Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn’t occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.


Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The “rescued” statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso’s Guernica, it’s images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It’s the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.


Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.


The scenes where immigrants – or ‘fugees’, for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it’s hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the ‘80s and the Japanese internment of the ‘40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo’s being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone’s problems. “Tell them”, he says, “tell the world.” Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo’s plan, but it’s clear from their conviction that Kee’s existence would only escalate the problem.


Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Hush” and “Ruby Tuesday”, obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo’s hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to “rock out”, he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo’s ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today’s best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don’t need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.


The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men‘s crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.


Yet there’s another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on “Baby Diego” and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it’s interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.


In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006’s best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can’t be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


I’ll admit I don’t understand all the fuss about Apple’s forthcoming iPhone, which just seems like an overpriced BlackBerry to me. (Like I know—I’ve never had a cell phone or any gadget that gets emails or text messages. I received a Palm Pilot for Christmas one year in the 1990s and I never took it out of the box—it seemed inherently inferior to my preferred PDA, a spiral notebook. So you can discount my opinion accordingly.) The iPod was successful mainly because it created its own market for mp3 players. But people already have phones and they probably aren’t going to adopt Cingular and abandon their current service (usually contracted for years and with penalties for breaking it off) just for whatever minimal cachet comes from being an iPerson. (And I know the more I see that douche-bag hipster in Apple’s commercials, the less I personally want to be one—an iPerson that is; I’m probably a douche bag already.) And those who for whatever reason need to be reading email while walking down the street, driving their car or sitting in a restaurant already can, and they are already accustomed to twiddling their thumbs on the little keypads—they probably won’t want to switch to the touch screen interface Apple’s peddling here. Apparently the hope is that some suckers will want iPhone because the DRM-crippled iTunes collection they’ve already amassed will play on it. And then perhpas some of these people will become so enamored of the OS X style interface, they’ll start buying Mac PCs. However, my guess is only Apple cultists buy this particular gadget in the first place.



All that being said, I don’t know why I feel invested in this gadget’s success at all. I have the feeling that the iPod, like cultural phenomena like Nirvana and Pulp Fiction, served to mainstream a certain kind of hipsterdom that seems like a parody of ideals I once held, and I guess I’m still bitter about that. Apple’s whole business model seems predicated on coolness, the same way Tiffany’s is based on exculsivity and snobbery. I’m in favor of less snobbery; I hope the next revolutionary gadget will expose all gadgets to be interchangeable commodities, with nothing going for them but their functionality. I can dream, can’t I?


(Thanks to englishrussia.com for the image.)


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007

Sometimes your money really isn’t good enough. Here’s something to remember the next time you hear an argument that extols how purchasing power is emboldening democracy: Today’s WSJ has an article about Tiffany’s strategy to alienate existing customers—trend jumpers, teenagers, aspirational lower-class folk; the wrong sort of customers, apparently—and the huge profits they brought the company and shareholders in order to make the brand as a whole seem more exclusive. The company believes its image is ultimately more valuable in the long run than whatever profits it surrenders by pricing its once popular line of silver jewelry out of the reach of the little people: ” ‘The large number of silver customers did represent a fundamental threat—not just to the business but to the core franchise of our brand,’ says Tiffany CEO Michael Kowalski.”  The company was frustrated that its initial price raises couldn’t scare away enough consumers, so it boosted prices again and again until demand was finally quelled.


Tiffany’s is declaring essentially that it’s more important to make slim profits by selling to rich people than to make big profits selling to everyone. “Like a growing number of publicly traded luxury-goods makers, Tiffany is attempting to walk a razor-thin line: broadening offerings to the upper-middle-classes while pitching privilege to the truly rich. The dilemma is particularly common these days, as investors clamor for sales growth on one side and fickle luxury buyers demand exclusivity on the other.” This is pitched as a reasonable long-term strategy, but what Tiffany’s is trying to preserve is not profitability but a class structure that it has postioned itself to police. In our democracy, the state has forsworn much of its traditional role of conserving privilege to the people who already have it. This opens up the field to capitalists. In the absence of a repressive state enforcing castes, comapnies like Tiffany’s spring up like rent-a-cops to do the necessary policing of class boundaries, controlling supplies of positional goods and keeping the lid on aristocratic social capital. Jealously guarding its supply of exclusivity—which is valuable less in monetary terms than in its priceless, near timeless, significance to class antagonisms that predate the cash economy—Tiffany’s will do what it can to make sure that its fine, upstanding name is not used to give the hoi polloi any dignity. Apparently, preserving that class gulf is more valuable than any cash profits could ever be.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007

I saw a repeat of the first episode last night of MTV’s new reality show I’m From Rolling Stone and all I could think was “I want that 1/2 hour of my life back” and “I missed a re-run of Sanford and Son for this?”  The premise is that six young writer wanna-be’s will go to bootcamp at the magazine, doing assignments, interviews and such.  As with most reality shows, the reality ain’t all real.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007


There is a fine line between insanity and eccentricity. There is also an even slimmer margin between desperation and dementia. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between the various mental fallacies. Some people use idiosyncrasy as a way of coping. Others allow their craziness to create endearing individualistic personas. After you factor in such adjunct issues as wealth, health, status, and situation, it becomes clear that even the nuttiest of individuals can avoid the stigma of psychosis by merely staying locked in their own insular place. It’s what protected the Beales for almost 50 years.


As relatives of the rich and famous, themselves both minor celebrities in their own singular right, the mother/daughter combo lived a reclusive, bubble-like existence in a tumbledown manor in the swankiest part of the Hamptons. With the standard domestic amenities always in question (they lived, for a time, without running water) and an evershifting menagerie of animals invading their space (cats, mice, raccoons, etc.), these one-time society stalwarts are now viewed as lamentable lunatics, adrift in an unhealthy home and an even more damaging familial dynamic.


Strangely enough, their quirky escapades would have been reserved for the back pages of the New York dailies had filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles not stumbled upon their story while researching the life of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. One of the family’s aunts, a defiant older woman named Edith Bouvier Beale, had recently had her home raided by health and human services officials who were worried that the septuagenarian, along with her nearly 60-year-old daughter Edie, were living in horribly unsanitary conditions. Required to clean up their Hamptons home, the duo claimed that local politics and a desire for their property was the cause of the personal persecution. But what the Maysles discovered once they contacted the Beales was startling to say the least.


Holed up in a couple of rooms in their massive manor, cooking on hot plates and eating not much more than canned soup, ice cream, and simple salads, the pair were isolated, alone, and rebellious. Constantly bickering back and forth, sending each other mixed messages about their devotion and their disgust for one another, the Beales barely connected with the humanity outside their door. While they were aware of the events transpiring around the globe, they were too involved in their complicated companionship to care. The original owner of the estate called it Grey Gardens, a quasi-criticism on the locale’s inability to sustain vibrant life. Apparently, the name applies to the interior as well as the exterior landscape. It makes a fitting moniker for the brothers’ amazing movie.


When we first see the home, it looks haunted. Even up close, the manor is draped in a heavy layer of age and decay. Windows appear broken out, shutters hang haphazardly from cracking sills, slats missing or misaligned. On all sides, stately homes gleam in the Hamptons sun, their rich inhabitants happy to polish their palaces to within an inch of their importance. It’s opulence as reflected by real estate, status centered in a concept of curb appeal—but not for the Beales. These old-money matrons could care less about the upkeep on their estate. “Big” Edith is 75, and more than settled in her secluded life, thank you very much. Her spinster daughter, “Little” Edie, views the last few decades as mother’s maligned helper as a premature prison sentence. Housekeeping is the last thing on their mind.


As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for government interference—and some latent familial charity—the pair would be practically homeless. But lineage won’t allow these ladies to live in the lap of self-determined near-destitution. The surrounding kin—the famous Kennedy and Bouvier clans—have cash, and they make sure the Beales are well-endowed. But neither one really cares about the money. For them, life has become a comical battle of wills, a mother vs. daughter dynamic that pits hopes against help, dreams against distraction. To call the Ediths hermetical would seem overly simplistic. They live in one great big wide world—it just happens to be of their own unusual creation.


Grey Gardens reflects the status of the Beales as women, socialities and—in some ways—human beings. They are femme fatales whom life has let die, upper-crust crones who sit around half-dressed in a mansion festooned with peeling paint, rotting wood, and the feces of various animals. Their relationship is like a contest, a “who will blink first” face-off in which old wounds, new foibles, and lamented losses pile up as potential ammunition. For Big Edie, old age has robbed her of the two things she built her entire personality on—her looks and her career as a singer. While still in good voice, her body has completely broken down. She can barely walk, her eyes and legs failing simultaneously. Still she fancies herself a captivating catch and flirts shamelessly with Jerry, a young handyman.


Little Edie, on the other hand, has bigger personal fish to fry. Feeling hemmed in by her mother’s constant demands and constantly threatening to move back to the big city, she understands implicitly that most of her dreams are unobtainable. Having given up any concept of a career decades before, and taken care of financially by a complex series of trusts and trade-offs, the aging beauty believes she’s still fated for fame. Dressed in bizarre designs of her own making, shawls and scarves covering her seemingly bald head, Little Edie is a fatalistic fashion plate, a woman desperate to escape but unable to find the proper route out.


Together, in front of the Maysles’ constant camera, these reckless and refined relatives square off, trading praise and poison back and forth like volleys in a country club tennis match. Little Edie will cheer her mother’s rendition of “Tea for Two,” then mimic and mock her recordings in the next catty breath. Big Edie will criticize her child’s increasing weight while wondering aloud why her stunning singing voice never eclipsed her own. They will share simple memories and melt down over comments concerning the late, lost Mr. Beale. Men are a mitigated factor in Grey Gardens, Big Edie having shunned her spouse early on in their marriage, her two sons nowhere to be seen in and around the home (we do glimpse them, as babies, in some old photos). Even Jerry, the slightly slow hippie who seems to have moved in with the ladies, is seen as a cog to be used between the fighting females.


Big Edie sees his attention as verification of her stunning sexuality. Little Edie views him as an interloper capable of stealing her antiques, precious books—and her place in Mother’s heart. Indeed, the minor interaction we witness between the Beales and the rest of the world is presented as uneasy and unreal. A birthday party for Big Edie finds the guests sitting on newspapers (the chairs are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in years) and drinking vintage wine out of Dixie Cups (the glassware having mysteriously disappeared long ago). Even the Maysles, who have become like ancillary family, face considerable limits, since they’re not allowed by Little Edie to venture into other areas of the massive, 24-room home.


From a pragmatic standpoint, it all seems so nutty. Though we slowly become aware that the implied wealth that comes with the Beale/Bouvier name is not as comforting as we assume (these women appear to be living right on the edge of abject poverty), their situation is obviously the result of a surreal self-fulfilling prophecy. By returning home without establishing her own identity, Little Edie was destined to fall under Big Edie’s demonstrative domineering. All throughout Grey Gardens, the Maysles catch her scampering about and giggling like an arrested adolescent and, in essence, that is exactly what Edie is. Isolation has stunted her social skills to the point where, while refined and well turned-out, the younger Beale sounds like a lost and troubled teen.


As she slinks around in scandalous, revealing clothes (so stylish that she actually inspired several famous fashion designers to copy her clever combinations) and bats her eyes at the camera, we see an aged youngster trapped in a wrinkling body. Big Edie is also ensnared by the past, but her feelings are very focused. She hates the fact that her marriage and child-rearing responsibilities misdirected her profession, and has apparently tried several times to jump-start her career (mostly by inviting men to live in Grey Gardens with her). For the meditative matron, fame flew away the minute she turned her back on what she really wanted. Now, with daughter Edie flaunting failure in her face on a rather consistent basis, Big Edie is bitter, a battleaxe ready to wield her own personal blade at anyone within range.


That Grey Gardens gives us all this via a non-intrusive, fly-on-the-wall perspective, says a great deal about the Beales’ desire for attention. Though they claim to hate the interference of outsiders, they are more than happy to make room for the Maysles and the genial Jerry. In fact, as natural performers, the pair is desperate for almost any audience. There is lots of singing and carrying on in this film, almost as if the filmmakers fancied they were making a musical. During uncomfortable quarrels or awkward personal insights, one of the Beales will break out into song, stifling the moment with a melodious mist. Frequently, when confronted in lies or contradictions, Little Edie will just caterwaul away, keening in a juvenile, off-key manner that makes her mother furious. It could all be part of a battle plan made up of disappointment and deflection, but one senses something consistent here.


Like a perplexing puzzle made up of heartaches and histrionics, Little Edie annoys her parent to prove the old gal’s feelings—she can’t live without the child. Similarly, Big Edie criticizes her only daughter as a way of keeping her practical and present. This is necessary since, throughout Grey Gardens, we see how easily disconnected the wayward woman can become. Perhaps the best example of an inaction film ever fashioned, neither resident of this rotting façade wants to leave. They may clamor for greener pastures or broader personal horizons, but there is something queerly comforting about their seemingly haunted home. Within its walls, a kind of truce has been forged, a peace between ladies who would rather suffer than live alone. It’s what makes Grey Gardens such a stunning documentary. It’s also what has made the Beales’ legacy live on long after they finally found their eternal peace.


Interesting enough, Grey Gardens is a fairly balanced presentation. Both Edies get their moments, and when one occupies the screen solely, the other is not far behind—either physically or spiritually. For the 2006 sequel, Albert Maysles, the remaining living member of the filmmaking brotherhood, decided to unearth as much footage as he could from the hours the pair spent in the disintegrating home. Oddly enough, it seems that Little Edie got the shortest end of the original’s editing stick. Much of the new material in The Beales of Grey Gardens centers on her, her tendency toward awkward musical moments, and those oddball sequences where she reads from a well-worn horoscope paperback and tries to make sense of her life. In an introduction to the film, Albert hints that the reason most of these scenes were excised was because they show how intertwined the brothers were in the Beales’ life.


Edie obviously fancied David, and spent untold screen time commenting on their future together. Similarly, the filmmakers didn’t like to prompt their participants, and all through the update, we hear them asking questions in hopes of spurring some interesting exchanges. This is more of a supplement than a true sequel (Grey Gardens maintains a sort of implied narrative while The Beales is more like a collection of outtakes), but anyone who believes that more of the Edies is an entertainment windfall will thoroughly enjoy this companion piece. While it lacks some of the original’s psychological insight, the Edies remain fascinating, factual entities.


It seems odd that, for two people fiction could not possibly create, mediums other than the documentary have embraced and are interpreting the baffling Beales story. An off-Broadway musical (which recently shifted to the Great White Way itself) and a full-length feature film (with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange attached) are set to keep the ladies’ story alive for future fans to discover. Yet no matter how good (or bad) these versions eventually are, nothing can compare to that first fleeting moment when we see the vine-covered Hamptons home, wood cracking as uncontrolled vegetation hides it from view. Suddenly, from out of the darkened back doorway, a decidedly older lady, her head wrapped in a telling turban, announces the situation for the day. “Mother’s complaining about something,” she winks, before flitting off like a preoccupied pixie lost in her daily designs.


As an illustration to what makes Grey Gardens so special, such a sequence seems less than auspicious. But once we learn that this is just the icing on an unusually dense and deliciously cloistered cake, the anticipation for another slice becomes unbearable. It is easy to see why, as symbols or kitschy cult icons, Big and Little Edie Beale have endured. Something about them is so timeless, so vibrant and vulnerable, that they have no choice but to enter the realm of myth. Even though it has long been sold and re-modeled to modern specification, Grey Gardens will always be a dark, desolate place. Luckily, the ladies who once lived there lit it up quite well.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.