Sleepless in Seattle and other stories

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everybody has a soft spot for the movies of their youth, for those few brief years where movies were the real thing, before you realized that the cinema didn’t reflect real life. A nostalgia for the trappings and conventions of them will follow you throughout your life. You might grow up to be a famous director, a pre-eminent film critic, or the president of the United States–but no matter how many movies you watch or how respectable your taste becomes, you’re always going to feel a tug for those adventure serials or campy exploitation flicks that you grew up watching.

For me, it’s that late ’80s/early ’90s brand of romantic/family comedies. The female lead is usually played by Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn, Daryl Hannah or some other whimsically goofy blonde designed to resemble them as much as possible. If you don’t want a blonde for some reason, then Julia Roberts will suffice in a pinch. (Brunettes were verboten; to cast a brown-haired actress meant you were making a serious movie.) The male lead is always Tom Hanks, except when it’s Steve Martin. The characters are always from that sort of gracious old-money background that’s never called “rich,” but rather painted as middle-class: they live in a white-columned house in the suburbs of Chicago or San Francisco, their family Thanksgiving get-togethers involve 12 sets of matching china, real silver and elaborate floral centerpieces. They have family heirlooms and the kind of jobs that involve work cocktail parties complete with big bands. The plots center around elaborate romantic situations–usually love triangles, often involving amnesia, comas, or falling in love with prostitutes.

The funny thing is that none of these movies would work for me if they were made today. By the time You Got Mail rolled around in 1998, it already wasn’t working for me. We had done away with the romantic, vaguely historical, pre-cell phone era of my childhood and ushered in a new world filled with “the internet” and chain bookstores. And I know I’m preaching to the classic-movie fan choir here, but who wants that? Why do I have to live in a world where people prefer the version of Parfumerie where Hungarian perfume and love letters are replaced with AOL and the implicit approval of chain stores taking over mom & pops? The problem with modern movies trying to pull off these plots is that it stretches the boundaries of credibility, whereas with classic movies, you can always suspend your disbelief: maybe it was like that in the olden days. Maybe people really did fall in love with someone just by hearing them talk about their dead wife on the radio a few times. Or, as the characters in Sleepless in Seattle surmise about the movies of their youth, maybe people really were fated to be together in the end, back in the golden days. Now, of course, we know better. But the past–that’s different. The past is a country where anything could happen.

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Romeo + Juliet

November 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

After watching MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, I was struck with the urge to watch Romeo + Juliet and see how it had aged. Despite watching both it and the (much more critically acclaimed) Zeffirelli version at the same age, I still have vivid images of the former imprinted on my brain while all scenes but the latter’s morning-after bit have been neatly excised. (And that only because we had to watch it in English class–the experience of watching bare-assed actors in front of your 14-year-old classmates was too emotionally traumatic to bear.) I was counting on it to have aged badly, in the same way Moulin Rouge! once felt so emotionally resonant and deep and tragic and I cried at the ending every time, etc. etc., but now just feels like a cheap carnival. I am a perennial setter of low expectations.

It’s funny how, at the time, Leo and Claire seemed like a relatively well-matched pair. He was known more for his teen heartthrob status than for his middleweight acting skills, and she was (fairly) fresh off My So-Called Life. I recall her being the Thinking Boy’s Hollywood Crush in those days: accessibly pretty, smart or at least capable of appearing so in interviews, could act, more or less. Nowadays, if you go to the IMDB message boards (always good for a diversion), you get a lot of hysterical 13-year-olds wondering why they cast someone SO UGLY opposite Leo, and how it should have been someone more famous. His respective star rose exponentially after this proof of his likeability as a romantic hero anticipated the next year’s Titanic; hers has been falling ever since she was declared persona non grata during post-Brokedown Palace interviews.

At any rate, the acting was even more cringe-inducing than I remembered it being. Even at 14, I still remember watching it and occasionally thinking, “This is just Too Much.” A number of the actors yell their lines as opposed delivering them. (On the plus side, all the yelling probably gave Mercutio’s Harold Perrineau good practice for his incessant “WAAAAAAAAAAAALT!”s on Lost.) But if there’s one thing Baz Luhrmann can do, it’s fully commit to an artistic vision. Neon crosses flanking pews in a church aisle, Christ the Redeemer rip-offs, priests with tattoos, “When Doves Cry” washing over you from the choir loft–the blend of the holy with the profane permeates every crevice of the film. (This academic paper more fully explores the subject, if you’re into that kind of thing.) There’s not a single scene here that could belong in another movie. Even the “two characters provide exposition in the back of a car” scenes are punctuated by the cross that dangles behind the two. In fact, crosses are so ever-present that they even appear in the + of the title.

It’s that commitment that makes the movie work for me, even when the actors’ delivery is all wrong (WAAAAAAAAALT) or when they don’t appear to know what they’re saying. It’s the same reason that Moulin Rouge! worked despite the 1980s pop songs appearing in a turn-of-the-previous-century setting. In both films, Luhrmann attends to the commitment to his “vision” (eye-rollingly pretentious as that is) so completely that the films become fantasies. Romeo + Juliet isn’t set in our world any more than Moulin Rouge! was; it’s set in an alternate universe with an alternate history all its own. In that world, maybe the actors’ over-the-top line delivery is just how people speak. In that world, maybe Danes’ delivery of Shakespeare actually makes sense.

Like Searching for Meaning in a Pauly Shore Movie: Why Clueless Is One of the Best Comedies Ever Made

August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Clueless turned 15 this summer, which means it’s high time I catalogued its virtues for you. In a blog dedicated to women in film beyond Twilight and its ilk, why start with a romantic comedy? Because I’m a firm believer in the fact that chick flicks don’t have to insult our collective intelligence. Clueless is a rom-com done right–truly funny, charming, and smarter than it’s given credit for. Here are six reasons why Clueless is one of the greatest comedies ever made:

1) You may or may not know that Clueless is an updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Updates are tough. Adhere too slavishly to the source material, and the new version seems stilted. Deviate too far from it, and you might as well not even call it an update. Clueless is one of those rare films that works perfectly either as an adaptation or not; you can watch it either way without losing a thing. Watch it as an adaptation and you find that every plot note and character is pitch-perfect compared to the novel. Watch it as an original work and it stands on its own. This doesn’t sound that hard, but just try to name an equally seamless update. (If you want to make it hard on yourself, eliminate anything based on the works of Shakespeare.)

2) Amy Heckerling did more world-building in this movie than your average fantasy novelist. In order to not make the movie’s slang and fashion seem dated by the release date, she created all of it from scratch. It worked; the movie now seems suspended in some faux-1990s wonderland that never really existed. The movie had a big impact on fashion–babydoll dresses and thigh-highs were huge–but some of the invented slang (“I’m Audi,” for example) soon entered the real world, too.

3) There are so many allusions that fly over your head when you watch this movie as a kid–the parodies of Gigi, the clues sprinkled throughout to Christian’s sexuality–but perhaps my favorite is the fact that Cher and her friends attend Bronson Alcott High School. Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was a teacher best known for his idea that students should discipline their teachers rather than the reverse. Fitting!

4) Alicia Silverstone nails Cher. Jane Austen once described the character of Emma (on whom Cher is based), as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” While society’s tolerance for spoiled brats has increased somewhat since the Regency era, let’s face it–it’s still a hard sell to turn a  heroine who is rich, gorgeous, shallow, selfish and irresponsible into someone likable. But the self-deprecating charm of Alicia Silverstone manages it from the opening line.

5) It’s infinitely quoteable. “That’s Ren and Stimpy; they’re way existential.” “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” Almost every joke in the movie is funny, but the humor transcends verbal wit into the visual and physical realms as well.

6) Clueless is Paul Rudd’s major movie debut. I have a major thing for Paul Rudd–in his Clueless incarnation, in his Knocked Up incarnation, probably even in his Anchorman incarnation. Paul Rudd can do no wrong. I once described his portrayal of Josh in this movie as “the perfect man, except for the fact that he wears tapered jeans.” (A friend whom I was watching the movie with at the time said that this quote inspired him to stop wearing tapered jeans, and he’s been a ladies magnet ever since. See, Clueless changes lives!) The Opposites Attract theme is one of my favorites if it’s done well, and the final ten minutes of this movie still tug on my heartstrings every time I watch it.

Of course, that brings us to the movie’s only significant flaw: the fact that, as former stepsiblings, Cher and Josh hooking up is . . . just a little bit icky. I know, some of you can get past that. You’re probably also the kind of people who didn’t mind Margot and Richie’s being secretly in love in The Royal Tenenbaums. You probably rooted for Marcia and Greg to get together on The Brady Bunch. You’re weird. In Emma, the Josh equivalent was a family friend; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have been the same in Clueless. Still, dealing with this singular flaw is minor enough when contrasted with watching the movie’s infinite virtues. Put the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on your CD player, bust out your best plaid, and prepare to get nostalgic.

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