Doodad Kind of Town

Thoughts on "Grey Gardens" … and "’Grey Gardens"
April 23, 2009, 10:18 pm
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This past week – all week- I’ve been on go: choir rehearsals, yoga classes, seeing friends’ community theatre plays and choir concerts, and generally doing my very best impersonation of an extrovert. (Hence the lack of posts on this blog in those last seven days). In part, my “get-up-and-go”-ness is a natural reaction to the warm and sunny spring weather that arrived here this week, a chance to shake off my wintertime torpor and reclusiveness and come to life again. Like a polar bear, I have a natural tendency to hibernate during the coldest months. And, in the words of George Harrison, “little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.”

But then, nothing shakes a girl out of her solitude like spending some cinematic time with the Beale women, Big Edie and Little Edie. If they aren’t a cautionary tale about keeping yourself away from the world, I don’t know who would be.

I spent last Sunday – a cold, grey and rainy day- watching first the legendary Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens,” then the new HBO film (also called “Grey Gardens”) based on that documentary. For the uninitiated, the original “Grey Gardens” was the startling portrait of former socialites, Edith Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Beale, who were found living without heat or running water in the raccoon-infested, trash-strewn shell of their formerly luxurious East Hampton estate. By the time the Maysleses arrived, the Beales’ famous cousin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had paid to clean and refurbish their mansion; nonetheless, they continued to live mostly in a single upstairs room chiefly furnished with a set of twin beds and a mini-fridge full of ice cream and canned pate. And they had cats. Lots of cats. I live with a cat; these women lived with CATS!!!!!)

Our ongoing guilty fascination with “Grey Gardens” (also the source for a 2007 Broadway musical) is not just that the two women – once so rich, beautiful and promising – had descended into horribly impoverished circumstances. It’s more to do with their unapologetically weird co-dependent relationship, one which that they were all too happy to parade in front of the Mayleses’ documentary cameras.

The self-appointed star of the film is 56-year-old “Little Edie” still dreaming of her “big chance” to become a singer and dancer. Thrilled at the presence of the cameras, Little Edie twirls, croons and flirts with the Mayleses, while wearing a succession of bizarrely improvised costumes. (Having lost all her hair in a extreme reaction to emotional stress, Edie was fond of wrapping her head in old sweaters secured with enourmous decorative brooches.) She clearly envisions their film as her long-hoped-for ticket to stardom. Big Edie, by contrast, is the realist and the scold, endlessly entreating her daughter to stop singing and stop making a fool of herself. Little Edie repeatedly complains that she needs to leave Grey Gardens; Big Edie repeatedly reminds her that she could have left at any time – but never will.

In her enthusiastic cluelessness about her lack of talent or the “freakshow” nature of her appeal, Little Edie is the spiritual godmother of every deluded “American Idol” hopeful, plus the hundreds of others who – thirty-five years later – embarrass themselves weekly in the wasteland of reality television. Over the years, she’s become a sort of beloved icon, while Big Edie is typically remembered as the repressive villain of the piece. But for me, Big Edie, however eccentric she may be, is the voice of reason and reality that her daughter desperately needs to hear. Big Edie was herself a singer. Not as good a singer as she believes (we hear her warbly high soprano on a recording of “We Belong Together” early on), but one without unrealistic hopes of stardom. You get the impression she sang just for the love of singing; as she notes mournfully, “Singing is my favorite thing I’ve ever done since I was born.”

That same scene is beautifully interpreted by Jessica Lange in the new HBO film, “Grey Gardens”; it’s a testament to both Lange’s performance and that of Drew Barrymore, who plays Little Edie, that I have trouble remembering which scenes are in the documentary and which are in the new film. Both Lange and Barrymore nail the Beales’ grating Long Island/aristocratic accents, as well as their contentious co-dependency. Most of the documentary’s best remembered scenes are faithfully recreated in the new film, but there’s also the back story on the Beales, told in flashback, which allows us to see both Edies while they were still happy and beautiful, even as we get subtle hints of where their fragility and inability to cope will lead them.

Lange’s Big Edie is a flighty but likable society wife who loves nothing more than sending her husband (Ken Howard) off to work in the city each week, while she sings and entertains in her big house by the ocean. Barrymore’s Little Edie is a delicate and deluded beauty who struggles against her father’s plan to marry her off in the hopes of pursuing a career on stage. Both actresses achieve a compelling portrayal of the difficult, symbiotic relationship between these two women even in these early scenes. And you can clearly see both their charm and their maddening unwillingness to handle the less-than-glamorous details of their lives (such as housekeeping and paying bills).

In one particularly lovely and telling scene, the two of them dance a soft-shoe together to the accompaniment of “Cant’ Help Lovin’ That Man.” Briefly, we sense their mutual sense of fun and love of performing, but then Little Edie spins off into her own weird, dreamily improvised ballet, clearly seeing herself in that moment as a great dancer at work when she really just looks kind of goofy. Whereas Lange’s Big Edie just keeps dancing without any apparent agenda beyond just enjoying herself. But their performance is abruptly stopped when Mr. Beale shows up, and Barrymore’s terrified reaction to her father’s arrival is in notable contrast to Lange who appears happily unruffled by her husband’s displeasure. It’s a scene that encapsulates the Beales’ troubled interrelationships with gut-wrenching clarity.

The latter-day “Grey Gardens” is an almost perfect film, with a handful of ill-judged and jarring scenes thrown in for no other reason than to remind us that the Beales were related to Jackie Kennedy Onassis. In the worst of these, Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Jackie on a visit to the alarmingly dilapidated and waste-fouled Grey Gardens. Jackie has come to offer help to her aunt and cousin, and in Tripplehorn’s performance, you can see her heartbreak over the squalor she finds even as she displays well-bred graciousness. But Barrymore’s Little Edie, wrapped in the fur coat given to her by a former suitor, is strident and angry in the scene, making hostile circles around Jackie and haranguing her with the claim that “I was the Golden Girl! I should have been First Lady!” Nothing about those claims rings true; up to that moment, it’s been Edie’s stated dream to avoid marriage and sing on the stage. First Lady is the last role she’d have wanted to play. There’s also an awkwardly inserted scene of mother and daughter listening to JFK’s funeral on the radio that comes out of nowhere since JFK hasn’t been mentioned until that point, and it’s given undue tragic weight.

But those are small quibbles. For Barrymore and Lange, “Grey Gardens” is the sort of tour de force that has “Multiple Emmy Nominations” written all over it. Come September, it’ll be interesting to see if the actresses wind up competing for the same statuette. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them for the same honor, myself.

Quick Take: "State of Play"
April 19, 2009, 8:01 pm
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“State of Play” was the perfect choice for a Saturday matinee at the multiplex: an engrossing, competently made and well acted thriller that went down well with a bag of popcorn and a Diet Coke. And was easily forgotten afterwards.

If nothing else, it offers fresh evidence for the star power of Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren.

The film opens with a shaggy-haired Crowe driving his battered car too fast, rocking out to rowdy Irish music and gobbling Cheetos. That he turns out to be an old-school investigative journalist who writes stories on a 16-year-old computer and hates bloggers is no surprise; the character feels like a cliche of the renegade reporter from this very first scene. And yet, Crowe is so alive and attractive in that very first scene, that you don’t think “I get it. He’s old school.” Instead you think, “What a cool guy! I’d like to be in that car with him!” Even in his rumpled flannel shirts and beaten-up windbreaker, Crowe is always charismatic and, frankly, dead sexy.

Mirren is fine and feisty as the (inexplicably British) editor of the Washington Globe, the fictitious newspaper for which Crowe writes. Not surprisingly she make a meal of the role, gloriously bemoaning the “wankers” on her staff who miss out on the kind of juicy stories that sell papers. Mirren is like a shot of adrenaline to the story every time she appears.

The juciest story that Mirren’s reporters aren’t capturing to her satisfaction surrounds the up-and-coming Senator (Ben Affleck) whose high-profile investigation of corporate military contractors is disrupted by the death of young woman on his staff. When it’s revealed that she was the Senator’s mistress, the resulting scandal threatens to derail Affleck’s political ambitions. Mirren wants to print as much titillating dirt as possible to boost the Globe’s anemic circulation figures, but there’s just one problem: her star reporter (Crowe) is not only a stickler for thoughtful, detailed, unsensational reporting, but is also Affleck’s former college roommate and longtime close friend.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As if Crowe’s wrestling with ethical issues weren’t enough to pique your interest, there’s also a parallel investigation into the seemingly unrelated death of a nameless petty thief, ominous rumblings of government and corporate corruption, and the aftermath of Crowe’s affair with Affleck’s wife (Robin Wright Penn) to keep things complicated. Oh, and just to be sure we understand that Crowe is a cranky, old-fashioned kind of journalist, there’s also his reluctant collaboration with a spunky young Capitol Hill blogger(Rachel McAdams) in the pursuit of the facts.

I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to condense a highly acclaimed, six-hour BBC miniseries into a 118-minute theatrical package, but the resulting creation feels as if they bit off considerably more than they could chew. There’s too much plot going on here to allow for any real character development, let alone any serious reflection on the film’s underlying themes of friendship, loyalty, ethics, and the future of print journalism.

As the commercials tell you, there is a surprise twist. But despite what those same commercials promise, you may well see it coming. And even if you don’t, it’s unlikely to sock you in the solar plexus the way a really good plot twist should.

Coming Monday: "The Serpent’s Egg" at TOERIFC
April 18, 2009, 2:44 am
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Don’t forget to grab your copy of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” for this month’s installment of The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club (aka TOERIFC).

And may your copy be in better shape than mine; Netflix sent me a badly scratched and damaged disk that I haven’t been able to make it through yet. Fortunately, many key scenes from the film are also available on You Tube.

Bill from The Kind of Face You Hate will be hosting, and it promises to be a lively and provocative discussion. But you’ve got to watch it before you participate.

To give you an idea of what’s in store, here’s the original trailer:

See you Monday at Bill’s place!

Antonioni, Netflix, "L’ Eclisse" and Me
April 13, 2009, 9:41 pm
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Michaelangelo Antononi died on July 30, 2007. I joined Netflix on July 31, 2007.

These are not unrelated events.

On the day Antonioni died (which is also the day Ingmar Bergman died, but that’s another post), I realized with a start that I – who called myself a cinephile in general and a lover of foreign films in particular – had never seen a single one of the great Italian director’s films. And a Netflix subscription seemed the fastest way to remedy that. Within minutes, I had added several of his best-known works to my queue and waited in trepidation for the Antonioni oeuvre to start finding its way to my mailbox.

I say “in trepidation” because I’d always been intimidated by Antonioni, certain his films would fly far over my head and expose me for the intellectual fraud I’d always suspected I’d be. My lack of erudition and insight would be laid bare as I wrestled with the director’s fabled imagery, his landscapes of alienation and ennui, I just knew it. (Oh sure, I can write a phrase like “landscapes of alienation and ennui” but what does it really mean?)

“L’Avventura” was the first Netflix rental that ever landed in my mailbox. I won’t pretend it was a riveting romp. I won’t pretend that I didn’t start to nod off once or twice as I watched it. It was challenging and maddening, but every once in a while, there’d be an visual image that was so startling and meaningful to me, I’d have to hit the Pause button to take a closer look at it. And I began to understand what landscapes of alienation and ennui actually looked like. One shot of Monica Vitti, shot from inside a darkened room out onto a very long, blindingly white balcony, at the end of which Vitti stands looking very small and alone, stays with me to this day.

Having overcome my fear of Antonioni, I moved confidently on to “Blow Up”(which I loved) and “The Passenger”(which I didn’t love so much.) But Netflix queues being what they are – frequently shuffled and updated as new recommendations are culled from fellow bloggers and the demands of TOERIFC participation accumulate – the remaining Antonioni films got pushed lower and lower on the list.

So it was almost a surprise when “L’Eclisse” arrived last week, and not an entirely pleasant one.

After so many Antonioni-free months, I wasn’t sure I was up to tackling this one. And I was right to be wary. “L’Eclisse” is the kind of film that, at first glance, gives arthouse films a bad name. It walks right on the edge of pretentiousness and self-parody, and I really had to reign in my tendencies toward smart-assed dismissiveness in order to give it its proper due. In the end, “L’Eclisse” was rewarding, but I had to watch it twice to the get the sense of it. And I’m still not sure I ‘read” it correctly.

Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s frequent leading lady and offscreen paramour, is again the focus of the story (and I use the word “story” very loosely here, since the last thing you’ll ever get from Antonioni is a conventional narrative). That she’s a bit prone to mood swings is telegraphed to us before we even see her, by the music that plays over the opening credits. It starts out with an exuberant jazz number sung by a female vocalist that fades suddenly and is replaced by heavy, ominous orchestral music, suitable for a horror film soundtrack. Likewise, Vitti’s character is given to flights of high-spirited fancy, laughter and playfulness that end abruptly as she morphs into melancholy and despair. It’s as if she’s suddently scampered from a wild party into an existential void and is overcome by the meaningless of human existence even as confetti is swirling around her attractively tousled head. Vitti isn’t a particularly skilled actress, nor a sympathetic presence – she’s too aloof for us to take her to heart – so the effect of these sudden transitions is very nearly risible.

In the opening scenes of the film, Vitti is breaking up with her fiance, for reasons that neither makes clear. Over the course of the film, she drifts into a new affair with a stock market trader (Alain Delon). We’re meant to understand that their relationship is doomed because Delon is materialistic and crass, while Vitti is artistic and spiritual. (Delon’s sporty convertible is stolen by a drunk who drives it into the river and kills himself in the process. After the car is recovered, Delon frets about the repairs he’ll have to make, and Vitti, incredulous, asks “You’re worried about the dents?”)

But if Delon is a self-satisfied prick, Vitti isn’t much of a catch, either. We can see that she has an artistic soul from her constant fascination with objects – she’s forever handling and touching and dragging a finger over things in her home and everyone else’s. And she has a need to frame and arrange things. In about the second shot of the film, she’s holding a empty picture frame in front of objects on her fiance’s desk while reaching through it to rearrange and remove some of the objects. Later, when she first kisses Delon, it’s through some open latticework on a cabinet door, almost as if she needs to make that kiss into a pretty picture rather than just to experience it. In this respect, Vitti’s character is a stand-in for the director himself.

But ultimately the character has neither the energy and discipline to be a real artist, nor the ability to form lasting connections and bonds with other people, and therefore, she seems to me every bit as empty and shallow as Delon’s trader. She floats restlessly from experience to experience, and initiates, then flees from, intimacy and closeness with Delon and others, over and over again. Take the scene in which she accompanies friends on a flight to Verona. She’s reasonably chatty on the plane, but once they arrive, she wanders around the small airport alone. An American man tries to talk to her in a perfectly friendly, not unsavory, way, but she just backs away smiling vacantly. Later she tells her friend, “It’s so nice here!” but it rings false. The people she’s encountered at the airport aren’t people to her so much as objects to be admired from a comfortable distance. If Antonioni intends any self-criticism here, it isn’t apparent.

“L’Eclisse” ends with a series of shots of buses, apartment buildings and other mundane objects taken during a solar eclipse in 1961 (hence the title, which is Italian for “The Eclipse.”) The main characters have disappeared at this point, apparently never to meet again, and all we’re left with is these images which seem to belong to another film entirely. It was a puzzling and frustrating ending to me. But I’m not done with Antonioni just yet: “La Notte” is hanging tough at Number 4 in my Netflix queue. Let’s hope I don’t have to watch it twice to figure it out.

Happy Easter from Doodad Kind of Town !
April 11, 2009, 12:48 pm
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I’m going offline for a couple of days while I’m at my parents’ house for Easter. Happy holidays to all of you who celebrate them. And to those who don’t, have a wonderful weekend.

I’ll be back early next week with some thoughts on Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse.

Ten Favorite Characters: A Meme
April 7, 2009, 10:31 pm
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Yet another movie meme is spreading through the blogosphere like proverbial wildfire,and I’ve been tagged by Rick and Greg. The new challenge: Name 10 film characters that are your favorite and explain why. (You can find all the details at the site that started it all, Film Squish.)

As those who have previously tackled the 10 Characters meme will attest, it’s hard to draft a definitive list. Any lover of cinema can come up with one list today, but think of entirely new and different list by Friday. And yet another completely different list by this time next week.

But for April 7, 2009, these are the characters who come to mind as my most cherished:

1 and 2: Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) in The Awful Truth.

My favorite couple in the entire screwball comedy era. The oh-so-sophisticated Warriners may cheat now and then, but they really can’t live without each other. And they’re one of the fall-down-funniest married couples in screen history.

3. Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) in It Should Happen to You.

She wants to be famous, so she uses the last of her money to put her name on a Columbus Circle billboard. Seldom has a character’s naked ambition seemed so sweet. It takes a very smart actress to play dumb this effectively. Holliday’s “Born Yesterday” character, Billie Dawn, is better remembered, but I like Gladys just as well, if not better.

4.Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in Funny Face

I’m not sure where Maggie Prescott begins and Kay Thompson ends, but this is one powerhouse of a performance/character. A killer combination of high style, devastating wit, skyscraper gams and a brassy belter’s singing voice. As the fashion editor who commands her minions to “think Pink,” she easily runs off with the whole movie. And when she dances with Fred Astaire….you’re not watching Astaire.

5. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo

The plucky, pregnant police chief of Brainerd, MN (“home of Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox”). She pursues the bad guys almost cheerfully -no angst, no fuss. And her final speech (“… and for what? A little bit of money. Don’t you know there’s more to life than a little bit of money?”) is the closest thing to a voice of moral clarity in the film.

6. Joan (Judy Davis) in Children of the Revolution.

She’s a fervent Australian communist whose fan letters to Joseph Stalin earn her a trip to Moscow – and a night of passion with the Russian dictator. Stalin doesn’t survive that night, and Joan winds up pregnant with his child, a fact she conceals from her meek, devoted fiancee (Geoffrey Rush). No one plays difficult women with such unapologetic relish as does Davis, and Joan is one of her finest, most darkly comic creations. Best moment: Joan, in late middle age, rants at Gorbachev and glasnost: “Would you like fries with your McSocialism ?!”

7. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) in Broadcast News.

A stunning combination of insufferable arrogance, acid wit, biting intelligence, and embarrassingly obvious need for approval and attention. He makes you laugh and cringe at the same time. By all rights you shouldn’t be able to stand him and yet you feel terribly sorry for him when Holly Hunter passes him over for the slick and handsome William Hurt. A tour de force for Brooks who has a singular ability to turn egocentric jerks into sympathetic characters.

8 and 9. Mitch Cohen and Mickey Crabbe (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) in A Mighty Wind

As much as I enjoy Christopher Guest’s improvised ensemble comedies, I’d be the first to admit that the characters in them are usually just cartoons. Not so with Mitch and Mickey, the long-estranged folk-singing duo from “A Mighty Wind.” There’s a genuine depth and a delicacy to these characters; you can sense their long, difficult history together in the details of their interactions. O’Hara’s Mickey has a resigned, seen-it-all-and-moved-on weariness. Levy’s Mitch is at once poignant and hilarious,with a strange dignity behind his apparently drug-addled confusion. These are the kinds of nuanced,non-caricatured peformances only truly great improvisational comic actors can aspire to.

10. Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) in 84 Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff was a real person, and her epistolary friendship with a London bookseller was the basis for “84 Charing Cross Road.” Bancroft plays her as a veritable force of nature, feisty and enthusiastic. And her love of literature is positively infectious. (She reads John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” out loud to a fussy infant for whom she’s babysitting, and makes it seem like a perfectly sensible, wonderful thing to do.) But the greatest wonder of all is that Hanff is an over-40, never married woman who lives a full, vibrant and happy life -no pathetic evenings with a TV dinner and a romance novel, no unhealthy relationships with a cat. That’s exceedingly rare to find onscreen, if not in life. As a fortysomething single myself, I appreciate this kind of character all that much more.

Of course, the final step in any meme is to tag five more people. Since I’m lazy, I’ll just make this easy: if you’re reading this and you want to play along – consider yourself tagged!

Three With a Bullet – Lazy Reviews ala Power Point
April 2, 2009, 11:28 pm
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I don’t actually give up blogging for Lent. It only seems that way.

You see, I spend my non-blogging spare time singing in a couple of choirs. And Lent is for church choristers what tax season is for accountants – the busy season.

So around this time every year, Doodad Kind of Town becomes more like Ghost Town. (That’d be Ghost Town in the general, metaphoric sense, not as in the Ricky Gervais movie.) Between rehearsals for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter – plus rehearsals for our May 1 community choir concert of opera choruses – I have little time or energy to keep up with the movie revewin’ thang.

Which is not to say that I’m not seeing any movies, just that I’m too scattered to write intelligent analyses of them.

Then again, the films I’ve seen lately really don’t merit in-depth analysis. Modest both in their ambitions and in the pleasures they deliver, these films can be adequately summed up in a tossed-off, bullet-pointy way that doesn’t overtax my tired brain cells. And, God knows, I know my way around a bullet-point list, given the frequency with which I’m asked to crank out Power Point slides for presentations at work.

(At least these are supposed to look like Power Point slides, but the execution was a little dicey. Forgive me.)

I Love You, Man

  • Vanity Fair says Paul Rudd may be “this generation’s Jack Lemmon”
  • In this film, Jason Segel may be his Walter Matthau
  • The two actors have the kind of great, “buddy” chemistry of classic screen teams.
  • Why go to the trouble of casting Jane Curtin, and then give her nothing funny – or even interesting – to do?

  • Curtin plays Rudd’s mother.
  • She’s barely in the movie.
  • At least JK Simmons (playing Rudd’s dad) gets off one or two good lines. Curtin gets nothing.
  • The Great Buck Howard
    See it for John Malkovich

    His Buck Howard, a “mentalist” modeled on the Amazing Kreskin, is a wonderfully calibrated combination of cheeseball, show-biz smarm and honest, old-fashioned showmanship.

    Ignore the tiresome “isn’t he or isn’t he gay?” subplot surrounding his on/off friendship with former “Star Trek”actor George Takei

    Colin Hanks plays the law school dropout who becomes Howard’s road manager.

    His ineffectual performance actually seems right for a character who is primarily a passive observer in his own life.

    Another tiresome subplot: Dad shows up at innoportune times to browbeat him in to going back to law school. An excuse for Hanks’ real-life dad, (guess who – also the film’s producer) to make a cameo.

    Sunshine Cleaning

    Ways this film evokes earlier quirky indie flick “Little Miss Sunshine”:

  • The title
  • The presence of a dilapidated van
  • Dysfunctional family in which every member is nursing some private heartache
  • Alan Arkin plays a crusty, eccentric grandpa
  • Emily Blunt plays the deadpan/hipster sister who hides her own heartache behind her tattoos, piercings and lacerating wit.

  • Hey, isn’t this part usually played by Zooey Deschanel?
  • Actually, doesn’t Blunt kind of look like Deschanel here?
  • Lots of plot elements that don’t get explained or tied up properly:

  • Amy Adams’ fatherless son
  • A hinted-at attraction between Adams and a cleaning supply merchant that goes nowhere
  • Still, some lovely moments that surprise you:

    A scene between Adams and a old woman struggling to make sense of her husband’s suicide was so honestly sad and awful, it made me weep