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by Bill Gibron

15 Dec 2008

Bettie Page had a face that was meant to be photographed. Forget the body - not that you could, actually - and the various racy poses and sexual situations she found herself in during her career as the ultimate post-war pin-up. Beyond the carnality and peek-a-boo allure, the jet black bangs and seductive, devilish smile, Bettie was the new frontier, the soon to be swinging suburban roulette of ‘anything goes’ interpersonal exploration. From 1950 to 1959, she was the queen of the camera club, the face of fetishism, the initial introduction to the realm beyond many a young man’s fancy, and one of the founding centerfolds for a fledgling little “lifestyle” publication known as Playboy. By the ‘60s, she was a sexual revolution afterthought - mostly by her own hand, mind you.

Like the era’s brassiness, brunette polar opposite, Bettie didn’t hint at anything. Men didn’t have to imagine what she would look like undressed and available in any of their deep, dark secret fantasy frescos. Her career as a model saw her cover the entire randy range, from dominatrix to submissive victim, proto-lesbian partner to outright come hither aggression. It was mail order pornographer Irving Klaw that made Bettie a superstar, turning the temporary NY secretary into the Eisenhower era’s answer to availability. Over the course of five years, she was featured in hundreds of his pictures, stag reels, and special order customer request films. While never explicit, she illustrated a world beyond the macho and the missionary.

By the middle ‘50s, Bettie was indeed an underground luminary, the grindhouse taking notice of her celebrity and featuring her in several striptease spectaculars, including Striporama (1953), Teaserama (1954), Varietease (1955). Mostly reserved for hostess duties, and the occasional supplemental starlet spot to main stage names like Lili St. Cry and Tempest Storm, these filmed burlesque shows illustrated Bettie’s natural stage presence and slight Southern accent (she was born Betty Mae Page in Nashville, Tennessee). While she took acting classes, and even appeared on a few television shows of the day, her career in other mediums was limited. Bettie was just more effective standing still.

During a trip to Florida in 1954, Bettie met Bunny Yeager. The former New York model had branched out to form her own Miami studio, and she was desperate to get one of the more iconic figures in the business before her lens. Setting up a shoot at a local animal park, the now infamous “Jungle Bettie” images gained the attention of a mild mannered Midwesterner named Hugh Hefner. His fledgling men’s magazine was frantic for an infusion of new, noted blood, and Bettie was immediately selected to be 1955’s Playmate of the Year. It would end up being the closest she’d come to mainstream acceptance for at least three decades.

As the ‘60s approached, social unrest and juvenile delinquency became the buzzwords for a generation unable to deal with their unsettled boomer offspring. Everything from music to comic books was blamed for the rise in youth violence and discontent, with Congress eventually getting involved to try and regulate underage morality. The Kefauver Hearings before the US Senate ended Klaw’s postal pulchritude exchange, Bettie being asked (and then excused) from testifying to explain her work in his catalog. In combination with her recent conversion to Born Again Christianity, it was the end of her career as the carrier of America’s anti-bombshell beauty marks.

Like a visage frozen in time, Bettie literally disappeared from the public forum. The next few years saw her marry a second and third time (she divorced her first husband before her rise to pin-up stardom began), work for many religious organizations - including the Rev. Billy Graham - and help spread the Word as a missionary. The ‘70s saw a sensationalized nervous breakdown and a few hospitalizations, and diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia (later contested by the idol and her champions). At one point during the ‘90s, she would spend eight years under State Supervision. All the while, a cult was building around her previous work. Magazines rediscovered her incessant hotness. Rock-n-Roll revivalists made her their human sexual response. Bettie, in typical fashion, was completely unaware of the renaissance.

Without the paparazzi privacy invasion of the post-modern journalistic TMZ front, Bettie was allowed to remain forever young. There were no late in life letdowns, no “where are they now” nods to public interest and individual frailty. When curiosity was renewed in her pictures and prints, she was typically uninterested in interviews or other media requests. On the rare occasions where she’d grant an audience, the express restriction was simple - no photographs. The face and figure that once cried out to be captured by Eastman Kodak was now strictly prohibited from public view. It was an incredibly smart approach, planned or not. Without a current façade to match, Bettie could remain the entity for erotica past.

With the rise in the Internet, the continued reclassification of cinema via scholarship, fandom, and home video, Bettie also became the representation of early exploitation. Companies like Something Weird Video celebrated her importance, while books and biopics tried to explain how a simple Southern girl could become the Queen of Simulated Sexuality. As she aged, she became more reclusive, keeping a close circle of friends and fans. Yet even as awareness increased, she still kept a close watch on her only remaining asset - her likeness. Bettie even made an attempt to secure the rights to her own image (ala the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, etc.), hiring lawyers to help her pursue those ends.

After suffering a heart attack earlier this month (December), she was rushed to a hospital where she fell into a coma. Bettie later died, locked eternally in the mind of those who loved her as the catty, coquettish tease with a look that demanded satisfaction without suggesting anything remotely unwholesome. Call it “naughty naiveté” or “innocent wantonness”, but Bettie Page definitely helped ease an unsettled conservative America into a more open and honest discussion of desire.

While her photos and films may have stayed the private shame of many a man (and woman), they’ve since become a symbol of what was brewing beneath the surface of prim and proper society. Without demand, there would have been no legend. Yet when you look at her inherent beauty and connection with the camera, it’s clear: Bettie Page was meant to be photographed. Thankfully, someone recognized that fact and made it a reality. While she’s gone now, we will have those provocation pictures for all eternity - exactly where someone like Bettie belongs. 

by Bill Gibron

14 Dec 2008

Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the new DVD from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.

For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three men she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Greek Isle locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.

At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Special Edition DVD) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.

Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of a DVD extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.

Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis. During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).

No matter the wealth of added content extras or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.

Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.

by Bill Gibron

13 Dec 2008

If aspirations and ambitions were all it took to make a good movie (or at the very least, a merely entertaining one), there’d be no reason for critics. We lowly members of a dying print and public consciousness medium would be parking cars or pumping gas, the ever-present noble goals of the world’s filmmakers constantly saving their projects from utter failure. As part of his commentary track for the recent summer snoozer The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, director Rob Cohen offers up numerous scholarly excuses for his less than satisfying film. To hear him tell it, this third installment of an already dead franchise is rife with chronological wonders and visual splendor. He must be talking about the movie that’s still in his head. What’s on screen is just dull and dopey.

While really not enjoying their post-War retirement, adventurous couple Rick O’Connell and his wife Evie are content to try and live as normal, everyday people. All that changes when the British Government gives them a chance to return a precious artifact to Shanghai. There, they run into Evie’s brother Jonathan, their college aged son Alex, and a new supernatural threat - Emperor Han, cursed leader of a long lost Chinese dynasty. Along with his terracotta army, this petrified pariah will take over the world if he is resurrected, and sure enough, the item the O’Connells are trafficking is the key to his rebirth. It’s not long before the reunited family is scrambling to prevent such a catastrophe, a local Asian girl named Lin providing much needed guidance - and a mysterious knowledge of long past events.

There is no greater crime committed by a film like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (new to DVD in a two disc Deluxe Edition from Universal) than being no damn fun. We’ll accept lame characterization, narrative hogwash, and an overall aura of cheesiness. We’ll even accept your uninspired idea of over the marquee casting. But when you can’t make massive CG battles entertaining or exciting, you’re clearly out of your popcorn movie league. No matter the extent of extras, not matter how you explain away the special effects, the actual historical context, or the specialness of working with Jet Li and Michele Yeoh, blockbuster boredom is the worst kind of tedium. This third go-round for the franchise even fails to deliver in the familiarity department. Gone are Rachel Weisz (clearly too big and award winning to be involved in such silliness anymore), our bandage wrapped Egyptian villain, and a sense of supersized kitsch.

When Stephen Sommers took on the task of revitalizing the classic Universal creature a few years back, he opened up his overstuffed brain and clearly said “Yes” to each and every excess. From the first film’s attempted epic-ness to the follow-ups proclivity toward pygmy mummies, Sommers understood the inherent goofiness of his charge. While allowing star Brendan Frasier to mug like a monkey on crack, he provided some certified genre brashness. But the idea of taking this kind of approach never got to new helmer Cohen. Instead, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor flounders in fake historical accuracy, an Indiana Jones meets the Temple of Tools wannabe-ism, and a fundamental lack of Li/Yeoh martial artistry. These two Hong Kong powerhouses should light up the screen, especially when fisticuffs are involved. Instead, their confronts are crap.

Maybe it’s the basic premise that undermines this third Mummy. Here, Li’s Han is your standard undead megalomaniac. He’s not some heartbroken shaman sent to sleep with the scarabs because of a forbidden tryst with the Pharaoh’s lady. There’s no sexiness here, no golden skinned cat clawing between Evie and some otherworldly babe. Instead, Maria Bello bumbles around like a bad parlor trick, her interpretation of the character cause for concern and utter contempt. Frasier seems to sense his co-star’s flop sweat, and ups his eye-popping panto to outrageous levels. Even John Hannah, whose whining drunkard brother Jonathan was never a subtle facet of the first two films, goes elephantine in the performance caricature department.

When it came to theaters back in August, many critics complained that, even though its scope suggested something spectacular and larger then life, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was probably better suited for the small screen. As an amusement, it was a TV, not a theatrical party. Well, they were wrong. Dead wrong. Details that at least looked likable in 35mm are lost on the DVD, while other aspects blurred in the cinematic shuffle are emphasized now. Sure, it’s kind of neat to see how Cohen’s concept of “liquid stone” was realized during the Chinese New Year chase, and the Yeti’s lose some of their randy ridiculousness ratcheted down to boob tube size. But even with an outlay of deleted and extended scenes, cast and crew interviews, and numerous behind the scenes insights, this third installment in the franchise just lays there, dormant and uninvolving.

None of this matters to the ambitious filmmaker, however. During the course of his commentary, Cohen makes it clear where storylines were left purposefully ambiguous to make room for a few more films in the Mummy series. “As long as the fans want them” he says, suggesting that ticket sales and strong DVD sell-through will somehow sway Tinsel Town into taking on the material yet again (sure, like Hollywood is ever persuaded by a title’s commerciality before considering a sequel. Right.). If money is any measure of success, then this Asian update of the series earns a presupposed second chance.

But cash almost never matched creativity. In some cases, the amount of dollars earned is inversely proportional to the quality of amusement on the screen. Judged by those studio slicked standards, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a rock solid return on the investment. It’s also a sloppy stink bomb. Here’s hoping the next few installments find a way to balance ambitions with actual entertainment value. One senses, however, the motion picture maxim remaining in effect for the foreseeable future.

by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Over the next three weeks, no more than 25 films will be opening, all vying for that coveted year-end awards season certificate of approval…and SE&L will be there trying to tackle each and every one. For 12 December, here are just some of the films in focus:

Doubt [rating: 8]

Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact.

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as full review…

The Reader [rating: 5]

(E)verything Schlink was trying to accomplish with his (book) is cast aside for more shots of Kate Winslet naked.

When you turn a book into a movie, context is usually the first creative facet to be sacrificed. Film is so obsessed with movement and plotting and situational conflict that, items such as explanation and rationalization are left to inference and suggestion. Then, it’s up to actors and filmmakers to find the right unspoken subtext.  When law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink wrote his international bestseller, The Reader, back in 1995, he used illiteracy and one character’s growing wealth of knowledge as a means of reflecting on the post-modern ignorance about the Holocaust. It remains a potent literary metaphor. Sadly, the big screen adaption of the novel by The Hours director Stephen Daldry casts aside the symbolism to focus on a mannered May/December romance. The result is a movie so unfocused and forced that we don’t care about any of the characters or their motivational full review…

Milk [rating: 9]

So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness.

Harvey Milk was more than a politician. He was more than a grass roots illustration of San Francisco’s struggling gay rights movement and underrepresented population. He was much more than a cultural icon, much more than a martyred victim of a senseless and still slightly unbelievable crime. What Harvey Milk represents is truly present in Gus Van Sant’s stellar telling of the last years of his life. While Milk never excuses the man’s sexuality, or makes it the sole reason for his rise and untimely fall, it does argue that his outrageous outsider status gave him a unique perspective on the role of the government and its people in a democracy. It’s a lesson we could all re-learn full review…

Encounters at the End of the World [rating: 8]

The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the full review…


by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place.

After seeing some astonishing footage of divers under the massive ice flows of the South Pole, filmmaker/provocateur Werner Herzog decides to visit the desolate continent to see the wonders of Antarctica firsthand. He soon discovers that the pristine mountains and overwhelming snow banks house an eclectic group of drifters, scientists, and individuals simply looking to escape from the so-called civilized world. There’s the former businessman who now drives a huge transport bus. There’s the biologist making his last dive ever. There’s the linguist whose PhD was destroyed when superstition literally forced the language he was studying to become extinct, and the researcher whose spent most of her life hitchhiker around the planet. In between we get breathtaking looks at the Antarctic vistas, an insider guide to McMurdo Station, and enough classic Herzog philosophizing to put everything in ethereal perspective.

Leave it to Werner Herzog to take the mainstream memory most have of the wintery landscape of Antarctica and purposely piss all over it. As part of his remarkable motion picture, Encounters at the End of the World, the aggressive auteur finds a hermetic penguin expert and proceeds to deconstruction the entire March of the Happy Feet myth. “Are there gay penguins?” he asks, curious if these loveable little family film icons are “depraved” and “amoral” at heart. When the scientist sits back, stunned, he jumps into another line of attack. “Are there insane penguins?” he chides, some future footage suggesting that a few of these birds go off their nut and chase imaginary oceans far away from their breeding and feeding grounds. This is typical of Encounters. As with most of what he does, Herzog takes his title quite literally.

It’s the same when he meets a journeyman maintenance man who proclaims his Aztec/Incan heritage, his elongated rib cage and oddly matching middle and index fingers providing the proof of lineage. Instead of focusing on his job as part of the continent’s community, he simply lets the man marvel at his possible regal heredity. Elsewhere, a former prisoner from “behind the Iron Curtain” shows off his combination adventure/survival kit. Weighing no more than 20 kilos, it contains everything from food, a tent, and a sleeping bag, to an inflatable raft and a paddle. “I am always prepared,” he claims, asking Herzog to stop filming so he can get his pack back together before he’s “called” off on another incredible journey.

With its focus firmly on the individuals inhabiting this massive slab of ice and frozen soil, many may think that Herzog misses the point of Antarctica’s inherent grandeur. But all throughout Encounters at the End of the World, the filmmaker finds images that actually reflect back on the people we meet, and help us make the connection between their apparent eccentricities and the reasons they stay so far from the rest of civilization. During the final dive of a noted researcher, we see a stunning alien underworld, ocean floor riddled with sci-fi sea life and other jaw-dropping discoveries. Discussions of a nearby glacier also prove awe-inspiring, as the sheer size and scope of the flow confounds common thought.

This is not new terrain for Herzog. He is the king of taking private passions and obsessions and juxtaposing them against the actual elements the characters inhabit. Here, a pair of scientists celebrate a major discovery by playing blues-based rock-n-roll at maximum volume, their outdoor concert sweeping across the vast flat white locale. Yet when a group of visitors are forced into a two day survival camp to test their wilderness mantle, we see them struggle to complete the most basic backwoods techniques. Herzog argues in the film that it’s a crime for places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest to be stained by human interaction. To him, some places in nature deserve to stay untouched, though he also acknowledges that, nowadays, that’s next to impossible.

So in some ways, Encounters at the End of the World is Herzog’s time capsule for a continent rapidly changing. While exploration and education are still the area’s leading lures, many are now trying out their South sea legs in a mad gasp to see those fuzzy flightless birds that made their Animal Planet viewing so satisfying. “Global Warming exists” argues one particular interview subject, the serious look on their face ready to circumvent any argument from Northern Hemisphere blowhards. As a document to a land pre-exploitation and the people vowing to preserve - or at the very least, understand it, this is yet another definitive documentary in Herzog’s infamously feathered cinematic cap. As with much of his work, he takes an unconventional approach to get the obvious last word on a subject. The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.

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