Doodad Kind of Town

"Sex and the City: The Movie" Reviewed
May 30, 2008, 8:43 pm
Filed under: Sex and the City

Well, kids, I’m home from the matinee and still buzzed from our post-movie round of Cosmos, so let me get right down to brass tacks here. And be warned, I’m going to throw a few spoilers in here and there – so if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to come back later.

Bottom line: I was a bit disappointed.

Not that it wasn’t entertaining. There were some laugh-out-loud moments, mainly when Charlotte literally shit her pants after absent-mindedly drinking the water on a Mexican vacation, and the repeated sight gag of Samantha’s new puppy furiously humping sofa pillows.

As you will note, the big laughs in this movie are not largely character-driven.

There is one genuinely touching moment between Steve and Miranda in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the only time I teared up in nearly two-and-a-half hours. The moments that should have been equally touching – Charlotte discovering she’s pregnant, Big proposing to Carrie on bended knee – are treated so perfunctorily that they have almost no emotional wallop whatsoever.

I saw “Sex and the City” with my friend, Jen, the witty and insightful writer of the fashion/travel/beauty blog Monkey Posh, and we came to this conclusion over lunch: We know those characters better than SATC creator Michael Patrick King thought we did. And in “SATC: The Movie,” they mostly behave in ways that feel very contrived and out of character.

(In fact, I think one or both of us may have uttered the phrase “Fuck you, Michael Patrick King!”I can’t say for sure. I’m remembering this from the other side of a vodka-and-cranberry-juice-induced haze, after all.)

Just as “SATC: The TV Series” was about what happens to women in their thirties while they’re looking for love, “SATC: The Movie” is about what happens to women in their forties when they’ve landed in stable relationships. It’s about loss, forgiveness and the challenge of keeping romance alive. I’ll just say that the story lines involving Miranda and Samantha fulfill these worthy objectives pretty darn well, Charlotte and Carrie’s stories less so.

Steve and Miranda’s lives are a blur of work, school and family commitments. They’re short on sleep and quality time, and haven’t had sex in six months. And (as you may have guessed from a confession scene that was included in early trailers), Steve has a one-time sexual encounter with another woman which leaves him wracked with horrible guilt. When she finds out, the typically hard-headed Miranda moves out and refuses to forgive him. You ache for Miranda to come to her senses and give Steve another chance; their relationship has the highest emotional stakes of any in the movie,and both Cynthia Nixon and David Eigenberg play them for all they’re worth. In fact, Jen felt that Cynthia Nixon was the real star of the movie. And Eigenberg is, notably, the only man other than Chris Noth to be given an appropriately substantial role

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, where Samantha now resides with her hunky actor boyfriend, Smith Jerrod, things are no better. Samantha, fifty-year-old fox that she is, still craves hot sex and adventure, but Smith spends more time at the studio than in her bed. She’s lonely, bored, driven to compulsive shopping and eating to fill up her emptiness. Kim Catrall gives it her best shot, but this Samantha is a whole let less fun. (We never once see her getting it on with Smith – or anyone else.) Yet the arc of her relationship with Smith feels pretty true to her character.

On the other hand…

If I were Kristin Davis, I think I’d be pissed off about my underwritten afterthought of a role in the big screen SATC. Apart from her surprise pregnancy, which is given very little screen time, nothing interesting happens to Charlotte. She’s mostly just there to provide prissy, Pollyanna-ish reactions to the events in her friends’ lives (in a way that seems like a throwback to the pre-Trey McDougall-era Charlotte, not the one who’s married to heart-of-gold Harry Goldenblatt.) We don’t get to see her interact with Harry at all, and her adopted daughter, Lily, pops up only as a cute, background distraction when Charlotte is hanging out with her girlfriends. Wouldn’t you have loved to see Harry in action as a doting dad? I know I would have. Too bad there’s none of that here.

And as for Big and Carrie…

You can count me among those who never quite bought into the whole “Big and Carrie live happily ever after” note on which the series ended. Big (real name: John James Preston) was all about head games and emotional unavailability until the last two episodes of the show when he suddenly turned into Mr. White Knight/Rescuer/Heart on his Sleeve guy, professing his love for Carrie and bringing her home from Paris. That transition always felt contrived to me, and so does everything that happens between Big and Carrie in this movie.

First there’s a non-proposal kind of proposal that’s motivated more by Carrie’s need to avoid homelessness and legal hassles if their relationship should end (“I wouldn’t mind being married to you. Would you mind being married to me?” “Well, no, not if that’s what you wanted.”) Then suddenly Carrie is modeling designer wedding gowns for the over-40 bride in the pages of Vogue and planning a 200-guest wing ding at the New York City Public Library.

And Big gets – wait for it! – cold feet!!! Betcha didn’t see that coming!

It starts at the rehearsal dinner, where some drunken jackass from Big’s office gives him shit about being a three-time groom. Then Miranda and Steve have a fight, and Miranda tells Big “You should never get married. Marriage ruins everything.” This is something which the Miranda we know and love would never say to Big -although Big is acting true to form when he takes this ominous warning to heart.

Then, there’s a whole lot of trumped-up wedding day trauma involving missed cell phone calls and Big leaving – then returning – to the scene of the wedding, where Carrie screams, bashes him over the head with her bouquet and runs, while Charlotte flounces along beside her in a too-tight black bridesmaid dress for comic relief. The whole scene is badly paced and completely unconvincing, with Carrie flying off the handle way too soon. It’s impossible to watch without thinking “WTF, Carrie – get your ass back there and talk to him!” This is the part of the movie where I started to think that both Carrie and Miranda were starting to behave like self-involved jackasses.

So Carrie goes into a year-long funk during which she has her hair dyed to a funereal brunette shade, her old apartment redecorated (by Pier One, from the looks of it) and hires a personal assistant, played by Jennifer Hudson. The jury’s still out on whether Hudson can handle a non-singing role; here she’s competent, but little else. But Carrie prizes her organizational abilities and, in gratitude, bestows her with the butt-ugliest handbag that ever came out of the Louis Vuitton factory.

(A side note on the fashions: they’re disappointing, too. Carrie wears the same Versace gladiator sandals in several scenes. She also recycles a godawful black, metal-studded belt way too often, and wears a white belt to her engagement party that I swear is from SJP’s everything-under-$20 Bitten line for Steve and Barry’s. From Jen, these observations: Samantha’s suits, with their peplums and shoulder pads, are very reminiscent of Kathie Lee Gifford’s late ’80s heyday. Also, Carrie’s bridal lipstick – a garish swipe of bright red – complements neither her peachy complexion nor her cream-colored gown.)

My other big complaint: Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) is pretty much an afterthought in this movie, too. As Carrie’s ‘gay husband,’ he ought to get at least one scene to himself with her. As it is, he’s barely more than a cameo. Worse yet, his cute-but-dim boyfriend, Marcus, is nowhere to be seen, and no explanation is given for his absence.

In the days when I was watching new episodes of “Sex and the City” on HBO, I would literally be disappointed when the show was over each week. I wanted the stories to go on and on. “Sex and the City: The Movie” gave me no such feeling. At just under two-and-a-half hours, it was a bit of a grind to get through and I was happy to get up and leave when the end credits rolled. After four years of waiting, I really wish it had amounted to more than this.

"Sex and the City": The Buildup to Friday
May 28, 2008, 11:46 pm
Filed under: Sex and the City

It’s been another rough week here in IT land. More overtime, more conference calls, more deadline pressures.

One thing is getting me through… I’ve scheduled this Friday off work, and I’m going to see “Sex and the City: The Movie.”

My pal, Jen (who writes the fun and fabulous blog Monkey Posh) and I are heading to a matinee, then to the nearest dispenser of tasty Cosmopolitans to dish the movie and the fashions.

For some moviegoers, this summer is about Iron Man, Batman and Indiana Jones. My summer superheroes are Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha.

Hey, I’m a 40-something, fashion-magazine-reading woman. Deal with it!

In honor of my upcoming afternoon of escapist cinematic fun, I’ve decided to honor my top five all-time favorite episodes of “Sex and the City.” (Not a unique idea, since did the same recently. But I came up with a completely different list).

5. “A Vogue Idea”:
Carrie lands a writing gig at the venerable fashion bible, Vogue Magazine. This episode marks the debut of recurring character, Enid – an icy, hypercritical Vogue editor played with suitable snap by Candice Bergen. Ron Rifkin guests as the fellow Vogue editor who takes pity on Carrie, gets her drunk on martinis at 10 in the morning, and later tries to seduce her inside the Vogue accessories closet.

But the plot doesn’t enter into it. For me, it’s that moment when Carrie holds aloft a pair of shoes with look of teary-eyed wonder and whispers in awe: “Manolo Blahnik patent leather Mary Janes… I thought these were an urban shoe legend!” I’m a shoe lover from way back (I was collecting cute shoes when SJP was still a Square Peg), and I have coveted this particular pair ever since. I have even bid on gently used pairs of these Manolos on Ebay – unsuccessfully to date, but I keep trying. In terms of footwear, they are my holy grail.

4. “The Post It Always Sticks Twice”:

About the aftermath of a bad breakup and how Carrie bounces back. Berger (Ron Livingstone) disappeared at the end of the previous episode, leaving just a Post It on Carrie’s computer screen: “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.” Anyone who’s ever been dumped in a similarly shitty way can relate to Carrie’s determination that “today cannot be the day that Berger broke up with me on a post-it note.” So she and her friends decide to obliterate the bad memory with a night on the town. By the end of the episode, it’s become (in Carrie’s words) “The day I got arrested for smokin’ a doobie!”) What happens in between? Charlotte celebrates her new engagement, Miranda finds she can finally fit back into her ‘skinny’ jeans, and Samantha gets chased out of a bar by some ‘bridge and tunnel’ girls after she comes on to one of their boyfriends. It’s all very silly, but it’s also a lot of fun.

3. “The Real Me”:
Carrie gets her chance to be a runway model in a fashion show featuring both models and non-model NYC celebrities. She’s all excited and full of herself until she arrives at the show to find: 1) her Dolce and Gabbana gown has been swapped out for a teeny-tiny pair of jeweled panties – and nothing else; 2) the other ‘real New Yorkers’ on the runway include such glamour-pusses as Ed Koch and Frank Rich; and 3) she’s given an enormous, furiously backcombed ‘do and way too much makeup.

The perfect marriage of Carrie’s fashion mania with Sarah Jessica Parker’s gift for physical comedy: Carrie struts onto the runway and immediately takes a spectacular spill off her 6-inch stilettos. As Heidi Klum briskly steps over Carrie’s sprawled body, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) utters that immortal SATC line “Oh my God! She’s fashion roadkill!” Great, fun guest shots by Margaret Cho as the foulmouthed fashion show coordinator (her deadpan reaction to Carrie’s fall: “Fuck… me… hard”) and Alan Cummings as the fussy D&G assistant known only as “O” (his signature line “Me likey!”) The late makeup artist Kevin Aucoin also appears as himself backstage.

2. “I Love A Charade”:

It was the final episode of Season 5, neatly wrapping up some plot lines while leaving a few tantalizing suggestions of things to come.

Nathan Lane guests as lounge singer Bobby Fine (“the gayest gay man in New York”) who, to everyone’s surprise, is engaged and madly in love with society hostess Bitsy Von Muffling. Our four heroines head to the Hamptons for the wedding. Charlotte brings new lover, Harry, although she’s embarrassed by his crudeness and his very hairy back. Samantha hosts a party at the home of her former lover, Richard Wright; when some of Richard’s younger, hotter bedmates crash the party, Samantha ends up hurling melons at them (and breaking a window in the process.) Miranda succumbs to an afternoon roll in the hay with Steve, with regrets initially. But as the Hamptons weekend wears on, she begins to think more fondly of him. And Carrie is unexpectedly reunited with Jack Berger, now single and available.

Lane is a hoot as you’d expect, but he also displays tender and genuine affection towards his bride-to-be. And this leads Carrie and friends to ponder the mysteries of love and companionship and whether you can get by without the “zha zha zhou -that great, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when you don’t just love ’em but you’ve gotta have ’em.” At the episode’s end, everyone’s dancing. Harry and Charlotte admit they’re falling for each other, but as he tells Charlotte, “I’m Jewish, I have to marry a Jew.” (Charlotte’s retort: “That gay guy can marry a woman, and you can’t marry an Episcopalian?!”). Carrie and Berger, together at last, take a first step towards a relationship (SJP in a billowing, tentlike strapless number is undisguisably pregnant here; the season ended not a moment too soon.) And the camera pulls away from the dance floor to capture a final image of a butterfly on a lilac branch, fluttering its wings to the distant strains of the orchestra.

1. “Splat!”:The perfect episode and a truly great 30 minutes of television.

Alexandr (Mikhail Baryshnikov) has asked Carrie to come to Paris with him to live while he opens a new exhibit there. As longtime viewers know, this is a very significant invitation; when Big went to Paris for work four years before, he issued no such invitation to Carrie. But while she is thrilled with Alexandr’s offer, Carrie finds it isn’t an easy decision to go. For one, her friends seem more concerned for her than happy, possibly underscoring her own unspoken doubts about leaving a city, a job and a life that have come to comprise her very identity. And as she ponders, all the bleakest possible warning signs about growing old alone in New York manifest themselves before her. Enid, her persnickety editor at Vogue, sheepishly asks Carrie to fix her up with a party date, then makes a play for Alexandr with Carrie looking on in astonishment. ” Musing about the shortage of available partners for a 50ish woman, Enid tells Carrie “It’s a small pool. It’s a very small pool – it’s a wading pool! So, why are you in my pool?”

Carrie has no time to answer. One of her old buddies, overaged party girl Lexi Featherston (Kristen Johnson) has returned from coking up in the ladies’ room and needs a place to smoke. It’s snowing outside, so she cracks open a window, tells off the fellow partygoers, proclaims she’s “so bored I could die” and then catches her Manolo on the ledge, trips and plunges 18 stories to her death.

What follows are the quietest (and, strangely enough, loveliest) moments in the series’ history: a montage of hushed, snowy, exterior shots culminating with Carrie’s announcement to Alexandr, “I’m coming to Paris.” It’s a decision motivated by fear, of course; Carrie has glimpsed a future in New York with only two options – lonely desperation or tragic death. As she tells her friends in the funeral scene that follows, “Ladies, after a certain age, when you’re single in New York, there’s only one to place to go and that’s down.”

“Eighteen stories down to be exact,” quips Miranda.

She isn’t fooled, she knows Carrie is making a mistake. The ensuing scene between Parker and Cynthia Nixon as they walk away from the funeral still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, even after untold repeat viewings. Their escalating argument feels real and immediate, and Miranda’s admission that she doesn’t like Alexandr is ours as well. We’ve all seen that he’s a smug, arrogant prick. And yet… he’s pretty dashing and handsome and romantic,too. In the final shot, he’s whisking Carrie through a snow-blanketed Central Park in a horse-drawn sleigh, a romantic image if there ever was one.

In time, we learned that Paris wasn’t magical, Alexandr wasn’t good for Carrie, and that “our girl” belonged in New York with her friends and Mr. Big. But at the end of this episode, anything seemed possible.

(photos from

Movies, Stress and Blogging to China
May 24, 2008, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Blogging to China

While movie-blogging is my avocation, my “real” career is in IT.

Sometimes, these occupations do not co-exist peacefully.

Major work deadlines have been hanging over my head recently, and I’ve been putting in a serious amount of overtime. This has has left me somewhat depleted and stressed at the mere thought of grappling with multiplex crowds for a seat at “Iron Man” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Nor have I been able to get my tired ass to a theater to see a great indie flick like “Young at Heart” or “The Visitor.” Instead, I’ve been sticking close to an ever-buzzin’ Blackberry, running 4 am conference calls between various engineers and programmers (don’t ask), and continually haggling with end users over realistic delivery dates for the new systems we’re building for them.

The news ain’t all bad, however.

In between my almost-daily IT crises, I’m also struggling to prepare for a choir trip to China which kicks off in a mere 4 1/2 weeks. My life is an endless to-do list (“Get Hepatitis A vaccine,” “Arrange for neighbor to feed cat,” “Learn some basic phrases in Mandarin” and so on. ) In late June, I’ll be travelling with a local community college choir to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai to perform in pre-Olympics celebrations. We’ll be joining up with about 300 other singers from choirs around the United States to perform such venerable classics as Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Leonard Bernstein’s “Olympic Hymn,” and the ever-popular “Carmina Burana” (which can currently be heard in those Gatorade commercials with the still, black-and-white sports photos.)

OK, I’m pretty sure I lost everyone’s sympathies there. Tell people you’ve been on a conference call at four in the morning and you’re bound to get a shoulder to cry on. Tell them you’re crazed because you’re going to China in four weeks, and you won’t have many tears shed for you. I fully realize that I have a pretty high-class set of worries here.

And I assure you, I’m thrilled to be taking this trip-of-a-lifetime (and getting to actually do some of things on my master to-do list – as in “Things to do before I Die” – such as stand on the Great Wall, see the Forbidden City and attend the Beijing Opera.) But I’m also a bit pissed that work commitments are preventing me from fully savoring these anticipatory weeks leading up to the trip. When I have time, I squeeze in a little reading from my Eyewitness Travel Guide to Beijing and Shanghai or a few pages of Fuschia Dunlop’s delightful culinary memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.”

And, once in a while, I watch a movie.

In the spirit of preparing for my trip and boning up on Chinese culture and history, I recently rented “Farewell My Concubine.” I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters in the mid-90s, and it was a welcome reunion between this moviegoer and a great film. In just under three hours, it chronicles the 50-year friendship between two men who meet as boys in a troupe of street performers, ascend to stardom in the Beijing Opera, and ultimately are undone by China’s political upheavals, from the war with Japan to the Cultural Revolution. The historical underpinnings of the story give it an epic sweep, while the story of the two men, Douzi and Shitou, remains highly personal and intimate.

The third main player in the story is a courtesan named Juxian, played by Gong Li. I hadn’t realized just what an amazing screen presence she has till I re-watched her dramatic entrance in this film. When we initially see Juxian, it’s from some distance as struggles with a few men at the second-story railing of her brothel. To escape them she jumps – and lands in the arms of Shitou. There is a cut to her startled face as Shitou catches her, and the film gets a jolt of electric energy; you know right away that this character is a force to be reckoned with and that Shitou’s life and loyalties have been forever changed. Juxian eventually becomes Shitou’s wife, and Li’s performance as her character navigates the tricky, delicate relationship between Shitou and his loyal friend, Douzi, is never less than fascinating.

“Farewell My Concubine” is also a visually gorgeous film, the kind where I just wanted to freeze the frame every so often and admire the composition and lighting in an individual shot. Still haunting me is a shot of a very young Douzi though a single pane of a nearly frosted-over window, a image of great poignancy in the early part of the film.

More and more in these stress-filled days, I find I am drawn to films which are beautiful to look at, even if not much is going on plotwise. Which brings me the next film –

Over the past week, I’ve watched Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” twice in its entirety. To say that it’s beautiful is to state the painfully obvious – why wouldn’t it be beautiful? You’ve got the palace of Versailles as a set; loads of voluminous, frou-frou 18th century gowns and waistcoats and towering hairdos on your main characters; and the sweetly photogenic Kirsten Dunst in the title role. How could anyone make an ugly movie, given all that visual splendor to work with?

As I recall, this film was booed at its debut at Cannes. And I’ll admit that Coppola doesn’t seem to have much more aptitude for history or politics than does the frivolous, fashion-obsessed young queen whose life story she’s telling. But taken on its own terms, “Marie Antoinette” is a compelling confection of mood and atmosphere. It’s the fasion magazine approach to French history, but then, I’ve always enjoyed a good fashion magazine.

Coppola took some heat for her frequent use of current-day pop tunes on the film’s soundtrack; I’ll admit it has the effect of reducing singificant portions of the story to a series of entertaining-but-shallow music videos. But then again, why not? The point seems to be that the young queen, married to a doltish young king who can’t quite figure out how to consummate his marriage, is bored and restless and compulsively filling her life with empty pleasures. Why not show her and her best friends stuffing themselves with pastries and trying on cute shoes to the accompaniment of “I Want Candy”?

It’s actually quite effective, too, when the tone of the film abruptly changes as the monarchy falls out of favor: the 20th century hit tunes are gone and we hear only somber, period-appropriate music from this point on. The soundtrack gives us a clear message before we even get our first glimpse of an angry mob: the party’s over at Versailles and the day of reckoning has come.

Those final scenes in “Marie Antoinette” are harrowing. There’s a palpable, nearly unbearable sense of dread as we watch the king dining in near darkness as angry mobs outside scream for his death. And, for me, the film’s concluding scenes are nearly perfect. There are no bloody beheadings cheered by angry Parisians. Instead, we see Versailles, bathed in autumnal light as glimpsed from a retreating carriage window. Then a black screen. Then a lingering shot of a ransacked room in the palace – a chandelier lying shattered on the floor, a door pulled halfway off its hinges, furniture overturned and broken. It’s an understated yet devastating visual image for the end of an era. No blood-drenched drama at the guillotine would have carried the same impact.

A Week without Doodads!
May 15, 2008, 1:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been a crazy week in my world – working overtime, choir concerts and more.
I’m squeezin’ in cinema where and when I can, and I hope to be back in the blogosphere next week!

Dancin’ behind the Iron Curtain: "East Side Story"
May 9, 2008, 2:01 am
Filed under: Musicals

If you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to shuffle over to the “Invitation to the Dance” blogathon over at Ferdy on Films, which continues through Sunday. It’s been a great week of thoughtful articles and fabulous dance film clips.

And, in the spirit of the festivities, I’m rerunning the following post which originally appeared here last year. I only wish I had been able to find some clips on You Tube to accompany this story, but there were none to be had. So just try to imagine…

If you’re a lover of musicals with a taste for the offbeat, you might enjoy “East Side Story,” a 1997 documentary about the musical films of the Soviet Communist era. Yes, you read that right. Turns out Joseph Stalin was a fan of the movie musical genre (who knew?)and happily supported an industry which cranked out song-and-dance spectaculars about the joys of working on the farms or in the factories of the glorious Socialist state.

Like, for example,”Tractor Drivers,” in which men on tractors and women with pitchforks sing happily about “harvesting wheat to make the bread/to feed our heroes and athletes.” (Presumably there were a whole lot of perfectly ordinary comrades partaking of that same bread, but why sing about them, right?)

In another film, a fresh-faced platinum blonde in peasant garb sings to her pigs as she leads them to the trough: “All I ask is that you eat and get fat!” Hog sloppin’ never looked like this much fun before, and the young songstress is actually quite charming. I was dying to see more of that number.

In fact, that’s the biggest letdown of “East Side Story.” You always want to see more than it shows you. It teases you with clips that are outrageous, astonishing or just plain silly, but they’re usually too abbreviated to really give you a sense of what’s going on. Just when you’re really getting interested, there’s a cutaway to one of many “talking heads,” former actors and directors from Socialist film studios of the era. Their commentary is unvaryingly humorless and glum; no one who worked in that era has a snarky or sarcastic perspective on it. Rather, it’s all presented at face value. After awhile, you find yourself wanting either a good, smart-assed remark (’cause you’re certainly thinking up a few of your own).

Much like their Hollywood counterparts, the musicals of the Stalin era presented fantasy worlds into which its characters (and audiences) could escape. That’s what the solemn, scholarly narrator tells us anyway. Unfortunately, her comments play over a dream sequence in which a sort of Guardian Angel/Comrade wakens a young woman and whisks her off to a gleaming, golden city. Here she is taken to a huge factory (the machines so loud she has to cover her ears) where she is given… a broom! Yes, that’s right; this character’s Utopian vision is to sweep a factory floor! It’s hard to believe that even the staunchest party apparatchik thought they could pass this off as heaven on earth. Those of us in the West whose personal musical-comedy Utopias contain Fred Astaire in white tie and tails and a swanky Manhattan penthouse or two can be forgiven for dreaming a little bigger, I think.

When Stalin died, so did the Soviet Union’s musical film industry, but other Communist countries started producing their own takes on the Western musical form, usually subverted to glorify party ideals. As in the Stalinist films, there is frequently a lovely young woman in coveralls pirouetting and jeteing joyously over and around factory machinery.

Two particularly intriguing films, to which “East Side Story” devotes an extensive chunk of its running time, are “My Wife Wants to Sing” and “Midnight Revue.” The first is a comedy about a housewife who dreams of a singing career, to the dismay of her ultra-traditional husband. She sings around the house while perfectly coiffed and dressed to the nines -which I suspect was not the usual mode of attire for East German housewives. But such glamour was entirely the point; films like this were made to compete with the big-budget American musicals that were luring Germans into West Berlin theatres. (Another briefly featured and delicious scene features a whole kick line of East German “Rockettes” in fishnets.) The latter film, “Midnight Revue,” is a comedy in which a group of writers is kidnapped by the party and forced to write a musical. Like “My Wife Wants to Sing,” it is filmed in color and looks and feels very much like the Hollywood musicals of the same era (the 1950s). These are two movies I really would like to see in their entirety.

“East Side Story” winds down with a look at the Soviet Union’s attempt to cash in on the “youth musical” market of the 1960s with a swingin’ Socialist tunefest called “The Hot Summer.” It opens with groups of young men and young women singing about how hot – how really, really hot! – it is today. (“If I see some cool water, I’ll jump right in,” the boys tell us.) It’s at this moment, that you most long for a good shot of snark from the narrator; these “hot” youngsters might be considerably cooler if they peeled off their long-sleeved jackets and turtleneck sweaters and headed for some shade trees instead of dancing around on sun-baked city pavement. I guess it comes down to this: whether a musical is borne of Socialist ideals or Western decadence, logic is the least of its concerns.

"The Company"
May 5, 2008, 1:30 am
Filed under: Robert Altman

The following article is part of the Invitation to the Dance blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films.

I’ve never been a lace-tutu-and-pink-ballet-slipper kind of girl.

There’s not a pastel color to be found in my closet, nor has a single Degas print ever graced the walls of my home.

“The Red Shoes” I didn’t get at all. While women around me were sniffling and sobbing, I was rolling my eyes and thinking “Why would a beautiful, talented woman like Moira Shearer throw herself off a balcony over a drip like Marius Goring?”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my favorite ballet film is thoroughly unsentimental and unconventional. Moreover, it was directed by the man whose work had such an impact on me as a teenager that I wanted to become a film critic just so I could capture and share what I had found in it — Robert Altman.

“The Company” wasn’t initially an Altman project, but rather the idea of Neve Campbell. Yes, that’d be Neve Campbell of the “Scream” movies and “Party of Five.” Not exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think “ great dance film,” but Campbell, in fact, was a dancer from the age of six, trained in classical ballet. It was her dream to make a realistic film about life in a dance company, and she and screenwriter Barbara Turner spent over a year observing and traveling with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company in preparation. Altman was Campbell’s first choice to direct, and – despite his protests that he knew nothing about dance and didn’t know how to approach the film – he eventually accepted the challenge.

Altman shot the film in Chicago, where Neve Campbell became a sort of temporary member of the Joffrey company, training and performing with them while playing the role of an up-and- coming dancer named Ry. And apart from Malcolm McDowell (who steals many a scene as the imperious, self-absorbed artistic director), all other dancers, choreographers and administrators are played by actual members of the Joffrey Ballet company itself, giving the film an unspectacular but engrossing, documentary-like feel.

It’s not a heavily plotted film. There’s a story of sorts, but it doesn’t have a predictable dramatic arc. What we get instead is a look at one season in the life of the Joffrey company. We see rehearsals, performances, staff meetings, even the annual “Christmas Roast” at which the dancers spoof the ballets they’ve performed over the past year. Through it all, Altman keeps a respectful distance from the dancers, both emotionally and physically. We’re allowed to observe the daily hubbub of hallway conversations and dressing room banter, but the camera is held at a discreet distance and the sound design is conceived so that those hallway conversations have the feeling of being overheard in passing, rather than the focus of a scene. Except for occasional scenes in Ry’s apartment, we see very little of the dancers’ personal lives.

“The Company” touches on the themes common to all films about ballet dancers: the physical demands, the potential for serious injury, the competition to become a principal dancer, and the difficulty of having a satisfying personal life outside of the dance studio. But it deviates from the standard ballet film template in the lack of dramatic weight it gives to these issues. You have to watch very carefully to catch moments such as the crestfallen expression of a dancer after she’s cut from a number or the interchanges between Ry and a male dancer about their recent romantic breakup. Such moments are treated casually, even perfunctorily.

When one dancer falls while executing a series of jetes (we hear her Achilles tendon snap with an abrupt, sickening sound), the camera doesn’t allow us close enough to really see her reaction. Instead, Altman cuts to an overhead shot of the injured dancer sitting on the stage floor, then cuts back so we can see her being briefly attended to and carried off stage, then brusquely replaced by another dancer. Later we’ll see her on crutches, watching in the wings as her replacement performs, but we still won’t be able to tell how she feels about it.

In the film’s final performance scene, Ry dances a featured role, but falls and badly injures her shoulder. She’s rushed off and quickly replaced for the finale (and it wasn’t until my third viewing that I realized that the dancer who replaces Campbell is the same one she replaced in an earlier ballet). Moments later, as the company takes its curtain calls, Campbell is shown laughing with her boyfriend offstage, her arm in a sling.

The message is clear: pain and heartbreak are all a part of the company’s daily business. The dancers deal with it and move on. Emotional and physical traumas are swept to the edges of the film, while the dancing itself becomes the central and overriding focus. (Unlike lesser directors who’ve made forays into the unfamiliar territory of the dance film, Altman mines the real drama from the dance numbers, not from the backstage/rehearsal room doings. If only Richard Attenborough had learned that lesson before he desecrated “A Chorus Line.”)

There are ten ballets in “The Company,” each filmed in its entirety. And every time a ballet begins, the film comes to a hushed halt and we witness moments that are perfect and beautiful and remind us what all that pain, struggle and discipline are in service of. Because they’re shot in high-definition video, these scenes come closer than those in any other dance film I can recall to giving a sense of “being there,” of witnessing a live performance rather than one staged exclusively for film. Plus the technique allowed Altman to shoot with as many as five cameras, and the variety of angles – from full-stage shots to close-ups of individual dancers to the occasional aerial shot – are seamlessly edited to convey the energy and flow of movement in each ballet.

Campbell’s Ry is refreshing and unique among film ballerinas in that she doesn’t seem particularly invested in becoming a principal dancer. The possibility is discussed, but at the film’s end it still isn’t clear whether she’ll achieve that status, and Campbell gives no indication that she cares one way or another. She seems satisfied just to be in the corps.

Even more refreshing: Ry manages neither to have her heart broken by the company lothario (as did Leslie Browne in “The Turning Point” and Amanda Schull in “Center Stage”), nor to find true love incompatible with her dedication to dance (as did the aforementioned Moira Shearer). Rather, she’s allowed to have a happy, thriving relationship with a handsome chef (James Franco.) And that relationship is foreshadowed in the film’s most heart-stoppingly romantic pas de deux.

Campbell and Joffrey dancer Domingo Rubio dance to “My Funny Valentine” on an outdoor stage, just as a thunderstorm is picking up strength. Winds blow the musicians’ sheet music off their stands, the audience puts up umbrellas, rain pelts the stage. And yet the two dancers continue, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around each other, seemingly lost in each other and in the dance. The wind and rain only intensify the romantic poignancy and yearning in the ballet, suggesting two young lovers who cling to each other in the face of all adversity. See for yourself:

Ry and her boyfriend will also face some disappointment and adversity, but when the closing credits roll, they’re still happily together. And to underscore the ballet’s significance, we hear some version of “My Funny Valentine” playing in the background of every one of their scenes together.

“The Company” ultimately gives a compelling depiction of how beautiful and powerful great dancing can be without over-romanticising the process. Likewise, it fully conveys how difficult and painful it can be to dance beautifully, but without suffocating its dancers in tragedy.
Its greatness lies in Robert Altman’s measured, clear-eyed approach, and shows what a great filmmaker can bring to even the most unfamiliar of worlds. I, for one, am glad he accepted Neve Campbell’s challenge.