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Thursday, Nov 2, 2006


Going into this film, I was completely unsure of any of the specifics, which nowadays is pretty great considering all of the readily available spoilers everywhere you turn. I knew it was a sort of love story, but what I got was something beyond my furthest dreams. I was bowled over and totally impressed with the scope and heart of this film.


The film beings innocently enough, in fact, at first I was rather unimpressed. A doctor living in Prague, played with cool sexiness (and big ‘80s hair) by Daniel Day Lewis, is thoroughly enjoying his bachelor lifestyle and his detachment from women. He has a special place in his heart for Sabina, a very sexy artist who he cares for deeply, even as she uses the good doctor every bit as selfishly as he uses her. Soon, the doctor meets a sort of simple café waitress, who he becomes irreversibly intrigued with. Not long after they meet, the two are married and the doctor continues his affair with the sultry Sabina, even as the Communists being to take over Czechoslovakia.


The premise is an old one, yes, but it really works, thanks to the extraordinary, sensitive performances of the three central actors. They put such honesty and effort into their work that any cliché or old convention is thrown out the window. They all play their roles with sexiness, humor and frankness. I was particularly impressed with the very under-appreciated Lena Olin, who is so hot it’s ridiculous. As Sabina, she is able to surrender to the carnal side with intelligence, longing and a spicy sweetness. She was born to play this role. Juliette Binoche also showed me a little of why she is so adored. Usually I am not her biggest fan, but she finds a nice niche somewhere in between being sort of childish and dreamy and being emotionally devastated. It’s probably the hardest role in the film and she comes off really nicely. Her character’s arc is the most dramatic, and she navigates the depths with perfect timing, genuine heartbreak and daffy humor.


Both actresses are not shy about the very erotic aspects of the film, which is wonderful. The nudity in the story is not distracting or out of context. It fits the characters and is essential to the plot, therefore making it the opposite of gratuitous. There is a really emotionally intense scene in which the wife and the mistress photograph each other in the nude that ranks among each of the actresses best work for it’s candor, wit, and exploratory nature.


The story, based on Milan Kundera’s prize winning novel, takes so many unexpected twists that it’s best not to spoil it here. Just when I thought the film would be about marital distress and sexual unhappiness, the Russian army came rolling through Prague to shake everything up and the principles move to Geneva to live in exile. Director Philip Kaufman captures the epic greatness of the story with a masterful, vivid visual expression. His love for the material is apparent. The structure is wonderful, the way the story casually unfolds and the leisurely pace in which everything is resolved. It is definitely a European “art-film” at heart, but one that will surprise you at every romantic turn.


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Thursday, Nov 2, 2006


No one can accuse John Cassavetes of being unoriginal. In fact, he is uncompromisingly original to the point of infuriation. Many of his detractors would say that his films often rely too heavily on reality, leaving his actors to “be” instead of perform, but with Opening Night, the indie godfather is able to pull of his greatest feat: a supernatural morality “tale” set literally in a theatrical play.


The incomparable Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ stalwart paramour and professional partner in crime until his death) plays world-famous actress Myrtle Gordon, a train wreck of a woman involved an emotionally complicated stage play, who accidentally witnesses the death of a stalker/autograph hound. What follows is a complex, entertaining story about femininity, aging in the entertainment business, supernatural possession and performance.


Rowland’s Myrtle is a raging alcoholic who will do whatever it takes to find her way into the character she is playing. As she so eloquently puts it “I have no husband. I have no children. This is it for me.”. She communes with the spirit of the malevolent dead girl to while trying to find a perspective for her part. Rowland’s performance is stunning and towering. It’s an experimental, thoughtful take on an almost selfish woman who could have descended into caricature and parody in the hands of a less seasoned performer. The improvisational nature of many scenes is amazing and for me, this was a better performance than her critically acclaimed work in Cassavetes’ equally effective A Woman Under the Influence.

Veteran character actress Joan Blondell, who is probably most recognized for her small performance as “Vi the waitress” in Grease, but made over 150 films in her near-fifty year career, plays a distinguished sixty-five year old Broadway playwright. It is so interesting to watch an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age giving their comments on aging in the business. Blondell essays a clever, meaningful performance that should be remembered more fondly. Legend has it that she had numerous on-set meltdowns because she was used to working in the old studio system, where serious method acting was often discouraged. Cassavetes publicly commented that he had to trick the performance out of her because she just didn’t understand his ways of working.


The men are really just second bananas here, but when they are director/actor Cassavetes himself and legendary Ben Gazzara that’s no small order. Gazzara, as the play’s enigmatic director is, as usual, magnificent, packing a lifetime’s worth of detail into just a few lines of dialogue. Both gents acquiesce to their female counterparts with a startling compassion and chivalry that is absent from present-day filmmaking.


The scenes of the actors performing an ad-libbed play were reportedly filmed in front of a live audience, which adds so much depth to the proceedings. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how actors work in theater and the process of putting on a show. It is certainly challenging, but more than rewarding! I think this is Cassavetes’ true masterpiece. The innovation of his storytelling and the clear regard for the performances is just wonderful to watch.


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Thursday, Nov 2, 2006

Jon Chait’s recent article in The New Republic about income inequality is definitely worth reading (or if you prefer, read Ezra Klein’s summary here). When using certain customary metrics—stock prices, overall productivity and growth—the economy seems to be doing well, but when polled, Americans don’t believe it. In the electoral season, this leads to lots of Republican pouting about how their ignorant constituents can’t recognize what a great job Bush has done with things. But the problem is that these aren’t relevant metrics of how the economy is doing for ordinary people. As Dean Baker points out, nominal record highs for the Dow isn’t necessary good news for everyone: “The stock market is supposed to represent the discounted value of future profits. If profits are expected to be higher because there is widespread optimism about more rapid growth, then this is genuinely good news, but if expected profits rise simply because investors anticipate further redistribution from wages to profits, then the vast majority of the public has little to celebrate.” Such redistribution—or rather an increasingly uneven and unprecedented spilt of the fruits of growth between labor and capital—is exactly what seems to have happened, as this study by Robert Gordon and Ian Dew Becker shows (and Chait cites). The result, as Chait explains, is this: “The fortunes of the very rich and the fortunes of everybody else have been diverging sharply. Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled.” The very rich are getting much richer than everyone else, who are struggling to tread water, wage wise. Perhaps this will at last bring home class warfare to even the privileged: Writing in Fortune Matt Miller suggests that the merely rich are becoming incensed at the ultrarich rendering their positional goods relatively worthless. “There’s only so much of this a smart, vocal elite can take before the seams burst - and a bilious reaction against unmerited privilege starts oozing from every pore. Especially when it’s clear to lower uppers that many ultras are reaping the rewards of rigged systems: CEOs who preside over tumbling stock prices, hedge fund managers who barely beat the market.” And it’s afflicting white-collar workers and the management class as well. Mark Thoma, commenting on an essay by Robert Samuelson in Newsweek, notes that technology has displaced the management strata and eliminated high-paying jobs that once spread more of the gains of growth around:


The question is where these displaced workers (or those who would have replaced them in future years) end up after the transition. Will these workers be able to transform their skills and move up to higher paying occupations or at least maintain their current income, or will the displaced current and future workers mostly move down to lower skill, lower paying jobs?
Given the outcome so far, we need to devote more attention to finding policies that can help workers receive a larger share of the productivity gains as we move to an increasingly information-based, geographically fractured, low-skill abundant, highly specialized, and highly competitive global economy. I’m not sure what fancy name to give “the next capitalism” or if it really needs one, but if growing inequality continues to be one of its main features, calling it “the new gilded age” as many do already might just stick.


This job destruction also explains in part why the “skills-biased technological change” argument for increased inequality (educated people benefit more from computers) that Chait mentions (and disparages) doesn’t necessarily hold. Having a college degree no longer guarantees you a fair share of the growth pie.


So what should we do about it? Klein suggests we support unions as a Galbraithian counterveiling power to capital’s leverage. Tyler Cowen thinks stronger unions would impede the creative destruction necessary to keep an economy competitive and innovative.


I don’t have much value to add here; I just wanted to provide a quick primer on the issue on the off chance that anyone reading is interested. I tend to agree with Klein about counterveiling power but am not entirely sure union gains consistently trickle down to the rank and file. I’m also convinced by Baker’s book The Conservative Nanny State that capital protects its interests by coopting the apparatus of the state, and wresting political power away could feasibly curb the unjustified upward redistribution. What would justify upward redistribution is also a good question.


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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006
by Ian Murphy


We should start out by saying that The King is Alive is a Dogme 95 film. That means it was made according to the rules of the Scandinavian avant-garde filmmaking movement whose vow of cinematic chastity calls for natural lighting, hand-held camerawork, no optical work or filters, no built sets and no artificial sound in the making of a movie. The lion’s share of media attention was focused on the first two Dogme efforts, Thomas Vinterberg’s scathingly misanthropic black comedy Festen and Lars Von Trier’s woefully misguided The Idiots. Danish director Kristian Levring received less notice for his single Dogme contribution. That’s a shame, because The King is Alive may well represent the most successful and overlooked Dogme outing to date.

The set-up is, by necessity, a spartan one. Eleven disparate passengers on a safari tour of North Africa are waylaid in the Namibian desert when their bus breaks down. Terrified and isolated, they are left to fend for themselves in an abandoned mining outpost that used to be a German manufacturing village in World War II. While awaiting an unlikely rescue, the group survive on rusting canned carrots and collected morning dew, and find shelter in dilapidated shacks and storage sheds that are slowly filling up with sand.

The desperate band of people seems predisposed to clash. Chris Walker and Lia Williams are a bickering young English husband and wife. Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer are a bitterly unhappy American couple straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and thus already prone to inflicting vicious psychosexual wounds on each other. Miles Anderson is a survivalist journeyman who’s not as tough as he thinks. The late Brion James plays an alcoholic Texan businessman who doesn’t last long before his delirium tremens sets in. Romane Bohringer is a refined but jealously vindictive French intellectual who seizes the opportunity to tap into her dormant malicious streak. David Calder is a smug sixty-something letch with beady eyes for Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bored, brash, frivolous free spirit who gets cruelly victimised and sexually manipulated, but may be less naïve than she first appears.


David Bradley is the kindly, morally superior former actor and theatre manager who comes up with the idea of staging an amateur production of Shakespeare’s King Lear (which he transcribes from memory) to amuse themselves while awaiting rescue. The cast is rounded out by two little-known African actors: Vusi Kunene as the roundly maligned bus driver, and Peter Kubheka as an ancient, eccentric native Swahili hermit who has learned to master this hostile landscape and is provided with all the mental and physical sustenance he needs from the desert.

The central idea is hardly a new one, firmly in the tradition of claustro/agoraphobic Darwinian psychodramas that stretch from Hitchcock’s stagy 1944 film Lifeboat and Lord of the Flies onto 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix, John Sayles’ terrific Limbo, Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island with just a painted volleyball for company in Cast Away, and, of course, The Blair Witch Project. The impact is also blunted somewhat by the recent spate of hugely popular survival-of-the-fittest reality gameshows like Survivor, Big Brother and Treasure Island. It’s no surprise, then, that the tourists rapidly descend into primitive behaviour, or that the film takes a pointedly cynical look at the ugly side of human nature. So how come The King is Alive still manages to chill to the core? Maybe it’s because this group of people aren’t clever, they aren’t likable, and above all they aren’t particularly resourceful. It helps make the film a bleak, harrowing and searingly visceral experience. The drama feels as primal and organic as possible. In its own way, it’s more unsettling than countless “proper” horror films, and possessed of an apocalyptic power that’s hard to shake off afterwards.

Shot on three hand-held digital video cameras and later converted to 35mm film stock, this movie is a feast for the eyes, saturated in dazzling, vivid colours. The luminous desert photography evokes such great films as Lawrence of Arabia, Walkabout and The English Patient. Many of the haunting, painterly images will burn themselves into your memory: the ghostly lighting provided by glowing firesides and kerosene lanterns; the icy, blue-tinted night scenes and aerial footage shot from an airplane; the blistering, toxic white sun that occasionally bleaches out all else in the frame; and most of all the stark, eerie natural beauty of the untamed Sahara desert – the rolling golden sand dunes have both a majestic grace and a palpably malevolent power. In some shots, the hapless tourists dwarfed by its vastness, it looks ready to eat them alive. Rotting to death in the lonely desert has never looked so ravishing.


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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006


It’s no secret: I am probably the world’s biggest fan of Joanne Woodward. Though she sadly doesn’t really make films anymore (with the notable exception of her Emmy-nominated turn last year in HBO’s Empire Falls, co-starring husband Paul Newman), her work between the late 1950s and early 1990s showcases an ever-evolving talent: a woman as fearless, rebellious and experimental as they come. Awkward in the old Hollywood studio system, Woodward really began to blossom as a performer as she aged, the medium becoming more relaxed right along with her.


Woodward has been directed by her spouse on five separate occasions. Three of these outings featured her delivering some of the most assured, interesting, and memorable work of her career: 1968’s Rachel, Rachel saw her tackle an emotionally tricky role as a repressed school marm living in a small town, wishing she had another, more exciting, life, and as legendary Tennessee Williams’ matriarch Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1987), the actress put a fragile stamp on a traditionally steely character. A professional triumph came with the adaptation of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer prize-winning play The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1972, where Woodward tackled a doozy of a role that would win the actress her first and only Best Actress accolades at the Cannes Film Festival: a funny bad mother.


Playing Beatrice, a slatternly, crude protector of two teenage daughters who could use a little help with cleaning and parenting, Woodward has some amazingly selfish moments: embarrassing her children with vulgar, abrasive behavior whenever possible (like screaming “Matilda, go fetch your sister before she gets pregnant” at her young daughter while her horrified oldest is chatting up a boy). She apparently doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions on her kid’s awkward adolescent minds, and her boisterous, inappropriate actions runs wild. She has moments of quiet grace while reminiscing of lost loves mere seconds away from erupting into hysterical fits of babbling about killing rabbits. Woodward, in full-on “bravura performance” mode, goes to places she hadn’t yet experimented with at this point in her career: accent, posture, costumes and all of the usual physical trappings play a big part in her transformation. The performance evoked, for me, the great female lead films of the 1950s: pure character studies that didn’t need any leading men. Beatrice is an innately theatrical and outlandish character that Woodward makes into an emotional, funny and believable woman who just happens to obsessively seek her family’s fortune through the classified ads.


While Woodward was directed by her husband in Gamma Rays, she wasn’t the only Ms. Newman on the set: co-star Nell Potts (real name: Eleanor Newman, the couple’s daughter) proves that talent is genetic. Potts is a marvel as the quiet, sensitive Matilda; her chemistry with her real-life mother is tremendous during some of the film’s complicated emotionally-charged scenes (in particular when Beatrice rudely snaps “Jesus, don’t you hate the world, Matilda?” Potts’ manages a shell-shocked, whispered response that is heart-breaking). It is clear she created an actual character. This is the furthest thing from a Newman family documentary, though each member of this esteemed clan gets to really strut their stuff.


These instances where Woodward is guided by the watchful blue eyes of Newman represent some of the most fruitful filmed artistic experiments that a married couple has produced. While she wasn’t directed by him in one of her most esteemed performances, Merchant-Ivory’s elegant Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Woodward still had Newman to rely on as her co-star, much like she did back in 1958 when the newlyweds made the dangerously sexy The Long, Hot Summer. These inspired pairings almost make you forget she made other great films without her husband.


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