood’s race based mea culpa-ing. If you need further proof of such a safe strategy, look at this urbanized disease of the week waste. How the talented Wayne Wang (Smoke, Eat a Bowl of Tea) came to be associated with this drivel is a mystery for movie scholars. (23 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Dark Water


Perhaps you’re familiar with the remake – a decent enough effort starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. But it’s the original Japanese effort, helmed by the wonderful Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Kaidan) that’s well worth looking up. One of the better J-Horror exports, the first film is far darker and more depressing than the equally evocative Hollywood revamp, but there’s just something about the long haired creepy ghost girl that the Asians have down pat. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where lead Hitomi Kuroki must react to the never ending frustrations of the Japanese legal system. She is so effective here that when she starts stumbling over into the supernatural, we believe her baffled confusion. Sure, the ending still stinks, the kind of ‘could have seen it coming’ cop out that almost ruins everything that came before, but thanks to his subtle style and way with visuals, Nakata singlehandedly saves the story. That’s the sign of a true cinematic artist. (27 June, Sundance Channel, 5:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bend It Like Beckham


He’s supposed to be coming to the US to reinvigorate the flatlining sport of professional soccer, but if he was smart, David Beckham would remain a staunchly European icon. Then, he could inspire more marvelous movies like this clash of cultures comedy from Gurinder Chadha. While it does deal with subjects more closely associated with the West Indian way of doing things, the message of self esteem is universal – just like the appeal of football around the world. (23 June, IFC, 7PM EST)

11:14


Some have called it a riotous Rashaman. A few have labeled it a comic Crash. But the five stories served up by writer/director Greg Marcks are meant to act as a commentary on small town life, and how one event (an automobile accident at the title time) can bring divergent lives together. While critics claim that Marcks is more a Tarantino wannabe than an individual talent, others have really gotten behind the filmmaker’s dark and devious way with a knotty narrative. (23 June, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Intacto


Many fans feel that the multifaceted story of separate lives in sync and destiny deconstructing us begins and ends with 21 Grams/Babel auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu. But 28 Weeks Later helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo would definitely have something to say about that. This 2001 effort finds the filmmaker intertwining several threads to tell of tale of how the ‘gift’ of luck creates an underground subculture of divergent personalities. (26 June, IFC, 12:50AM EST)


Outsider Option
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!


Ah, the joys of sweet sour mash. Leave it to those solid sons of the soil, otherwise known as hillbillies, to bring moonshine and the still to the cultural forefront. In actually, no one really gives a rat’s patoot about how a redneck lubes his lifestyle, but for some reason, the makers of exploitation felt the rube was ripe for a little erotic exploration. Sure, ever since Lil’ Abner proved that Daisy Mae’s feminine wiles could make men weak, the buxom beauty from the backwoods was potent fantasy fodder. But most of these movies were cut from the same clunky cloth – way too much corn and not enough pone. At least Herschell Gordon Lewis was behind this mess. He could make a boring bootlegger comedy into something quite surreal – and he does so with this brazen bit of rot gut. SE&L suggests you sample at your own risk – too much bumpkin buffoonery could be hazardous to your health. (25 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Honeymoon Killers


In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use death as a means of cementing their relationship. He’s an oily lothario. She’s an obese nurse who’s never known real passion. Together, they forge a bond that begins to unravel into madness and murder. Avoiding almost all the standard thriller clichés, this is a crazed character study first, a wonderful work of cinematic art second. (22 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Man With the Screaming Brain


Everyone’s favorite b-movie badass, Bruce Campbell, plays a wealthy industrialist who has his brain transplanted with that of a Russian cab driver. Of course, all kinds of horror/humor hijinx ensue. While not the classic it could have been, the presence of everyone’s favorite Evil Dead symbol makes this a lot more fun than it should be. Too bad the premise can’t match the title’s ability to inspire waves of schlock sensationalism. (23 June, Sci-Fi Channel, 9AM EST)

Little Voice


It’s movies like this one, the story of a lonely girl with a great big singing voice, that makes fans question the talents of the actors involved – in a good way. While Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine are always magnificent, who knew that Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous) had such sensational pipes. Her ability to mimic famous divas is only part of what makes this movie so fascinating. (28 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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