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

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Friday, Apr 13, 2007


Coca-Colonization


With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.


Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.


He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.


To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.


In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”


One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.


It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.


One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.


C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.


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Friday, Mar 23, 2007


Serafina Delle Rose is a proud woman. She has a pompous self-importance that makes her stand out among the other Italian women in her small Gulf Coast community. Her marriage to truck driver Rosario saved this destitute wretch from a miserable life in the old country, and she has faith in his love and affection. Unfortunately, Rosario has secrets, and when he dies in an accident, the truth comes pouring out. He was not only transporting produce—he was smuggling, and cheating on Serafina with a local slut.


Pregnant with a son when Rosario died, Serafina had a miscarriage, and now spends her days in a stupor, unable to connect with herself or with life. Her teenage daughter, Rosa, worries about her mother, fearing that she will fall deeper into depression. Serafina feels the need to protect her child, especially when she learns how serious Rosa’s relationship is with young sailor Jack Hunter.


Then one day, Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a vibrant, slightly silly man who instantly falls for the melancholy madam. Naturally, Serafina wants nothing to do with him. But slowly, and gradually, she learns that there is more to life than the memory of her late husband and the scandal with which he left her. Serafina must forget the past and embrace the future. With Alvaro, she has that chance.


It is said that the legendary playwright Tennessee Williams was desperate to craft a vehicle for his longtime friend and occasional muse, Italian actress Anna Magnani. Hoping to showcase this fiery, intense diva with a play equal to her supreme stature, Williams devised a simple story of an Italian widow wounded by her dead husband’s infidelity, only to be courted by a new, brash beau. It would mix elements from his previous literary successes as well as celebrate the Sicilian heritage he learned from his companion, Frank Merlo. The result was The Rose Tattoo, featuring another of Williams’s certified strong, slightly unhinged women at its center.


The stage was literally set for Magnani to take Broadway by storm. Problem was, as the time came to essay the role of Serafina Delle Rose, Magnani balked, claiming her English wasn’t good enough to effectively bring the character to life. She refused to appear, and Williams was left to recast the part. He got the far younger Maureen Stapleton for the lead, and The Rose Tattoo opened on the Great White Way in February 1951. It was another Tennessee Williams smash, going on to win four Tonys, including Best Play and acting honors for stars Stapleton and Eli Wallach (as Mangiacavallo). When the time came to make the movie, Magnani was again approached. Again, her English was less than graceful. So, via a very unique performance style, Magnani was fed her lines by a dialogue coach, and she mimicked the sounds she heard. The result was a monumental thespian turn, earning Magnani an Oscar as Best Actress.


Magnani is indeed the main reason to visit The Rose Tattoo. Those who enjoyed—or suffered through—the works of Williams while in school will recognize the arcane, poetic writer’s style all throughout this early piece. Tattoo was written after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (two classic works of theater if ever there were any), but before Williams’s other successes like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.


Specifically crafted to emphasize—and perhaps stereotype—certain ethnic Italian ideals, as well as to showcase the fall and rise of a stubborn, selfish immigrant, Tattoo has all the trimmings one associates with a stage show. Magnani must work around all the obvious imagery, shuttling symbolism (especially the awkward title emblem) and incidental iconography within this standard slice of melodrama to make Serafina a real, vital individual. It is to her well-deserved credit that the actress takes what could have been a harsh, almost unsympathetic character and imbues it with life and substance.


Magnani is all sex and shame in The Rose Tattoo, a mixture of Old World classicism and New World haughtiness molded into a defiant, somewhat desperate woman. Though she is dowdy and depressed throughout most of the film, Magnani manages to hint at both the life and the love still locked inside Serafina. Saddled with a couple of obvious showpiece moments (her visit to the church bazaar and the confrontation with Rosario’s mistress come to mind), she still managed to cement this overwrought work with the earthy neo-realism of her amazing performances from Italian cinema. She is the heart and soul of The Rose Tattoo, and after watching her for nearly two hours, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.


As the other major element in the movie, Burt Lancaster is a bit of a problem, albeit a very minor one. He has the size and the heft to play Alvaro Mangiacavallo, and as an actor, he matches Magnani’s efforts bravura to bravado. But he makes an ethnically blank Italian. Lancaster, who was purely Anglo-Saxon, tries his hardest, and sometimes he succeeds. When not required to mutter and bumble over Williams’s culturally queer dialogue (there are times when The Rose Tattoo feels like a parody of a Mediterranean melodrama), the usually magnificent actor finds the sincerity and strength at the center of Alvaro’s persona. We are supposed to feel an instant connection between Serafina and the strapping suitor, and it’s as much a testament to Magnani’s smoldering sexuality as Lancaster’s matinee idol attractiveness that the combination works.


There is a tendency in The Rose Tattoo to see the actors as working at stylistic cross-purposes within the film. Magnani wants to keep Serafina grounded while still successfully existing within Williams’s mannered circumstances. Lancaster, on the other hand, wants to go with the hyper-realistic flow, to make his character as large as—or occasionally larger than—the life the author prescribed for him. Such a dichotomy would normally kill a film, but it works in The Rose Tattoo only because of the immense talent of both actors. Had director Daniel Mann—a Hollywood journeyman responsible for such diverse films as Come Back, Little Sheba, Butterfield 8, and Willard (1971)—utilized someone like Marcello Mastroianni or Anthony Quinn, the film may have been more culturally sound. But Lancaster brings something to Tattoo that both adds and subtracts from the experience.


For a modern moviegoing audience, the real enemy here is the stagy, almost claustrophobic nature of the film. Mann keeps the majority of the action inside the cramped, closed-off Delle Rose home with its shuttered windows and low ceilings. While all the ominous trappings are supposed to suggest the cloud of grief overwhelming Serafina, one has to wonder how much of her dilemma comes from the death of her husband, and what percentage derives from a lack of sunlight and fresh air. There has been no real attempt to “open up” the play, to make it less like a single setting circumstance. Certainly, the scenes at the festival, and Serafina/Alvaro’s trip into town are an excuse to introduce the real world into the insular domain of the Delle Rose’s, but the overall impression given off by the film is of a distinct, compact world (which may be what both Mann and Williams wanted).


Equally uncomfortable is the standard subplot silliness of Serafina’s teenage daughter, Rosa. All the clichéd checkpoints are here: a child embarrassed by her mother’s raging ethnicity, the over-attached puppy love for a milquetoast man (the sailor, Jack), and a near-constant sense of public and private adolescent angst. Marisa Pavan is given the difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to find a compassionate center to what is basically a living, breathing reminder of Serafina’s shame. While such a blatant object—either human or otherwise—may work on stage, it’s far too obvious a device on film. Though it is occasionally hampered by such histrionics, The Rose Tattoo is still a solid drama with excellent performances piercing through the poppycock.


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Friday, Mar 2, 2007


Ask any film fan what his favorite Terry Gilliam movie is, and you’re likely to get a series of startlingly dissimilar answers. Most will mention Brazil or his breakthrough film, Time Bandits. Others will cite the mainstream hits The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. You’ll get a few squirrelly responses – aficionados lodging votes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jabberwocky, or the recently released (and quite polarizing) Tideland. But you almost never hear the director’s devotees championing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Dismissed in a manner similar to his attempted blockbuster, 2005’s The Brothers Grimm, many find his work on said epic a confluence of excess and extremes that never fully comes together as a cohesive cinematic statement.


They would be wrong. Perhaps the most breathlessly original work the filmmaker would ever oversee, Gilliam’s attempted visualization of the famed Germanic folk hero and his infamous gift of exaggeration remains his masterpiece, a completely flawed and overpoweringly brilliant work of pure motion picture art. Yet because it has such a jaded history, many look on it as the Heaven’s Gate of its time. It was the kind of over publicized failure that gave its supporting studio (Columbia) a massive mainstream (and media) headache. It was poorly reviewed, misunderstood by a critical community waiting to pounce on the filmmaker for his noted outrageousness. Some could even argue that it was payback for the whole Brazil battle. After going to bat for his vision on that myopic bit of future shock, journalists perhaps grew tired of carrying the commercial mantle for the notoriously prickly ex-pat Python.


Whatever the case, what was blasted back in 1988 as overdone and dull becomes the fantasy film equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in light of a new, post-millennial mentality. While he can argue all he wants to about the inclusion of this film in his Ageism Trilogy (with Time Bandits representing youth and Brazil marking middle age), what Gilliam really accomplished here is the defining of the very boundaries of the cinematic craft. Recognizable spectacles wish they had this film’s scope. Carefully crafted works of high concept CGI long to be as inventive and imaginative. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with its sole reliance on physical effects, represents craftsmanship at a level superior to those being forged out of bitrates and motherboards. As a matter of fact, the vector-mapping individuals who call themselves artists should step aside and allow a true visionary to pass. Just as Kubrick did with his serious space opera, Gilliam gave the motion picture flight of fancy its brash, brazen benchmark.


But there is more to the movie than just gorgeous shots (Venus rising on the half shell, our characters falling into Vulcan’s volcanic lair) and remarkable ideas. Gilliam has always fancied himself a latter day Don Quixote, battling the worn out windmills of a film business based solely around reasonable returns and the bottom line. In Baron Munchausen, he finds a firm soul mate, the kind of blind-eyed dreamer whose age and appearance is literally affected by his amazing adventures (or lack thereof). In the character, a man at war with both the marauding Turkish army as well as the bumbling bureaucrats trying to moderate the maelstrom, the perfect parallel is drawn to the director. As he steps out onto the cinematic battlefield to confront the daily barrage of moviemaking issues, he must also take on the tightfisted moneymen who determine his entire aesthetic fate.


There is much more to the behind the scenes story of Munchausen‘s making (and eventual post-production unmaking) than can be covered in a single review. As a matter of fact, author Andrew Yule did a remarkable job of exposing the story with his fascinating behind the scenes book Losing the Light. What’s most important about everything that happened – the failed financial backing, the complicated shoot on the fabled backlot of Italy’s Cinniceta Studios, the numerous natural (and unnatural) disasters – is that, through all the stumbling and/or road blocks, Gilliam still managed to make the best movie of his career. Taking the Baron’s fairytale-type story, he was able to merge myth with mediocrity, age with artificiality, and the soulful with the scientific. The result is a film that constantly battles for symbolic substance while generating megatons of major thematic resonance.


The plot, which pits Munchausen against the stifling city fathers who want to negotiate a kind of impossible peace, is combined with an even more unlikely journey to discover our hero’s superhuman servants. One valet is the fastest man on the planet (when locating him, we go from the Turk’s heavenly harem to the King of the Moon’s own pleasure palace), another possesses all the strength in the world (he’s found at the center of the Earth). The other two amazing members of the team – a flawless sharpshooter and a dwarf with amazing hearing and lungpower – are located inside a series of shipwrecks, themselves located within a massive sea creature at the bottom of the ocean. From outer space to the belly of the beast, Gilliam makes sure to venture to each and every one of these remarkable locales. Using any and every thing at his disposal to realize his vision, we find ourselves sitting in eye-opening wonder, waiting for the next awe-inspiring moment to occur.


And occur they do. During the introductory material that opens the movie, Munchausen’s fleet-footed manservant (played by Gilliam’s Python pal Eric Idle) races halfway around the world for a bottle of Port. The narrative is brought to life with stunning detail and delight. When the Baron voyages to the moon in an air balloon made out of lady’s bloomers, the juxtaposition between stormy and still waters, and eventually sandy shores, is just overpowering. But the biggest surprise comes at the end when, hoping to save the city, an elderly Munchausen and his equally old friends wage war one last time, each one utilizing their special skill to defeat the Turk once and for all. From its completely unique storytelling structure (it’s kind of like a play within a fable within a film) to the last act twist that reframes the film’s many eclectic elements, Gilliam proves that there is more to his directorial prowess than pretty pictures and incontrovertible imagery.


With its pitch perfect cast (including an amazing John Neville as the title character) and a delightful denseness that allows for multiple viewings – and meanings – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stands as the moment when Terry Gilliam announced his importance as filmmaker to the rest of the world. Where Brazil can appear like an ego unleashed, and Fisher King can feel like a purposeful pulling back to sustain a successful career, this blithe and joyful journey into a world of unadulterated inventiveness is poised to stand the test of time. It may take a bit – even Kubrick was labeled a kook before his look at man’s place in the universe scored an eventual Best Ever rating. If greatness was determined on talent alone, all of Gilliam’s movies would be extraordinary. But there is something about this film that transcends an easy classification. And that’s a true sign of long term artistic excellence.


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Friday, Feb 16, 2007


Phillip Wohl (“Philly” to his friends and family) is his mother and father’s pride and joy. He is also their overpowering yoke. The youngest of three children, the mentally handicapped man has never attended school, and barely left the Queens apartment where he lives with his overprotective parents. At 52, Philly is an extroverted exercise in overcoming personal limitations. In some ways, his parents are more limited by the effects of age and responsibility than Philly and his cerebral shortcomings. With his caretakers each in their mid-to-late ‘70s, Philly’s future is very much in peril. Without his family, there will be no one to take care of him.


Filmmaking cousin Ira decides to champion a change in Philly’s life (and document the journey along the way). Ira wants Philly to leave home, go to a special school, and be evaluated for placement in a group home. For Philly’s parents Pearl and Max, this news is greeted with begrudging acceptance. They want the finest for their son. But they also can’t imagine a time in their life when he hasn’t been an active, omnipresent part. Philly’s journey into an existence with more options and opportunities is really a story about letting go, having faith in humanity, and knowing that, no matter what happens, the young man you raised will always be your Best Boy.


One of the most remarkable portraits of a family unit in fundamental free-fall, Best Boy can easily be described as a last will and testament to the old fashioned attitude toward the mentally handicapped. Prior to the mid-1970s, those whom society deemed “retarded” or “slow” were often shipped off to homes and hospitals, hidden away like a dark secret in a back closet of the community. In such stark places, the level of care directly coincided with the institution’s idea of the patient’s practical usefulness. No matter what you may think of him in his present, proto-tabloid manifestation, Geraldo Rivera will always be sainted for saving the physically and developmentally disabled from the living Hell that was most state-sanctioned sanitariums. Rivera’s 1971 report on the New York snake pit Willowbrook (forever to be equated with horrifyingly unethical and inhumane treatment) opened the dialogue (and the legislative agenda) for a more principled and sympathetic handling of these sweet, special souls.


Over the years, while the mentally ill have been sidelined, viewed as victims of their own self-indulgent desire to remain insane, the intellectually challenged have gone from handicapped to “handi-capable”, seen as potentially constructive, contributing members of the human race. Best Boy is an allegory for this transition, a version in miniature of this shift in ideals. It admonishes the sheltering of those who are “special” from the rest of the populace, while advocating their eventual re-entry into the real world (even with all its bureaucratic and traumatic consequences). It’s a moving, magnificent window into a realm that most of us have never seen or had any direct contact with.


Best Boy is one of those rarities, a true-life documentary that transcends its basic subject matter and premise to say something universal about the human condition. Like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, or Capturing the Friedmans, we soon learn that the initial reason we are watching these individuals has long since taken a backseat to the real interpersonal and character drama now playing out. As Philly moves from total dependency into the first few baby steps of autonomy, the impact on everyone is delightful and devastating. For the last half-century, Philly’s parents have known only caring for, and being the constant companions of, their son. Philly represents their life, their purpose for living. He has been everything from a burden to a bounty. When we meet Philly, he is in limbo, someone his parents rely on to clean the house or wash the dishes. Yet with all these indicators toward independence, his relatives will not relinquish control, considering the possibility of his leaving home unthinkable.


All of their own emotional issues are tied up in him. Philly’s father Max is so down and defeated, quietly pained by his son’s plight that medical maladies are literally eating him alive from the inside out. He is a skeleton of a man, a strong, silent, and stubborn stick figure in a constant state of reflection and rejection. Pearl, on the other hand, is a far more shrewd and suggestive entity, a woman who deeply loves her son while keeping the family spotlight solely on what best serves the adults’ needs, not just Philly’s. There are facets to her personality that reek of Jewish-mother stereotyping: she loves to guilt Philly into focusing attention on her, while subtly manipulates his decisions. You often get the impression that there is nothing between the elder Wohls except the age-old oppression of Philly. It’s interesting how the freedom of school and the excitement of the outside world devastates everyone other than the Best Boy himself. He loves it. The rest of the family can only resolve themselves with waves of weary finality.


But Best Boy is more than just a nuclear family fending off the final meltdown of mortality and change. There are greatly comic moments (Philly experiencing animals at the Bronx Zoo for the first time) and scenes of perfect emotional resonance (Philly meeting Zero Mostel backstage at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof is magical and moving). We never once feel that Philly is being exploited, and his camera-carrying cousin Ira never lets events turn maudlin or sappy. Death is handled with straightforward dignity. Loss is expressed simply and made to be understood. The same goes for happiness and harmony. Best Boy balances out all the emotions that come with change, and channels them into a marvelous statement about resilience and respect.


Much more a movie about aging and family responsibility than a tale of retardation, Best Boy doesn’t really tell a linear story, aside from Philly’s eventual address change. What it really resembles is a sacred scrapbook—a portrait of pain, promise, and persistence presented in animated movie clips. Scenes can and do contradict each other, and the flow is often tossed out of equilibrium by an inserted moment or lengthy shot. But there is a reason for this restlessness, this tone of untapped turmoil. Philly has spent 52 years isolated in a cocoon of smothering care, of “doing the best one can do” to manage an almost unmanageable circumstance. The newfound freedom Philly is feeling is peppered with clashing concerns for Pearl and Max. For them, Philly was everything. Without him, the void is next to impossible to fill. It’s the resolution to this reality that makes Best Boy more than a manifesto for the mentally challenged. At its basic level, it’s just a film about the family struggle over letting go.


Toward the end of Best Boy, Philly’s mother Pearl says that if God really wants to torture someone, He should give them a retarded child. Without blinking an eye, she adds, “You’ll never know the internal pain. Never.” While that may have been true when she said it, it’s hard to imagine that Philly is anything but an inspiration today. This is one special human who really deserves the title Best Boy.


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Friday, Feb 9, 2007


Henri Danglard is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor.


As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It’s not long before it’s opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.


As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.


While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman’s compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.


Jean Gabin, one of France’s all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world’s backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.


As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard’s productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.


Fans of Renoir’s work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental, emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel).


Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the “normal” life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.


Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likeability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir’s own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.


An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir’s native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.


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