Live a Little, Love a Little

February 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

Elvis and Michele Carey in Live a Little, Love a Little

Maybe it’s a stretch to call Live a Little, Love a Little a departure from the usual Elvis fare. After all, it’s a light comedy with a love triangle, wacky hijinks, plenty of beaches and a couple song breaks. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to deviate from the formula all that much. Elvis plays a photographer, Mike Nolan, who meets an unpredictable gal who:

  • a) tells him her name is Alice, then Susie, then Betty, and finally Bernice
  • b) is incredibly devoted to her Great Dane, Albert
  • c) drugs Elvis after he comes back to her house, leading to a surreal dream sequence set to Elvis’s song “Edge of Reality”
  • d) while he’s passed out, moves him out of his apartment and gets him fired from his job
  • e) isn’t exactly over her ex . . .

Somehow, despite his near-constant exasperation with her, Elvis is won over. (It doesn’t hurt that Michele Carey, who plays “Bernice,” is gorgeous. Sadly, that’s her character’s only redeeming feature.) In order to maintain the lifestyle that Bernice expects, and the swingin’ pad she’s set him up in, Elvis has to balance two photography jobs: one for the Playboy parody Classic Cat (where the receptionists wear cat ears) and another for a buttoned-up advertising firm (where the boss insists Elvis iron his slacks before he can proceed with the job interview). The comic plots that ensue are . . . well, exactly the plots you’d expect when you read that storyline.

But it was 1968 and the winds of change were in the air. Robert Kennedy was shot, black power was on the rise . . . and only thirty years after Rhett Butler, Elvis was allowed to say “damn” in a movie! Not only that, but after approximately 26 films consisting of us getting all talk about Elvis’s skills in the romance department, this one finally allowed him to deliver on those promises. (In the tamest sense of the word–he and Bernice are shown sleeping in the same bed.) This is still a romantic comedy, but it’s one that moves the emphasis from the (increasingly unromantic) romantic scenes of Elvis’s recent films to the screwball side, allowing Elvis to show off his comedic chops. But maybe Live a Little‘s biggest deviation from the Elvis movie norm is that it switches up his position in regards to theĀ  pursuit of passion: the hunter becomes the hunted.

In real life, of course, Elvis was the prey as often as he was the predator. Girls tried to climb on stage at concerts, threw underwear at him, dressed up as maids to sneak into his hotel rooms. After he’d reached a certain point in his stardom, Elvis never had to be the sexual predator–he had the Memphis Mafia to personally pick out girls for him and bring them back to his room. While he engaged in no shortage of make-out sessions, many women complained that their encounters with Elvis hadn’t gone much further than that–and when they did, the women usually ended up disappointed. (“He can sing,” said Natalie Wood after a brief fling, “but he can’t do much else.”) With that in mind, the love triangles and rectangles of Elvis’s earlier films can be read as an attempt to sell an image in which he never felt entirely secure. Live a Little instead allows him to drop the international heartthrob mask and play a role seemingly much closer to reality: that of a manĀ exasperated by an unwanted and never-ceasing onslaught of feminine attention. It’s through this swap that Live a Little gives us its most interesting twist on the traditional Elvis flick.

Baby step by baby step, Live a Little, Love a Little pulls away from the formula fare, beginning to forge a new prototype for an Elvis comedy. It’s not all there, but you can see where it might have led. Unfortunately, we never got to see that evolution play out. With only three films left before Elvis’s retirement from the silver screen, this was the last romantic comedy he ever made.

The Trouble with Angels

April 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s movies like this that make me regret the fact that I have no desire to have kids. My childhood was shaped by my dad’s taste in pop culture: The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones series made frequent appearances; on the other hand, I didn’t see a Star Wars movie until I was 19–despite seeing Spaceballs at a fairly young and impressionable age, and no, I did not get the jokes. So naturally I have the same desire to torture my future, nonexistent children by ensuring that they’re the only ones in their kindergarten class raised on a steady diet of Esther Williams and Hayley Mills flicks in which they, too, fail to get the jokes.

What I love about this movie–which I will stop and watch any time I catch it on TCM–is that it has layers, alternating sweet and bitter. First you get the overarching plot: two girls get a Catholic boarding school education. Throw in the fact that it stars Hayley Mills, and immediately you think: God, it’s one of those movies. Cloyingly sweet and sentimental, a Catholic Pollyanna. But then you start watching, and you realize that Hayley Mills’ character is . . . well, kind of a bitch. Some of the things she does are mostly just naughty by 1950s standards–smoking cigarettes and mouthing off to an older woman in the opening scene, for example–but some of them are a little startling even by modern standards, like her response to the Mother Superior about the takeaway message from the heartbreaking Christmastime visit of a bunch of lonely grandmothers from a nearby nursing home: it’s that she hopes she dies “young . . . and very wealthy.” And then, just when you think that you’ve got the movie figured out, that it’s just about two girls rebelling and getting into and out of a bunch of wacky scrapes–then the movie’s ending gets all sentimental on you again. But the movie earns it, because slowly, over the course of all those wacky scrapes, you realize that the film has sneaked in little bits of background information that made you care about the characters on a deeper level, and that–although you didn’t realize it–you were witnessing Hayley Mills’ growth as a character the whole time. It’s really well done, but it’s one of those things that’s so well-done that it makes it look much easier than it is.

Bonus: it’s a coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with men. It takes place at an all-girls’ school, with an entirely female staff. Every relationship contained in it has to do with women: their friendships, their rivalries, their role models and teachers. Okay, there might be a hint at some latent daddy issues, but that’s it. Try finding that in a modern movie.

In the Heat of the Night

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recommitted to my goal of making it through the two AFI Top 100 Movies lists, and one of the most interesting thing about the two lists is how you can see critical tastes changing–especially in regards to race–even in the span of a decade. Movies like Dances with Wolves, Giant, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–initially regarded as racially progressive for their intersection-of-two-cultures plots–were now seen as overly sentimental, unrealistic, and heavily imbalanced towards the white side of the story. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Do the Right Thing–presenting grittier, less rosy-eyed portraits of race relations–replaced them, alongside pictures like The Shawshank Redemption and Spartacus that had subtler themes of identifying with the oppressed. In perhaps the most blatant example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was almost literally replaced with his later Intolerance, substituting a pro-bigotry message with an anti-bigotry one–and while Intolerance is certainly more palatable from a humanitarian standpoint, and more interesting from a storytelling point of view, it seems a little like cheating to pretend that its technological advances were anything compared to Birth of a Nation‘s. It’s not a fight I’m compelled to go to the mat for, but I do think this kind of historical revisionism ultimately does more harm than good–Birth of a Nation was a great film based around an awful story, period, and removing it from the list doesn’t make people in the early days of the 20th century any less racist than they were. Ultimately, cinematic superlative lists need to decide if they’re grading on technical innovation or artistic achievement (however you define that)–Birth of a Nation shows exactly why it’s so dangerous to grade both simultaneously, as the AFI list purports to do. Otherwise you might come across as tacitly condoning the acts of the Klan when, in reality, all you mean is that you think Griffith’s invention of “close-ups” was really neat.

Before watching, I was familiar with three parts of In the Heat of the Night already: the scene where the police officer arrests Sidney Poitier in the train station and repeatedly refers to him as “boy,” the part where he snaps, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” and the part where an older white man slaps him and he returns the slap full-force. I loved finally seeing them in their proper context; it’s like the experience I had reading Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead” on its own and then reading it in the context of The Great Fires. That poem and those moments seemed less contrived, less trying to prove a point, more trying to tell a story when taken as part of a full work. This will sound ignorant of me, but I didn’t realize that they were making films like this in the 1960s, let alone that films like this were winning multiple Academy Awards–the depiction of racial tensions seemed more realistic to its time than many pictures’ being made today. It helped that the movie was set up as a mystery rather than a “problem picture”; it avoided a lot of the potential derailings into heavy-handedness while still managing to touch on some serious issues. I’m reading Donald Bogle’s wonderful book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks right now, on the history of African-Americans in cinema, and I’m surprised that he gave this film what was essentially a sentence-long review of “Sidney Poitier plays another variation on the perfect black man,” because to me, there were several very transgressive moments in this film–including, but not limited to those I noted above–that pushed the (primarily white) audience to identify with Poitier’s character in the same way that horror movies often force the mostly male audience to identify with a female lead.

My favorite moment of the film occurred right after Poitier returns the rich white man’s slap and stalks out. The white man’s black servant, who’s been sent to the kitchen for a tray of lemonades, returns just in time to witness this exchange, and responds with a small, sad shake of his head. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous: Is he disappointed in Tibbs for stepping out of line? Pleased but knowing he has to play the part of loyal servant? Openly upset with his employer? Annoyed that he got all those lemonades ready for nothing? I’ll admit that I’m not the kind of person who usually notices small details in films like this unless I see them multiple times, but rarely has such a tiny moment been so perfectly played.

Hugo

December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

When people talk about “the magic of the movies,” they always talk about film’s ability to take you away from your life and transport you somewhere else for a few hours. To live in another world, to see it through someone else’s eyes. This is always the go-to argument for why movies’ popularity peaked during World War II–people just needed to be distracted from their problems, preferably with a cheesy Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. And although I love the movies, that’s something I’ve rarely ever experienced. Even with movies I like, I almost never feel swept away, transported somewhere else, not wanting the experience to end. Even with movies I like, I still check my watch.

But Hugo did it for me. I bookmarked the movie this summer, when I saw a preview for it and was immediately enchanted. You know how I feel about Cute Kids in movies? The way I feel about Anguished Kids is just about the exact opposite. So take one Anguished Child, put him in a romantic historical setting, have him create a new family from scratch (one of my favorite plotlines, especially when it involves previously Anguished children) . . . throw in some beautiful clocks, shots of a snow-encrusted Paris, and a puppy or two, and I’m yours. And when you take into account that Hugo revolves around the art of storytelling–mostly in the form of movies, but also with a book or two–of course I was going to fall in love. I had to.

Hugo, based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan who’s in charge of winding the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station. The one reminder he has of his father is a broken-down automaton rescued from a museum. Hugo makes friends with a girl named Isabelle, the two of them sneaking into the movies and tricking the train’s boorish inspector. But when they realize that she holds the key that unlocks his automaton, the two of them are entangled in a curious mystery that involves a toymaker, Hugo’s father, and the early history of cinema . . .

Unfortunately, the film’s marketing is pretty much killing it. While its previews depicted a high-energy children’s film, this isn’t really a film that caters to children’s tastes. It takes a while to get going, and even once it does, it’s still never particularly zippy. The slow pacing, combined with a historical focus and a lack of one-liners, means that some children will have trouble sitting through this one. Hell, so will some adults. The fact that a film has a child protagonist and no swear words does not necessarily mean it’s a children’s film, and that’s true of Hugo.

As of now, Hugo has only made $33 million at the box office, about a fifth of its very generous budget. Of course, the critics are loving it. They have a tendency to adore anything that celebrates the magic of film, as Hugo does in spades. And if it can pick up some steam through awards season, enough buzz may build to keep it going into January. The chances of it recouping its costs, though, look slim, and that’s unfortunate, because this is a wonderful movie–one during which I didn’t check my watch even once.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jaded by too many early Hollywood book-to-movie adaptations where the film had nothing in common with its source beyond the title, I had low expectations for R.K.O.’s Anne of Green Gables. I figured they’d get the orphan part right, but she’d probably be played by a ringleted blonde rather than a pigtailed redhead, and no doubt the plot would be invented out of whole cloth . . . Imagine my eyes when Anne showed up looking just how I’d always imagined her, blathering about how awful it was to have red hair and asking to be called Cordelia and proclaiming things the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. The plot itself was a mish-mash of some anecdotes from the book and some made up ones (there’s a little Romeo & Juliet storyline inserted to keep Anne and Gilbert apart until the movie’s end), but they got Anne so right, I couldn’t even be mad, not even when they changed the plot to allow Matthew to live at the end. (Okay, that might have more to do with the fact that I love Matthew even more than I love Gilbert Blythe.)

I’ve always found it kind of strange that there’s never been a really great, really committed Anne of Green Gables movie made. The first three books of the series are tailor-made for it: pretty settings, period dresses, heartwarming drama, short episodic plots for children with short attention spans. The conservatives can approve of the family values; the liberals can approve of the fact that the “family” in question is non-traditional. The story is Canadian, and the Japanese inexplicably love it, so it’d do okay in the global market. The third book even has a love triangle that beats the pants off of Twilight‘s. It seems like a no-brainer.

Game of Thrones: Rape & Race

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The TV version of Game of Thrones has been, by and large, faithful to the books. There have been a handful of scenes inserted that didn’t take place in the books but are true to the spirit of the characters, but rarely is something inserted, deleted or altered in such a way that it completely changes our interpretation of them. There is one glaring example, however, and that is Khal Drogo’s rape of Daenerys after the wedding scene.

In the books, this scene is clearly consensual. Dany is a little hesitant and perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of it, so Drogo waits for her to be ready, and the sex occurs only after Dany physically initiates the act herself. This is not particularly surprising, coming from Martin–throughout the books, he often plays with the conventions of the genre, setting up a suspenseful scene that the audience assumes will play out one way, only to give them the exact opposite. (See also, for example, the Mountain’s jousting in the Tourney of the Hand and the declaration of Ned Stark on the steps of the Sept of Baelor.) Throughout the wedding scene, Martin depicts the Dothraki as a “savage” people who love fighting, public fucking, and bizarre foods, thus forcing the audience to empathize with Dany as she’s introduced to a foreign culture. The suspense builds as we, like Dany, are set up to expect the worst of her wedding night. The fact that it doesn’t happen humanizes the Dothraki, complicates the idea of them as “primitive” in comparison to the people of Westeros, and establishes a solid foundation for Dany and Drogo’s loving marriage later on in the book–one of the most positive portrayals of a relationship in the entire series, one of the few where power struggles don’t occur in the bedroom.

HBO chose instead, for reasons I can’t understand, to present this scene as a rape. Instead of subverting expectations, it confirms them–and that has all kinds of problematic implications for the series’ treatment of race and gender. Instead of Dany and Drogo starting out their marriage on roughly equal footing, they force Dany to first be subjugated before she can come back and “tame” Khal Drogo with her magical vagina. Although their partnership later shifts into the respectful one of the book, I’m never fully sold on it. When sex is initially used as a weapon, as a means of jockeying for position, it seems unlikely that it can miraculously be transformed into an expression of love instead.

And the implications for race are even more troubling. Instead of using the wedding night scene as a way of underscoring the point that the Dothraki are not as barbaric as they initially appear–no more “barbaric” than those who currently sit on the Iron Throne, at least, or than Dany’s brother Viserys, who claims he’ll let every single one of the Dothraki rape his sister if it buys him the throne–the rape scene corroborates that exact misconception. We are supposed to buy the Dothraki as simple savages. Barbarians. Others. There’s no subversion here.

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